If you're even remotely close to the Euro Board Game scene, you may have heard of the Settlers of Catan. How you feel about the game is entirely dependant upon your feelings on randomness and your initial startup. One of the main complaints of Catan is how bad rolls can cripple you the entire game. I'm one of those people who doesn't like Catan and much prefer the more balanced games like Stone Age or Dominion. So when I say here is a Catan game I like, understand it carries a LOT of weight by default.
Catan Histories: Settlers of America focuses on the Manifest Destiny era of American History. The concept was simple back then. We Americans, by god given right, were destined to own all the land between the oceans. Despite discouragement even from the government to settle westward, we still went on anyway. This, essentially, is a central theme to the game.
One of the first things you'll notice as you set up is the trains, money, and movable resource tokens. The game, unlike the original Catan, has three different focuses and success belongs to the player who can balance all three. The first focus is settling, but then comes Rail building, and then ultimately delivering goods. The end game condition comes when you've delivered all your goods. Having said that, let's see how it all works.
When a turn begins, a player rolls two six sided dice. Based upon placement of cities, you'll receive resources. So let's say a field next to you has a 9, whenever 9 is rolled, you'll receive a grain. If a player rolls a 7, he gets to move the bandit to nullify rolls in a region and steal a resource from an opponent. If a player does not receive at least one resource during a resource roll, they gain a single gold coin. This, unlike other versions of Catan, helps balance out the bad rolls. Also, unlike regular Catan, this game seems to produce a hell of a lot more resources. The coins gained can be used to pay railroad usage or even purchase resources outright. As you can probably imagine, resource gathering in this version of Catan is a hell of a lot more generous, which is good considering settling is only a small section of the game.
So with resource gathering, you'll obtain Gold, Cattle, Ore, Wood, Grain, and Coal. With those in hand, you can either trade with other players or use them to purchase Development Cards (which seem more powerful than other versions of Catan), Settlers, Railroads, or even Trains. Or you can pay resources to move settlers or trains. Let's say you're short of a type of resource, well you can pay 2 gold to acquire that resource (up to twice a turn) or you can trade in three of the same type for another resource. Suffice it to say you will always have options when your turn comes up which makes it a big difference from Catan.
So having said that, let's go over the first of the three main mechanics, Settling. Unlike Settlers of Catan, you can't just settle anywhere. There are certain locations, based on real cities, where players can settle to establish cities. But first players must purchase a settler which goes in any city that player owns. Then you can pay a Grain to move a settler up to three spaces. If a settler ends their turn on a City location, that settler is automatically converted to a city. A city is taken from the players turntable, a good is moved into the railyard, and the settler can no longer be used. If a city is created next to a space with a double question mark, the northeastern most movable resource tab is moved to the new location. As you can probably tell, this means the push out west is initially furious since this "dries up" resources in the east. The focus for Settling is pushing resources westward and freeing up deliverable goods.
Next we talk about the Trains and how they work. A train can travel along any players railroad, they just gotta pay for it. To build a rail, players use one Ore and one Wood for each section. Railroads are needed to deliver goods, thus the end game condition is reliant on the rail system. So why would you put emphasis on railroads early in the game? Two reasons. The first being that if you connect a city to a railsystem, you earn gold coins. This early fiscal boost helps expand your empire quickly. The second reason is if your rails are instrumental to someone elses deliveries, then they HAVE to pay you a gold for using your rails. If they cannot pay you, they cannot deliver their goods thus cannot win the game. That is the focus here, early expansion is money and dominant expansion is long term income.
Finally we get to the end game condition, delivery of goods. To deliver a good, a player must make their train travel to an opponents city and place a "goods" cube onto the city. This means another player cannot deliver here anymore. Before you have goods you can deliver, you have to settle. This means you make it easier for a player to win but you also get closer. Once all of your goods have been delivered, you've won.
That's how the game works. So how do I feel about it? Actually, I'm a big fan. The balancing and constant income means everyone stays in the game. In fact, anytime someone seemed to lag behind, they easily caught up with the next couple of turns. Unlike regualr Catan, the early lead doesn't mean anything in the long run. Likewise the emphasis to constantly go west plays a significant role in the gameflow. And finally, the abundance of resources give you an option on every turn you get.
Because every game has a downside, Settlers of America is no exception. The biggest downside is the overall abundance of resources makes the first instinct to exchange or buy desired resources unlike the original Catan where trading among players is much more common. The second issue is because of the sheer wealth of options at any given time, analysis paralysis can, and will, set in among certain players in your group. If it gets too bad, introduce a timer. And finally the limited player set can be annoying. With it being 3-4 players, that's a very narrow range and to my knowledge, the 5-6 player expansion has not been confirmed yet.
All in all, this mixture of Catan and various Train Games helps make Settlers of America a great game. While this is long for a Catan game, it's also fairly short for a train game which can often be 4-6 hours long. Slicing that number in half could be the catalyst required to get some of your casual board gaming friends into the much more strenous train games.
Publisher: Mayfair Games
Price: MSRP of $55
Number of Players: 3-4
Complexity: 4 of 10
Time To Play: 2 - 2.5 hours
Special Thanks to the community at Boardgamegeek for a couple of these pictures.
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