I like boardgames, as many readers of this blog will know, and recently I reviewed the excellent Ticket to Ride: Europe, a game which has been taking up far too much of my time recently. On Saturday night I dug out an old favourite of mine to show Becky, one of the few games I would compare with Ticket to Ride in quality – Settlers of Catan. I picked up the game back in 1996: Polly and I played it for months, and most of my friends have played it a few times. I bought it in a little game shop in Cambridge now sadly closed, and it is a testimony to how good it is that the Bury St. Edmunds lads made their own sort of copy to play till the they got the one they ordered! (Trust me – that’s a lot of work, you are much better off buying it!) Tonight I played tow games against Kevin and Luke – and despite not playing for over ten years now, I won both. I’m looking forward to teaching Becky the game when she comes down on Friday, she will love it I think.
I noticed before Christmas that my local W.H.Smiths stock it in their game section, so it’s a game anyone can pick up. There is also a travel edition, but to be honest I’d buy the full size version – expect to pay anything between £25 and £35 for it (more in W.H.Sniths as I recall) but if you like games, and are bored with Monopoly, Risk, and Cluedo (I’m not a great fan) this is a fun and fairly simple game playable in an hour to an hour and a half. And it is a really good one, a real classic. Five out of five as far as I’m concerned! In fact I would say even if boardgames are not your thing, then like Ticket to Ride this is a game well worth buying anyway.
So what’s it about and how does it work?
Well I guess the back story is some settlers have arrived on the island of Catan, and are building little empires. No fighting in this game – you can build little towns, roads and cities, and trade with each other. The clever bit is how the game works – the island of Catan is made up of a number of hexagonal tiles, which bear one of six types of terrain (not counting the surrounding sea), and each (bar ) produce a resource. There are plains which produce grain, mountains which produce rock, forests which produce timber, hills that produce brick, and pastures which produce wool. There is also a single desert – that does not produce anything.
Each time you play you shuffle these tiles face down and lay them in a random order, so the map changes. Then you place counters on top, that bear the numbers 2, 3, 3, 4, 4, 5, 5, 6, 6, 8, 8, 9, 9, 10, 10, 11, 11, and 12. On your go each turn you roll two six sided dice, and the hexes with the corresponding numbers produce resources, assuming anyone has a city or town next to them. Yes anyone. So if I roll an 8 and Luke and Kev have a town each adjacent to a hex numbered 8, and that hex produces say wool, they both pick up a wool card and add it to their hands.
It’s really VERY simple; but an ingenious bit of game design. You don’t have to wait till your next go to get cards, and s the player whose turn it is can initiate trading at any time, well you have to be constantly involved – no time to dash off and check your email before your next go as with some games. The capacity to trade freely with other players and swap cards makes for a really interactive game.
So what do you do with the cards?
You build stuff. New towns, new roads, upgrade existing towns to cities, or buy Settlers of Catan special event cards which might give you a Monopoly on a resource for a turn, a Knight (explained later), Road building (add two bits of raod immediately) or a Breakthrough – a palace, tower, or some other architectural item which gives you a free Victory Point. The players with the most Knights (but at least three) gets two points for having the largest army, the player with the longest road gets 2 points, and each town is worth one point and city two points. As the game goes on and people build cities the rate at which resources are acquired speeds up (a city lets you draw two resources when a hex it is adjacent to is activated) and to my mind the game always seems to end suddenly, in an exciting last turn or two as suddenly a player gets to eight victory points and everyone tries to stop them.
Knights & Robbers
The observant will have noticed that when I listed the numbers above I missed out 7. That’s because when 7 comes up, the most frequent roll on 2 six sided dice summed (or 2d6 as gamers would say), the palyer who rolled it gets to move a big wooden token called The Robber. That player places the Robber in a hex adjacent to a nother player’s settlement, and steals one of their cards. More importantly that hex now does not produce ANY resources until the robber is moved – and that will only happen when someone rolls a seven again, or draws a Knight card from the Settlers of Catan cards, which allows them to move the robber. The robber is a real pain! While each settlement adjoins three hexes (settlements are built on hex junctions, roads along edges) and you can block each other by building raods and cities to stop your opponent getting a valuable resource, using the rober against them is a really effective tactic.
The problem with board games: and a solution – play Catan free now?
