Catan Blues

Alliance Game Distributors Gets Exclusive Agreement with Catan License Holder, Asmodee North America

In a move which may increase the amount of tabletop games sold in comic book distribution juggernaut Diamond’s shadow, their affiliated company Alliance Game Distributors, also owned by Diamond’s Steve Geppi, has hammered out an exclusive distribution agreement with Asmodee North America, probably best known as the current Catan license holder in English-speaking countries.

Due to Diamond’s affiliation with Alliance Game Distributors, many comic shops are already hybrid hobby stores, with walls and shelves of tabletop games and role-playing games adding to sales and broadening customer bases.  One can speculate that having established this trade partnership, even more tabletop games will be available in Diamond’s PREVIEWS catalog than there are now.

Regardless of the impact on comic book retailers, the impact on tabletop retailers will be noteworthy, as on August 1st, Alliance Game Distributors will hold the Catan pipeline to North American game retailers.  In terms of support for specialized tabletop game retailers, Alliance Game Distributors will be creating an Asmodee Specialist Team for dedicated service of Asmodee products.  Additionally, AGD has announced “upcoming retailer initiatives to support and grow the market.”

“This is an amazing and transformational deal,” said Christian T. Petersen, CEO of Asmodee North America. “We at Asmodee have long enjoyed a terrific and productive relationship with the great people at Alliance. This deal joins the combined experience of both organizations to craft a communications and distribution infrastructure that we believe will positively affect both retailers and consumers in the hobby games market.”

“We are truly honored to be part of this historic agreement,” said Daniel Hirsch, president of Alliance Game Distributors. “Alliance has enjoyed a very close relationship with the companies that make up Asmodee North America for over 20 years. We are both proud and grateful that Asmodee has placed its trust in us for the stewardship of its brands.”

In addition to the original press release sent out by Alliance Game Distributors, I’ve also posted for the benefit of game retailers and hobbyists the two FAQ sheets with answers from Alliance and Asmodee as regards the transition.

Original press release:

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
ASMODEE NORTH AMERICA ANNOUNCES EXCLUSIVE DISTRIBUTION AGREEMENT WITH ALLIANCE GAME DISTRIBUTORS IN THE U.S.A.

June 1, 2017
Asmodee North America is excited to announce an exclusive distribution partnership with Alliance Game Distributors in the United States.
The multi-year agreement, which goes into effect on August 1st, 2017, is aimed at broadly increasing support for U.S. hobby games retailers. This includes the creation of a large, dedicated Asmodee Specialist Team at Alliance, significant updates to Asmodee’s sales policies, and a number of upcoming retailer initiatives designed to support and grow the market.
More information on updated Asmodee sales policies and details about upcoming retailer initiatives will be made available in late June.
“This is an amazing and transformational deal,” said Christian T. Petersen, CEO of Asmodee North America. “We at Asmodee have long enjoyed a terrific and productive relationship with the great people at Alliance. This deal joins the combined experience of both organizations to craft a communications and distribution infrastructure that we believe will positively affect both retailers and consumers in the hobby games market.”
“We are truly honored to be part of this historic agreement,” said Daniel Hirsch, president of Alliance Game Distributors. “Alliance has enjoyed a very close relationship with the companies that make up Asmodee North America for over 20 years. We are both proud and grateful that Asmodee has placed its trust in us for the stewardship of its brands.”
For additional information related to this announcement, please refer to the Q&A sheet attached hereto.
For sales and business inquires related to this announcement, please contact Brendan Bell, Hobby Market Sales Manager, at bbell@asmodeena.com.
For questions directed to Alliance Games Distributors, please contact Mike Webb, VP of Marketing, Data, and Customer Service, at mew@alliance-games.com.

FAQ sheets:

Hobby Games Retailer Questions to Alliance Regarding the Exclusive Asmodee Distribution Agreement in the U.S.

June 1, 2017 Q: Are there any specific areas we can expect things to improve? A: We are excited to be rolling out a number of new initiatives in the next couple of months that could not have happened in a multi-distributor environment. Please keep an eye out in the Alliance Alert and in ANA communications for upcoming changes – we believe these opportunities will be transformative and will create more value for retailers than ever before.

Q: If I don’t have an account with Alliance, how do I get one? A: To set up an account with Alliance, simply contact Marc Aquino, VP of Sales with Alliance at mla2@alliance-games.com and he will set you up with a Sales Manager to walk you through the process. You can also find our account applications online at http://www.alliancegames.com/Home/11/1/79/1162?articleID=127270

Q: I have some outstanding issues in the past with Alliance. I am concerned about reopening an account – what can I do to make sure things go smoothly? A: Contact Marc Aquino, VP of Sales at mla2@alliance-games.com or Mike Webb, VP of Marketing, Data, and Customer Service at mew@alliance-games.com. We are committed to working with you to clear up any issues on either side to make this transition a smooth and mutually beneficial one.

Q: How will this affect my supply of product? I liked my allocations with my former distributor better on ANA product. A: Although there will no doubt be some future products where demand outstrips supply, we do believe having a single source of the product will help to balance out some issues related to allocation of products. Alliance and ANA will also be sharing data more directly during the pre-solicit and solicit phases of a product, and providing extremely detailed analysis of sales within product lines. This will allow more accurate demand forecasting. In addition, allocation policy can better be coordinated on a product by product basis. Alliance’s history as steward of hobby sales for Days of Wonder and Catan products demonstrated considerable improvement in availability of product lines, and we hope to see many of those benefits accrue again.
Q: Is Alliance going to be able to handle the increased volume this represents? How can I know my orders will still be processed in a timely manner? A: Alliance has already begun hiring and training additional operations staff to handle increased volume. They have also undertaken significant investment in technology in their warehouses to increase the speed and accuracy of orders.

Q: How will the Asmodee Sales Specialists work? Will I have to place orders with 2 different people? A: In short, no – you can place your orders for ANA product with either. Your Alliance Account Representative will be there to help as always with the full range of Alliance products and services. The Asmodee Sales Specialists will have additional training and information on programs that can help your store better promote and sell the full range of ANA products. They will help guide you in growing your sales across the ANA brands, and will get to know your store’s unique needs and how ANA can best meet them. From assisting you with organized play opportunity to helping you gauge demand for new product or ANA lines you might not have carried in the past, they will leverage greater experience and information on Asmodee North America products to your store’s advantage.

