Caverna Play and Strategy Notes, Part I

Caverna: Cave Economics

The main reason why Caverna has so much replay value, despite its Puerto Rico-like sameyness—each reset varying only by player count, and being otherwise identical—is due to the union of several important economies: not only the economy of resources and the economy of food, but, what may be the most important and is definitely the least visible and talked about, the economy of actions.

In Caverna, if you use only the two meeples you start with, you get 22-24 actions depending on the player count. While you can increase this number of actions by reproducing more meeples, it costs many actions to do so, and your first additional meeple is created while other players are creating very important agriculture, animal breeding, or adventuring engines. While it is possible in the opening rounds of a 4+ player game to spend your first five actions to create a new meeple, and thus gain eight actions, it may not be the wisest use of those opening moves, when after your sixth action, you will have to pay five food.

On the other hand, the players who have plodded along with more conservative engine-building moves will soon be envious of your extra actions. By investing your initial actions in a third meeple, you already have four (or six if you went on the Supplies / Growth action, due to the 2 gold) victory points, plus you will have a total of 30-32 actions compared to two meeple caves with 22-24 actions. While you invested five actions to get the extra eight actions, it isn’t like those initial actions were thrown away, as you scored some points, probably tiled your mountain and possibly tiled your forest. Still, when your opponents have armed dwarves, stacks of wheat and pumpkins, an early mine, or a pair of sheep already (which after seven harvests will be nine sheep, and nine VP, assuming they get all the fence and dogs they need) you may feel a little pinched due to the exorbitant cost—not only in terms of food, but in resources, and your limited number of actions—of your third meeple.

The Birds and Bees in Caverna

Unlike many other worker placement games, your meeples don’t get reinforcements, but actually reproduce other meeples. While making these other meeples will be expensive in terms of the economy of actions, typically requiring an investment of five actions to create a meeple that will be around for eight actions, and with a diminishing return on each meeple thereafter, they also come with victory points (three for the dwelling and one for the dwarf).

Unlike Agricola, you can only buy one furnishing room at a time. So there’s no reason why you shouldn’t save for your first dwelling right away, rather than saving enough supplies to buy two at a time, as you do in Agricola.

If your strategy consists of mobbing the board with your meeples, you want this first furnishing room by generation 4 in three players or less; in higher player counts there are multiple places where your meeples can reproduce, so you could even get your materials earlier if you can. In four players, the soonest you can build a dwelling is by generation two. 3 Lumber + Growth action + Drift Mining + Furnish Dwelling. This will mean you can have three meeples by generation three, although this will also mean that you will need five food for your first harvest, so your second action in generation three will be to get food or rubies.

In three players, it is difficult to get your first dwelling before generation three, and you can’t make the meeple until generation four.

Unfortunately, if you rush to your first dwelling this way, you’re bypassing other important early game opportunities, like setting up wheat and vegetable agriculture, or animal breeding.

The Wood Economy

While there are many resources in Caverna, none are more important than food, your buffer from getting negative victory points, but the secondmost important resource is wood.

Most things worth positive victory points in Caverna have a wood complement, which means that one essential struggle is getting wood. When in doubt, grab logs. You not only need wood for dwellings (to make more meeples, so wood directly feeds into your economy of actions), and other furnishing rooms, but for fences to hold your sheep, donkeys, boars, and cows.

If your goal is to make three dwellings and build three large fences, that’s twenty-four wood. If you’re lucky enough to get the carpenter round one, you still need eighteen wood. If your first furnishing room is the wood supplier, you still need seventeen wood from action spaces, and you’ll have to wait for the others to trickle in. This pile of lumber doesn’t include what you need for other strategic furnishing rooms.

Hitting the wood often is also a good way to make sure that your more opportunistic opponents, who like to wait for stuff to build up, never get enough wood until late in the game, when it isn’t worth nearly as much to start amping up their economy of actions or animal breeding.

Competition for the highly consumable wood resource in Caverna is one of the things that takes it out of the multiplayer solitaire model and into true competitive multiplayer. The other competitions that can arise in Caverna are very situational, such as when two or more players 1) arm dwarves and compete for the limited adventuring action spaces, 2) desire heavy agricultural engines, or 3) have read the same articles on Board Game Geek and think they know the must-have furnishing rooms. (There are no must-have furnishing rooms.)

The Stone Economy

By comparison, you only need nine stone for three dwellings, plus one more for each stable you need to contain your animal population. You will easily get this much just by laying five double mountain tiles, so there’s usually no urgency in stone acquisition like there is in getting enough wood. If you buy the stone cutter first (-1 stone per dwelling / furnishing room / stable, making stables free), you only need a total of six stone for the entire game, two of which you get from the stone cutter, so you’d better get the stone storage spot next, as you’re going to end the game with a heap of otherwise useless stone if you simply lay down all of your mountain tiles.

Even if you don’t have the stonecutter or the stone supplier, you’ll get the stone you need for your dwellings, furnishing rooms, and the occasional stable simply by tiling your mountain.

Any urgency in acquiring stone in Caverna is a side effect of competition for the two mountain tiling action spaces. So long as you’re not one of the ones excluded from grabbing mountain, you’ll have more than enough stone.

Mayfair Games Caverna: The Cave FarmersCaverna: The Cave Farmers – The Forgotten Folk Expansion

Great Western Trail

Great Western Trail: Play and Strategy Notes, Part I

Great Western Trail: The Overture

Having become ensconced in a group of hardcore Eurogamers, you’ve arrived for your first play of Alexander Pfister’s Great Western Trail. Bragging a strong Board Game Geek rating (currently #10), and enthusiastic players who not only love to play this game, but see how many different ways they can deconstruct the gameplay, you’re curious about how well Great Western Trail could possibly hold up. Surely, with so many games co-opting the medieval or fantasy theme, a tabletop Euro with a Wild West backdrop can’t be all that, can it?

You’ve seen bigger boards; heck, you’ve assembled bigger Catan worlds in Seafarers and Explorers and Pirates. Nonetheless, it’s a majestic sheet of cardboard covered with cryptic iconography that looks like it might have been recovered by Colonel O’Neill through the Stargate. An experienced Euro player, your mesmerization disintegrates as you absorb the game’s language, and become hungry to play.

While much of Great Western Trail is very fresh, you can’t help but notice traces of other tabletop games. And the comparisons aren’t always flattering. While your first trip to Kansas City is uphill Chutes & Ladders, with a deckbuilding twist from Dominion, by your second trip, players have unloaded their toll properties, and your second trip reminds you a bit of Monopoly, albeit with the added possibility of choosing to throw yourself in river rapids, deserts, or sharp, vulture-covered rocks to avoid paying rent to other players.

Then the Great Western Trail veteran, after a few slow crawls to Kansas City, starts pounding discs down in rodeo-worthy gallops across the board, skipping so many cash and point generating opportunities that you wonder at the game’s end less how they won than what in tarnation did you just play?

Movement, the Cattle Economy, and Skydiving Cowboy Meeples

Great Western Train opens with two to four players receiving fourteen (14) monochrome discs, one (1) choo-choo meeple of the same color, one (1) cowboy meeple, one (1) starting objective, 14 (14) cattle cards, one (1) player sheet encoded with sufficient iconography that one could either a) reverse engineer the game or b) summon Cthulhu. If a player can do anything not encoded on this sheet, it’s encoded on a building tile or the board.

