Critical Play: Balance | Settlers of Catan

Intro

I played Settlers of Catan for this Critical Play. I love Catan, and whenever I play it, I am impressed with the balance. There are so many moving pieces in the game, so it always seems like a miracle that the games are competitive and have new emergent scenarios.

Formal Elements and Balance

Players

In this game, each of the players is competing to build up their settlement and collect resources in the pursuit of getting “victory points”. You are directly competing with your fellow players, which makes collaborative elements of the game, like trading, very interesting. The players being pitted against each other is a natural balancing mechanism.

Objectives

The objective of the game is to be the first player to collect a certain number of victory points. The exact total of necessary victory points is dependent on the variant of Catan. In the most basic version, which I played, that number is ten. Players can get victory points in a number of different ways: building settlements, upgrading settlements to cities, having the longest road, having the largest army, or drawing victory point development cards.

Resources and Balance

Resources are a huge part of Settlers of Catan. Players collect resources cards based on where their settlements are located, when certain numbers are rolled. Different resources cards are redeemable for other game objects; for example, a wood and a brick construct a road. While the different resources purchase different objects, there are equally valid strategies to winning involving each of them. In addition, there are development cards, which temporarily grant the player a certain special ability.

Conflict

The conflict of this game is that you and your fellow players are competing for limited resources on the board. You are bound to collide with each other, which makes the game fun!

Outcome

After amassing the necessary amount of victory points, you win.

Type of Balance

My instinct is that this game is balanced by transitive and fruity relationships. Most of the objects and strategies in the game can be calculated. For players like me who are not so serious, the relationship between some strategies is fruity–I’m sure there is some math to show why I should go for longest road instead of securing a port, but I do it because it feels right. The other saving grace of this game in terms of balance, is that if there is a dominant strategy, everyone will try to do it. In that sense, the game is self-balancing. I do not believe there are any intransitive relationships in this game.

Type of Fun

Catan is rife with strategic and competitive fun. The best moments are when you outmaneuver one of your competitors.

Moments of Failure and Success

Success

  • When my strategy of loading up entirely around this one wheat space and wheat port started to fall into place. On one turn I got 5 wheat, and quickly swapped that into exactly what I needed. It was awesome.
  • Beating my friends ­čÖé

Fails

  • My friend was trapped in between my settlement and my friend’s settlement and had absolutely no where to move.

Potential Balance Improvements

Catan is pretty tried and true. One potential balance improvement would be to not randomly create the map. I will say that most of the time, a completely random map seems to work just fine because of the number of different strategies you can employ to win. However, occasionally, there are one or two spots in the game that are significantly better than the rest, which destabilizes the game.

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