*****************************

Hobby Games Retailer Questions to Asmodee Regarding the Exclusive Alliance Distribution Agreement in the U.S.

June 1, 2017

Q: Why did Asmodee decide to go exclusive with Alliance in the U.S.? A: It is our goal to provide hobby games retailers with the support and inventory they need to successfully grow their business selling Asmodee’s games. As part of this deal, Alliance will be making a significant investment to enhance our ability to communicate, support, and allocate our products.

Q: When does this go into effect? A: The agreement goes into effect August 1, 2017. Any new releases and restocks of Asmodee products that ship prior to August 1, 2017 will be available to retailers from all our current authorized distributors. Starting on August 1, 2017, all new Asmodee releases and re-stocks will be available exclusively to hobby games retailers through Alliance Game Distributors.

Q: How will this new exclusive arrangement benefit hobby games retailers? A: With this deal, Alliance Game Distributors is building a dedicated team of Asmodee Sales Specialists who will work directly with retailers to help them grow sales by understanding the retailer’s specific needs and providing in-depth product knowledge of ANA products and services. This sales team will also provide greater visibility into stock availability, allocations, and other retailer initiatives, as well as sending retailer feedback to ANA.

Additionally, Asmodee is developing updated sales policies and retailer initiatives that we believe will greatly benefit both retailers and consumers. More information about these changes will be made available towards the end of this month.

Q: How do I open an account with Alliance? A: To set up an account with Alliance Game Distributors, contact Marc Aquino, VP of Sales, at mla2@alliance-games.com. You can also find online applications at http://www.alliance-games.com/.

Q: I have additional questions for Asmodee, who can I contact? A: Please contact Brendan Bell, Asmodee North America’s Hobby Market Sales Manager, at bbell@asmodeena.com.

Q: I have additional questions for Alliance, who can I contact? A: Please contact Mike Webb, VP of Marketing, Data, and Customer Service, at mew@alliancegames.com.

Cross-posted on NerdSpan.com.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.


catan

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Catan Blues

Catan Blues: The Protracted Unease of Three Player Catan

Though we have three Catan players in our household, we don’t play three player Catan anymore, and only play Catan with four players on game night with our regular gaming group, or, on special occasions (usually holidays), we play the 5-6 Player Expansion. Isn’t it easier and quicker to play with only three players, you ask? Isn’t it just as fun? Absolutely not, and wholeheartedly no.

This flies in the face of conventional wisdom that says Catan takes longer with each additional player, but anyone who has played any three player Catan knows just how long those games can take compared to the more traditional four player model. Three player Catan also seems to drone on for far too long when compared with the 5-6 player Expansion, which has an expanded map of point scoring opportunities and an increased rate of construction due to the Special Building Phase.

Does three player Catan only seem to drag on, or is it actually longer than games with more ambitious player counts?

Catan doesn’t end until enough resources have been produced by dice tosses, which means that—strictly looking at the dice, and ignoring the human factor, which we will see has its own negative impact on game length—the same number of rolls transpire in a three person game as in a four person game, only they are distributed among one fewer players. If the average game of Catan is 60 throws of the dice, then in a four player game each player will roll fifteen times, while in a three player game, each player will roll twenty times, and this substantial increase of each player’s responsibility can lead to game fatigue.

And once you add in the human element, a three player game may require more dice throws than a four player game, because, in addition to each player rolling the dice more times, there are also fewer producers every time the dice is rolled. In a four player game, there are four potential producers with each dice toss, while in a three player game, there are only three, and consequently, 25% less production. True, there are also fewer consumers to compete for these resources, but not every consumer has the same impact on the length of the game. That is, the unlucky player that is producing infrequently and consuming even less frequently due to not having the right combination of resources to build, and hence ending the game with four or five victory points that were eked out agonizingly, affects the game length negatively by making it longer, and the player that is producing frequently, consuming frequently, and trading favorably affects the game length positively by winning as quickly as possible. The winner’s development over time is the primary yardstick for game length, and the losers only contribute to the duration positively by producing and trading the resources that the winner needed. The losers’ own development, while important to them at the time, is either a neutral or negative factor in game length. And in a three player game, compared to a four player game, there are only two other losers aside from the winner, which subtracts from the winner’s potential trade partners.

Not to mention that three player Catan is Robber Hot Potato, as each player will receive the robber more times in a three player game than in a four player game if the number of dice rolls are equal, and many more times if the number of dice rolls are greater in three player Catan. If you accept as givens first that a game of Catan is 60 rolls of the dice, and second that the robber is rolled one in six, that means an average of 10 visits from the robber, which, when shared by three players, is more onerous than when shared by four. And, if the three player game does run longer—let’s say 72 rolls of the dice—then there are twelve visits from the robber shared by three players, or about four each assuming Pangloss‘s perfect world in which Catan players must be fair.

So, if you wonder why the mere thought of playing a three-handed game of Catan fills you with dread, it is probably for the reasons discussed.  I would be interested in generating a sample of three player games to demonstrate conclusively that three player games are longer, except for the fact that it would be a torturous and punitive activity that I would wish only on the grossly impolite. That said, I did find one thread on BoardGameGeek.com in which a player logged four three player games and while one ran 44 turns, the other three ran from 70-80 turns.  

To read earlier installments of Catan Blues, follow this link.

Catan 5th Edition

Catan 5-6 Player Extension – 5th Edition

Traveller

Game Night: Classic Traveller RPG, Catan with 5-6 Player Expansion, and 7 Wonders

We had another Big Game Night on Labor Day, with a ninety minute Traveller RPG session spanning a terrorist attack on a starport, its resultant explosion chasing the players’ free trader, and a speculative trade adventure in three agricultural planets; Catan with the 5 to 6 player expansion; and, 7 Wonders. Just as in our Memorial Day Game Night, our game choices were dictated by our large player count, as while we have a preponderance of four player games and maybe a dozen five player games between us, we only have a few games that can withstand six players or more. (Not counting the vintage RPGs on my shelf, of course, as any RPG can have as many players as the gamemaster can tolerate.)