Having placed their discs on their spots on the player sheet, shuffled their cattle cards, then drawn four, each player takes their initial turn by placing their cowboy meeple on any building tile and performing the action allowed by the tile. While this will usually be the first tile, as you start the game resource-poor, and it’s good not to miss any opportunities initially, your cowboy meeple is a skydiving cowboy meeple (my term, not Alexander Pfister’s), able to choose any building tile at all for your opening move. So if your opening cattle card hand is a perfect hand of four different cows (more on that later), you could start right next to Kansas City, and be the first one to have a crack at the second row of workers (a good strategy if you want Cowboys and they’re all in the second worker row). So–never, never forget that you start with a skydiving cowboy meeple; like the pawn’s en passant in chess, it may rarely be used, but every now and then that ability to jump forward in your opening move should be enjoyed.

For their second turn, each player moves their cowboy a certain number of tiles. While all cowboys can move at least three tiles if they choose, often a player will only move their cowboy only one tile, because skipped tiles equal skipped opportunities; that said, it should be obvious that in any timed game the winner’s speed controls the available opportunities for all players. No, there is no timer in the box; Great Western Trail‘s timer is concealed in the Job Market on the left side of the board. Every trip to Kansas City pumps out more workers, and every dip in the worker row moves the game closer to its conclusion. While it’s fun to play Great Western Trail as Slowpoke Rodriguez, hitting every stop, Speedy Gonzales can win this game if you let him, as while you’re taking every available opportunity, he’s eliminating the stops that don’t feed into his strategy. While Slowpoke is selling that cow for $2, Speedy has the first crack of the $5 workers, and Slowpoke’s extra $2 are counter-productive when they arrive at the worker row and find nothing cheaper than $8.

As Great Western Trail progresses, and more building tiles enter the game, your move becomes less powerful, because you don’t count board spaces, you count building tiles. Moreover, many of these tiles cost a toll to pass, paid directly to the owning player. Unlike Monopoly, there are alternate routes in Great Western Trail. Not only are there diverse city routes that might be more or less hospitable to you, but there are hazard routes, which charge a toll payable to the bank, so that you can at least not enrich your competitors with your hard-earned play money. Also, it is possible to improve your movement rate as the game progresses.

To make money, you discard a cattle card of the right color, which pays in dollars indicated on the building tile. So if the building tile says “discard a green cow and gain $2,” and you have no green cows, you don’t get income on that tile. If you do, you discard it, and at the end of your turn, you draw up from your cattle card deck until you have a full hand. If all of your cattle cards are in your personal discard pile, then you shuffle them and draw up. In such a way, the contents of your hand are always changing. At the start of the game, you have access to four of your fourteen cattle cards, each one of which has a variable value when trading at building tiles, and when arriving at Kansas City. As the game progresses, you can expand your cattle hand to five or six cards by moving discs from your player sheet, and you can buy new cows with not only victory points but higher dollar values, so that you can hit more valuable deliveries, thus scoring even more victory points. Once you’ve played Great Western Trail a few times, it should be obvious that one of the primary keys to victory is buying tons of cattle cards, not only for their victory points, but for the additional victory points unlocked by powerful deliveries, as well as the objective cards contingent on cattle cards. Not that it’s the only powerful strategy, but it’s a good one, and probably the easiest for a newbie to latch onto: hire cowboys, buy cattle cards, make deliveries, get cattle card objectives, then toss that point salad ad infinitum.

What’s a delivery, you ask? When you arrive at Kansas City, you count the numerical value of each different colored cattle card in your hand to determine your breeding strength, select a city with a numerical value equal to or less than that, drop a disc from your player board on that city (also uncovering a new ability on your player sheet) if you have not delivered to it before (with the exception of Kansas City and San Francisco, which can be delivered to an unlimited number of times), then receive cash equal to your breeding strength minus the distance between your train and that city. (Breeding strength can also be modified by certificates, which I’ll more or less ignore today, except to say that you should grab these when you can).

Oh yes, trains. Some building tiles allow you to move not your cowboy meeple, but your train. As your train advances on the track, it allows you to unload additional discs from your player sheet, thus unlocking more covered abilities, plus adding points to your point salad at game end. Most importantly, there are five bonus tiles on the train track, and these go first come, first serve. While three of these are so-so, two are very strong: one which gives you a bonus point for each worker on your sheet, and another which gives you three points for each pair of certificates, temporary or permanent. While the others usually score from three to six bonus points, these two can easily be worth ten or more points each, plus the associated points from the disc drop.

A Word on “Weight”

Some tabletop gamers might get scared off by the weight (complexity) assigned by Board Game Geek, and I’d like to stress here that while Great Western Trail does have a new iconographic language for you to learn, it’s only a little harder to assimilate than the language of 7 Wonders, and, in my opinion, more intuitive than the symbology of Castles of Burgundy. Learning the language of Great Western Trail will take you about ten minutes if you’re familiar with eurogames, and about twenty minutes if you’re not, but have a good teacher that’s less interested in an easy victory than in creating new Great Western Trail players. If your introducer is of the “sink or swim” variety, that snickers and tells you that you’ll learn it as you go, you will still learn it by the end of the game, although this is probably the worst way to learn Great Western Trail.

While Terraforming Mars and Caverna have BGG weights similar to Great Western Trail, the latter is by far the easiest to pick up. Don’t be intimidated by this great game.

That said, if you insist on learning Great Western Trail from its hermetic rulebook, heaven help you. While this is the way that I learned the game, I would never recommend it, as the rules were compiled not by grammar and logic, but by fashion sense, as if the writer inserted paragraphs where they would bling the best. You’re best off having Great Western Trail taught to you, or using online resources.

Texan Point Salad

Great Western Trail is a point salad game, which means that, like 7 Wonders and many other euros, it comes with a score sheet you use to count up all the generated points. You get points not only for deliveries, but for cattle cards, stations, station bonus tiles, building tiles, hazard tiles, dollars, and objectives.

With this dynamic, you would expect that there are many paths to victory in Great Western Trail. While this is theoretically true, the game’s bias leans toward a few basic strategies, which I will call Cattle Bandit, Boxcar Tycoon, and Rail Baron.

With Cattle Bandit, you’re mainly hoarding Cowboys and Cattle Cards, and getting whatever incidental victory points that will round out that beefy sandwich. While this is a great strategy for newbies, it’s limited by the relatively few high point cows in the deck, unless you’re extremely good at disciplining yourself not to sightsee along the trail, and always moving your maximum move, so as to rush the game. Cattle Bandit must rush the game to win, and it’s extremely desirable to have four or more Cowboys.

With Boxcar Tycoon, you’re also buying Cattle Cards, but only until you have a great deck that will allow you to cram as many discs as you can into San Francisco (9 victory points each). Trimming your deck, by the ability unlocked in the bottom left of your player sheet, often goes hand in hand with this strategy. If you also pick up all of the San Francisco objective cards, that makes each of those deliveries worth a total of fourteen points each (9 for the disc, and 5 for the card).

