Board games are great fun for families as well as excellent Christmas presents for friends. So here is the first of our beginner guides to board gaming for families.
Although I know there are many of us who already know and enjoy a wide range of board games, I am often amazed at how many families I come across who think these games are limited to those stocked by W. H. Smith’s – Monopoly and the like. So, starting with Settlers of Catan, I’m going to start a series of easy introductory board game reviews to some of the most engaging games a family can play together. Whilst these are beginner guides, my intention is that we can discuss them in more details through the comments.
In Settlers of Catan, players compete to build the biggest and best settlement in the land, using a combination of strategy and luck. Due to a modular board and dice directed play, the game turns out differently every time, which makes you want to come back to it time and time again, and tell all your friends to do the same!
Type of Game
Settlers of Catan is a well established strategy game with a number of different variations available. It revolves around simple resource management and has a board that is constructed afresh for each time you play it. We were introduced to Settlers by some friends, and immediately had to buy ourselves a set, as we enjoyed it so much and could see that our family would love it too.
Kits and Expansions
The basic Settlers box costs around GBP25, but if, like us, you regularly play with a family of more than four people, you will also want the 5/6 player expansion pack, for a further GBP15. This does make the game seem quite expensive but we still think it is worth it. As well as the original Settlers of Catan, you can buy the Seafarers, Cities and Knights, and Traders and Barbarians extensions to the game, which add extra dimensions. There are rule variations for playing with larger groups of people and these are clearly explained in the extension packs.
Game set-up can take a while until you get used to it. The board is built up of hexagonal pieces which join together like a jigsaw, and while there is a suggested set-up for these, you can in fact play with them in any configuration that you like, which means that the game can potentially be completely different each time you play. There are a lot of rules, and again, in the first instance these do seem a bit overwhelming, but once you have played the game a couple of times the gameplay is actually quite simple. The game comes with a great Almanac which describes all the complexities of the game very clearly.
Playing the Game
Settlers of Catan is a combination of strategy and resource management. You need the right materials to build houses and roads and gain victory points. The luck of the dice throw drives these resources and determines how many settlements and roads you can build, which in turn accrue more resources. These can then be used to purchase other materials or special cards which develop your settlement.
The gameplay is enhanced by the way that on your turn, if you don’t have the resources you need in order to do what you need to do, you can barter with other players, offer card exchanges, and haggle about what you need in order to make the game work for you. This particular facet of the game means that it often takes ages to get through a turn in our family! One of our kids will never deal with other people, while another one of them will take ages bargaining for resources in order to get the cards that they need.
We particularly like the little wooden pieces in Settlers of Catan – there are three sorts: roads, settlements and cities. The last time that we played the game, as well as the game itself we ended up having lots of entertainment from sculptures made with the game pieces, but I suspect that was largely due to the drinks we enjoyed at the same time as playing the game!
The outcome of the game is decided by ‘Victory Points’, which each player keeps track of. These can be earned through the development cards that you buy, having the longest road, the biggest army, or the most cities in your settlement. As there are so many different ways to gain Victory Points, each player does have a lot of tactical decisions to make.
How Long and How Old
The game can take a good few hours to play if you have some determined players not willing to trade freely. As it is a fairly complex game in many ways, the age recommendation of 8+ is a good guide, and there is a separate ‘Kids of Catan’ set available for younger players.
The game really is unique, unlike any other board games we have played before. It has remained a firm favourite both with our children and at adult dinner parties too. It’s less prescriptive than Monopoly, and less cut-throat than Risk – and more interesting than both of them! Gameplay takes around an hour and a half to complete with five or six people, which is about right for us. We think its real strength is in the way the board and dice work together to make the game different each time. If you still want more, you can play online at www.catan.com, or even on your iPhone!