The Labor Day repast was exceptional, with black bean burgers, and hot dogs for both meat eaters and vegans. Not only the black bean burgers, but both the vegan hot dogs and the ever-flowing alcoholic spirits, were of home manufacture, and a testament to the culinary skills of our friends.

Classic Traveller

Based on the laughter and general player-participation in our first chapter of Traveller, this was the most successful of the games that we played on Labor Day. Even among the two players that were new to our group, while one was a little reticent, the other took to the RPG concept like a duck to water. The latter individual did have a wealth of game experience, being a Minecraft moderator for instance, but both of them had little modern tabletop game experience, with not a single game of Catan between them. What I’ve learned playing RPGs, though, is that knowledge of rules is only important in the gamemaster, and that good players are determined by the same things that drive other artistic endeavors, such as creativity and both ability and willingness to engage in a little improv. (The gamemaster should have these things, too, but also has to have mastered the forms of the game.) Not unlike John Keats’ idea of negative capability (“…when man is capable of being in uncertainties. Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason…”), the new player can do just as well as the experienced player, as it is not reaching for knowledge that drives RPG performance but spontaneity and the free flow of ideas. So I’m never surprised when new players like RPGs and do well at them. There are very few examples in life of activities with no learning curve that satisfy the creative impulse as purely as an RPG, as in most creative outlets you’re left with an end product that can trigger a critical response in the creator. In RPGs, on the other hand, after the creative act you’re only left with the memory of the game, which is certain to be a good result if you were amusing yourself and others.

If that isn’t good enough reason to play RPGs, then you should just get on the bandwagon now before they’re made trendy with the mad fandom-faddom for Stranger Things.

So what is Traveller, and why did we have so much fun playing it? Traveller is a first generation science fiction role playing game. Of the first generation RPGs, only AD&D is more influential, and Traveller is equally long-lasting, with new iterations dropping every now and then over the last 38 years. The brainchildren of arguably the two most famous pen and paper RPG creators, Gary Gygax and Marc Miller respectively, AD&D and Traveller were undeniably—after RuneQuest—also my favorite RPGs to play as a teenager and college student. AD&D 1st edition so deeply engraved my cortex that I still no longer need to consult the rule books, and with Traveller, I have only needed a few refreshers to prepare this adventure.

In Classic Traveller, after the somewhat lengthy but fascinating mini-game of player character creation, all you need to know from then on is:

  1. 1) 8+

  2. 2) stay out of the way of bullets, blades, and lasers, and

  3. 3) go for the moolah.

8+ on two six sided dice is the standard action roll for everything in the game, with your native attributes and skills acting as positive modifiers, and with environmental and situational modifiers acting as either positive or negative modifiers to the roll. Much action is ridiculously easy in Classic Traveller, just as it is in real life, which usually translates to players not doing stupid things. When it takes 20-25 minutes to make a character, and you’re staring down the barrel of a sub-machine gun (in-game: SMG) at short range (+3 for SMG), and unarmored (+5 for SMG) to boot, that means your opponent only needs to roll a 0 or better on two six sided dice. Yup, he’ll do it every time. And on auto-fire, he gets to roll two times. Hence my second recommendation above: stay out of the way of bullets, blades, and lasers.

Yes, I’m showing the extreme end of Traveller combat, but that is more common than a battle in which everyone has battle dress and Fusion Gun Man Portable TL 14s. And in that high-tech battle, most of the shots are hits too, and nearly all of the hits are kills. Don’t trust your armor in Traveller—trust your jump drive. The best way to survive a gun battle or sword fight in Traveller is to be in a different star system.

And guess what? Traveller doesn’t penalize you for avoiding battles. Unlike other games in which a murderhobo needs a healthy blood lust to earn experience points, only bad things happen to your character in a Traveller battle, because Traveller has no experience points or experience levels. Traveller is a skill based game. Also, it is unlike nearly all skill-driven RPGs in that combat and adventuring do not improve your skills either.

When you don’t have to fight and kill things to go up a level or improve your skills, far from it disincentivizing players, it encourages role-playing and, on the part of the GM, some ad libbing. Players can do exactly what they want in Traveller, just like in real life. And in Traveller players have much more mobility than they do in most games. They’re travelling in starships instead of walking or riding to the dungeon.

This is why in Traveller I tend to go for a more free form style instead of a narrative style. Instead of creating adventures like chapters, for this game I stocked the Rezayn subsector and let the players loose. To begin the first session, I did have to funnel five characters from different walks of life into a common situation, but after that, they reacted in their own way.

The setting was the hellhole planet Sonekaos (B552976-B Hi Po A NA), a water-poor planet with thin, tainted atmosphere, and eight billion inhabitants that had to wear respirators to survive. The Imperium classified it an Amber Zone not for those reasons, however, but because Sonekaons enjoyed a dueling culture and there were hundreds of pirate clans that would sack incoming and outgoing vessels. And, on top of that, there is a Zhodani Naval Base there, not that they have anything to do with the Sonekaons at all, nor do they police the sector or interfere with the pirates.

The only thing that sane people would do in such a place, unless they were born there and inured to its noxious charms, would be to leave it, and that is how our adventure started: the players were in an airport waiting for a orbital carrier to carry them to the starport that orbited Sonekaos.

As adventures invariably begin with either opportunity or coincidence, I chose the latter, and a mass transit bus full of terrorists plowed into the airport and started shooting anyone in an uniform. The player characters, though not targeted by these shooters, wisely took cover, and after the entrance cleared, they started talking about what they should do.

Here is where the advantage of free-form play comes in: the players could have 1) waited for law enforcement, 2) seized weapons from fallen security guards and pursued the terrorists, but instead they 3) seized weapons and went to the runway, where they “borrowed” an orbital craft to take them to the starport, as one of the players had a free trader docked there. They were, however, one step behind the terrorists, who had already raced to the runway and stolen a craft themselves.

At the starport, they arrived behind the terrorists, and with some encounters along the way, managed to board their free trader and escape the starport in an exodus of starships as the explosion triggered by the terrorists effectively removed Sonekaos from what little trade it enjoyed in the subsector.