With Rail Baron, you’re hiring all of the Engineers that you can and dashing for the station master bonus tiles and the big victory points just past the kink in the tracks. Rail Baron may be better off leaving the three mediocre station master bonus tiles for the other players, grabbing the two that count for the most, and heading for those big points on the right-hand side. If you’re lucky enough to get a lot of engineers, note that the first five stations are only worth 9 VP total, while the next five are worth 35 VP. You won’t have time to stop at all of them in a typical game of Great Western Trail, so it’s better to get the bonus tiles you want, race for the right-hand side, then use the “teleportation” ability unlocked at the end of the track to get a few of the cheap ones you missed. It’s easy to grasp that the Rail Baron has the potential to be the best strategy, as they’re not also enjoying the largest point salad, they’re also unlocking more of their player sheet with their grind on both the train and delivery tracks. That said, this strategy is vulnerable; just as Cattle Bandit must rush the game, Rail Baron usually only has time to deliver to six of the ten stations, at most, and they must pick which ones they want the most. Also, if Rail Baron gets greedy, and goes for all the bonus tiles, they play the rest of their game relatively worker-poor compared to the other players. (Every time you take a station master bonus tile, you must permanently station one of your workers on that spot.) It’s better to grab the two strategic ones and head for the right hand side, where the big VP don’t require the loss of a worker to acquire.

Note that all of these strategies are actually strategic foci, so that Cattle Bandit and Boxcar Tycoon are also moving their train and Rail Baron is also buying cows and making deliveries. You can’t be a Great Western Trail Rail Baron without playing Great Western Trail. But these strategic thrusts are so distinguishable that you can soon differentiate between each of these play styles.

Great Western Trail Board GameGreat Western Trail: Rails to the North (Erweiterung)

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Terraforming Mars: Luck or Adaptation?

I never used to play Adaptation Technology in Terraforming Mars. Similarly, it rates low on players’ radar, and in their estimation as well, when they stop to consider what it can do (e.g., it ranks low on this list on Instead of an income boost, a TR boost, or a production boost, it allows the player to stretch global requirements to play cards with distant requirements. For instance, Birds requires 13% oxygen, but with Adaptation Technology, you can play it at 11 or 12 %. It also stretches the other way, so you can play certain city cards past their oxygen cap, which is probably the typical way this card is used by players with a traditional MCR / production strategy. When it’s played at all.

I also usually passed on this card—until a recent win with Inventrix made me reconsider my assumptions about this special ability. (Inventrix, by the way, does stack with Adaptation Technology for +4/-4 (or even +6/-6 with the addition of Special Design, although that event card is one use) according to Jacob Fryxelius.) In that game, Inventrix’s +2/-2 allowed my Small Animals, Ants, Livestock, and Birds an earlier introduction, especially since oxygen was maxed out quickly due to event cards and many greenery enthusiasts in our 4P game. I had nearly 30 victory points’ worth of microbes and animals.

Yesterday, in a 2P game, I chose Thorsgate and was dealt Adaptation Technology along with Penguins in the first research phase, and I’ll explain how Adaptation Technology just moved into my “always buy, always play” list, my short list of c. twenty cards, mostly animal, microbe, and other VP generators.

Firstly, I should say that when I told Julz that I was dealt Adaptation Technologies and Penguins in the first research phase, when there were already two oceans on the board (one from a Prelude card, and another from an event), she told me that was luck.

If you’re wondering how getting dealt what many see as fairly limited cards could be lucky, or, if you simply haven’t played as many games of Terraforming Mars as me and Julz, let me parse my luck for you. Penguins requires 8 oceans to play. However, Adaptation Technology gives you a leeway of two Global Requirement steps, in this case lowering the Penguins requirement to 6 oceans. This meant that only four more oceans were needed to bring Penguins to the board, and as we were using the World Government variant to speed up our 2P games, and Julz loves playing ocean-spawning event cards, that could happen very, very quickly. I was World Government in generation 2, and placed an ocean, and as we hit six oceans by generation 4, when I played Penguins, the game ended with 9 VP on the Penguins card. (While Penguins is 1 VP for each resource on the card, usually it is a late play in the game, and has three or four VP on it at most.) Adaptation Technology also allowed me to play Livestock much sooner than usual, and that one also had a bunch of VP on it at game end.

Was it luck? It takes knowledge, not just of the cards, but the game elements, specifically the global requirements, to see the synergy of Adaptation Technologies and victory point generating animal and microbe cards; and not only that, but the experience of many plays. Every time before this, I would have passed on Adaptation Technologies, thinking, along with most Terraforming Mars players, “why pay 12 MCR to play things earlier, when I can just play them later? That’s almost half a city–a waste of MCR.” While money-based strategy sees it this way, victory point-based strategy counters by saying, “yes, but playing Adaptation Technologies lengthens the duration of my VP generators, thus making my animals and microbes big, fat animals and microbes, juicy with VP.” The 12 MCR investment in Adaptation Technology provides more time for these VP-generating timed resources.

You may lose a few VP here and there to Predators or Ants, but an early start will also be your best defense against those cards when they come into play.

So, when I passed on Adaptation Technologies a dozen times before this, was it a lucky deal then, and I just didn’t know it? No, it is more logical to conclude that what we see as luck in Terraforming Mars is an expanding knowledge of the cards, along with a modicum of imagination in fusing them into strategic synergies. While there are a few cards of immediate interest even to a newbie (cards that let you place cities and greeneries), and others that clever newbies glom on (Pets, Strip Mine, Arctic Algae, Immigrant City), my current position is that out of 208 cards, 208 are good cards, and notwithstanding the baker’s dozen of OP cards, what we think of as luck in Terraforming Mars is a creative strategy that bridges an intelligent direction from random cards.

While you may disagree with my thoughts on luck in Terraforming Mars, one takeaway recommended to all readers is that Adaptation Technology is a powerful card because it starts the clock earlier on most cards that generate victory points as resources.

Terraforming Mars Board Game

Stronghold Games Terraforming Hellas & Elysium the Other Side of Mars Expansion Board Games

Terraforming Mars: Prelude Expansion

Stronghold Games Terraforming Mars Venus Next Board Games

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Game Night: Broom Service, Seven Wonders, Terraforming Mars, Takenoko, Splendor, Forbidden Desert, Azul, and Settlers of Catan

Game night usurped both night and day in our past session, with beginnings in breakfast over bagels, snickerdoodle coffee, and Broom Service, and continuing through 7 Wonders, Terraforming Mars / Elysium, Takenoko, Splendor, a gobi masala dinner, and then a dessert of Forbidden Desert, Azul, and Settlers of Catan.

Broom Service

Once among my very favorite board games, Broom Service is probably still in my personal top ten, as I’ve long admired its unique game mechanic of bluffing to drive both movement and scoring. (If you’re curious as to how this works, through this link you can find my full review of Broom Service.)

Broom Service is also a very generous game, as it contains not only the basic game, but several mini expansions that you can play on either surface of the double-sided game board, and these variations give Broom Service good replay value.

We played side A with Amulets, which is the best way to play this game. In standard Broom Service, there are only two ways to score points: delivering potions and playing weather fairies to collect lightning. Side B lengthens setup, game time, and takedown, and adds too much busy work for a seven round game.

