Critical Play: Is this game balanced?

For this critical play, I played the game Settlers of Catan, a German-style board game created by Klaus Teuber. I play this game regularly with my family at home, and to indulge in that nostalgia and homesickness this week I played with friends on campus (side note: I’m impressed by how many of my friends play regularly with their families at home)!

The target audience of Catan is groups of 3-4 people of ages 10 and up. The rules and mechanics can be rather overwhelming at first, but are relatively easy to understand later. It is difficult to win, however without a certain degree of logic and strategy, meaning that younger players might struggle if playing against significantly older players.

The game is a multiplayer game centered around a main world and goal: to build roads and to develop settlements on a map populated by different terrains and resources. Players roll a die to determine which resources they acquire each round, and can strategize to receive certain resources by building settlements on intersections of terrains with both high dice-rolling probabilities and resources that are high in demand. Each resource (brick, grain, wool, lumber, and ore) is helpful for different moments in the game, meaning that there are countless strategies players can employ to try to win. In addition, players can trade resources with each other or can build on ports to trade externally, creating an element of human interaction. Players eventually win the game by acquiring 10 ‘Victory Points’ through building settlements or taking advantage of certain special actions/cards.

This variety in potential strategies is key to creating a sense of balance between strategies in the game, especially if players choose to play the version where the map is different for every game (like my family does). Players are offered complete autonomy in choosing when and where to build their roads and settlements, creating a sense of control and strategy in optimizing what resources you might want and when. In addition, trading with other players creates a sense of social strategy as players try to anticipate what others might need and use that to their advantage. This contributes to a sense of challenge and fellowship as the two main types of fun in the game.

Strategy, however, is sometimes not enough to win the game. While players may start asymmetrically in how they position their first settlement, usually there is no truly optimal place to build your first settlements, and the diversity of potential plays means that you can win from almost any starting point. Since other players surround you with their own strategies, it’s a common experience to end up blocked inexplicably by another player’s road and to have to rethink your plan. At the end of the day, much of your success in the game comes down to the dice rolls: where a seemingly perfect strategy can crumble and a few lucky die rolls or well-places bets can send a player to victory. 

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