GMotW: Settlers of Catan.

Settlers of Catan cover

Settlers! Oh, a classic. Oh, THE classic. There are folks for whom tabletop gaming means Monopoly, and folks for whom it means Warhammer 40K, and folks for whom it means Fiasco, but if you get those three together around a big-ass hexagon I don’t doubt for a minute they can come together and have
a delightful time celebrating ruthless imperial expansionism.

Woo, take that indiginous peoples! We gon’ cop some resources!

Ahem. Settlers has a long history, a ton of expansions, an empire of its own, and a game mechanic of the week:

“If you roll a “7,” no one receives any resources.”

The whole point of Settlers of Catan is to get resources, so why am I excited about a rule telling me not to do so? Indeed, one which means that one roll out of six is going to mean that nothing gets produced, even though all I need is ONE. GODDAMN. SHEEP. in order to build this last settlement and nudge my way gently toward victory?

One of the defining features of Settlers, one which tends to get a little lost or muddled as expansions are added, is that its really a game about low stakes and narrow margins. It’s a game in which no player can be more than seven points ahead of another, and it’s not difficult or even really uncommon to steal the two-point Longest Road or Largest Army away from someone else; four points of swing in a game where every point matters is pretty nuts, you know. In my experience this often leads, especially with Longest Road, into an arms race, where whomever has the longest road is frantically trying to keep it going, at least until her opponent gives up or she maxes out on road segments.

Because the stakes are low, and the margins are slim. Two points is everything to a settler, and in the same way a good shepherd spends an entire afternoon searching for a single lost sheep, a good settler spends turn after turn after turn defending a her two points, ignoring the opportunities to build a settlement or cash in for a development card. The margins are that small.It’s easy to recognize a board where this has happened: the roads go nowhere. They drift off, well away from settlements, curcumnavigating the island, passing on two sides of the desert, nearly looping around themselves. There are only 75 places to even stick a road on this dang board, it’s not easy to make one go nowhere interesting, but man, when an arms race develops, you can tell. And why does this happen?

Because that four-point swing is DEATH. The game functions at its best when we are scrapping for every point, when we’re desperate for every resource, when we’re willing to overlook the fact that Orange is a self-serving conniving little bastard who only wants out wood so he can build a new settlement right where we want to put one, because dammit, dammit we NEED that ore or we’re never going to get a city to crawl out of the mud on this god-forsaken rock!

(Maybe your games of Catan don’t get as dramatic as mine do? Maybe you’re playing Settlers of Catan wrong?)

…which brings me back to rolling a seven. It does a lot; it moves the robber, it halves hands which have gotten too big, it lets the roller engage in a bit of petty theft, but most importantly it stops resources from being produced for one turn in six. It does a lot to ensure that resources are scarce, because if they weren’t scarce, I wouldn’t give a crap and a half about my longest road. I’d say that, well, two points suck to lose, but let’s just drop a road out to here and lay a settlement and quick-upgrade it into a city because I’ve got a MILLION resources to use or trade and now I’ve got two points back that ain’t nobody going to take away from me, and then I’d move on with my life.

But no. I can’t count on resources coming up. I have to hold on to every point I got with a desperate, manic fervor. I have to roll the dice with my heart in my throat knowing that even in the mid-to-late game, when I’ve got settlements on nearly every number and can count on getting something for my trouble most of the time, there’s a one-in-six chance that I’m going to suffer the heartbreak of a seven, and I’ll need to stretch my meager hand a little more if I want to scrape together another desperately-needed point.

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