Settlers of Catan is the Gateway Drug of Board Games

I’ve had the opportunity to chat with old friends this summer and I’ve run across a common subject: board games. While many of us have curtailed our video gaming excesses of the 2000s, we’ve replaced them, at least in part, with board games. In these conversations I’ve also learned that if you talk about board games with someone between 20 and 40, there’s going to be a common phrase: “Have you played Settlers?”

As a matter of fact, I have. Have I ever. I’m a board game addict, and I’ve come to a conclusion about Settlers. Settlers of Catan is the gateway drug of board games. You’ve probably played it, and you’ve probably enjoyed it. Who hasn’t giggled when someone says, “I’ve got wood for sheep?”

Before Settlers I played games like Life or Risk or Monopoly. I never really loved them. The randomness (and duration) left me feeling like I had eaten too much cheap cake: unsatisfied. That’s the beauty of Settlers. It provides enough randomness in the dice rolls to appeal to people that are accustomed to the classic American games, but it balances it with a clever distribution of resources and the ability to trade. Throw in the relatively quick pace of games—60 to 90 minutes—and a dash of schadenfreude with the robber, and Settlers has become a new favorite. There’s good news, folks. Settlers of Catan is loads of fun, but there are plenty of games out there that are just as good, if not better.

 

Here is a list of five of my favorite games.

5. Seven Wonders – It’s a card based game, but these aren’t the four suits you’ll find at a poker table. You have the opportunity to build one of the wonders of the world. Or perhaps a collection of monuments the likes of which Rome can only dream. Or maybe a military that would make Donald Rumsfeld drool with envy. Or perhaps a fabulous collection of guilds that allows you to take advantage of your neighbors’ buildings, too.

Seven Wonders will handle up to 7 players and everyone takes actions simultaneously, so it moves very quickly once everyone understands the rules. The first game will probably take a couple hours, but after that they will drop to half an hour to an hour. It’s fun, it’s quick, and it’s a steal at around $35 on Amazon.

4. Battlestar Galactica – this is an actual board game based on the television show. The players are represented on the board as one of the characters from the show, and each player is given a loyalty card that indicates whether they are loyal humans or Cylon agents. The Cylons will work hard to sabotage the humans without revealing their identities, while the humans struggle with a myriad of complications presented by a set of cards that will send Cylon fleets, fuel shortages and riots to disrupt the search for Earth.

There are few things in gaming as fun as revealing yourself as a Cylon and wreaking havoc on the humans. You’ll spend an hour or two nervously sabotaging the fleet just enough to hold them back, but not quite enough to make them suspicious. Add in a dose of table talk to incriminate other players and generate false accusations, and it’s an experience you’ll never forget.

It’s big, it’s fun and it takes a three or four hours to play a game. Perfect for a rainy Saturday afternoon. I’ve never played with less than 4 players, but I’ve played with 4 to 7 and it’s still very fun even with 7. You can get it for around $35 on Amazon.

 

3. Dominion – this is another card based game with not a suit in sight. Instead, you have 25 different cards in the box, with money and victory point cards extra. You start with a basic hand of cards and you use them to make your hand stronger buy purchasing more powerful cards. The catch is that the cards that actually do things don’t score you points. They only increase your options for a turn. There’s a fine balance between building a deck that’s powerful enough and a deck that has enough victory points in it.

Games take 60 to 90 minutes, and you’ll seldom be able to stop after just one game. The good news is that any given game will use 10 of the 25 cards, so every game will be different than the last. When you consider the expansions (not required by any means), you can play Dominion for years without every playing the same game twice.

The base set will only handle 4 players, but adding Intrigue allows up to 6. Games will take around an hour, though the cards can make some take less and some take up to two hours. The base set of Dominion is available for around $33 on Amazon. There are a number of expansions, but I particularly recommend Intrigue and Prosperity.

 

2. Lords of Waterdeep – This is a more recent game, and I fell in love with it the very first time I played. You’re one of the (wait for it) Lords of Waterdeep. Waterdeep is a city in the Forgotten Realms of Dungeons and Dragons. It makes no difference which lord you are since all of them are going to need a motley collection of adventurers. You win the game by completing quests, and you complete quests by sending out the right party of adventurers (and coin) to handle it. Each quest card rewards victory points, more adventurers, coins and some of them even provide powerful effects that will remain in play until the end of the game. This is a worker placement game, so you only have a limited number of actions per turn; the player that uses them the most wisely will be the victor.