After this, the player characters managed to leave the star system, activate their jump drive, and then start a little bit of mercantile adventure in a string of agricultural worlds. Interestingly, the players had just as much fun wheeling and dealing in this part of the adventure as they did in the more action oriented leg of this ninety minute Traveller session.

Settlers of Catan: 5-6 Player Expansion


From here, we went into Settlers of Catan with the Catan: 5-6 Player Expansion. This is just like 3-4 player Catan except the island is bigger and players 5 and 6 have green and brown tokens to choose from, in addition to the standard red, blue, white, and orange. Also, the Catan: 5-6 Player Expansion introduces the Special Building Phase, an extra phase in every players’ turn during which any of the other players in the game can build, but not trade, in clockwise order after the player who just took their turn. By “build, but not trade,” this means that you can’t hand four wool and a brick to the bank on special building phase and get a road, as neither maritime trading or trading with other players is appropriate during that time. However, if you have a slew of cards, and want to get rid of them so your assets are not halved by the robber, this is a good opportunity.

The Special Building Phase encourages players to get cards out of their hand, and discourages them from hoarding cards (at least when they are being honest), as in a six player game the odds are likelier that you will get your resources halved by the robber. In a four player game of Catan, when you pass the dice to the player to your left, the dice are only rolled four times before you get to spend resources again, with a 51.77% (1-(5/6)4) chance of rolling a seven and triggering the robber; while in six player Catan, the chance of rolling a seven in six rolls is significant higher at 66.51% (1-(5/6)6). Also, with six rolls for production every time around the table instead of four, resources are generated much more rapidly, so the odds that someone would have too many cards in a circuit around the board greatly increases in a 6 player game.. The combination of these two facts—increased production and increased likelihood of the robber mechanic triggering the halving of these increased resources—is undoubtedly the reason why the special building phase was implemented in the 5-6 player expansion, because players would be dissatisfied with a game that kept crushing their production.

That said, we went about twenty rolls of the dice before a seven was rolled. Statistics are not a law, just a study. This was another game in which the Tyranny of Numeracy reared its ugly head, as while there were plenty of 8s and 3s and even several 2s and 12s, the number 6—in which I unfortunately invested—was rolled exactly three times in the entire game.

7 Wonders

I was pretty excited to play 7 Wonders with six players, as we had only played it with that high a player count on one other occasion, usually playing four players with our regular gaming group. Coincidentally, the meaningfulness of both six player games was wrecked by the same kind of misstep, happening identically in both cases—a player ended up with 20 played cards despite only having the ability to play one card during each of 18 rounds. Now, I’ve mentioned before that there is at least one Wonder that allows you to have more than 18 played cards. That Wonder allows you to have 19 with its A side, and 21 with its B side, assuming that you are able to use the card’s special power every possible time and you don’t cash in any cards for coins. But neither of the “overplayers” in either six player game had this Wonder.

There aren’t that many ways that a player can end up with too many cards in 7 Wonders. The final card of every age is intended to be a discard, and a player could retain these either willfully or through inexperience. The other way is through group missteps. I did not notice this in the first six player game of 7 Wonders, but we all noticed it in this one when we realized that some players had three card hands, others had four cards, and there was a pile of four cards on the table. In other words, some players had gone one play ahead of the others, and unfortunately four cards were not passed when this happened. We thought that we had compensated for it once we discovered it, but apparently not.

The lesson here is for every player to make a grand show of playing their card at the same time and not to get caught up in the passing of cards instead. I’m almost to the point of recommending that just like in Broom Service every player should say “I am the brave witch and I…” at the beginning of their action, that every player in 7 Wonders should say “I am playing so and so a card.”

Another observation that I had in this game of 7 Wonders was that there is a pretty big difference between 4 player and 6 player 7 Wonders in that in the former, your missed opportunities can return to you at the end of an age. In four player 7 Wonders, after you make your choice from your initial seven card hand, those cards make their way around the table, diminishing by one card with each pass until you have the chance to pick another card from the three remaining cards that are left from your initial hand. Sometimes this doesn’t work out, as you’re staring at three cards that you previously rejected, but other times you find yourself looking at a card that you almost played in the first round, but decided to forego for another card. By comparison, in six player 7 Wonders, your starting hand never comes back to you, as you play the first card of your initial hand, player 2 plays the second card, and so on, until player 6 plays the sixth card and discards the seventh card, then depleting your hand so that you never get another look at it.

My final takeaway is that cashing in cards has its strategic advantages. It will hurt your score, as you’re penalizing yourself a played card in a game that only has 18 played cards, but it might take away victory from another player in so doing. I know this from experience, as the player to the right of me in the Third Age showed me a guild card that would have given me ten victory points and the game, just before cashing it in for two coins. I know, right? By consolation, this player was the lowest scoring player in the game, and it served little purpose for them, but it does serve as an instructional example for the rest of us 7 Wonders players that are wondering just how useful cashing in a card for a measly two coins can be. It isn’t a game winning move, but it can help you stick it to another player, that’s for sure. So ideally, you would want to get some other player to do it, if you feel yourself above fair play.

In any event, since a player ended with 20 played cards in an 18 round game, the whole game was invalid. Only the winners of a misplayed game might disagree.

Conclusion

Overall, this was a pretty great game night, even though our 7 Wonders game was a meaningless stalemate for all due to our missteps in the Second Age, and even though the Tyrrany of Numeracy plagued my game of Catan, because the Traveller adventure set a pleasant tone for what was to come.  We’ve played so many satisfying games of 7 Wonders that an occasional game with a misstep isn’t so bad, and as for Catan, my column Catan Blues tracks my ongoing love/hate relationship with that game, and I know what I’m getting into when I start assembling the hexagons.


Here’s a helpful link to a variety of Traveller variants

Catan 5-6 Player Extension – 5th Edition
7 Wonders

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Board Game Brunch: Puerto Rico and Settlers of Catan

Our other game-playing friends, who figured in a previous Game Night recap from June, came over this past Sunday morning for brunch and board games.

