The politics of Settlers of Catan, and some solutions

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Settlers of Catan is a great board game that I’ve probably played too much. As far as I’m concerned, it’s a great game, even though intense playing eventually caused us to introduce a number of house rules to challenge ourselves.

It is, however, a game that apparently can be divisive. I was looking at reviews of this game on American amazon the other day, during a particularly boring morning here at Ottenby, when there was fog all morning and we caught very few birds. Of course, I only looked at the one- and two-star reviews, which are generally the most interesting ones. What I noticed was that the game has political implications I’d never thought about. Here are some, with solutions for how to remodel the game to make it correspond better to your political preferences (1):

1. The People’s Republic of Catan:

Settlers of Catan (SoC) is extremely addictive and fun, but it is also the most dangerous game ever created because it will teach your children and teens unrealistic economic theories that will eventually doom this planet.

If your children and teens play SoC, they will grow up thinking that when you use a commodity, it simply goes back into the existing reserves. When your children play a game that treats natural resources like iron ore are renewable instead of finite resources, they may grow up into climate change deniers or believe pseudoscience like abiogenic oil. Or even worse, they might grow up into economists and sell politicians and the mainstream media cornucopian theories that have no basis in reality, like “decoupling” and exponential long-term growth.

SoC also encourages competition for the limited resources of Catan instead of cooperation among all of the players. Your children and teens will be taught to steal resources from others, engage in hoarding and monopolistic behavior, and negotiate inequitable trade agreements, instead of trying to make Catan a better place for everyone.

If you MUST buy SoC for your children and teens, I suggest playing with an alternative set of rules. In order to more accurately model a closed system with finite resources, remove resource cards from the game as they are used during gameplay. Your children need to learn the consequences of the downward slope of Peak Brick on the transportation infrastructure of Catan while they are still young.

Making SoC socialist (2) is rather simple, but requires an overhaul of many of the core rules (optional rules in [ ] parentehes):

1. Set up the game as usual with regards to hexagons and so on. The different colours can still be divided up for some of the alternative rules presented below, but this is not necessary.

2. Divide the resources into the following groups: replenishable, renewable, and limited.
2.1 The limited ones are those that, once used, will not come back naturally. This category includes only Ore.
2.2 The renewable ones are ones that, once used, will be replaced naturally, but which cannot be hurried, or would not naturally be renewed within one round (= one year). This category includes Clay and Wood.
2.3 The replenishable ones are those that, once used, will be replaced naturally or through human agency, and which can be “hurried” and thus be replaced within one round (= one year). This category includes Wool and Grain.
2.4 The Coin commodity is discarded after the revolution. Anywhere this commodity is used, it can be substituted for two Grain.
[2.4.1 Alternatively, Ore produces Hammers and Sickles, which are represented by the Coins cards.]
2.5 The Paper and Cloth commodities work as before.

3. The game proceeds as normal for the first few rounds, with the following exceptions:
3.1 All proceeds from the dice roll are placed in a communal pile, from which anyone can take the resources that are needed. NOTE: not the resources “they need”; see below.
3.2 All roads are communal, meaning that anyone can build a settlement wherever this is allowed by the rules (i.e., not closer than two road-pieces from any other settlement or city).
3.3 Building of new roads, Settlements, improvements, or conversion of Settlements into Cities are allowed only when there is a consensus (3) between all players. That is, at the start of the round, all players (= the commune) discuss what the goals for the next X turns are (= planned gaming), and together seek to achieve these goals through rolling the dice.
3.4 Knights are now remodelled as Citizens’ Guards, but function as in the normal game with regards to the Robber. The three different size categories are disbanded, as no citizen is above another; as the knights cannot fight amongst themselves, the differences in size have no meaning anyway.