I particularly enjoy that I can play this with my wife and our first grade daughter. She doesn’t understand strategy very well, but she has a great time building up a band of adventurers and completing quests. The only downside is that she’s hit on the concept of “girl power.” There are cards in the game that allow you to interact with your fellow players, so any time she has a card that can help a player, she extends that benefit to her mother. Any time she has a harmful card, it goes straight to Daddy. I don’t necessarily recommend playing it with a six year old, but it’s possible. (These are the times when I wish I had boys.)

I’ve played with 3, 4 and 5 players (it maxes at 5), and it’s great with all three numbers. A game will take 90 minutes to two hours. Price-wise, this is right in the same ballpark as the other games at $38 on Amazon.

 

1. Imperial – This is my favorite war game. You are one of the wartime financiers of World War One Europe. Purchases of bonds in the European powers grants a return on investment, but it can also grant control of the country if you have the largest investment. Unlike almost every other war game, you don’t control a country permanently. At any time another player can buy a larger bond and take the country from you. The game is won not by who controls the most countries or who wins the war, but by who has the most valuable investment. It’s an entirely reasonable use of resources to march your armies and fleets into battle in order to have them be destroyed so you can avoid paying taxes on them, even if they lose the battle.

It features one of the most unique game mechanics with the rondel of actions. There are no dice rolls. There is no randomness. The strategy is predicting which countries will successfully expand and investing in them. In many ways, it’s more about knowing the other players and predicting what they’ll do than it is about any particular military strategy.

It plays excellently with anywhere between 3 and 6 players and takes an hour and a half to two hours. It’s around $41 on Amazon.

 

If you’re looking for something else besides Settlers, I can’t recommend any of these games enough. They’re all fun; they’re all different; they’ll make the nerd in your life happy.

On Laptops

So I bought a netbook. I’ve been wanting something small that I could use with a real keyboard, and being home sick and unable to sit at a desk finally made me look into my options. I wanted something like a Macbook Air or maybe one of the Windows ultrabooks, but the $1000+ price tag was more than I wanted to spend. I did some poking around on Newegg and found a netbook that looked perfect.

I ended up with an Acer Aspire One 725. It has an AMD C60 dual core processor, a 320 gb hard drive (not solid state), 2gb of RAM, and a Radon 6290 video card. It also had Windows 7 Home Premium. Oh, and an 11 inch screen. When you consider that most of the other machines in the $300 price range had single core processors, 1gb of RAM, integrated video, a 10 inch screen and they were trying to run Windows 7 Starter Edition, this one seemed like the best value BY FAR. From the reviews I read, Windows 7 runs terribly with 1g of RAM, so one of the big selling points to me was that this had 2gb AND it had Home Premium.

So those are the specs, but how does it work? Really well. I’ve been using it non-stop since Friday afternoon when it arrived. The 11 screen gives the case a little extra width, so I have a nearly full size keyboard. The hardware specs have left me with no complaints. I’ve been doing a lot of typing and a lot of (too much) web browsing, and everything has been snappy. I haven’t seen any of the slowness that was a major complaint for other netbooks. Granted, it doesn’t take much to run Word and Chrome, but I’m not getting any lag when switching programs or poking around in Windows Explorer.

Even the battery life is good. I’m getting about 6 hours on a charge. I don’t think I’ve ever tried to write for 6 hours straight, but if I did, it’s not really a hassle to plugin somewhere and keep going. If I wanted to go outside and brave the 100 degree heat, I even have outlets on my deck. The only time I could see the battery life being an issue is if I’m traveling and the airport has no outlets. I’ll cross that bridge when I get to it. (To be honest, I’ll just run the battery down and then break out the Kindle.)

How does it handle games? I have no idea. I am conscientiously avoiding installing any on it. I really do intend for this to be my writing machine and I’m trying to avoid distractions. I hear that siren call of Football Manager, but I have my body lashed to the mast.

