Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Economics for Families

The Settlers of Catan board game:

I admit it, I never quite liked Monopoly. The game was enjoyable enough, but it never seemed to end, trading was never a big enough part of the game, and winning only came from punishing your opponents (which wasn't altogether un-fun.) But then I discovered the Settlers of Catan, and my dissatisfaction with economic-based family gaming evaporated.

Finally, here was a game that properly represents economics (in an abstract, scaled down way), that the main objective was to grow, instead of bankrupting other players, and more importantly, it could actually be played within an hour. Like Chess or Go, the Setters of Catan is very easy to learn, but very hard to master; creating ever-intriguing game-play.

The game is played on the Island of Catan, which is made up of several pentagons representing different geological areas; each one of these areas are given a number between 2-12, not including seven; Depending on the placement of these Pentagons and the numbers (which are separate), the game is different each time.

A player wins the game by building roads, settlements, and cities, or by purchasing various `development cards', which give special powers or points to any player. Building anything, or buying development cards, takes a certain combination of natural resources (represented by cards in the game.) Each settlement and city is worth a given amount of points, and the longest road gets a bonus; the first player to get 10 points wins the game.

To do this, a player must collect, spend, and trade resources; which are the core of Catan's play. Each geological area produces a different resource: Forests produce wood, valleys produce wool, deserts produce brick, fields produce wheat, and mountains ore. A player collects these resources by placing a city or settlement adjacent to these areas, the number placed on the area is for the dice, which determines what resources will be distributed that turn: So, for instance, is a person roles a `6' on the die, all areas with the number `6' on them give resources to whatever settlement or city is touching it. Of coarse, there are different ways of collecting resources, such as harbor trades or theft (both of which consist of a large part of the game), but I'll let you discover that.

This might all seem a bit complicated, but once you are playing and looking at the board, it is all very logical and easy to pick up; general rule, if you can play Monopoly, you can play Settlers of Catan.

The game incorporates a good amount of strategy (mixed with a bit of luck.) A player must decide where to start on the board, what to trade (which is almost required for each player), where to build roads to, and how to best rack up points to win. A player, for example, may decide to block another player's mobility, and gain points slowly; or, by looking at the board, decide to control a crucial resource (by placing cities or settlements around a resource area, which can only be occupied by so many objects), and in so doing become a necessary trading partner; there are almost endless strategic opportunities presented in Catan, which is part of what makes this game so fun.

Kids and adults alike can learn something form the resource system. I find that how resources are distributed in the game is very much like how they are distributed in real economies, with rarer, more valuable resources being more `expensive' in trades.

If I had one complaint about the game, it would be the limited number of players required (3-4 players); you can by an expansion which will allow 5-6 players; still, Catan is not good for large groups or for duos.

Still, this game has quickly become, not only one of my favorite family games, but one of my favorite simple strategy games as well. It is a worthy addition to any game-lovers shelf.

I am even considering buying the online computer version, for I don't have to wait for family gatherings to play.

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