4. The resources and commodities function as follows:
4.1 Each Resource or Commodity card can be in one of four different states: Available (obtainable on a suitable roll, but not yet harvested by the commune), Harvested (obtained after a recent suitable roll), Obtainable (already used, but become Available after a set number of rounds), and Discarded (not available as the resource has been depleted.
4.2 Limited resources are exactly that. Once an Ore card has been used, it is placed in the Discarded pile, and thus out of the game. These must thus be spent wisely.
[4.1.1 However, now veins may be found if, at the start of any subsequent round, any player who has a settlement or city of their colour bordering on a Mountain hexagon rolls a 12. The number of rolls are limited to one per player. The number of Ore cards that are placed in the Discarded pile are 1d6. Once a 12 has been rolled by a player, no further rolls are allowed for this round.]
4.3 Renewable resources, when used, are placed in the Obtainable pile, and will not be placed in the Available pile until 1d6 more rounds from when they were used. If the commune uses up two Clay in round 4, these are placed in the Obtainable pile, and not put back in Available pile until the beginning of round 4+1d6. This represents slow regrowth of mud flats and forests over time.
4.4 Replenishable resources, when used, are placed back in the Available pile immediately, and can be obtained during the same round.
[4.4.1 Alternatively, and more realistically, Replenishable resourced need to be “seeded” before they become Available. This means that, apart from at the beginning of the game, when all cards are in the Available piles, all used Replenishable resources are placed in Obtainable piles, and will only be moved to their respective Available piles after the commune has paid 1 Grain/Wool for every field of Grain/Wool the commune borders. This represents the necessity of actively sowing Grains and breeding sheep before these can be harvested.]
4.5 Commodities are produced as normally, except that Ore does not produce any commodities [But see above!].
4.6 Whether harbours can be used or not depends on if the Revolution has succeeded across the world or not. Decide this before the game starts. If it has, harbours work as normally, except that Ore in the Discarded pile will cost twice as much. If it has not, trade with the Capitalist world will only corrupt the Glorious Youth of the Revolution, and this can obviously not be permitted!

5. Special rules:
5.1 In case of an emergency, when no Citizens’ Guards can be moved to a field where the Robber is, a set number (say, three) of Grain [and one Hammer and Sickle, if this alternative is used] can be spent to temporarily convert a Settlement to a Guard for one round only. A City can likewise temporarily be converted to a Settlement and a Guard, or two Guards. Note that these converted Guards cannot be moved, and will not yield any resources for the remainder of the round, after which they are celebrated as the Heroes of the Revolution, and revert back to Settlements/Cities.
5.2 If the Paper is used to print Marx’ “Capital”, this can be used to:
– instantly improve one Settlement into a City;
– Instantly remove the robber from the board entirely (until the next time someone rolls a seven);
– instantly harvest two resources of the commune’s choice.
Note that due to the dignity and size of this book, a total of three Paper is needed to print this.

6. All points are scored communally, and all players either lose or win together. The goal is now to reach some preset total number of points, perhaps within a set amount of time.

Laissez-Catan:

My family bought this game to play at Christmas. Once we figured out all the rules it was a slow, boring strategy game. The idea is interesting, but there are too many rules regulating trade that make it a slow, agonizing board game experience.

Making SoC liberal is even more simple. As there is no central authority to regulate trade and otherwise interfere with the noble cause of amassing the world’s wealth, all trade rules in the original game are suspended as “limiting the market”. On the other hand, while all players have the same opportunities, competition naturally becomes more fierce, and this introduces some new uses for the knights.

The game proceeds as normal, with the following exceptions:

