Monday, February 21, 2011

Game Review: The Rivals For Catan

  • Designer: Klaus Teuber
  • Publisher: Mayfair Games, Kosmos
  • Players: 2
  • Ages: 11+
  • Time: 25-90 minutes
  • Times Played: 5x (Rivals for Catan) 25x + (Settlers of Catan Card Game)
  • MSRP: $20 U.S.

I’ve been playing the Settlers of Catan Card Game since the original German release – I bought my copy in the summer of 1997. (Yep – my first 10-15 plays were with a German deck & cheat sheets to translate the cards into English.) I switched over to the English version when it was finally published in late 1998… and then went through the whole “upgrade” mess in 2003 so that the expansions and older edition would work together. We have a long history, Die Siedler von Catan – Das Kartenspiel & I.

Yet, for a game I claim to enjoy (I recently put it at #90 in my personal list of top 100 games over on my blog), I don’t play it very much. My wife enjoyed our first few games of it… until I figured out how to use the various action cards to decimate her cities & her resources. The game has always tended towards being overly long – rarely clocking in at less than two hours and sometimes reaching the three hour mark. The card interactions, especially if you add any of the expansions, require either a devil-may-care approach to making up rules on the fly and/or access to a pretty extensive FAQ.

So, when I read that Klaus Teuber was rebooting the card game to both streamline the game play & the playing time, I was pretty excited. The big question was, of course, could he do it successfully? In other words, could he keep the sprawling “build your kingdom” feel of the original game while smoothing out the rough edges of the design?

Short answer: Yes.

Long answer: Well, that’s why you’re reading this review, aren’t you? Just shuffle your eyes onto the next paragraph.

Rather than attempt to explain the game play in detail, I’m going to try to do a comparative review for those of you who’ve played the original game & wonder if the new game is worth plopping down a double sawbuck. (If you’d like a good overview on how to play the game, has the oddly whimsical Prof. Easy Interactive Game Introduction available for you.)

There are a number of smaller changes in the names of cards & various events (I like that the region cards now have their names on them in tiny print to remind you of which way they are oriented when they enter the game)… but those incremental variations are not the keys to getting this game to the table 5+ times in 5 weeks.

65-in-1 Electronic Kit

When I was a kid, my dad got me a Radio Shack Electronic Project Kit… and what with all those diodes & transistors & springy things to attach the wires to, I could pretty much create what I wanted to create using the “toolkit” provided by the nice folks at Tandy Company. (My favorite project was a light-sensitive alarm that could detect unwanted intruders into my room.)

The same is true of The Rivals for Catan – the game has a basic deck which is used in the Introductory Game along with three “theme” decks (the Age of Gold, the Age of Turmoil & the Age of Progress) which can be played individually or together (as “The Duel of the Princes”). There are rules in the box, then, for five different ways to play the game. (It does not, however, keep your little sister out of your bedroom.)

Positive Hand Management vs. Negative Hand Management

Most card games contain some element of hand management… in Race for the Galaxy, for example, you decide which cards are expendable in order to purchase other cards. In Lost Cities, you attempt to build runs through the judicious discarding & hoarding of various cards, sometimes holding a card in your hand just to keep it away from your opponent.

The Rivals for Catan (and the Catan Card Game) are no exception to this – but one of the major differences between the two games is how the the structure of the card decks & some rules changes help Rivals focus on positive hand management rather than the more common negative hand management in the Catan Card Game.

There are no City (red) cards in the Basic deck – those are found only in the Theme decks. Since the Theme deck draw piles are stacked separately from the Basic draw piles, players can choose whether or not they want to potentially begin adding city cards to their hands. This wasn’t possible in the original card game unless you were willing to spend resources to search through a deck.

In addition, the end of turn rules have been changed. Now players draw their hand back up to the limit (or discard down, but that rarely happens) then are given the option to trade one card with the draw piles. In the Catan Card Game, you were only able to exchange if you had a full hand at the end of your turn.

