Settlers of Catan and game balance
The Settlers of Catan is an incredibly popular Eurogame (that is, European-style board game, which means less and less every year) that many credit for inspiring the current generation of more complex board games. The game consists of a (usually) randomly generated board made up of hexagons that each contain a resource. Players place settlements on the board at the vertexes of these hexagons and gain resources each time the number associated with a particular hexagon is rolled. Unlike some other games, this means that players actually gain things even when it is not their turn. Resource cards are used to build roads and more settlements, which earn players point and ultimately bring about the end of the game.
Some people consider this game a newer, better version of Monopoly. Basically, as you expand and create new settlements, you are acquiring new property. These new settlements also help you gain more resources, which are certainly a form of wealth. Also similar to Monopoly, the game seems to only reward the already wealthy. You did notice that about Monopoly, right? The rich get richer, which is no surprise since Monopoly‘s design game from The Landlord’s Game – a game made to demonstrate how property ownership does nothing but benefit the landlords and impoverish everyone else. Catan games are really no different. This game must be played with three or four players, but most often there are only two players who actually do well enough to move forward in the game. The other two players are just along for the ride, with very few choices being made available due to very few resources being generated.
A new version, Star Trek Catan, was recently released (exclusively at Target stores for a year). Aside from changing the pieces to make them fit more snuggly with the Star Trek theme, an additional set of cards were supplied in an attempt to balance the game. These Support Cards allow plays that were previously unavailable in Catan. For example, playing the Sulu card will let you remove a previously placed starship, this games version of the road, and place it somewhere else on the board without having to build it again. Other cards will let you acquire resources that you would not have otherwise gained from normal production rolls. In other words, the support cards make sure that no one is left out. In fact, games can end up pretty close, unlike the original version of Catan.
So if players have a strong preference about one version of the game over another, what does that say? Aside from the Support Cards, the games play exactly the same. What does it mean when a player thinks that the game should see some players clearly prosper while other players are knocked out of the standings early? What does it mean when a player thinks the game should provide a chance for every player throughout the game? For the former question, I would first make a snide joke about capitalism but then suggest that it’s a form of egoism. The game isn’t just about winning but rather crushing opponents. For the latter, it’s about a harmonious gaming experience. These are players for whom playing games is a form of recreation, not a source of self-esteem. Or they could just be tired of losing big.
In the long run, though, I much prefer the Star Trek variant of Catan because I think the Support Cards provide a level of balance necessary for a four player game. If two players end up in a position in which there is absolutely no way they will end up close to winning, especially if their resources never produce, what is there for them in the game? They are left with the option of rolling the dice on their turns and bemoaning the length of the game or trading the resources they have to the player of their choice to ensure a faster victory. (This activity is called king making. While often discouraged, there’s no way to stop this from happening. It can instantly ruin a game night for everyone who wasn’t the winner or the sore loser.) The Support Cards make the game more bearable overall by keeping everyone in play, which makes sense for a four player game that doesn’t feature elimination. I really think that this newer better version of the new better version of Monopoly is the ultimate evolution of the game.
(By the way, I am aware that the Support Cards are not new to the Catan series. They are just new to American players. The Helpers of Catan was released three years ago in Germany. I am honestly surprised they took so long to show up here.)