1. Trade
1.1 All Competitors can trade with each other whenever they want, regardless of if it is their turn or not. There is no restrictions as to prices between Competitors.
1.2 Any Competitor who has access to the sea, even it if is only by a road, can of course trade with the Market (= bank) whenever they want.
1.3 However, trade with the Market is of course fickle. When a Competitor wants to buy from the Market, the following rules apply:
1.3.1 All cards in the Market are potentially available, for a price. This price can be anything, including roads, Settlements, Cities, Improvements, knights, and so on. Resources and Commodities are of course the same market, and each can be used, either singly or in combination, to buy anything in the Market.
1.3.2 The price of any Resource is determined by the amount of cards of that type that are in the Market (n = the number of Competitors; c = number of available cards of the desired type):
– c lower than n = The prices are high, and the lowest possible price is n-2 per Resource card bought.
– c equal to n = The prices are normal, and the lowest possible price is n-3 per Resource card bought.
– c higher than n = the prices are low, and the lowest possible price is n-4 per Resource card bought.
1.3.2.1 The minimum price for any resource is always 1.
1.3.3 However, as soon as any Competitor declares that he/she is going to buy from the Market, any other Competitor can of course do the same, and all the Competitors who so choose thus enter a bidding war on the resources declared by the first Competitor.
1.3.3.1 Any player can join a bidding war at any stage of the war.
1.3.3.2 Bidding proceeds in an orderly fashion clockwise around the table, starting with the Competitor who first declared his/her intention to bid.
1.3.3.3 On a Competitor’s turn in the bidding he/she can chose to offer a bid or pass. Competitors who pass can of course join the same bidding war at a later stage.
1.3.3.4 The bidding continues until all Competitors have passed in the same bidding round, whereupon the Competitor who bid the most will get the Resources or Commodities, and pay whatever the price was settled upon.
1.3.3.5 Coins are naturally preferable to all other Resources/Commodities, and thus count as 2 cards in bidding wars.

2. Everything is of course available, at a price. If you wish to buy your neighbour’s roads, Settlements, or other objects, all you need to do is settle on a price, and it will change hands. The following petty rules apply, though:
2.1 If Competitor A has bought Competitor B’s road, Settlement, or City, and thus bisected B’s road network, B do no longer get the benefit of Longest Road (if applicable).
2.2. If due to such a transaction no road connects one part of B’s network with the rest, any products arising from the smaller of the two halves must necessarily pass through the network of A. If A wishes to levy a fee for this transport, that is perfectly in order. The fee need not be constant, but can vary from turn to turn, and can exceed B’s proceeds from that round, or consist of entirely different Resources or Commodities, as well as other transferable features of the game.
2.3 If A has bought a City Wall from B, but not the City it encircles, A may chose not to defend the City when the Robber or Barbarians attack, in order to protect his/her investment. Note, however, that if the city is destroyed (as in the normal rules), the City Wall is also lost.
2.4 If A has bought Improvements from B, B can not improve on these Improvements further except by permission from A, who may demand a set fee, a regularly occurring fee, no fee, future returns, or any other agreed-upon fee.
2.5 If A has bought Knights from B, these are immediately transferred to an available point in A’s network, and become Inactive.
2.6 Similarly, all features of the game can be hired for a set amount of rounds or turns, or even for a set amount of time, at a price set by the two parties of the agreement. If A rents a feature from B, it is B’s responsibility to keep track of time. If A receives benefits after the agreed-upon time has passed without B notifying, any Resources, Commodities, or other benefits A obtains from this shall be kept by A, unless the initial agreement stated otherwise; A cannot be punished for forgetting time, unless the original agreement explicitly allowed for this.

