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Why I Hate Settlers
Reviewed by Jeff Quick, ©

Format: Game
By:   Mayfair Games
Genre:   Strategy
Review Date:  

"Ooo Settlers of Catan! I love Settlers of Catan! It's the best game ever! I get hot just thinking about it! I play it every third week! It cured my grandmother of a stroke! I sure do love Settlers!"

I hear that kind of talk all the time from self-appointed game aficionados. When I hear that kind of talk, my molars grind. I hate playing Settlers.

Don't hear me knocking the game. It's a marvel of efficiency and clever design. And it's a lovely game, with wonderful production values and - after all these years - clean, comprehensive rules. This is all high praise for a game and well deserved. I just hate it.

Basically, Settlers isolates and magnifies the real downer parts of life, the parts that I find completely unfun. Progress in the game is excruciatingly slow. You're not just playing against the other players, you're playing against the game itself. My charges against the game follow:

You never have what you need, and often no reasonable hope of getting it.

The game design is more than efficient - it's over-efficient. There are only five resources, and the nature of the game is such that you will always be short one of them, maybe two. If I'm not fortunate enough to get a port town AND a commodity that comes up fairly often, then I'm reduced to chugging along, waiting for four cards I don't want so I can discard them for the one card I do want.

But four cards is a way LOT when there's a nontrivial chance for me to be penalized for holding onto more than seven at once. If you do cash in four cards for one, then out of a hand of seven cards, you're reduced to four. Game winning structures take more than four cards to build. So once again, I'm back to chugging along, waiting for the right things to fall into my hand.

"But that's a more real economic simulation!" defenders mew. Big whooptie-doo. I'm plenty familiar with the concept of strained economic resources, thanks. That would be a little something called Real Life. And you know what? That's hard. That's not fun, that's stress.

No wait, Real Life is actually LESS stressful, because in Real Life we have a little thing called MONEY which means we can transcend the barter system when we want to. If I've got a truckload of wood in real life, I can sell it and buy a commensurate amount of sheep. I don't have to haggle with only 3 to 5 other people about it, and I don't have to spend 2 to 4 times as much in wood to get sheep. I sell wood, I get equivalent sheep.

In truth, Settlers is nothing like a real economic simulation.

Speaking of haggling, that leads me to the second thing I hate about Settlers:

The game hinges on diplomacy.

A little bit of diplomacy in a game is fine, but more than a little bit is annoying. Here's a truth about games: The more a game relies on diplomacy, the less relevant the actual game is. Once it becomes important whether I personally can convince you to give me grain, the game becomes all about me being able to convince you. If I can, then I win. If I can't, then I lose.

Suddenly, we're not even playing Settlers any more. We could be playing Monopoly or Diplomacy or we could be in the back yard trading twigs and gravel at that point. The mechanics of the game are academic once the heart of the game is diplomatic.

This is common though, and not unforgivable. But Settlers makes even this excruciating, because there's very little hidden information. I see your cities. I watch you collect resources. I pretty much know what you've got, and you pretty much know what I've got. And even if you lose track, there are only so many times I can ask, "Anybody got bricks?" before you've pretty much figured out that I don't have bricks.

There's not even a bluff element in play. There's no value to holding onto things, or for faking you out. I haven't got time to sit around and corner the market on bricks. If I get bricks, I'm sure as hell using them! I've got a game to win here, buddy! I've been waiting for bricks for five turns, and it's time to build me a road!

So, whatever I ask for, I genuinely need. And my game is halted until I get it. I can chug along and wait for it to fall into my hand, which aside from being as fun as laundry isn't a viable winning strategy, or I can try to wheedle it out of you, who knows exactly what I have, and exactly what I need. Which are terrible terms for diplomacy, and which lead to the third thing I hate about Settlers:

The game encourages people to play mean.

I have never played a game of Settlers that didn't involve at least one or two moves made out of pure spite.

As I've pointed out, resources are few and scarce. And, we've determined that waiting and hoping for resources is a crappy strategy. So I pretty much need your help to get what I need.

Except that you know what I have, what I don't have, and my entire palette of options once I get it. What incentive do you have to help me? Chances are that you need at least one resource yourself, but do I have it to spare? Probably not in such a resource-scarce environment. And if I do, do I really want to give it to you?

Further, if we do actually decide to trade, there's no reason to be nice about it. Most trades are either begrudging one-for-one affairs or gleeful gouging. Players spend the entire game just scraping by. The kind of mindset that those conditions put you in is not a cheery one. It's the kind of mindset that produced a generation of careful, suspicious hoarders after the Great Depression.

And, Settlers is a game of momentum. Once somebody gets ahead, he's in a way better position to stay ahead. So I don't want you getting ahead. I'm not going to go out on a limb that might put you there either. So no deals unless I obviously come out ahead.

So basically, Settlers is a whole game of lesser evils. Some people might think this is fun, but I think it's crappy. I don't want to choose an option because it is least likely to hurt me, and I've been herded into the behavior. I want to choose options that are most likely to help me and that appear beneficial.

Many of the elements I've described here go into designing a great game. You want players to have to make hard choices. You want 'em to be scrappy. You want an elegant, compact mechanic. Settlers has all of that in a classy little package. No, it's not that Settlers isn't a great game.

It's just not a fun one.

Jeff Quick is Games Editor for RevolutionSF.

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