These two changes make it much easier to find the cards you need while keeping cards that are not currently useful from plugging up your very limited hand space. That in turn makes the game progress more quickly.

So, rather than juggling a series of cards of questionable worth to you – often choosing not to play cards in order to exchange them (in the original game) – or spending large amounts of resources to specifically target the cards you need to build your kingdom, you can focus more readily on the elements that best support the development of Marklandia (or whatever you choose to call your settlement on the isle of Catan.)

Honey, I Shrunk the Card Game

“There’s old Trader Sam, head salesman of the jungle. Business has been shrinking lately as you can tell. So today he’s having a two for one special, two of his heads… for just one of yours.” (Jungle Cruise spiel from Disneyland)

While there are 180 cards in The Rivals for Catan box, compared to only 120 cards in the Settlers of Catan Card Game (before you add the expansions), Herr Teuber managed to shrink the game through the Theme deck concept.

When you set aside the Event cards, the road/settlement/city/region cards & the initial tableau, there are 62 cards in the draw decks for the original game. The Rivals of Catan only has 36 cards in the Basic deck. Combining it with one of the Theme decks brings it up to 60-62 cards (depending on the deck) – though, as I pointed out earlier, divided into sections where it is easier to find the type of card you’re looking for. Even playing the “Duel of the Princes” version of the game (which uses all three Theme decks) only takes the card count up to 74 cards (since you remove 12 cards from each Theme deck).

Don’t Harsh My Mellow Vibe, Dude

There are a bunch of changes to the card composition of the game, most of which aid in speeding up the development of the various kingdoms or in lessening the direct conflict:

  • what used to be called Knights are now Heroes… and their strength points & skill points (formerly Tournament points) have been slightly downgraded. With that, their costs have dropped, making it much easier to field an army & claim the Strength Advantage (Knight token).
  • the addition of the Large Trade Ship (allowing you to trade 2:1 with goods on adjacent regions) gives yet another way to convert resources in something you can use… and add another Trade point to your kingdom.
  • there are two new types of cards with trade points in the Basic deck: the Toll Bridge & the Marketplace, both of which help you produce more resources. (The Marketplace also makes the “who can build settlements first?” race less powerful, as the player with a smaller kingdom can “leech” off the rolls of the other player.)
  • in the original game, the Town Hall is a City (red) building – and its “search a deck for 1 resource” power was more difficult to bring into play. In The Rivals of Catan, that power has been placed in a Settlement (green) building, the Parish Hall, with a cheaper cost – thus accelerating the opportunity to begin searching the decks without burning lots of extra resources.
  • ALL of the offensive & defensive Action cards (Black Knight, Arsonist, Spy, Merchant, Herb Woman & Bishop) are gone from the Basic deck. (Although forms of them appear in the Theme decks, they tend to be slightly less effective and/or have prerequisites before you can play them.)
  • there are two new Action cards that both speed up the game: Goldsmith (which allows a player to trade 3 gold for any 2 resources) and Relocation (which allows a player to rearrange – within limits! – the regions in his kingdom for maximum benefit). There is also an additional Caravan (now called Merchant Caravan) in the Basic deck.
  • each of the Theme decks borrow a mechanism from the original expansions – there are pairs of cards that are set out beside the decks so that either player can build them. These cards are key to each deck (they are often prerequisites for building/playing other cards). By placing them “in the open,” it gives both players more options that don’t take up precious hand space and also keeps them from searching the decks for such an important card.

All these card changes add up to a mellower, faster take on the original game. There are less turns spent simply waiting for enough resources to build an important card – instead, you have a variety of choices in how to manipulate what you have.

Of course, if you like direct conflict, the Age of Turmoil Theme deck has a lot of ways for you to mess with other players… but you have to be developing the rest of your kingdom to finance your “attacks.” (As mentioned, many of the interactive action cards have been moved to the Theme decks.)

The Part Many of You Simply Scrolled Down To Read, Figuring I’d Eventually Get To The Point

Dan: Can I spread it out for you in a nutshell?