3. In case any agreement is not kept, it is perfectly reasonable for the damaged party to initiate hostilities by invading the party at fault by placing one of his/her knights at any available (i.e. previously unoccupied) hex-corner in the enemy’s network that can be reached from the invading Competitor’s network without passing any of the enemy’s Knights or Walled City.
3.1 Any Settlements or Cities which are now cut off from B’s network are effectively part of A’s network, and any Resources or Commodities gained by these are given to A. This is referred to as the Occupied Network.
3.2 A Competitor may attempt to attack another Knight in order to displace it. This is done by a simple dice roll, with the following modifiers:
– The First-level Knight rolls 1d6;
– The Second-level Knight rolls 1d6+3;
– The Third-level Knight rolls 2d6.
– Deactivated Knights suffer a -1 penalty per die rolled.
The highest result wins.
3.2.1 The winning Knight displaces the losing Knight in the contested hex-corner, and is deactivated.
3.2.2 The same Knight can be attacked multiple times during the same round.
3.2.3 In case of a tie, the dice are rerolled, with both parties suffering a -1 penalty. This penalty is added cumulatively to any subsequent tie.
3.3 The losing knight can be placed at any available hex-corner in that Competitor’s home network or Occupied Network (if any), and loses one level, and is deactivated. If there are no available hex-corners, or if no available hex-corner can be reached without passing another of the enemy’s Knights or Walled City, the losing Knight is lost.
3.4 During war, mercenaries can be bought for a single Coin.
3.4.1 These mercenaries start at any available hex-corner in the Competitor’s home or Occupied Network, and start out as an activated First-level Knight.
3.4.2 Promotions of mercenaries proceed as normal, but does not deactivate the Knight.
3.4.3 Every (d6)/2 rounds, another Coin must be paid, or the mercenaries will revolt and join the opposing side in the war, if that Competitor can pay a Coin. If not, the mercenaries will disappear, but only after sacking one City or destroying one City Wall of one of the warring players (decide by a die roll in a suitable fashion).
3.5 Walled Cities must be besieged:
3.5.1 The besieger must place at least one Knight next to the city on one of the hexes bordering this city. More than one Knight may be used for the same siege.
3.5.2 The besieged player receives no Resources or Commodities from besieged hexes; these are not harvested at all, and never leave the bank.
3.5.3 Every time it is the besieger’s turn, he/she may either leave the siege by simply moving away the knights, or attempt to storm the City, by rolling as for attacks above. The besieged always rolls as for a Second-level Knight.
3.5.4 The first time the besieger wins a roll, the City Walls are removed, but the siege continues for one more round, after which the City falls, and the besieger can move on.
3.5.5 The besieger can of course pay deserters to open the gates, thus shortening the siege. For every two Coins, add +1 to the besieger’s roll.
3.5.6 Forcing a siege deactivates the Knight.
3.5.7 The besieged can of course try to lift the siege on their turn, by the same rules as by normal combat. They still fight at a Second-level Knight’s level, unless the City Wall has been destroyed, in which case they fight as a First-level knight.
3.6 Wars are generally fought for principle, not for annihilation, and once hostilities have ended (by mutual agreement) the Occupied Networks of each Competitor are returned to its original owner, unless something else is agrees. Destroyed City Walls are not rebuilt, unless this is specifically agreed (and then at the normal cost), and lost Resources or Commodities are only repaid if this is agreed.

4. Coins can always replace any 1.5 Resources or 1 Commodities. Thus, one Coin can always replace one Wool but two Coins can replace three Wool, and so on.

5. The game ends when one player has either reached a preset number of points as in the original game, or if any Competitor achieves a monopoly of two Resources or one Commodity.
5.1 The number of points is as in the original game, with the exception that the Competitor that reaches that many points must then retain this privileged position for an entire round.
5.1.1 If during that round, another Competitor gets more points, that Competitor must retain that number of points, and so on.
5.1.2 If during that round, the winning Competitor loses points enough to fall under the required goal, but without any other Competitor getting more points, the winning Competitor does not win, and have to gather more points again.
5.1.3 It is not enough for another Competitor to get the same amount of points as the prospective winner; he or she must get more points. That is the point of winning, after all. Sharing a victory is bolshie talk…
5.2 A monopoly is gained if any Competitor either:
– is the only Competitor with access to a certain type of hex after all Competitors have at least one more City than they began the game with;
– has gathered all Resource or Commodity cards of a certain kind on hand, and not lost these through war for an entire round.

The Holy Empire of Catan

Conservatives seem to be okay with the game, or at least I cannot find any reviews that are as obviously conservative as the other two are socialist/liberal. Or maybe most conservatives don’t play games that:
1) aren’t mentioned as “allowed” in the Bible;
2) doesn’t have an obvious slave class to exploit.

Then again, maybe this is a conservative’s review (except it seems to be anti-greed… hmmm…):

I read a review of this game in the local newspaper. It sounded like the “new” Monopoly,
without the greed, and with limited resourses (like the real world). With all the intelligent
people present in the household over the holidays, I thought this might be a hit. But after
assembling the board, it sat there for two weeks, and we never did play. The rules/procedures
were confusing and not at all inviting.

