Power Play

We had a rather astounding game of The Settlers of Catan tonight. The board setup was basically conventional except for the desert being the centre tile, which I feel stunted the growth of the game quite a bit and also served as a natural barrier. Andrew and I took up positions giving us a lot of expansion room while Shakti and Kalli boxed themselves in in about a third of the board.

Relatively quickly, Andrew pulled ahead due to his productive settlement placement and the other players seemed even for a while. Kalli was stunted by the fact that one of his two ‘free’ initial settlements was on a port, reducing early game production; having five productive tiles instead of six may not seem like a big deal but growth in this game is exponential, not linear. For that reason, when Andrew built a chain of roads and then a city, he was able to command growth on the board.

I managed to expand to build one or two more settlements and a city, and Shakti and Kalli ended up maxing out with three or four settlements apiece (further expansion wasn’t possible due to their being confined by Andrew and I). At this point we all realised that Andrew, with the longest road (giving him two points) and three cities (worth six points) put him within a mere two points of reaching the ten point victory total. All he needed to do was to build another city and he would win. Given his enormous production capacity, it seemed almost inevitable that he’d win.

I decided to put on my diplomat’s hat and form an unholy alliance with Kalli and Shakti, explaining to them that if we didn’t team up, Andrew would win in short order. The only person who could stop him was me, but I didn’t have enough resources to do the job, which initially was to build two roads to deny him access to his prospective city site. Unfortunately, no sooner had we announced this that Andrew received the resources to build the road to his site; now all he had to do was to build a city.

Barring extreme measures, the game looked totally lost to me; Andrew would easily have the resources to build his city within two or three turns, especially with his trading port. The only way to stop him was to build a longer road than he had – this would require me linking up two stretches of my network with five or six roads – a pretty enormous amount. Over the next two turns, I alternately cajoled and threatened Shakti and Kalli to give my the wood and brick required for this, and in the process bankrupted myself. In what can only be described as a monumental construction effort, I won the road building war and everything seemed even again – I had 7 points, Andrew had 6 and Shakti had 5.

I was a little bemused by Shakti’s reluctance to donate resources towards the construction of ‘Adrian’s Wall’ considering that she didn’t seem to have a hope in hell of winning, with a mere 5 points on the table. This would cause problems later. Meanwhile, I had manoeuvred myself into a tricky position – I was the leader, but only by a single point. Shakti and Kalli essentially refused to trade with me any more and whenever the robber was activated (which was pretty often), he usually was despatched to one of my more productive tiles and nicked some of my resources.

It was clear that the only way I could win was by stealth, through development cards. I already had two soldiers – one more and I’d have the biggest army, bringing me up to 9 points. From there, I could easily get a final point by buying enough development cards to get a victory point or building a settlement (the length of ‘Adrian’s Wall’ meant that I had plenty of potential building sites). Thus retooled for a development card effort, I managed to get a soldier quite quickly, increasing my total to a stealth 9 points.

Of course, the other players hadn’t stopped (well, Kalli had, but there you go). Andrew was attempting to build another settlements and buy some development cards in order to regain the throne, while Shakti seemed in a world of her own, building another settlement and some development cards. When she bought her fourth card and then divided them into two piles, Andrew and I experienced the horrible realisation that she in fact had two victory points, two soldiers and five points on the table. It wouldn’t have taken her much to win – just one more victory point and upgrading a settlement to a city.

Luckily, in poker parlance I had plenty of ‘outs’ and my next development card happened to be a victory point. With the longest road, largest army, five points on the table and one victory point, I had won. Shakti had 7 points, Andrew had 6 and Kalli had 4 or 5.

The interesting thing about this game was that three people all had a very good chance, at various stages, of winning. With his superior settlement placement, Andrew dominated the early to mid game and very nearly won; the reason he didn’t was because he was visibly the frontrunner and we all understood the need to take him down. In the end game, I was the new threat but my win didn’t seem quite as imminent since my soldiers were concealed; Shakti was also close to winning for the same reasons.

I think that our next game will once again be very different – firstly, the desert will be in a different place. Secondly, we’ll all be trying extremely hard to have more expansion space. Thirdly, we now know firsthand exactly how important development cards are and will be keeping a very close eye on who’s buying what. Clearly my winning strategy will not work next time around and I think there’ll be at least a couple of people aiming to get the largest army.

Once again, this game took a little over two hours, but only because we allied to prevent an early win by Andrew; now that we understand what it takes to win the game, I think the next one will be a fair bit quicker.

Where’s the Brick?

Almost three months after I bought it, I finally got around to playing the Settlers of Catan with my friends at college this evening. I’ve written about it before and there’s a more detailed description at BoardGameGeek but in brief it’s a very playable four-player strategy building game that features a lot of trading.

The other players, Kalli, Shakti and Andrew, looked a bit askance when I hauled out the various bits and pieces of the game but to their credit they were more interested in the peculiar way in which the board was randomised and the unusual rules. After about ten minutes of explanation and setup, we were able to start and everyone got the hang of the rules quite quickly.

Unfortunately since I’ve only played it once before myself, I gave rather simplified advice on where to set up initial settlements which had knock-on effects throughout the entire game; essentially Kalli and I were bunched towards one end of the board whereas Shakti and Andrew had more space on the opposite side (which admittedly also had the useless desert tile). This meant that while Kalli and I had an edge over the others in the early and midgame due to our proximity to the important resources (wood and wheat), we ultimately were undone by our lack of expansion space for roads and additional settlements. In particular, I had to resort to buying development cards in the hope of getting more points.

In the end, Shakti won after accumulating an enormous number of resources in a few turns from very lucky rolls of the dice (and to be fair, some very inattentive opponents) and going on a road and settlement building spree, racking up four points in single turn. I came in second with 8 points, Andrew had 7 and Kalli had 5.

The whole game took a little over two hours, which is very long by the standards of Settlers – games usually only take one hour. Obviously the fact that most people were beginners slowed things down, and also we experienced a debilitating lack of the brick resource in the early game, mostly due to an unlucky placement of tiles and counters. I imagine the next game should be around 90 minutes – still quite long, because we tend to take our time on exhaustively examining every single possible trade option.

We’ll also be a lot more wary and forward-planning in the next game, which should spice things up no end. The randomised board and the fact that we’ll choose our starting positions much more carefully will totally transform the game. Everyone really enjoyed it and we’ll probably be playing again pretty soon; I hope to try Hare and Tortoise and maybe buy Carcassonne in the near future as well.