The problem with board games is simple; they are a social activity. That is of course also a huge strength – playing Settlers will require three to four of you with at leat an hour an a half free to sit around a table. It’s much easier to fire up the X-box and play some game, or even to play a game on the web. Of course I play Ticket to Ride on-line (see the review I wrote for details of how; but I did not think it was possible to play Settlers like this. I was wrong! If what you have read so far sounds interesting, why not give the game a go now? You will need to register, and download some software, but I have given it a go – and there is aversion you can play against robot opponents which is ideal for learning the game. However multicatan is very complicated even to an old hand like me, and i find the on-line version (which includes element sof the Seafarers of Catan expansion I have never played) quite confusing! Also unlike Ticket to Ride online, the online Settlers of Catan take place over a week, with you recieving email offers of trades from other playes. Well I have signed up fr a game (as cj.23 as normal) – and i’ll let you know how I fare!
Settlers of Catan: the video
Amazon offer this rather jolly little video that will teach you how to play the boardgame -have a look (includes sound!)
OK, so this year for Christmas I took a huge risk and bought Becky a boardgame Ticket To Ride Europe. I am happy to say this proved to be an excellent choice! If you enjoy games, whether a hard-core gamer, or are just someone who likes to play something with friends other than Chess or Bridge or Strip Poker from time to time, I’d seriously consider buying this game. Even if you normally don’t like games, give it a go! And do read the review – because I include details on how you can try it out from the comfort of your own pc for free…
How do you explain TTR? It’s a family boardgame, which anyone aged over twelve should be able to understand the rules of an play, and intelligent kids from ten up should handle it – hell I was playing Avalon Hill’s Diplomacy at that age! It is certainly not Snakes and Ladders, but actually I think it is much less complicated than say Monopoly, and to me many many times more absorbing. I’m not a fan of long drawn out boardgames, and I quite like the mission cards in Risk which let the game end earlier if you meet your objectives — and yes, this game is easier to learn and more enjoyable to my mind than Risk. In fact I think it may be my favourite boardgame ever — and an avid Diplomacy fan like me has to admit that I may even prefer it to that great game. I’ll come back to that at the end of the review. Well this game can be played with 2 to 5 players, with the 2 player game being as good as the 3, 4, or 5 – just faster – and all of thm can be played in under an hour once everyone knows the rules, and maybe less.
So how does it work?
Ticket to Ride Europe is an amazingly simple but elegant design. You start with a game board (fairly large, will fit on a coffee table though- normal boardgame size I guess) depicting a map of Europe in 1901 (Spring 1901 perhaps?). Place names are generally rendered in the local language – Vienna is Wien, and so on. The map is fairly geographically accurate, with a few places positions nudged a few miles to fit better on the board, but t will certainly teach you geography, and may actually be useful in that respect. The map is attractive, and covered in pretty coloured railway lines – well potential railway lines, waiting to be built.
These routes are then built on by the players taking it in turns to lay their little plastic train carriages, to connect cities. It sounds deadly dull, but it isn’t. :) It’s utterly fascinating! To build a line you have to play cards, and you on each turn can either take two cards, from a face up selection, or from the deck for a random choice, to add to your hand. Alternatively you can play cards from your hand in sets to build lines (there is a third and fourth option mentioned below). So from London to Edinburgh can be built by playing a set of four orange cards, you have collected, or four blacks. Once someone has built a line that’s it : the route is claimed, and other players can’t build there, with the exception of double tracks, which you can build anyway – like London to Edinburgh – if you have the other colour. In the two player game only one set of double tracks can be built on. Lines do not have to be contigous: you can build anywhere on the baord you have the cards to play. Grey routes are wild, any coloured set of the relevant size can be played to complete them, but having the longest track does give you extra points and aid greatly in winning.
As well as the pink, white, green, yellow, orange, red and black cards their are also locomotive cards which are wild and can be played anywhere. They can also prove useful for building tunnels: I won’t explain tunnels and ferries here, but the rules are simple and elegant. The full rules can be downloaded here if you are interested, but it’s much easier to understand them if you have the map and pieces in front of you: neither Becky nor I were very excited when we first read the rules before we tried to play. (In fact she said it looked like “a game for trainspotters”). Now we are both addicted to this game! New features over the original Ticket to Ride (itself avery fun game, set in the USA 1901) are Tunnels, Ferries and Stations which add a little complexity but are enjoyable.