As a happy medium between these two extremes, adding Amulets to side A emphasizes the strategic importance of the witch cards, as the risk of playing your witch brave might pay off with a point-scoring opportuntity, but more often than not will be parried, which also stalls your movement toward the amulets. The race to get amulets takes players all over the board rather than towards that square tower in the upper right corner where you can drop potions for big points ad nauseum until the final round. In the basic game, all the witches are clustered around that point chute by round seven. So if you’re wondering how to bring some life back into Broom Service, add Amulets to side A. We may end up playing mostly on side B at some point, but for now side A with Amulets seems to present the right pace for the table.

In our game, the winning player had all three amulets (+15 points), plus nineteen points of collected lightning. That was me–I had a four game winning streak which started with Broom Service and ended with Takenoko.

7 Wonders

Scores were close in this game, ranging from 44-51.

While I won this game with a three point lead, the second place player started playing armies in a bid to take the lead, and if she had one more miltiary card, would have had a seven point lead instead. Our recent games of 7 Wonders have emphasized this tendency of military cards to dominate the point-scoring dynamics of third age. Running a postmortem on the score sheet usually indicates that the victory might have gone any of three (or more) different ways depending on the third age military scoring, as each player can score anywhere from -2 to +10 in that round on military.

Usually I play a lot of brown and grey cards, but to economize in this game, I played yellow cards that allow the option to choose one of several resources with each purchase. Combined with the flexible resources on Side B of Alexandria–which I lucked into again–along with a yellow trade card that bumped down costs when trading with the second place player, I only paid one or two coins here and there, even in the third age. While an investment in yellow resource-modifying cards requires fewer card plays than investment in brown and grey resource cards, the obvious drawback was that my income from flanking trade partners dried up, reducing victory points from coins, which I had to make up elsewhere. Fortunately, I had two guilds and six blue civilian structures.

Terraforming Mars: Hubris in TM and Winning With Inventrix

At this point in my tabletop hobby, Terraforming Mars is the main event for me, so this section of my recap is the largest, as I have more thoughts, to the point that this is a kind of mini-essay inside the larger essay. Which is not to say my admiration for Broom Service, 7 Wonders, and Splendor were not sustained during this game night, and in the case of Splendor, increased. Just that Terraforming Mars attracts my interest not only on the level of strategy and theme, but narrative. Every game, a compelling narrative of cooperative competition unfolds, in which crucial decisions and expenditures, sometimes very small, create a continuity between generations, and it is in this continuum, as much as on the board, that Terraforming Mars is played.

Whether you win or lose Terraforming Mars, there are a handful of poor decisions that negatively influenced or did not affect your game. In some games, the temptation to make a grandiose expenditure counterproductive to your strategy cannot be resisted, simply because you desire the effect of a card. While any game that allows you to act contrary to your best interests incorporates a certain amount of hubris into its game mechanics, Terraforming Mars is a meteor of hubris that strikes constantly during the game. This means that often the winner is not the player that did the most, but the one that resisted hubris and picked the right plays consistently. If you’ve never played Terraforming Mars, you may wonder why I’m using a term from Greek drama to describe a tabletop game, but if you’ve played it even once, you should know what I’m talking about. Just because Oedipus and Tharsis Republic do the most in their respective theaters doesn’t make them winners.

This sense of competing in an unbalanced narrative and an inimical setting inhospitable to, but forgiving of, missteps, fuels a microcosmic doubt and dread that feeds back into the optimism created by a slew of cards that spell a contrariwise tale of scientific accomplishment and frontier creation. When you’re looking at your own cards and player board, you have the sense that you’re winning, but when you look at other players’ projects and production, you always feel like you could be doing more, and it is often in resisting this vanity of competition that you can wrest a victory from the game.

If you value the quantity of your time, do not play Terraforming Mars; if you value the quality of your time, play more Terraforming Mars.

This was my first time playing Inventrix. While there are threads on Board Game Geek bemoaning this corporation, this awesome card fits in well with my off-board strategy of accumulating critters to amass oodles of victory points. If you can’t shake the urge to compete with the others in tiling the board, pick your other corporation. But if you like playing animal and microbe cards, Inventrix’s flexibility in getting these out onto the board super early will mean these critters will come out even sooner and be worth even more victory points. Best of all, Inventrix is more or less hubris-free, with a special ability that will not tempt the player to leverage it to the point of self-destruction, rather than achieving victory.

To be honest, at times it was nail-biting to watch the other players smacking down trees while I ended the game with two. While I had cities, their points were mainly from other players’ greenery tiles. I also had the fortune of placing a Commercial District between four cities (!), and the Capitol around three oceans. Along with these cards, and my Large Animals, Ants, and Pets, I was not hurting for victory points by the end of the game.

That said, Inventrix is not as strong a card as say, Tharsis Republic, Helion, or Ecoline, all of which have wonderful special abilities (complicated by the hubris associated with those abilities). But a savvy player with a strong strategic game can win with this corporation. The secondplace player was only six points behind me, which means that if I was not playing strategically–not, for instance, grabbing the Ecobiologist Milestone and funding the Celebrity Award when I had the chance–I would have lost with such a brief margin between us. So if you have a strong animal and microbe game, want to get those cards into play even earlier, and can watch your other point-scoring opportunities like a hawk, you can win with Inventrix.


While Takenoko is competitive, it offers a laid-back, amiable style of play in which it is difficult to mess with other players, which makes it a good game to play on days with more aggressive competitive games like Settlers of Catan, 7 Wonders, or Splendor. It’s a competitive game that feels like a a cooperative game, in that the players grow the garden during the theater of play.

Which is not to say that Takenoko is entirely nice, just that you have to use a certain amount of intuition and guesswork to move the Gardener or the Panda in a direction inimical to another player’s board development, so generally it’s more strategic to work on your own game rather than guess another player’s.

Generally, I work on my Tile objective first, then my Panda, and then my Gardener. As tile objectives are easier early in the game, and as you can luck into easy victory points from draws from that deck late in the game, I tend to draw at least two more Tile objectives during the game. While Gardener objectives can score big points, they also often require the combined use of the Gardener, to grow, and the Panda, to trim, the stalks on the card, especially where the groups of stalks three high are concerned.


While I play a strong Splendor game, Splendor broke my winning streak for the night, as my wife started producing points as fast as Hermione Granger casts spells.

While I don’t have any strategic takeaways from this particular game, you can read my review of Splendor through this link. Splendor is one of my favorite tabletop games, and it increases in my estimation with every play.

As I’ve mentioned before on this blog, I believe Splendor is one of those games that will follow us through history for centuries or millenia, not unlike chess, checkers, or backgammon. While right now I am enamored with Terraforming Mars to the point that that game is always set up, either on a table or on the cortex of my brain, I must admit that Terraforming Mars has too many components when you compare it to the more streamlined games that have transited from the ancient world to today. The transition of tabletop games to a double format of cardboard and digital, going forward, may alter history’s preference for simplicity in tabletop gaming, but based on these historical trends, I must admit that my second favorite game is likely to enjoy a longer historical period than my favorite game.

Forbidden Desert

While we are about 50 / 50 in our win / loss ratio of Forbidden Desert, when you consider our Legendary Forbidden Desert game, our win ratio takes a massive hit, for I believe we have only won this game once on Lengendary, and this particular game of Legendary Forbidden Desert also was lost, or won by the game or the game designer, however you would like to look at it. Forbidden Desert is such a well-constructed co-op game that even when your team is trounced, it only enhances your admiration for the game.