Too stupid to understand the rules of SoC, even when all the intelligent people in your family are visiting? I hope you at least managed to get them to tie your shoes, so you won’t have to wait until next Christmas…

Nevertheless, here is how you could play the game with conservative rules.

1. First of all, let us make one thing very clear: the other players are either with you, or against you. They either submit to your just demands, or they must be punished. Additionally, even if they may claim to believe in the same God as you, you know somewhere deep down inside that this is not the case, and that is of course enough reason to punish them. As in real life, extermination of other religions is the goal of Conservative SoC, and the game does not end when someone has reached a certain number of points, but when there is only one King left (others may be vassals, see below).
1.1 Under Conservatism, all power emanates from the Fist. Therefore, all Kings get to place a single Second-level Knight on any valid location as their last move during the set-up phase.

2. God put YOU in charge of this nation, not any of the peasants, and their petty considerations are irrelevant. Therefore:
2.1 Any action that costs Grain costs one less Grain than in the normal game. The peasants can gather toadstools and acorns to eat, they don’t need fine Grain.
2.2 In case of War (see below), any Settlement can be conscripted into a First-level Knight at will. This is placed at the location of the Settlement, and can be whipped into Activation immediately.
2.3 Cities can be reduced to Settlements in return for any combination of Ore, Clay, and Wood totaling five cards. Rebuilding costs the normal amount.
2.4 Settlements can be destroyed in return for any combination of Ore, Clay, and Wood totaling three cards. Rebuilding costs the normal amount.
2.5 Roads can be destroyed in return for either a Clay or a Wood. Rebuilding costs the normal amount.
2.6 City Walls can be destroyed in return for one Clay. rebuilding costs the normal amount.
2.7 Peasants are generally lazy. By placing one of your Knights on a Hex for one round (= “in the field”), you will receive double the amount of Resources and Commodities you would normally receive.
2.7.1 Note that your presence may cause the heathens of the other Kingdoms to declare war on you, as they will get nothing from this field while your Knight is there.
2.7.2 The Knight may be returned to any available hex-corner in your Kingdom after one round, or kept in the field by paying one Coin.
2.7.3 Knights in fields are always deactivated, and cannot be activated.
2.7.4 Knights in fields automatically protect the field from the Robber, and any neighbouring City from being raised by the Barbarians.
2.8 The lower classes are mobile, even if you may have to urge them to move. If you have two Settlements or Cities around two hexes, and no other King has any buildings around this hex (including roads) you may change the number tiles of these hexes at will once per round, before any player has rolled the dice. 6 and 8 cannot be exchanged for any other number tile, but can be exchanged with each other.

3. Wars proceed as under 3.1-3.5.7 in Laissez-Catan above, but rule 3.6 is of course not followed. Instead, all wars are fought to annihilation, unless a temporary truce is reached before then.
3.1 A victorious King may demand that the defeated loser becomes his/ her vassal, in which case the following rules apply:
3.1.1 A vassal cannot have Knights except by permission of its liege, and the number of Knights can never be higher than that of its liege.
3.1.2 The liege can at any time demand any sort of payment he/she sees fit from the vassal. If these cannot be produced, the vassal may be punished in a suitable manner.
3.1.3 The vassal’s Settlements can be transformed into Knights by the liege during war. If they survive the war, they return to being Settlements of the vassal, but if not, the Settlement is lost.
3.2 Fighting Knights positioned in fields proceeds as normal, and they can be attacked from any road that leads to or borders the field. Similarly, a Knight in a field may move into any road that leads to or borders the field.
3.2.1 If the defending Knight wins, it remains in the field, and the attacking Knight is demoted one rank and placed on any available hex-corner of that hex, or at most one step away, and never into the winner’s Kingdom. If no such hex-corner is available, the Knight is lost.
3.2.2 If the defending Knight loses, it is demoted and moved to any friendly hex-corner of the field, or at most one step away from it. If no such hex-corner is available, the Knight is lost. The attacking Knight can remain in the field, or retreat to any friendly hex-corner bordering the field, or at most one step away. If no such hex-corner exists, it will remain in the field automatically.

