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Game People's Board Gamer (http://www.gamepeople.co.uk/edstephens.htm), Edward Stephens reviews the cream of the board gaming crop each month. In this installment, he looks at Settlers of Catan, which now exists in over 30 languages and has sold 15 million copies.
Settlers of Catan is a strategy game where players compete to build the biggest and best settlements using a combination of strategy and luck. Due to a modular board and dice-directed play, the game is differently every time you play.
The basic Settlers box costs around $49.99, but if, like me, you want to play with more than four people, you will also want the six player expansion pack, for a further $24.99. This makes the game seem quite expensive but I think it is well worth it.
Game set-up can take a while until you get used to it. The board is built up of hexagonal pieces which join together like a jigsaw, and while there's a suggested set-up for these, you can in fact play with them in any configuration you like.
Unlike a videogame, you need to read the rules before playing, and there are a lot of them. This can seem a bit overwhelming at first, but once you've played a couple of times the game play is actually quite simple. It also comes with a great Almanac describing all the complexities clearly.
Settlers of Catan combines strategy and resource management. You need the right materials to build houses and roads and gain victory points. The luck of the dice throw drives these resources and determines how many settlements and roads you can build, which in turn determines your accrual of further resources. These can then be used to purchase other materials or special cards which develop your settlement.
The outcome of the game is decided by "Victory Points." These can be earned through the development cards that you buy, having the longest road, the biggest army, or the most cities in your settlement. As there are so many different ways to gain Victory Points, each player does have a lot of tactical decisions to make.
Settlers of Catan is unique, unlike any other board game I had played before. It has remained a firm favorite both with my kids as well as after dinner entertainment. It's less prescriptive than Monopoly, and less cut-throat than Risk - and more interesting than both of them. The real strength is in the way the board and dice work together to make the game different every time.
We recently asked Ed what it was that he enjoyed about board games and how that compared to his experience of videogames - yes he plays videogames too.
I enjoy playing both, but for me the tactile feel of board gaming is more enjoyable. It's not just about having a physical board and pieces to move, but that this necessitates everyone to be in the same place at the same time. You have to commit to playing one of these games.
I play a lot of videogames, but I'm not a big fan of the move away from local multiplayer to playing online. Sure, you get the whole screen and console to yourself, but you miss out on poking the person next to you in the ribs, or hearing them wail when you headshot them for the umpteenth time.
As videogames become something we play at distance from each other, I'm increasingly attracted to the intimacy created by an evening of board gaming with a few close friends. Perhaps it's sentimental, but I still wish video games could offer more experiences like Golden Eye's split screen mode, where we all play on the same machine in the same space.
With Perfect Dark out on XBLA, not to mention a version of Carcassonne, perhaps Ed is getting his wish. But also, maybe he is onto something. Do you think our focus on online multiplayer experiences has lost something of the camaraderie of playing in the same place? Perhaps including some classic board games in our gaming arsenal is a good way to have the best of both worlds.
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