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.

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