You may not wish to listen to our excuses…BUT, our first eight tile flips revealed devices! We didn’t find our first piece of the aircraft until there were less than twelve sand, at which point we triggered our many Dune Blasters, but, drawing five cards a turn, we were still buried in sand.

Usually luck doesn’t play quite so strong a component in other games as it did in this one.


We actually played one and a half games of Azul, for one of the players accidentally pulled twenty tiles from the wrong side of the board, and as it would have been mostly guesswork to reconstruct it, we started over.

Since we first played Azul at Tekko, we have acquired a copy which gets some two-player use in our house, as it is both quick and perfectly balanced regardless of the number of players. While balanced games can be boring for me, as I like a game that has a sizable challenge embedded in the game from the gate, Azul does not suffer from its balance, but is a better game for it.

However, I do think that Azul plays better with four players. I’m not yet certain why this is. Perhaps it is because of the larger selection of factories and tiles.

Settlers of Catan

Nostalgia gnawed at me all night to play Settlers of Catan, the tabletop superpredator that got me back into board games. We rocketed through straight ten point Catan in a little over an hour, mainly from not taking it as seriously as we once did. For instance, this was the first time my joking offer of “trade a settlement for a city?” was answered with “do you have a three to one port?”, for, as it turned out, he had three cards needed for a settlement, plus three of a kind, all of which they traded for my three ore and two wheat, so that I could drop a settlement on my turn, and they could drop a city on their turn. This was a wonderful and amazing thing that rarely happens in old school Catan.

Alas, while our amazing trade will pass into our anecdotal reservoir, and it had the advantage of scoring us each one quick victory point, neither of us went on to win the game.


My only tabletop days of comparable length were in marathon D&D sessions on Saturdays in college, and those were both shorter and more fatiguing, as we played few other games to relieve the monotony of the D&D. This is the sixth big game day we’ve played this summer, and I have to say that I like playing all those games back to back; in playing eight tabletop games, we had eight fresh starts.

With so many games played, you would think it would be easy to pick a favorite, but instead all were happy expressions of their games. While there are many angsty games of Settlers of Catan in which the robber and road barricades unsettle the table dynamics, our island was a tiny paradise; similarly, Mars was gardened fairly quick, and with a cluster of close scores. Overall, this was a pleasant and amusing day made even better by our friends’ homemade Indian food.

Here are links to the games we played:

Ravensburger Broom Service – Strategy Game

Asmodee 7 Wonders

Terraforming Mars Board Game

Stronghold Games Terraforming Hellas & Elysium the Other Side of Mars Expansion Board Games

Terraforming Mars: Prelude Expansion

Stronghold Games Terraforming Mars Venus Next Board Games

Asmodee Splendor

Forbidden Desert Board Game

Plan B Games Azul Board Game

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Game Night: Terraforming Mars, 7 Wonders, and Castles of Mad King Ludwig

We hosted a fine game night yesterday, and this will mark my first game night takeaway in almost two years. To set the stage for you, the table held not only three board games that night, but vegan tacos, with the following fillings: black bean and tofu, potato and jalapeno, and roasted cauliflower. Our friends brought Zimas and these little margaritas in a can that I’ve never seen before, as well as a bottle of sweet homemade wine, and an apple pie.

Unlike many of my past Game Night recaps, this post contains takeaways for people who have played these games at least once. At some point, I may revert to the more didactic style of the past Game Night recaps.

Terraforming Mars

Here’s a game of Terraforming Mars that I won, while I never felt that I was winning. That pleasure was mainly to be had by “Green,” who had the luck to have not only Tharsis Republic but Immigrant City as an early play, thus getting a 2 MCR income boost for most of the cities played; Green went on to get most of the temperature TR points, as well as win a Milestone, and fund and win two Awards. Green had a splendid Terraforming Mars game, when you consider just how many more cards they were able to buy than I was due to their income engine.

What I had going for me were Pets, or rather the Pets card, which was the third card I played, so while Green was getting tons of income from cities played, I was getting oodles of aninals and their consequent victory points. With Pets, every city played (not just your own, but all players’) adds an animal to the card, and every two are worth one victory point. Protected Reserve (one animal for every plant tile that I played) was also an early play, and overall I had over thirty victory points just in played cards, plus I had a decent city and plant game, as you do if you want to be competitive at Terraforming Mars.

While my income was never on par with the other players, I shorted myself strategically many times, taking no cards twice, and the other strategic move that may have helped to win the game was being the first to fund an award that I would clearly win, Miner. I had Miner’s Guild, and while the other players were doing their best to tile the steel and titanium reserves on Tharsis, I nonetheless was able to get 6 Steel production fairly quick, and as I was not fortunate enough to get lots of Builder tags on my cards, I had a heap of Steel at the end of the game, which at least gave me the undisputed leadership of the Miner Award.

This was an exemplary game in that it will allow me to point out two Always Buy, Always Play cards: Immigrant City and Pets. Their impact, of course, is much more dramatic when played early. The animals on the Pets card not only have NO prerequisites, but they are invulnerable to others’ played cards. Immigrant City is such an OP thing to have when you have Tharsis Republic that I am surprised it does not say “Cannot Play with Tharsis Republic; Tharsis Republic discards and draws another card.” That said, the combo was not undefeatable. However, my victory was not an exhilirating one; all the exhiliration was to be had by Green, despite his surprise upset in the aftergame victory point calculation. (Which is not to say that I did not have fun, just that my fun was less carefree.)

There were no other cards played that had as dramatic an impact on the game as these two cards.

This is also an exemplary game in that it illustrates my point in “Thoughts on Terraforming Mars” that this game is unbalanced, as Green had only played one game of Terraforming Mars prior to this, and Tharsis Republic gave him the appearance of victory, if not victory itself, for most of the game. I would like to emend my thoughts there on Miner’s Guild, however, as while it remains one of the strong corporations, it can be not so good if you’re not drawing Builder Tags. I probably would have done better with Thorsgate, which I discarded although I had four energy tags in my starting hand.

7 Wonders

Despite Green having 32 points of Blue cards, I won this one by three points, mainly by not passing Green more than one military card in the third age.

I played side B of Alexandria, as 7 victory points and flexible resources are better than 10 victory points and not so flexible resources, especially when it comes time to the third age, and you need so many different symbols to buy things.

The more that we play 7 Wonders, the more that it seems that hoarders of Blue, Guilds, and Military usually win the game. Science can be sneaky every now and then, and it can be a great thing to save if no one in your group is saving them, in which case you become the de facto ruler of Science in your group. This will probably only work one time, though, after which your group’s relation to the Science cards will become more thought out.

Also, side B is almost always better than side A, except in the case of Gizah, which requires you to slide four cards to get 20 points. Side A only requires 3 cards to get 15, and that extra card can often be worth more than 5 victory points. Plus Side B of Gizah requires you to diversify into too much resource production, while side A is simple.

Castles of Mad King Ludwig

Castles of Mad King Ludwig is a game I’ve talked about often here on Board of Life, and I don’t have any new takeaways, other than not getting very good bonus cards really bites.

I not only lost this game, I came in last, mainly due to overemphasizing Downstairs buildings, focusing too much on depleting stacks, changing my guiding strategy three times, and more or less ignoring the leaderboards. Even though my bonus cards were bad, I won’t blame that on losing the game.