The main difference between a Game Night and a Board Game Brunch is that in the former, your opponents may be too mellow or tipsy to have good judgment, while in the latter, they are wide awake and alert.  Also, preparing a brunch is more work than doing a game night, as the eating stretches from breakfast to past lunch, and kudos to my wife for creating such a hit spread to fill eleven mouths—the four adults, our two kids, and their quintuplets. She made mini chocolate chip muffins, apple cinnamon donuts, guacamole, and more, and all of it vegan. I contributed a three bean salad to the table as well.

In terms of the games we played, we had time to teach and play Puerto Rico, a new game to our friends, and also a plain Jane, ten point game of Settlers of Catan.

Some Notes on Teaching, Learning, and Mastering Puerto Rico

As Puerto Rico is not a game that you can easily learn from playing a round, both of the times that I have taught this game to friends, I have opted for ten minutes of Puerto Rico 101, in which I went slowly and methodically explained each of the game elements. Until I conceive of a better way of teaching Puerto Rico other than my ten minute Show and Tell, this is the way I’m going to do it for the forseeable future, as both times the new players were able to jump in with a very small learning curve after my mini-lecture.

Puerto Rico is an easy game to teach and to learn if you take your time. If you don’t take your time explaining Puerto Rico, new players are likely to feel ambushed in the first few rounds, when there is so much going on that they are unlikely to be prepared for the actions of other players.

The hard part of mastering Puerto Rico is learning the rhythm of playing role cards, which is something that players can usually only learn by playing. For instance, playing Craftsman may seem a really good move for you, but if the player right after you plays Captain, they’re going to reap the benefits more than you will, as while you were the first to get goods in your Craftsman phase, you’ll be the last to load goods in their Captain phase. Similarly, most of the time you can let someone else benefit from the extra colonist obtained when choosing Mayor phase, but every now and then you need to be the one. You might really want to choose Trader to sell your Sugar, but if another player has a Coffee to put in there, you’re giving them a chance to get 4 coins, and if you’re both saving up for the 10 coin Guild House, you may have just lost it with your unintended generosity. Not only do new Puerto Rico players need to learn how choosing one role card can set up the next player’s role card, they also need to learn how players can benefit during their role card selection.


Puerto Rico Game

Puerto Rico: The Hospice Early Acquisition Strategy

(This next section delves deeply into Puerto Rico strategy, so if you are unfamiliar with the game, you may wish to skip to the seciton on Settlers of Catan that follows.)

Earlier on this blog, I analyzed the opening moves for the first player in Puerto Rico, and during this game, I had an opportunity to begin a game, because we decided that after giving our friends an introduction to the game that it would be best to have me go first, then my wife, and then our friends. I thought this would be a good way of reinforcing the concept of both the governor and the role cards before they had a chance to select one for themselves.

As I stated earlier, there are two preferential moves for the first player in Puerto Rico: the Settler and the Builder. Conventional wisdom says that it is good to open with the Settler, but I tend to disagree and prefer leading with the Builder. What I did differently this time around was that instead of picking the Small Market, which is a free purchase for the person who selects Builder and allows the player to conserve their doubloons for a good second round purchase as well, this time I decided to lead with the Hospice.

The reason for my change is that I am trying to come up with strategies for colonist economy, which I perceive to be the weak point of most players’ games. Most Puerto Rico players put a strong emphasis on doubloon economy after playing their first game and realizing what a disadvantage it can be not to be prepared to make a building purchase every time someone selects Builder, or to have a good ready to sell when someone selects Trader.

When you end the game with five buildings and another player has completed their city, that is usually the galvanizing factor that causes the new Puerto Rico player to pay special attention in the early to mid game to not which role cards will give them the most victory points, but the most doubloons. There is, however, a next step in developing a mastery of Puerto Rico: colonist economy. A shortage of colonists in the early to mid game can wreck a player’s production during Craftsman phase, which is not only fundamental to having goods to sell for money, and to having money available for buying buildings, but also a necessary step to having an advantage in victory points from shipping at the end of the game.

The easiest way to correct a shortage of colonists is either with the Hospice or the University, as both provide free colonists, the former on new island squares, and the latter on new buildings in the city area. As the University is out of the price range of players in the early game, I decided that the Hospice would be a good early buy.

Interestingly, in a four player game, player one can buy the Hospice at the outset. This is because in a four player game each player has three coins, and though the Hospice costs four coins, selecting the Builder role card gives you the additional privilege of deducing one from the cost of your selected building.

The obvious disadvantage to picking this expensive building in the first round is that the player then has zero coins for their second round purchase, which means they will probably not be able to buy something in the second round. This will be a disadvantage, unless no one plays Builder in the second round due to also having depleted their coins or preferring to save their coins. Also, it will become an ongoing disadvantage if player one does not then immediately focus on selecting role cards that will reward him or her with doubloons.

That said, was starting with the Hospice, and not with a free Builder purchase in the opening move (Small Market, Small Indigo Mill) as I have previously suggested, a viable strategy? Did the increase in colonist production offset the disadvantaged doubloon economy?

Here’s what happened. Player two took Mayor to put colonists on their small indigo mill and their indigo plot, and this enabled me to put a colonist on the Hospice right away, so that for the rest of the game, whenever a player took Settler, I got a free colonist with my selected island tile. And, on every subsequent Mayor phase, I could move those colonists around, just like other colonists I had acquired during Mayor phases, so that if I selected a Coffee and had no Coffee Roaster, no matter, I could take those Coffee hands and move them to my Small Sugar Mill instead.

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Entering the midgame and all but one colonist circle is filled.

Having the Hospice at an early stage also helps the player plan the future of their production. That is, I could plan for the future by building a Tobacco Storage facility and then colonizing it right away even though I had no corresponding Tobacco plots on my island, as all I had to do was select a Tobacco tile during Settler phase, and boom, I was already processing cigars.

Whereas other players had from half to two thirds of their island and city tiles occupied by the end of the game, all of mine had colonists, plus I had a few extra colonists in my windrose. My wife was able to buy a Hospice in the fourth Builder phase, and she had nearly all of her tiles occupied as well. Despite that fact, I do not think it is a mistake to buy it in the first round if you have the chance, even though you may suffer through a few early rounds of doubloon deprivation, as having the Hospice early in the game had an immense influence on my production. The first two times Settler was selected, I took Corn, and as it was immediately colonized, I was producing two corn and staking out a cargo ship at an early point in the game. To maximize this strategy, of course, another early purchase had to be a Small Warehouse, which was my fourth building purchase.

