Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Settlers of Catan, but not the good one

(Adapted from a review I posted over on the SA Traditional Games forum.)

Hillary and I received a copy of the Settlers of Catan Card Game for Christmas, and we finally got around to breaking the shrink wrap a few nights ago.

Being a long-time fan of Catan, I had high hopes after reading the rules. The concepts behind the card game are very similar to the board game, right down to the costs of settlements and cities. You build roads and settlements, which can later be upgraded to cities (allowing different and more powerful buildings to be created). If you're familiar with the board game, you'll recognize familiar elements like the bandit, the "largest army" token, and the victory point system.

Once we started playing, though, we found the game to be painfully slow. Most expansion cards (which consist of buildings you can create in your settlements/cities or actions you can play during your turn) tended to be completely useless in most situations. For example, I started the game with two city-only building cards (which is a problem since you don't start with a city) and an action card that only applied to a very specific situation that wasn't likely to appear until much later in the game. It seemed like we never had the resources needed to do anything, and because it's a two-player game, trading didn't seem like a good idea in most situations (unlike the rampant, marketplace like atmosphere in the 3+ player board game).

The resource system is both better and worse than the board game. You start with six regions, each corresponding to one of the faces of the single die that you roll during the production phase. This means that you'll get one resource every turn, which lessens the "random string of bad luck" problems that can absolutely cripple an otherwise good Catan board game player. The problem is that you can't set yourself up to cash in, either, so both players tend have a similar number of resources at any given time.

We also found that a few of the cards are really, really imbalanced. The Mint, especially, which is a city building that allows you to trade one gold for any other resource. The problem is that the rules explicitly let you do this an unlimited number of times per turn. If you luck out and get a second gold mine, the Mint pretty much can't be stopped. There are several other expansions that range from overpowered to virtually useless, and there's very little middle ground.

As the game drug on, we found that victory points are surprisingly hard to come by; even after cherry-picking the point-awarding buildings out of the expansion decks, we were both short of the 12-point victory total after what seemed like an eternity of play. We finally agreed on a house rule that only ten points were required to end the game. I won a few turns later, but it was a hollow victory.

I doubt we'll be playing this one again. The flow is just too cumbersome for what, at the surface, seems to be a fairly lightweight two-player game. I love my multi-hour Talisman and Puerto Rico sessions, but two-player games really need to be quick, engaging, and fun. Sadly, the Catan Card Game is none of these.


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