I do love Castles of Mad King Ludwig, and losing this game always feels better than winning Settlers of Catan. Like Terraforming Mars, and like Catan, Castles of Mad King Ludwig has a strong narrative: you are a castle builder, and trying not only to outbuild but outprice your opponent. There are several different types of strategy in this game. I mainly ignored the pricing game this time, mostly due to changing my strategy three times, and in a game that is generally only 11-12 rotations of the Master Builder long, you don’t have time to do this.

Also, I was more concerned at the shape of my tiles than their content, as I was wanting to deplete several stacks. This is usually a good way to win Castles of Mad King Ludwig, but it didn’t help me this time.

Despite my loss, I will always recommend this game. While we do not have a copy here, and I can’t personally attest to its two player value for couples, I have a feeling that it would be fun with two players as well.


Not only did we play three of my favorite tabletop games, and two at the very top of my list, but it was extremely nice to play Castles of Mad King Ludwig on a phyical table, as I currently only own it on iOS.

My only regret is that I didn’t play Thorsgate in Terraforming Mars, as it is one of the two corporations I have not yet played. When I saw Tharsis Republic come out, I chose the corporation that I thought would give me the better game, rather than choosing to play a new “character.” As it turned out, Miner’s Guild only helped me a little; I did get the card that let me fund oceans with steel resources, which I used a few times, and I got the Miner Award. Up until now, I have always jumped at the chance to play a new corporation, and I wish I had done that this game. Although I might have lost—for playing a frustrated (by few builder tags and my opponents competing for the metal reserves on Mars) Miner’s Guild required me to short myself and play very straegically, rather than try to outspend my opponents—playing Thorsgate instead would have been at least a new way of playing Terraforming Mars. Which is one of the wonderful things about Terraforming Mars—each corporation is really its own game, so that you have a dozen games in one box.

Two posts in two days. I won’t say that this is going to mark a new trend, but I have been feeling guilty about this blog being on the backburner, and it’s nice to return to it.

The following images link to the Amazon page for each game we played:

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Bora Bora

Game Night: Bora Bora and Ticket to Ride

On Saturday, we had a short game night with our friends, in which we played Bora Bora for the first time, and also played Ticket To Ride, which we had not played in over a year. The food was great, as usual, with the highlights of the menu being baked tofu sandwiches and a roasted vegetable soup that combined roasted garlic, cauliflower, and potatoes into a kind of creamy stock, though the soup was vegan. The highlight of my week, though, was that I was sitting upright for longer than fifteen minutes, as my recent surgery had required that I be reclining for most of the week.

Bora Bora and the Bora Bora Effect

For the last half dozen game nights, we’ve been focusing on playing games that we already know, as it lets us play more games, but tonight we decided to try a new one. Unfortunately, the game that we learned to play was Bora Bora, which is like the game Puerto Rico—already a Machiavellian pasttime—overinflated with a half dozen house rules pulled from Terra Mystca, Power Grid, and the inscrutable and sadistic games played by Arioch and the Lords of Chaos. While usually I’m down with the maniacal laughter and hand-wringing required to appreciate the most fiendishly convoluted of strategy games, the complexities of Bora Bora were lost on me, as the poorly translated rules were bobbing around in the gas bubble trapped in my left eye by my recent retinal detachment surgery. And, as the discomfort of reading twelve pages of Ravensburger tabletop game instructions apparently exceeds the discomfort of recovering from eye surgery, none of the other players rose to the occasion, and I was still our groups’ de facto game interpreter. Not that I blame anyone for their reluctance to take command over such ambiguous rules; rules which say one thing, while the symbolic task tokens seem to say something else, so that although we played the game accurately according to the written rules, for most of the game we were uneasy with our textual intepretation of it.

When I was a gaming noob, I would sometimes confuse my skill at tabletop games as an appreciation for them, and equate a victory with liking a game, but setting up hundreds of games of Catan not only gave me an honest appreciation of that game, it also helps to peel back the veils from other games. And in this case, winning with a huge lead didn’t soften my antipathy,

And losing obviously didn’t create a bias for the game in our other players, though all of their reactions varied widely: in all six rounds of play, one player begged to be released from Bora Bora so that we could play other games; another grumbled here and there, but since then hindsight has ameliorated her opinion, so that she now says she likes it; and the third—the buyer of the game—cheered louder for the game than a Ravensburger company shill. Of all the games that we have played, this game was the most polarizing, so that I might refer to it in future installments on Board of Life as the Bora Bora Effect—which I’m basically swiping from the Rashomon Effect. If you read the Rasahomon Effect entry on Trope TV, you basically know the Bora Bora Effect: each tabletop game is actually a nexus of shared experience, so that there isn’t just one Catan, there are millions of different Catans, each nuanced differently according to the players of Catan. The main way that the Bora Bora Effect might differ from the Rashomon Effect is that the Bora Bora Effect describes games, which are closed systems, and the Rashomon Effect describes perceptual experience, which it is assumed is less ordered and open-ended. I’m going to resist the sidebar, though, and return to the Bora Bora Effect when our gaming group has a larger selection of polarizing games.

I almost called it the Boring Bora Bora Effect, but spite doesn’t really serve the spirit of inquiry.

To those of you that visit this blog for the strategic takeaways, my main recommendation to you if you want to win Bora Bora is to invest yourself in building your temple as fast as you can, bevause the building blocks of your temple are worth much more in the earlier rounds (10VP eeach) than the later rounds (7VP or 4 VP). Also, if you build the temple entirely, you get a 12 VP bonus—6VP for having a full temple and 6VP for having a finished temple—unlike most other completion bonuses, which are 6 VP. This is on top of the 24 to 60 VP that you get for selecting the Builder role cards over six successive rounds. In addition to often playing Builder, I was able to complete my temple by putting high rolled dice on the Helper role card as often as I could so that I could get the bonus resources for my temple. Other than focusing on building my temple, I used my remaining dice to diversiy my VP investments on the board. Unlike Puerto Rico, you can select a Role card more than once per round, and I did this as many times as I could, prioritizing Builder and Helper, and only investing in other roles when necessary.

Diet Ticket to Ride

Next we moved into Ticket to Ride, which, with Catan, was one of the first games that we played as a group. It was extremely pleasant to return to the world of Ticket to Ride. Something about Ticket to Ride inspires us to be nice to each other in ways that Catan doesn’t, so that while on any of three successive turns I could have interrupted another player’s route, I just didn’t feel like doing it. And, as a point of fact, no player during the entire game deliberately interrupted another’s route just for the sake of doing it. Upon reflection, I feel that we may be ruining the game by being too nice as we play it, so that we’re not really playing Ticket to Ride but a Diet version of it.

Ticket to Ride has many virtues: lightning-fast set-up; speedy play; eminently teachable; multiple winning strategies. If Ticket to Ride went for the viscera like Catan so that it was half as gripping as that game of hexes and dice, we might have played the former more than four times as a group in the last three years. While an inviting game, it’s not very compelling—at leas the way that we currently play it. Because of this, I’m considering resisting my natural inclination to be a nice Ticket to Ride player next time, and blocking every single route that I can, just to see if it makes the game more dynamic and memorable. After some more experimentation—to see how far Ticket to Ride game play can be bent—I’d like to review Ticket to Ride here on Board of Life.