Casey: No.

Dan: I can’t?

Casey: No.

Dan: Why not?

Casey: ‘Cause I’m tired of you mixing your metaphors. Spread it out for you in a nutshell? “How ya doin’? I’m a professional writer”. (from the television show, Sports Night)

Simply put, I think The Rivals for Catan is a splendid re-design of a game I liked a lot but seldom got to play. By reducing the playing time & streamlining the rules, the game is not only more playable for those of us who enjoy it but also easier to teach to new players. (My main playtester for this review was my 9 year old son, who did a very nice job keeping his old man humble.)

My one complaint is the uselessness of the box insert… but that’s becoming SOP for lots of games. I just threw it away & bagged all the cards & components, leaving plenty of room for the expansion decks.

Maybe you’d like me to be more specific about how much playing time reduction we’re seeing so far… maybe not. Either way, here it is:

  • the Basic game (no city cards to 7 points) really is a 30 minute game… and while it’s not a particularly fulfilling way to play The Rivals for Catan, it does a great job of teaching people how the game engine works.
  • the Theme deck games have varied between 40-75 minutes, dependent on (a) the speed of the players and (b) the use of the Age of Turmoil deck, which has the most aggressive card mix and therefore makes for a slightly longer game.
  • the Duel of the Princes game we played (only one so far – must remedy that!) clocked in at just over an hour – my son focused on the Age of Turmoil deck, building an engine to attack me, while I used the Age of Progress advances to out-produce him for the win.

For those of you who are interested in seeing how Herr Teuber designed the original card game then progressed forward to what we have now, there is an excellent series of blog posts (8 of them!) over on the Catanism Blog entitled The Reform of the Card Game in 2010. (Start with post number 1 and just move forward, skipping the occasional posts that aren’t about the card game.)

As far as I can see, the only loss suffered from the original game is the plethora of expansions – with the note that the expansions introduced some FAQ-induced headaches to the game. The designer (Klaus Teuber) has already promised an expansion box for The Rivals of Catan later this year (probably around Essen) and has leaked few details over on the Catanism blog:

  • The expansion doesn’t have an official name (yet) but the working title is “Dark Times.”
  • The expansion will bring back the Tournament mode (a deck-building version that was released in Germany as Siedler von Catan: Das Turnier-Set zum Kartenspiel and required that each player have a basic game & a Turnier-Set)… though there is no indication if it will work the same way with the new game.
  • The first Theme deck will be called “The Era of Intrigue.”
  • Dark Times are looming for the Rivals of Catan. In three new theme sets, you will get to know the dark sides of Catan. In "Time for Intrigue" you will be witness to the confrontation of followers of new and old beliefs. Ostensibly more peaceful will be the theme set "Time of the Trade Lords" – but don't be mistaken as trade in Catan also has its risks. More straightforward is "Time of the Barbarians" as not only will you have to deal with your opponent but also with invading barbarian hordes.

  • Aside from the three theme sets, Dark Times will contain a handy victory point marker and rules for tournament play.

BTW, Mayfair’s May 2011 release, The Struggle For Catan, is NOT an expansion for The Rivals of Catan – it’s a short (30-45 min.) card game for 2-4 players. The box is extremely similar, however, which makes it easy to confuse. (I think this may be the same game as Kosmos’ February 2011 release, Die Siedler von Catan – Das schnelle Kartenspiel.)

So, after spending $50 on the original game & expansion sets (some of which I haven’t even played!), do I feel cheated by this new version? Not a bit. Instead, I feel like an old friend is back and more likely to hit the table! (In fact, the process of writing this review – particularly doing the intensive analysis of the deck composition – has made me like the game even more!)

I think The Rivals For Catan is a definite “buy” for those who:

  • enjoy Catan (esp. if they enjoy Settlers of Catan: Cities & Knights and/or Anno 1701: Das Brettspiel)
  • enjoy 2 player games
  • those who liked the original card game
This review originally appeared on the Opinionated Gamers website.

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