Settle down, settle down (do you see what I did there?) – Campfire has a Rival for his (and your) attention.
In my nascent board gaming days I played gateway games on Xbox Live. This was new turf and there were a lot of games out there, some looking surly, some flipping coins in a menacing manner and I had to affiliate myself with one of them if I was going to survive gaming’s mean streets.
I played Ticket to Ride. It was okay! I thought it wouldn’t be because, you know, trains, but I was happy to be wrong. I played Carcassonne. That was even better! I joined its gang in an initiation rite that involved a song and dance number and a meeple tattoo in an intimate area, and for a while we had fun.
Then I played The Settlers of Catan, and it’s here things became difficult. Settlers is all about human interaction, about trading resources with other players, saying you have wood for sheep and then tittering when you realise how rude it sounds but I was playing it against artificially intelligent adversaries and not a one of them of whom understood knob gags.
I didn’t enjoy it, and they ended up hounding me from the game yelling “GET THE HUMANOID” as they did so.
I’d wanted to like it, this godfather of modern gaming, because without it all of this would be fields and sheep and stones and desert. But I couldn’t because it was dry, like desert sand. I don’t like sand. It’s coarse and rough and irritating and it gets everywhere. But I was willing to reconsider it. In 2009 Wired called Settlers ‘The Monopoly killer!’ and if anything would make me change my mind about a game it’s the possibility that, with enough encouragement it might one day stab Monopoly in its stupid, ugly face. So I picked up a copy of Rivals for Catan — Settlers’ younger, pocket-sized, two-player iteration: the Jedward of the franchise, if you prefer — and hoping to Vasel it wouldn’t be dull I got wood for sheep and got stuck in.
Rivals for Catan isn’t a dry game: it’s a game of tears, of blood and of sweat. It’s a game of cruel winters and even crueler dice throws, and then, just as you’re about to cut up Uncle Morris for food to survive the snows, it’s a game about winter festivals, lights in the darkness and community in the face of certain starvation.
Most of all, it’s a game about trading. You begin with two settlements connected by a road, end with a 17th century Milton Keynes, and develop the former into the latter by trading resources found in the surrounding countryside. At the start of each turn you roll two dice, one of which is the event die (more on that later) while the other determines which of these regions provides you with gold, wool, stone and all the other resources familiar from Settlers. Ingeniously the resources stored in each region are indicated by symbols around the card’s edge; you keep the edge with the correct number of symbols turned toward you, and when you acquire more or trade them away, you turn the card 90 degrees to indicate the new amount. In practise it’s rather like tapping cards in Magic: The Gathering only as you keep tilting the cards this way and that it’s more like tapping – TO THE EXTREME!
You can store a maximum of three resources per region but can trade three of the same kind of resource for one of any of the others in your principality. This comes in even handier after you build trade ships, which let you swap two for one of certain resources.
Turning cards to trade resources has a rather lovely feel to it, like playing combos in Dominion or cranking the gizmo in Mouse Trap. It’s also useful for bamboozling your opponent, fooling them into thinking you’re about to buy an expensive city card with the stone and wheat you’ve saved when really you’re going to play a gold ship and swing the trade advantage in your favour.
What? You don’t know what any of these things are yet? Oh, well, I suppose I’d better tell you.
You see, though you only start with a couple of settlements in due course you build new roads, new settlements, new expansions and new cities. Each player begins with a hand of three cards that can action cards, buildings or units to can build and populate your settlements with. Actions are played and discarded, while buildings and units are paid for with resources and placed either above or below your settlements. Settlements can be upgraded by buying city cards, and both cities and settlements are connected by roads. Every time you place a settlement you draw two new region cards which show you which resources can be harvested from the newly discovered countryside.
The buildings and units you place each provide a different advantage, whether it’s a lumber camp doubling the production of neighbouring forests or Harald, a beardy man who hits people with his hammer. Hammering Harald, Candamir the Axe-Happy and all their equally psychotic chums are a useful lot to have on your side, for reasons I’ll explain later.
Now, let’s go back to the event die. It’s another six-sider: two sides tell you to draw an event card, while the remaining four each trigger different events. Based on the event die you might get extra resources, have your opponent steal a resource from you, or be subjected to an attack from a wicked brigand party that steals all your gold and wool, so they might, I don’t know, make pullovers and bling, so they keep warm while looking well expensive in the winter, innit.
Some cards have special points on them, and how the event cards and die affect you depends on which of these you have in your principality; for example, if you have the most skill points in the game and event die rolls a Celebration event, congratulations, you get a resource of your choice while your opponent gets nothing. If you have three or more strength or trade points in your principality and your opponent doesn’t, you get to pop a lovely wooden token on one of your settlements, which gives you an extra victory point at the end of the game.
Now I know some of you hate victory points whatever ridiculous reasons. While you are playing for victory points in Rivals, you’re not playing for many of them. The basic game ends when one player accumulates seven points and considering you start with a point per settlement, you only have to grub five more together to win. You’ll do this by increasing your trade and strength advantages and by expanding your principality, building roads, settlements, and cities, and other buildings, depending on which of the scenarious you’re playing.
Though I’ve been talking about the introductory scenario Rivals comes with extra other sets of cards, each of which adds a new slant on the basic gameplay. If you’d rather hoard gold in caches, mint coins and fend off pirates ‘The Era of Gold’ is the scenario for you. If you’d rather play an aggressive game competing for strength and worrying about riots then ‘The Era of Turmoil’ is right up your street.
Rivals’ tiny box contains a lot of bang for your buck. The cards are a little flimsy but they’re beautifully illustrated to show your settlers going about their everyday lives. The dice are chunky, the manual is clear — alarming so; it reads like a playschool teacher guiding you through gluing together your first macaroni collage — and the wooden strength and trade advantage tokens are so lovely you’ll be fighting over them before you even start playing.
In any game, it’s the ingenuity that wins me over. At first I thought Rivals was just as dry as I’d feared; too often turns would pass by in which I was incapable of making any move bar rolling the dice. I’d wait for resources I needed to turn up and it was as if, uninspired by my lack of gaming skill, my little workers had given up mid-construction.
I was, of course, doing it wrong.
You don’t wait around in Rivals for Catan because while you’re slacking off your opponent is not. Dreamy, meandering excursions into the countryside are all well and good for Jane Austen books but Rivals is about building cities and hoping you’ll survive — and no city was ever built by picking daisies. It’ll take a while to get the hang of this. You’ll run out of room to build more expansions and forget to build roads and settlements beyond. You’ll get caught up on hoarding resources — like I did — only to lose them all in a bandit attack, and by saving resources for one specific purchase you’ll commit the cardinal sin and neglect to trade.
I traded The Settlers of Catan for Rivals and I’m glad I did. It might only be for two players but for the money you won’t find a a better hoarding, trading, building, Monopoly-killing experience.
Just don’t tell your friends you have wood for sheep. I don’t think they’d appreciate it.
Contact Campfire Burning – as always – via email: email@example.com. And don’t forget to check out his splendid blog which can be found at http://campfireburning.wordpress.com/