I have two complaints so far. I use the Home and End keys frequently when I’m in Word. On this keyboard, Home and End are only accessible by pressing Function and then Page Up or Page Down. To make matters worse, Page Up and Page Down aren’t on the top right where they belong—they’re on the bottom right tucked in with the arrow keys. I’m working around it, but it’s irritating. The second issue is the touchpad. I find myself typing along and suddenly I’m typing in the middle of a word somewhere two paragraphs above where my cursor should be. I think the problem is that my thumbs are brushing against the touchpad occasionally when I hit the spacebar. The touchpad works fine, but I really wish I had some easily accessible button that I could use to disable it when I’m typing. The worst case is that I end up plugging in another keyboard, but I’m going to try to adapt for a week or two before I take that step.

Overall, I really like it. It’s perfect for my needs and the price was excellent. I’ve already told Carissa that I’m planning to give it to Sophia in a year or two and buy myself an ultrabook of some sort, but in the meantime, this little Acer will do nicely.

Throne of the Crescent Moon: Reviewed

Somewhere in the last few months I read a blog post by an experienced author where he said that a book should be judged by whether it does what the author intended. All books should entertain or inform and should avoid boring the reader, so that goes as a given. But beyond that a book shouldn’t be judged by comparing it to the reader’s expectations, rather by whether the writer’s intent was realized. It is with this in mind that I’m reviewing Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed.

But first, qualifications. I have none. I write software for a living. I love to read and I especially love to read fantasy and science fiction. I write some, too, for what it’s worth. I’m just a reader that also has a humble pulpit.

What I Liked
The Setting. The author had a blurb on John Scalzi’s blog where he talked about wanting to put the Middle Eastern setting at the center of his story. He did. And it was great. At times I thought I could smell Dhamsawaat. He painted a picture with enough little details that I was able to fill in the larger swaths in my imagination.

The heroes. Adoulla, Litaz and Dawoud were all interesting and had enough backstory to make me care about what happened to them. Does Adoulla give up the kaftan and live happily ever after? I hope so. Do Litaz and Dawoud go on to a quiet life in the Soo Republic? They should; they deserve it.

The villains. Mouw Awa the manjackal is a wonderful villain. Honestly, he’s one of my favorite villains in recent memory. He’s a horrible, horrible creature that’s untouchable by sword or magic. And on top of that he toys with his victims like some kind of man sized demonic cat.

The Falcon Prince is hard to pin down as his role changes with the story. He isn’t as well developed as I’d like, but he’s some kind of mashup of Robin Hood and Aladdin and Superman. I hope he features prominently in the sequel.

The hook. The interludes with the captured guardsman were brutal and terrifying and they took me by the cheek and dragged me wriggling through the story. The prelude in particular was great. It gave me setting and raised questions and just worked.

The prose. It was good. The author has a clear, highly readable voice, may it please All-Merciful God.

What I Didn’t Like
My momma taught me that if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all. Writing a novel of my own and getting very little feedback taught me that you can’t improve what you don’t know is broken.

The story was boring for the middle 70%. The hook was solid, the fight scene where Zamia was introduced was excellent and first encounter with Mouw Awa left me wanting more, but the book never returned to that peak. The try/fail cycles just didn’t feel like they had tension. Raseed had a little tangle with the Falcon Prince and Litaz had a little tangle with the city watch, but neither really upped the stakes any.

The love story was boring. I don’t think it could have been cut since we needed to see Raseed’s inner conflict to get an idea of who he was, but… no, it could have been cut. Raseed’s inner conflict was boring. I never really cared about Raseed or Zamia. If there’s going to a prominent inner conflict, I need to really give a damn about the character.

The Falcon Prince seemed all powerful. Characters are compelling because of things they CAN’T do, not just because of what they can. He seemed to be a paragon of Robin Hood virtue with no weakness. I know I said I liked him, and I did like him, but it he just seemed like he could have been even more compelling.

The ending. The throne rising up out of the ground with no forewarning? It felt contrived and out of the blue. Overall, the climax didn’t feel like it reached the same level as the opening battles. It seemed too easy. The premise of the resolution was fine, just the execution left me wanting.

Conclusion
I liked the book. You, dear reader, should read it. The things it does well far outweigh the things I thought it got wrong. I will absolutely buy and read future works from the author.

Throne of the Crescent Moon