Can the Hospice Early Acquisition Strategy be adopted by players two, three, or four? Yes, but unfortunately, if player one selects Builder, and player two, three or four want to make an early Hospice purchase, as it is just outside of their three starting coins, then they need to either save their money or make cheap purchases (small indigo mill, small market, etc.) until they can amass the funds for it in subsequent rounds.

The above strategic analysis assumes a four hand game of Puerto Rico. In a five player game, of course, any of the players can buy a hospice as their initial purchase as each player starts with four coins. And in a three player game, no one can buy a Hospice in the first round as each player only starts with two coins. The best strategy for early Hospice acquisition in three player Puerto Rico is to take Prospector in the first round, and then hope you get to take Builder first in the second round. The earliest a player could buy a Hospice in three player Puerto Rico would be the second round, and it would be Player Two, who would have to select Prospector the first round, not make any purchases, and when they become governor in round two, immediately select Builder.

The best proof of the Hospice Early Acquisition Strategy is that I had my highest score ever in this game—60 points!

Settlers of Catan

While my tabletop gaming interests are gravitating toward diceless mechanics, and my choice of games is influenced by that, as well as a desire to sample hot new games and make time for my short list of favorites, there also seems to be an omnipresent fourth category, that is neither diceless nor new nor favorite: Catan. Catan is like a demigod or demon of the tabletop gaming table; it doesn’t get set up on the table, it haunts it, and as you begin to unbox it, you’re acknowledging that the eternal form of Catan will always be on your table.

Our old friends haven’t become jaded by Catan playing yet, as our game nights were put on hiatus by the arrival of their quintuplets a few years ago, and when their hands were full figuratively and literally, we have gone on to prefer other games. Game night with them used to be pretty much synonymous with Catan night, as that was our favorite game to play then, and although when we started to have Game Night again, I first taught them Broom Service, then today Puerto Rico, Settlers of Catan was an inevitable destination because it seem like the right journey to make with them. Or I was compelled by that demon Catan. I’m not really sure.

It was basic ten point Catan, as well, which would be blindingly fast, except we have a few bad Catan behaviors, like bribing people with a resource for robber immunity and constant trading. Our new bad Catan habit is lack of confidence in the dice, which caused us to swap the dice out twice for another pair during this game. Still, it was around a 90 minute struggle until a player had the winning total of three cities, one settlement, the longest road, and a victory point card. And it was as if he won by having the greatest amount of “Catan virtue,” as he traded only modestly, never bribed anybody with a resource to avoid the robber, and never suggested that we swap out the dice. What a guy: the father of quintuplets and a Catan saint on top of that.


Catan 5th Edition

Conclusion

While scratching my Catan itch is always satisfying, what was really pleasant was teaching more friends how to play Puerto Rico, one of my favorite games.

In terms of comparing Board Game Brunch to the Game Night model, I recommend the former as a great change of pace. Not only are gamers in orbit around their coffee in the morning, they’re getting a sugar rush on donuts and muffins, and everyone is alert and ready to play. Gamers seem more adaptable in their strategies in the morning as well, myself included. During Game Night, I would have went with my traditional opening Puerto Rico move, while in Board Game Brunch, I tried something new to develop my thoughts on colonist economy.

You can find my review of the Puerto Rico app through this link.

You can find my columns on Catan, “Catan Blues,” through this link.

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Game Night: Catan: Traders and Barbarians, 7 Wonders, and Sheriff of Nottingham

Our most recent game night was the pinnacle of a perfect day. Earlier that day we had gone to Market Square, where we ate veggie dogs at Franktuary, played a game of giant Jenga, and returned with two bags of coffee from Nicholas Coffee Company. We brought one of the bags–Cinnamon Pecan Praline—with us to our friends’ house, where it paired well with the home-made peach pie they baked. We didn’t start playing games until late, but we were still able to squeeze in three games due to selecting the fastest official Catan variation, the eighteen round game 7 Wonders, and the eight round game Sheriff of Nottingham.

If you’ve been following this blog for a while, you’ve probably seen that our sweet spot seems to be three games, as that is usually what we end up playing no matter how much time we have. This is a curious phenomenon which I believe to be an ultimately explicable attribute of game size, as measured by Scope, Scale, and Span. Just hold that thought, though, because this is a Game Night recap, and I won’t be going into depth on that subject here. We’ll call it fodder for later installments.

To complete the setting of the stage–the bright, sunny, day pierced the windows, and we had salads, roasted potatoes, and tofu marinated in cayenne pepper, garlic, and cracked pepper (the vegans), and various seafood including shark (the non-vegans). (Actually, the tofu was so good that everyone was eating it, so my overly simplistic demarcation is a bald-faced lie.) My youngest watched DVDs we brought of Race for Your Life, Charlie Brown and The Superfriends, so classic animation would crackle and flash in the background.

Catan: Traders and Barbarians: “The Fishermen of Catan”

First, we played “The Fishermen of Catan” scenerio from Catan: Traders and Barbarians. With so many variations of Catan between us—I have Seafarers, Cities and Knights, and Explorers and Pirates, and my friends have Traders and Barbarians and Star Trek Catan—it isn’t long before this demands expression in wooden empires on hexagon-ological islands. In an informal survey of our gaming group, only one of us had a clearly stated favorite tabletop game, and that was Catan. As for myself, Catan is the game that I hate to love and love to hate, and I acknowledge that there is a sixth element in Catan, aside from wool, wheat, ore, lumber, and brick, and this sixth element never leaves your hand and pulls you back to the game. It isn’t that we possess Catan, it’s that Catan possesses us.

I’d like to say that we selected Catan: Traders and Barbarians, the Catan box that we open least frequently, because we wanted to give the included scenarios another play, but it was because we had brought Catan: Cities and Knights and found that we had left the Cities and Knights progress and commodity cards in my 5-6 player C&K expansion box. So my friend took T&B down from his shelf, and we set up “The Fishermen of Catan.” It is the fastest scenario in Catan: Traders and Barbarians, and possibly all of Catan, as it is not only a ten point game like standard Catan, but the accumulation of resources is accelerated by the introduction of fishing to the game.