Building lines earns you points: byut the game is far more than this, and there is a nother vital deck of cards I have not yet touched upon – the Tickets. Tickets are destinations, and come in to two types – long routes and other routes. There are only six long routes in the original game, and this is perhaps the only weakness of the game as sold – you soon (after the maybe forty odd games I have now played – I told you it was addictive) -get to know all the long routes off by heart. There is an expansion pack which gives morte destination cards including 9 more long routes, but we have not bought it yet, as the game is very playable without it. These Ticket cards are at the heart of the game: you start with one long route and three short routes, randomly drawn, and get points for connecting these cities. You cn reject a couple if you want, and take a risk and draw more in the game (drawing three of which you must keep one is the third play option on a turn.
The final option is building a station – these allow you to run a service along a short stretch of a rival’s line, say Essen to Kobenhavn (Copenhagen for the Danish impaired among you, and I mean the language not my friends!). This costs you four points at the end of the game, but can be well worth it. There is an excellent tutorial and guide here on the publisher’s website, with loads of photos, a fun video which will show you the basics, , and all kinds of other great stuff.
Winning the Game
The player with the most points at the end wins, and you gain points by laying “track” – for example 1 point for a one stretch, 7 points for a four piece track and 21 points for the 8 piece tunnel between Stockholm and Petrograd (presumably actually a mix of tunnels and ferries, doubt anyone would try and bridge or tunnel under the Baltic there in reality, probably a line through Finalmnd off the top of the map?). Completing tickets earns you more points, and your long route is worth 21 or 20 alone – but if you manage a route from Kobenhavn to Erzurzum in Turkey, Palermo to Moscow, Athens to Edinburgh or Brest to Petrograd to give just three possibilities then you deserve it! Actually these long routes nearly always get completed – if you don’t complete a route, you LOSE the points instead of adding them, so you will lose 40 or 42 points from what you would have had if you made it.
The final source of points if for the longest continual stretch of of track built: ten points. Final scores range from about 150 (by me) to the lowest score I have ever seen, 30, achieved by Ed, though I think Becky managed that on an USA 1901 online game last night!
Fast and absorbing, especially in the 2 player game. Even in the 5 player you are usually busy planning your next move till your turn comes round again, though if another player is absorbed in an interminable text message conversation with a girlfriend on their turn or are a bit slow of understanding owing to being absorbed in something else like say cooking, it can be annoying to have to prompt them – but it’s the same with anything, and such people should be banished from civilisation (to Buxton, I know Ed never reads my blog so he won’t notice this!) anyway.
There is a lot of room for tactics and a large degree of skill, but also with the drawing of cards plenty of room for dumb luck and of the best laid plan to fall through. Careful play can usually mitigate this: Becky still wins most games, but we have all won a few, and DC won his very first game, which may have been through skill. The game is however quite low on interaction: you don’t trade cards, and the only real interaction comes in blocking each other routes by building where someone else needs to go. Experienced players see opportunities to do this more: they know the routes and important bits of track — (hint: the two piece green routes from Frankfurt to Essen and Rostov to Kharkhov are usually worth grabbing fast) — but even if you realise that Bob is building from Athens to Edinburgh, it is not really worth trying to block him, except possibly in 2 player game. You only have 45 pieces of track — and you will need all of them. In online play deliberately blocking someone is considered unsporting by many players anyway: wasting track messing about with your opponents planned routes is rarely worth it anyway, as you are more likely to win by going for your own destinations. I tend to like highly interactive games like Diplomacy: I still love TTR.
How Can I Try It Out for Free?
Go to the publishers website, Days of Wonder. Make sure you have read the rules – I put the link above. If you register on the Days of Wonder site you can play online free, I think four free games, which usually take about twenty to thirty minutes each to complete – online play seems much faster. You should be able to work it out quite quickly, and so long as you understand tunnels and ferries and stations (to play a station online drag and drop a card over the city you want to build on, and hit ok when it asks you: to play track drag and drop card on the route, and to take tickets double click on the Ticket cards.) Look for a game called For Beginners – and remeber that Ticket to Ride USA is the easiest to learn and play (no tunnels stations or ferries to worry about) so start with that. If you like it you can buy the online versions – owning a Days of Wonder boardgame gives you a ten per cent discount, and buying from the US store in dollars it was less than a tenner to buy Ticket to Ride and Ticket to Ride Europe online versions. It might take you a little while to work out how to join a game etc, but the tutorials are excellent and you are made to play a solo game against robot players (bots) first to make sure you get the hang of it when you register. So why not try it? I’m registered as CJ23 on the site, so do add me to your buddies when you join and I’ll play you if we are online at the same time.
Fast, addictive, plenty of strategy and a lot of fun – go play trains!
If you enjoyed this review you may wish to read my review of Agricola here