Critical Play: Balance in Settlers of Catan

How to play: Settlers of Catan. The Settlers of Catan is a resource… | by Bradley Mahoney | Board Game Brother | Medium

For this critical play, I wanted to rave about the incredible amount of balance exhibited in Settlers of Catan, created by Klaus Teuber. This game is a strategy-based game where players are trying to earn victory points by expanding their settlements, negotiating, and deceiving. I was introduced to this game in the Fall by my housemates. Despite never having played, I felt that I could still compete with my friends, making the game enjoyable for a newbie like me.

Types of Fun: 

Fellowship: The first type of fun this game provides is fellowship. This is generated through the heavy reliance on negotiations and trade in order to win. Players must choose who to make an ally and who to make an enemy. Either way, everyone’s true colors come out in this game, revealing how vicious can be…at least when I play.

Challenge: This game provides fun through challenge, but not in a typical form. Rather than facing complex puzzles in one’s environment, the challenge is derived from the competition itself. Players must find ways to deceive each other and block off their competitors.

Fantasy: Players are put into a world where they are settling an uninhabited land. The aesthetic of the tiles and cards transport you back several centuries. Coming from a suburban background, the fact that there are only four resources emphasizes the idea that you are building your nation from scratch. You are a leader and must negotiate with other leaders to conquer.

Balance in Single-Player Games

In single player games, the goal in terms of balance is to ensure that the “challenge level is appropriate to the audience.” Catan is not even remotely close to a single-player game. However, we can still apply this perspective to the classic board game. Catan does a brilliant job of balancing the difficulty for individual players, making onboarding easy and efficient. New players can play with experienced players because this game is not purely based on skill and strategy. Instead, chance plays a heavy role in the game as players must roll dice in order to gather resources, and development cards are randomly drawn if you purchase one. The introduction of chance in this game prevents experienced winners from completely dominating the game, making it engaging as new players become accustomed to the strategies and mechanics.

Even though chance is central to the game, experienced players can still appreciate the difficulty of creating a strategy towards domination. There is no one way to win. Your opponents can team up against you and create an embargo. You can choose to obtain the longest road, or build settlements to rack up victory points. However, every decision one makes has an equal reaction from their opponents, making decisions difficult even for experts. Negotiations and deception are both reliant on skill and chance, making the game somewhat difficult for all players.

Balance in Asymmetric Games

Catan is an asymmetric game from the very start as players choose where to place their first settlements. Players start with the resources that surround their second settlement, making it impossible for players to start with all four resources. This imbalance is exacerbated by the fact that each resources can only be accessed on certain dice rolls, making certain tiles less likely to give you a resource than others. One player may have easy access to wheat (7) while another has nearly impossible access to wheat (2 or 12). Catan makes the game more balanced by ensuring that the player to put down their first-settlement last gets to place their second settlement first. This prevents the player that gets to choose first from having a complete advantage over the rest of the players. Additionally, the game is imbalanced for all players.  It is nearly impossible for a player to have access to all resources at the start of the game, making trade and negotiation a central part of the game. Players can choose who they wish to negotiate with, allowing them to create an extra challenge for players who they deem to have an “advantage” from the very start.

Balance between Strategies in a Game

In order to win Catan, players must gather 10 victory points. These can be earned via development cards, playing Knights, developing the longest road, or creating settlements/cities. There truly is no concrete way to win the game because of the feature of trade. If a player is abusing a certain strategy, their opponents may choose to stop their trade in order to hinder their progress in the game. A player can attempt to build the longest road to gain three victory points. However, as players compete for this award, another player may be buying development cards to create the largest army, which is also worth three points.

These strategies are evenly balanced as they require a different number of resources and involve chance. Although roads are the cheapest, the longest road is one of the most competitive sources of points as players are constantly competing for the award. Meanwhile, cities and settlements cost more resources, but the points earned through this development cannot be stolen by other players. Finally, development cards are cheaper than cities but more costly than roads, yet they do not guarantee victory points. They can be used to gain other resources, disadvantage one’s opponents or earn knights which can be used to build the largest army.

Balance between Game Objects

There exist four resources that players can obtain in Catan: wheat, brick, oar, and wood. In order to ensure that no resources are overpowered, different types of resources are required for each purchase. For example, wood and brick tend to be very valuable at the beginning of the game as those are required to develop roads, which allow you to build cities and settlements. However, these cannot be used to buy development cards, which become key components to victory further into the game. Even if a player does not have access to wood or brick, in the beginning, they can use other resources to obtain wood/brick via trading ports, trade with their competitors, purchase of development cards, or sacrificing four of their cards for a single resource.

Of course, a player may have a monopoly over a resource, making it more valuable for others. However, the prospect trade allows players to manipulate the perceived value of resources.



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