The fishing mechanic in “The Fishermen of Catan” is completely unlike the fishing in Catan: Explorers and Pirates scenarios. While in E&P, the player retrieves a wooden fish token with a wooden ship token, the simulation in T&B involves no movement of tokens. In fact, the game board is similar to standard 10 point Catan, with the exception that the desert is replaced by a fishing hole, and fishing shoals are placed between harbors. Fishing shoals and the fishing hole produce fish when their numbers are rolled, and you have a settlement or city bordering them.

Fans of standard ten point Catan should see immediately how this scenario will speed up play. Instead of a desert hex, which is a dead, non-producing, hex, that limits the value of settlements and cities bordering it, “The Fishermen of Catan” has the fishing hole, which produces a fish token on a 2, 3, 11, or 12, which combined is as good as having a 6 or an 8, circa 16% likely on a given roll. Additionally, if at the beginning of the game, there aren’t any good three hex spots left when it’s your turn to place your second settlemtn, the coastal region is much more attractive as there are also regions there that produce fish when a number is rolled. In Fishermen of Catan, it is much more likely that all four players will have both a six and an eight, if they would like to have both, due to there being many more spots on which to border a six or an eight. In fact, sometimes the coastal regions are much better than the island interior in “The Fishermen of Catan.”

Each player can only have seven fish tokens at once, but in both of the times that we have played this scenario, no player ever reached this limit as the fish tokens are so useful. You see, each fishing token has from one to three fish on it, and you can exchange a total of two fish—not tokens, but the fish on them—-to remove the robber from the board; three fish allows you to steal a resource from another player; four fish allows you to take a resource from the bank; five fish gives you a free road; and, seven fish gives you a free development card. Game statisticians will no doubt point out that resource producing numbers will be more efficient than fish-producing numbers at building roads or buying development cards, but fish can’t be stolen by other players or by the robber either, so they give each player a secondary, 100% secure, production bank. Well, not each player—just the players that were wise enough to focus on gathering fish.

So, with resources entering “The Fishermen of Catan” normally, and fish production being exchanged for resources, roads, and development cards on top of that, you can see that this scenario enabled its winner to hit ten victory points quickly. This is probably why there is an “Old Boot” concealed in the fish tokens that any player can give to another player with more victory points, and that player stuck with the Old Boot needs 11 victory points to win instead of 10.  In this game, however, no one ever found it, so the winner won with three cities, the Largest Army, and the Longest Road.

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7 Wonders

In games with score cards, our game night group dates them for posterity, and this meant that when I opened our 7 Wonders box that it was a black and white fact that we hadn’t played this marvelous game since May 28th. There’s really no excuse for this, as 7 Wonders is not only currently in a three way tie with Puerto Rico and Broom Service to be my favorite game, but it is fast and epic. Not only can you always find room for 7 Wonders in a game night, it is such an excellent game with so many different winning strategies that you should strive to do this at all costs. (I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a sin against the god of game night, but yes I would.)

I’ve discussed 7 Wonders in some detail on Board of Life, and each time we play I have a different takeaway. It seemed that both players to either side of me didn’t need the resources that I was saving either to build their Wonder or to supplement their strategy, so I learned how to win at 7 Wonders when I wasn’t getting any income. This was a marked difference from my previous win at 7 Wonders, when both of my flanking players were trading with me constantly.

We were using the B side of the cards, and selected our wonders randomly. Mine was Halikarnassos, and while I was initially disappointed with this one due to it only rewarding the building of its wonder with only three victory points, the Halikarnassos B side also has an outstanding special ability.

7WONDERS_RULES_US_COLOR-page-009

It enables you to look through the discards once per age, in the round during which the wonder stage is built, even selecting from cards discarded that round. As I would have the greatest selection of discards at the end of each age, I decided that whatever happened, my sixth card every turn would build a stage of my structure so that I would be able to pick from the four discards in the sixth round for a free build. I was only getting three points from completing my wonder, so it was paramount that I grab the discard that was worth the most points to me. In the third age, the other players realized what I was doing, and the only discard at the end of the third age that was worth any points was the Arena. Which I grabbed anyway, as three victory points is nonetheless three victory points.

One strategy that I considered, but did not use this game due to rejecting its shadiness, involves abusing the rule that allows a player, instead of playing a card or building a stage of their wonder, to discard any card they want on their turn for 3 coins. I thought of discarding a card that I was unable to purchase so that I could then grab it for free immediately after by building a stage in my structure. I would be one card short at the end of the game, but I was already being rewarded for building my wonder by getting additional cards in my play area.

The strategy that I decided on was much simpler. After a heavy investment in brown, grey, and yellow cards in the first age, from that point on I simply picked the card from my hand that was both 1) a free build for me, and 2) worth the most victory points. Then, in the final, sixth round of each age, I would build a stage of my structure so that I could grab a free card from the discards. (It was very important that I not build it prior to that sixth round so that I have the largest selection of discards, as our group doesn’t cash in cards for coins very much.) By the end of the game, I had a set of green cards, several blue cards, and three of the purple guild cards.

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One general consensus in our group is that it is a mistake to over-invest in the green Science cards. The possibility of scoring twice with your investment in them is appealing to the math minded, but in practice it never works out. The player with the least amount of victory points had 26 points for six science cards, which sounds great until you consider that’s only 4.4 points a card, and there are many more valuable cards in the third age that are passing by while you’re completing your second science set; the three purple guild cards I grabbed were a total of 22 points, or about 7.3 points a card. If you can get a set of science cards before the end of the second age, that’s a good thing to grab, but go for the blue and purple cards in the third age. Even in the second age, the three blue cards (12 victory points) are worth more than a set of three green cards (10 points).

Sheriff of Nottingham

Next up was Sheriff of Nottingham, a game which has won my admiration after only two games despite the cold hard fact that I am horrible at playing it. This is partly due to the fact that I cannot keep from smiling when I am passing contraband, and my strategy to be always smiling like a fool, so as to conceal when I am actually doing it, simply means that my bag is always checked for contraband.

