Last night some friends came over and we played some games. First we played Are You The Traitor?, which was a lot of fun. The game is all about table-talk and trying to read people so that you can accuse someone before everyone else does. I recommend it if you’re looking for an easy-to-learn, quick-playing, fun game.
The other game we played did not leave quite so good an impression on me. We played Catan: Cities and Knights; it’s probably the third time I’ve played a Catan game, and it really drove home for me some problems that I had with the game initially. I’m going to say something that might be a little controversial: I think that Catan is a poorly designed game. That might be a little strong; I think there are some poor design choices within the game that can cause the game to be completely un-fun for one or more players.
There are a couple of factors that contribute to this opinion. First is that the game is decidedly not beginner-friendly. As I’ve said, I’ve only played Catan games about three times now, and that’s over the course of two or three years, so I’d still consider myself a beginner. Every time I’ve played the game, I’ve felt like I didn’t know what I was doing initially, and that I was at an enormous disadvantage because of it. The strategies in Catan are not always immediately apparent to a beginner, and this can make for a bad first impression of the game. The first two times I played, I had enough fun that I was willing to play again.
Sadly, I don’t think it gets another chance from me, and this is largely due to the high degree of luck within the game. Now, I don’t necessarily have a problem with luck-driven games. Fluxx is highly luck-driven, but it’s short and you always have decisions to make and things to do, regardless of the cards you get. Last Night on Earth is considerably longer and also has a high degree of luck. In this case, however, I think that the randomness supports the theme well, and bad luck still never robs you of your ability to make decisions. And that’s really the crux of the matter here. A game is only fun when you can affect the outcome of the game. As soon as you feel like nothing you do matters, it stops being fun. And that’s exactly what happened last night.
As I’ve said, I consider myself a beginner when it comes to Catan games, and this means I don’t always know the optimal strategies or the optimal places to put my starting settlements. I placed my settlements last night in spots that I thought were advantageous; I had access to a port that allowed me a 2:1 trade on wheat, and in theory I had access to a lot of wheat. In theory. The problem was, because of the luck of the dice, I almost never got resources. There were entire half-hour stretches of time where I was the only one not getting any resources at all. In Catan, resources are everything. Without resources, you can’t really take any actions, and you can’t really make any decisions. Because of this, I spend most of the game reading the Adventurer’s Vault. I felt completely impotent throughout the entire game, starting around turn 2, and there was really no mechanic to allow me to affect the outcome of the game without resources. Because your access to resources is based largely on your initial placement and (mostly) on the luck of the dice, I literally had absolutely no control over what happened in the game once the initial placement was over. This made for a two-hour game (we ended prematurely; the game could have gone on for another hour at least) that was not the least bit fun for me, and it strikes me as exceedingly poor game design.
I think that, if you’re going to design a game to rely a lot on luck, you need to put mechanics in the game that allow players to continue to make decisions regardless of how luck treats them. I’m not saying that someone who’s extremely unlucky in the game should have the same chance to win as someone who’s extremely lucky; I just think that they should be able to do something meaningful with their turns. On most of my turns, I rolled the dice, saw that I couldn’t do anything, and passed the dice to the next player. Fun, huh? I don’t think I’ll ever play a Catan game again.