Saturday, February 24, 2007

Economics of The Settlers of Catan

As some of you may know, this is my favorite board game. I enjoy it quite thoroughly, and play it whenever I can convince at least two others that they need to be involved as well. I've decided to write about the economics of the game, explaining what is usually valuable and what usually is not. For those unfamiliar with the game, it's one of the world's greatest board games, accessible to newcomers, yet sufficiently complex enough that it can hold a more serious gamer's interest. Ideally, the basic game should be played with four players, though it is possible to play with three, and I also have the expansion pack that allows five or six players. Here, I will focus on the 'pure' four-player version.

The board is made up of hexagons that are randomly assembled to create a larger hexogonal island with three of the small hexagons on each side. There are six kinds of land present on the island of Catan; four each of forests, fields, and pastures, three each of hills and mountains, and one desert. Forests produce wood, hills=brick, fields=wheat, pasture=wool, and mountains=ore, while deserts produce nothing. Each of these tiles are randomly placed as part of the island at the begining of the game, and then small tokens with numbers between 2 and 12 (but not 7s) are placed on them. When a number is rolled, the tiles with that number produce the corresponding resource for all of the players that have settlements or cities bordering the tile. Obviously, since hills and mountains are only 75% as common as the other productive tiles, brick and ore are often less common as a result.

Each of the resources have specific uses. To build roads leading from one's intial settlements to other locations to build new settlements costs a wood and a brick. Building a new settlement requires a wood, a brick, a wheat, and a wool. Turning a settlement into a city (which will then provide twice as many resources from adjacent tiles) requires two wheat and three ore. Buying a Development Card (which provide certain benefits I'll examine later) requires a wheat, a wool, and an ore. (The game even comes with handy reference cards for each player that provide this information.)
What will be immediately obvious to many is that there are some resources that are complimentary to one another. Wood and brick, for example, are perfect compliments; they must be used together each time in a fixed ratio. (1:1) These resources are used for roads and settlements, but not anything else. Wheat is nearly a perfect compliment for ore; when ore is used, it requires either a 3:2 or 1:1 ratio with wheat. Ore is not quite as good a compliment for wheat, though, as building a settlement requires everything but ore. Sheep are an odd exception; they are produced with great frequency in many games, but when compared with other resources, are relatively less valuable, as they are only used for towns and development cards. Wheat is a perfect compliment to sheep, but the reverse is not true. Consequently, sheep are often the resource in greatest stock during a game.

Players are able, on their turns, to trade resources they have with those of other players in any amount or combination found mutually agreeable. Players may also trade with the 'bank', but at steep rates; four resources of one type for a single card of another. (There are also specific "ports" on the coast that, if a player has a settlement or city on, allow 3:1 trades, or two of a specified resource for one of any other.)

During future games, I intend to determine the relative values of each of the resources to the groups playing as a collective. This can be measured by recording the amounts of each resource being produced through a game and seeing how often each resource is given up or collected in trades with the bank, as well as documenting the cards given up when a seven is rolled. (In such a circumstance, instead of the board producing resources, all those with more than seven cards must discard half of their holdings. Sevens also trigger the 'robber', a game dynamic I will also discuss another time.) The resources that are most valuable should become apparent; players will infrequently trade these resources with the bank to gain others or discard them when a seven is rolled. Additionally, these will be the resources that players are trading with the bank to obtain. I predict that wheat will turn out to be the most valued resource, followed by ore, brick, wood, and finally, sheep. Obviously, in some games, the relative values of these resources will vary, but this is the general pattern I expect to see emerge.


At 4:44 PM, February 25, 2007, Blogger Peter said...

There are a couple good Settlers online games you can download for free. It's fun to use them to play online with family/friends who don't live close. If you have headsets, you can even use Skype to trash talk during the game.

At 7:22 PM, February 27, 2007, Blogger Th. said...


I'll have to reread this immediately before I play you again.


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