Some of you are saying, “contraband? bag? what?” Let me backtrack. As this is the first time I’ve discussed Sheriff of Nottingham in any length on my blog, for the uninitiated I’ll delve into the facts of the game, but as I may end up reviewing it on Board of Life, this will be a capsule summary.

Sheriff of Nottingham is best played with four players over a total of eight rounds. Each player is the Sheriff in two of those rounds, and a Merchant in the other six rounds. In every round, the other three players are Merchants that declare from their hand of cards—Chicken, Cheese, Bread, Apples, or Contraband—one type of good in any quantity to be in their bag. In addition to playing cards, Sheriff of Nottingham actually has enclosed not just cardboard coins, but also five “merchant bags” that are large enough to enclose them.

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When the Merchant makes a declaration, he must correctly state the number of cards in his bag, and he also must pick just one type of good to declare from the four honest goods in the game, either Cheese, Bread, Apples, or Chicken. If a Merchant makes the declaration “Six Cheese,” the bag might actually have six cheese in it, or four cheese and two bread, or one cheese and five contraband, or six contraband and no honest goods, or any other combination of six cards. If the Merchant actually has six cheese, that’s awesome luck, beause not only will the Merchant earn huge points from that haul, but the Sheriff will undoubtedly inspect and end up paying a penalty on that lucky haul. More than likely, however, the Merchant will make smaller declarations, whether for honest or dishonest reasons.

After all three Merchants have made their declarations, The Sheriff must decide whether each Merchant is telling the truth. He or she can inspect any bag they want, and if they find an incorrect declaration, the Merchant must pay him a penalty. However, if they inspect an honest declaration, the Sheriff must pay the Merchant a penalty.

Merchants can bribe The Sheriff if they want to do so—sometimes this is because they are trying to get contraband through, sometimes this is because they want the Sheriff to check another Merchant’s bag, and sometimes this is because the Merchant is trying to entice the Sheriff to inspect an honest declaration, so the Sheriff has to pay the Merchant a penalty. So bribery can be massively strategic in Sheriff of Nottingham.

In this game, I had a huge setback when I decided that I would try to be clever. In my first round, I played it safe and declared three cheese honestly. In the next round, after my draw, I again had three cheese as well as a bread and two contraband. I thought, why not declare the two contraband and a bread as three cheese? It will probably be passed through, and then when I declare three cheese—this time honestly—for a third time, it will undoubtedly be inspected so that I would be paid a penalty. Nope. The bread and two contraband were inspected because of my irrepressibly goofy smile, and my game never recovered from that.

Despite the fact that I was never able to catch back up after that initial loss, I still had a lot of fun playing Sheriff of Nottingham, just as I did the first time that I played. It’s fun to watch the Merchants try to get one over on the Sheriff, and it’s amusing to watch players try to rat each other out by bribing the Sheriff to check others’ dishonest declarations. And at eight turns, the game is of a perfect length, so that if you’re losing, you’re not losing for long, and if you’re winning, you get to savor your triumph quickly.

Conclusion

This was such a satisfying set of short strategy games that I recommend this exact combination for any game night in which you only have a few hours ahead of you. All three games took less than an hour while engaging our mental muscles in the strategic way that we usually expect much longer games to satisfy.

My curiosity is still piqued as to why three games seems to be the magic number for our gaming group, and once I have a large enough sample of Game Night recaps for analysis, I might speculate further on this mystery.


Catan: Traders & Barbarians Expansion 5th Edition

7 Wonders

Sheriff of Nottingham

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Catan Blues: Some Thoughts on Catan Inequity

Last week, I mentioned that Catan was a game which did not appear to favor either the first or last player. However, upon reflection, I believe inequity is a fact of Catan just as it is in most other Eurogames, although initial player order is still a mixed bag of advantages and disadvantages for each player, and the first and the last player do seem to have stronger advantages than the players between them. That said, I am amending that declaration to reflect my current point of view, which is that the first and last players have a considerable advantage over the players between them, so that it is good to go first, and it is good to go last, in the first turn.

The last player gets the following significant advantages resulting from being able to place both their first and last settlement at the same time: 1) they can pick their starting resources with more control; 2) they have more control over covering as many different numbers as possible, while the other players will risk more redundancy; and 3) if the player is a strategic gamer, they have the potential to make the other players’ second settlement selection extremely uncomfortable by spacing out their two settlement placements, in relation to the other players’ first spots, in such a way as to sorely restrict the available settlement locations, due to the “rule of one.” A strategically minded last player in Catan can restrict not only initial placement, but can also discourage the expansion of empires for many turns to come, as few players will make the long investment of building roads through infertile hex junctions. at which no settlements can be placed due to competitive building and the rule of one, in order to get to viable areas.

The first player, on the other hand, gets the obvious advantage of the statistically most favorable initial placement, and that goes a long way, especially if it is something like a 5/8/9. While the first player will have the least favorable second settlement location, and may even not have a three hex location for it, there should be a pair of two good numbers on the coast that can be nearly as good. This will, of course, disadvantage the first player’s starting resources,but the first player might get a harbor, and often has an extra turn in the game to make up for for starting with two resources instead of three.

You see, Catan, unlike Eurogames that followed it like Puerto RicoBroom Service, or Power Grid, is not a game in which all players get the same amount of turns. The game ends as soon as a player hits the requisite victory points to win that scenario. This means that if player one goes first, and then goes on to win the game, player one had one more turn than players two, three, and four. This means that in a four player game, player one will, three out of four times, have one more turn than player four. When Player One wins, he has one more turn than all his opponents; when Player Two wins, One and Two have one more turn than Three and Four; when Player Three wins, One, Two, and Three have one more turn than Four.  Only when player four wins a four player game will he or she have the same number of turns as his opponents.  Player Four never gets the extra turn that his or her opponents can, and as this is a lost opportunity to purchase, and purchases are what provide you with game winning victory points, this disadvantages him or her.

So the last player gets the advantages that come with placing both starting settlements at the same time, but the first player gets the best placement plus an extra turn compared to one to all of his opponents. Because the last player has to have some Catan experience and general expertise at playing tabletop games strategically, I would say that the first player in Catan has a greater built-in advantage, but the last player in Catan has enormous strategic potential that can be maximized by a skilled Catan player.


Catan 5th Edition

Catan: Family Edition

Catan

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