My current takeaway from Ticket to Ride, when players are playing the game nicely, is that the main struggle in the mid game is knowing whether or not you should risk getting new routes, as well as knowing when you should get them or when it is too late to get them. If you’re satisfied with a low number of finished routes, then you need to switch to saving cards in order to buy the biggest routes that you can. That said, if a nice player also decides to be cautious in their investment of routes, it is a very hard game to win.

Here’s what I project: if you’re going to play Ticket to Ride in the nice way, you should invest in a sprawling, easily diversified, series of routes, and get new routes frequently in order to capitalize on that investment. If you’re not going to play Ticket to Ride in the nice way, you should finish your initial routes as quickly as possible, and then spend the rest of the game saving cards so that you can play them strategically in a manner to cut off others’ route investments. This is actually what I had planned on doing going into this game, but as everyone else was playing in the nice way, I decided to play nice as well when the time came.


On the surface, I found Bora Bora to be overcomplicated and torturous, and Ticket to Ride to be enjoyable and gratifying, but bland, but upon reflection, this game night was more fruitful than many others as it has given me pause enough to consider that games have a Rashomon-like separation of individual experiences, and that sharing of the jointly-perceived game may be as important as the playing of the game. On top of that, I have begun to deconstruct the way that we play Ticket to Ride, and I wonder whether long term enjoyment of tabletop games depends on continual examination and deconstruction of their game play.

Bora Bora Strategy Board Game

Ticket to Ride

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Catan Blues

Catan Blues: The Catan Review

Catan nee Settlers of Catan

The original name of Catan was Settlers of Catan, and this maiden name is more descriptive of the concept of the game, which focuses not only on the hexagonally modular world of Catan, but also the three to four (or six) players that take the roles of the settlers and carve out a niche for their empire. I use the two names interchangeably, but make no mistake, the transition from Settlers of Catan to Catan demarcates a fundamental change in the way the powers that be would have you view the game. The current Catan product focuses on the game setting, while the game that won the Spiel Des Jahres in 1995 and became one of the most popular and most played games in the world was called Settlers of Catan for good reason, as that title puts the focus on the players that would learn just how compelling it was to eke out a victory with five elemental-like cards building commonalities of colored wood and armies of development cards.


Wheels Within Wheels; Hexes Within Hexes

Catan looks and sounds simple, but Catan players obtain their victory with several different types of resource and area management. First, the player must control their hand of cards, so that it will every now and then produce the right suits to build roads, settlements, cities, and development cards, while not attracting the blade of the robber; secondly, the player must eke out a space on the island of Catan, when space on the island is at a premium, and the best way to do this is by manipulation of roads and the “rule of one” to parry your competitors’ growth; thirdly, and optionally, a gamblers’ canny understanding of the probabilities of numbers can be an asset when this results in the ability to make this numerical assessment work in their favor, although it can also be a maddening and frustrating liability when the player doesn’t have an equal understanding that statistics in Catan, just as in real life, describe likelihoods and not laws.

Fortunately for those who do not have a grasp on the statistics of rolling two six sided dice, or want to play Catan in the easy-breezy way, the manufacturers have put a shorthand on each of the numbers on the board. Numbers with a higher pip count underscoring the number indicates a higher likelihood of that number being thrown.  The 2 and the 12 only have one pip on them, while the 6 and the 8 have five pips, and this signifies that the 6 and the 8 are five times more likely to be thrown than the 2 and the 12.  Just don’t bet your Catan farm on it.

Despite the wheels within wheels description that I’ve just laid out for you—which is 100% accurate and in no way an exaggeration, though many do play oblivious to these organizational layers—Catan is deceptively easy to play, as all the above game mechanics are concealed inside a simplicity of the highest order.

Catan: Playing By Numbers

In basic Settlers of Catan, the winner is the first Settler to move from two points to ten points. Only eight points are actually scored by the victor, as each player starts with two settlements, each worth a point, as well as two roads, which are worth zero points, but are necessary connectors for building more settlements and future points.


To build another settlement, you first need to build at least one more road due to the “rule of One”—which should be called the “rule of Two” because it essentially says that settlements must be two hexagonal sides away from each other at bare minimum—and then spend a brick, a lumber, a wheat, and a wool. Each road costs a brick and a lumber as well, so you can see that at least in the early game and in the road building duel that consumes much of the mid-game, brick and lumber are extremely important.


Another way to score points is to upgrade an existing settlement to a city, which costs three ore and two wheat. Cities are worth two points. As each player only has five settlements in their building supply, worth a total of five points, some upgrading to cities is usually imperative in order to hit ten points. However, each player only has four cities in their supply, so just upgrading settlements to cities won’t win you the game either, as four cities is only eight points. Players that focus on building things to win the game have an assortment of both settlements and cities at the end of the game. Cities also produce twice as many resources as settlements.


The way resources are produced in Catan goes like this: if you have a settlement bordering a Mountain/Ore hex with the number 4 sitting on it, and 4 is rolled, then you would get one ore resource card, and if you upgrade that settlement to a city, you will get two ore every time a 4 was rolled. It is possible to get more than one resource every time the dice are rolled due to the fact that there are two of every number from three to eleven, with only two and twelve are singular. So if I have a settlement bordering the four ore and a city bordering the four wheat (“four ore,” “six lumber,” and so forth, is the nomenclature we use in our gaming group, and I have the feeling it is fairly universal) and a four is rolled, I get one ore and two wheat.

Resources are produced on every players’ roll, and every one that has a settlement or city bordering the rolled number gets to benefit. This can be one of the frustrating things about Catan—on your own turn, rolling a number that is immensely beneficial to everyone but yourself. What is even more mind-numbing and soul-crushing, of course, is one or two (or three) passes around the board without ANY of your numbers being rolled. Fortunately, this doesn’t happen too often, but every time it does, it makes you want to act like that sibling ot cousin that would flip the Monopoly game board. I wouldn’t do this, though, as Catan is a pretty expensive game, and this might get you banned from your Catan timeshare.

Catan: Road Wars, Development Hell, and Robber Knights

If the Catan rules stopped with the mechanics of production and construction, though the resulting diversion would have immense replay value due to the modular and random nature of both the resource and number tiles, what we would have would be a kind of math game favoring only the mathematically inclined and those lucky at dice. There are, however, some additional point-scoring opportunities, and with these additional factors in the game, there are many winning strategies, and it isn’t so much of a luck and numbers anymore, but a gamers’ paradise. Or a gamers’ hell, or a gamers’ purgatory, depending on your attitude to Catan. To be fair, playing Catan gives you access to all of Dante’s journeys; it just depends on your luck in the particular game.

These additional scoring opportunities include the two point Longest Road card, which is won by the first player with five contiguous roads uninterrupted by another player’s development, and it can only be taken by a player that has exceeded the length of the previous Longest Road; the two point Largest Army card, which is won by the first player with three Knights (see below), and can only be taken when another player exceeds that player’s quantity of Knights; lastly, there are also five victory points in the deck of 25 development cards.