4 You are, as pointed out above, appointed by God. This has some perks. Once per turn, you may sacrifice one Coin and one Wool (representing animal sacrifice) in each of your Metropolises, and in every second of your Cities. Then roll 2d6 and check the following list for results:
2 – Receive your choice of four Resources or Commodities.
3 – Receive your choice of three Resources or Commodities.
4 – Receive your choice of two Resources or Commodities.
5 – Receive your choice of one Resources or Commodities.
6-8 – No effect. God is perhaps busy.
9 – Immediately build one Road piece in any legal place.
10 – Immediately build one Settlement in any legal place.
11 – Immediately improve one Settlement into a City.
12 – Immediately expand any of your Improvements one step.
Note: if God doesn’t answer your prayers, the sacrifice may at least inspire the Church to help you out.

5. You are also a Conservative, so you may at any time during your turn press your peasants for one Grain per Settlement, one Grain and one Commodity per City, and two Grain and two Commodities per Metropolis. This extra taxation has no drawbacks, as anyone who complains is immediately sent to the Ore mines. Roll 2d6 and consult this table:
2 – Your persuasive methods have yielded you two Coin.
3 – More miners = more Ore. Gain three Ore.
4 – Only a few peasants survived the transport to the mines. Gain one Ore.
5 – No effect.
6 and 8 – The peasants are revolting! They are also in an uproar, immediately deactivating all your Knights and destroying one of your City Walls. The revolt will only last one turn.
7 – This is more serious than you thought. All your Knights are deactivated, all your City Walls are destroyed, and production will cease entirely in 1d6 Settlements and Cities (of your choice) for the next 1d6-3 (minimum 1) rounds, unless you can activate one Knight for every Settlement or City.
9 – No effect.
10 – The peasants see the error of their ways, and spontaneously hold a celebration in your honour at sword-point. The markets are open, and you gain one Commodity of your choice.
11 – The peons come around to your position on security and priorities, and volunteer to build one City Wall for free around any of your Cities. It is nice when everyone agrees that peasants should be in their beds at night, and production in the City with the new City Wall doubles in the next round.
12 – Inspired by your greatness, the rabble extends one of your Improvements for free. In addition, they agree to heat your dungeons with their bodies for a few days!
5.1 If you cannot build a new City Wall, chose a City with a City Wall to receive the bonus.
5.2 If you cannot extend any of your improvements, roll again.
5.3 If you have no Knights to activate, buying a new Knight counts as an activation. Moving a Knight and then activating it again is a good way to increase the number of activations needed.

Hope this helps to let you play Settlers of Catan the way you think the world should look like! And feel free to come with suggestions for improvements. Note that I haven’t actually been able to play any of these versions, and they may be severely broken. But then again, at least Liberalism and Conservatism are severely broken in real life as well, so that may not be a problem.


Notes:
(1) Note that these reworkings only concern SoC and Cities and Knights of Catan; I have played Seafarers of Catan too little to be able to include the mechanisms included in this expansion. I also don’t remember what all the cards say, so pleas adapt these to fit the theme (which may include removing some cards from the game entirely!)
(2) The quoted comment is, of course, perhaps more environmentalist than traditionally socialist. Nevertheless, the problems addressed by environmentalism can never be resolved within any form of capitalist structure, due to its encouragement of cheating and disregard for human (and other animal) rights and well-being. It is a curious paradox that not more people (like the Green Party in Sweden) realise this.
(3) Please ensure that all players understand what a consensus is, or at least which form of consensus you will be using and what the valid ways for obtaining this consensus is, before you start playing.

One response »

  1. What about Punk-squatters of Catan? Very interesting post, though I suspect the rules are probably fairly broken. =)

    Do you think there could be a game (not neccessarily, or even preferably, based on SoC), where the objective for one (set of) player(s) is some variety of the standard economic development-objective, whereas the other player(s) attempt to organise the workers?

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