To buy a development card, you spend a wheat, an ore, and a wool. Development cards are not recycled, which means they are a finite resource for every game. In the deck of 25 Development Cards, there are 14 Knight cards, 5 Victory Points, 2 Road Building cards, 2 Monopoly cards, and 2 Year of Plenty cards. Most of the time (56%) it’s a Knight, but 44% of the time it’s something else, which can occasionally wreak havoc on those players that are counting on getting the Largest Army card to cinch their victory. Not that the other cards aren’t nice—the Road Building card lets you throw down two roads, which can let you block another player or reach a viable building spot; the Monopoly card lets you ask for everyone’s production of one single resource; the victory point cards are the cheapest way to get a victory point in the game; and, the Year of Plenty lets you get any two resources from the bank that you want. On the face of it, the Year of Plenty card seems like a bum deal—you just spent three cards to buy a development card that gives you two—but it’s a better trade rate than the Maritime Trade rule (4:1), and it does give you the exact resources you need at any time. Plus you can save the card until you need it, which means they’re resources that you can hold on to without being a sitting duck for the robber.

Oh? I haven’t introduced that shady gentleman, The Robber, yet? When a player rolls a 7, they move the robber onto any tile, with three consequences: 1) production stops on that tile until the robber is moved again; 2) the robbing player steals a resource from any player with a settlement bordering the blocked tile; and 3), every player with more than 7 cards must discard half of them. This third effect means that veteran Catan players tend to keep their hand as light as possible, and, even when saving for settlements and cities, might, for fear of the robber’s halving blade, buy a road or development card instead, just to prevent saved cards from becoming liabilities. The only way to move the robber other than with a roll of a 7 is to play a Knight card either before or after you roll the dice on your turn. This lets you move the robber immediately, but without the production-destroying third effect above. And yes, it is possible to move the robber twice on one turn, if you’re so lucky as to play a knight card and then roll a 7 too, and you can even do it the other way around if you’re a soul-sucking entity with ancestry in one of the circles of Hell.

Since there aren’t too many rules governing the robber, usually Catan groups develop their own shady practices, such as bribing the player that threw the seven with a card to avoid the robber’s obstructing influence. Since there isn’t a rule prohibiting it, I’m gathering that this is a legal practice, especially considering trade and negotiation rules are the other factor that prevents Catan from becoming math club.

Trading With Banks and Other Bandits

While it is possible to trade in Catan without going to other players, trading with the impartial bank sucks. The rules call this “maritime trade,” and it has a very unfavorable rate of exchange: 4 resources of the same kind for the resource that you want. If you have a settlement bordering a port, you can get a more favorable rate of exchange, depending on the port in question. There are five 3:1 ports, that drop the maritime trade rate from 4:1 to 3:1, and there are also specialty ports that let you trade 2 of one specific resource for 1 of another. So there’s a 2:1 wool port, a 2:1 lumber port and so forth, and these can be game-winning settlements when you have a lot of production of that specialty resource.

If you don’t like either 3:1 or 2:1 exchange rates, though, you can always try trading with other players, and those negotiation terms are whatever you can hash out with that other player. So if you can get someone to trade you a brick and a lumber for two ore, the more power to you. More likely than not, experienced players will try to take advantage of your need, and make you pay more than a 1:1 rate, but they won’t be so usurious as to make you go to the bank.

The only restriction on trade is that you can only trade with the player whose turn it is. The rules don’t specify that the player who just rolled has to initiate trades, only that trades must be between that player and another player, so there’s nothing stopping you from being aggressive and leading with a trade proposal before your competitors come up with one. Also, sometimes you have to be fast: if the trading player says “I have an ore for a wheat,” it’s likely that another player might grab that deal before you if you’re not paying attention.

So You Want to Be a Catan Bastard…

Some other shady but legal practices are 1) initiating trade to discover who has the resource you need so that you can play a Knight and gamble on stealing it without giving up a resource; or, 2) if you have nothing but wheat and a monopoly card, trading away all your wheat to get what you need, and then playing the monopoly card to get it back. The only official restriction on this kind of behavior is that while you can buy as many Development Cards you want every turn, you can only play one per turn. So if you played a Knight card to move the robber at the beginning of the round, you can’t use that Monopoly card too.

Some shady practices that are completely illegal are 1) lying about a dice roll; 2) lying about how many cards are in your hand, or sitting on excess cards, to avoid the robber; 3) during a pause, snatching a few resource cards from the bank or adding a pivotal road to the board; 4) when someone gets up to grab a beer or use the john, swapping their hand with random cards from the bank.

In the interest of having a complete catalog of Catan villiany, please add your Catan Bastard best practices in the comments below!

Your Brain on Catan

So, when it’s your turn, you might have many questions running through your brain:

  1. am I playing a road to block my competitor or get cards out of my hand, or am I saving for a settlement?

  2. am I flipping this Knight card now, or saving it for when my tile is blocked by another player?

  3. am I saving this ore and wheat for a city so I can double my production, or am I buying development cards so as to get the Largest Army advantage or the victory points in the development card deck?

  4. how bad will everyone hate me if I play this monopoly card, and how much worse will they hate me if I take back all the brick I just traded them?

  5. who can I get to trade me a wool?

  6. I’ve been saving for this city for three turns, no one will trade with me, and I have eleven cards now. Do I keep playing chicken with the dice and hold out for that ore I need, or do I cash in these two ore, two wool, and two wheat for two development cards?

  7. I just hit eight victory points. Do I focus on building settlements and cities, or do i channel all my production and trade into road production, so I can steal the Longest Road card and win the game?

  8. My (wife, husband, significant other, boss, best friend, brother, sister) really wants to win this game, and I have nine points on the board and three ore and two wheat in my hand. Do I give up (sex, a happy home, my promotion, two decades of best friend-dom, holiday cheer) to win this one?

While I have no idea exactly how many games of Catan I’ve played, it’s certainly over a hundred with flesh and blood players, as well as another few dozen on the Catan app for iPhone and iPad. What keeps me coming back to the Threefold Island, which at times is Heaven, but just as often is an Inferno of frustration, and mostly is a Purgatorio of waiting for my number to come up?

Catan’s message is a noble one. Unlike Monopoly or Risk, in which all the other players are literally removed from play by being bankrupted or conquered, in Catan, every player stays in the game until the end. And that end isn’t wholly bitter, it’s a bittersweet closure, because each player builds their own discrete development, and while others can interfere or compete with you, they do not do so by tearing down or destroying your work. And even for Catan’s winner, the satisfaction is greater, because your worthy opponents’ might is still evident on the board, and your win seems more worthy as well, while in Monopoly or Risk, having not only trounced everybody but erased their very mettle from the board, the satisfaction is small. Because Catan isn’t an elimination game, the win is a more social and less solitary event, and seems less Pyrrhic and more exciting by being witnessed by all players. Compare that to the games of Monopoly that we played as children, in which vanquished opponents vanish from the table, and it ends with two economic juggernauts wasting most of an evening vying to be the final winner, only to rejoin the other players, who say, “you were still playing that? We lost hours ago, and we’ve been watching movies and The Simpsons.”

The game is called Catan, it isn’t Utopia or Paradisio, and it makes no pretense of being a perfect world. But it is one of the best games this world has to offer, no matter how much I like to bust on it in Catan Blues, and when I hear that someone has never played Catan before, I feel sorry for them. They’re missing out on not only one of the best tabletop games, but one of the generation-defining creations of the past twenty years.

To read more Catan Blues, follow this link.


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