This edition released 2010 by Mayfair Games. Designed by Klaus Teuber. For 2 players.
It’s not my goal to upset anyone with what I write. I’m too old for iconoclasm. I want to applaud what is great in board and card games today. And there are a wealth of fantastic games around that I want to celebrate. But, sometimes, it helps to talk about where things have gone wrong in a game, because we might as well learn from other’s mistakes, rather than making them ourselves.
Mr. Teuber, look away now.
Klaus Teuber’s Rivals for Catan is a revised version of his earlier Catan Card Game, from 1996. Both are games in which the players manage principalities – using resources to build new settlements, cities and their buildings (as well as recruiting some soldiers) for the bloody-minded sake of it. Or to get to a certain number of victory points – which accrued in The Rivals for Catan a few different ways: each settlement gets one point, each city two, some buildings give victory points, and having a decisive advantage in trade and military strength also offers points.
I do not have experience of the Catan Card Game, but the differences between it and The Rivals for Catan do not appear to be considerable. For what it’s worth, The Rivals for Catan is the better looking, featuring pleasant, if chocolate boxy, illustrations by the ubiquitous Michael Menzel.
Of course, there’s a common progenitor for both these games. Something known as The Settlers of Catan – some kind of variant of Monopoly without free parking in it. But with the same pretense that players might ever want to trade with one another. In seriousness, it’s still pretty good.
However, The Rivals for Catan does not share a great deal with The Settlers of Catan in terms of how it works as a game. The one fundamental respect in which it is similar to its ancestor – its grandfather, you could probably say, if Catan Card Game is its father – is that the production of resources is determined through dice-rolling. In The Settlers of Catan, two regular, numbered six-sided dice are rolled at the start of each turn, in The Rivals for Catan, just one. However, the core of this mechanism is unchanged – any region marked with the rolled number produces a resource.
In The Rivals for Catan, this standard die is rolled alongside a special event die. Also six-sided, it triggers one of five results (two sides have one picture), mostly connected with the production of resources. For instance, the plentiful harvest event allows each player to produce one extra resource of his or her choice. Many events will, however, see one or both players lose resources, which is more than a tad frustrating.
Indeed, this isn’t just a trivial irritation. Connected to this are some of the game’s greatest problems.
You, as a player, lack control – and the game’s too long for that to be acceptable. The fact that the game’s most important improvements require a variety of different resources – for instance, building a settlement needs one wood, one brick, one wheat and one wool – means many turns will be spent, wishing for that one missing item which the dice just won’t cough up. Goods can be traded – initially at a rate of three of any single resource for one of any other – but collecting so much of a single material is difficult for much of the game. This potential for stagnation is amplified by the fact that all buildings and developments in the game have precise requirements for their construction – none, say, can use either brick or stone, or either wool or wheat.
As a result, players are often faced with a choice I can’t help but feel they shouldn’t be faced with in a game intended to be pleasurable. Often, the player must either pass turns – two or three in a row is entirely possible – building nothing, impotently watching the other player progress, or he or she may build lesser improvements with those resources that are available, thereby further delaying the construction of the most important advancements. It’s a painful choice, but not in a good way. Trade ships, for instance, are moderately useful (and quite cheap), but they’re nothing on having an extra settlement early in the game.
Moreover, a further problem with the dice-rolling mechanism is that any planning done while the other player is active is prone to being frustrated. There’s a decent chance that a player will lose some of his or her resources – either through the action of the event die, or the other player. As a result, waiting time really ends up just that. While the other player is acting, you may as well sit on your hands. Turns might only be a minute or so long – but it adds up when there’s nothing worthwhile to do in that time.
Nevertheless, there is some scope to the game when it does get running. Buildings have varied functions, and there are also a number of action cards which can, generally, be played without resources.
In the box are four groups of cards from which players can select. There are basic cards, then three themed sets; ‘The Era of Progress,’ themed around creating more advanced cities; ‘The Era of Gold,’ which offers buildings which give extra value to the otherwise under-utilized gold resource; and ‘The Era of Turmoil,’ a combative set, which makes possible the destruction of the other player’s buildings and units. A game may be played with just the basic set, with the basic set and one other, or with the basic cards and a specified selection from each of the three special sets.
The attempt to include this amount of variety in the game is admirable (though expandability was evidently also a concern – a first expansion The Age of Darkness, was recently released). However, none of the options offered is without its problems. The basic game feels rather trivial – though does work as an introduction to The Rivals for Catan, which is its intended purpose.
Adding in the cards from a given era adds depth. However, each of the three themed sets centres around a particular card – the university in the ‘Era of Progress,’ to take one example, must have been built before many of the other cards from the set can be played. There are two copies of each of these key buildings in each themed set, but it does mean both players are nudged – perhaps pushed outright – into playing in much the same way as one another.
The ‘Dual of the Princes’ – the game played with all three themed sets – gives players more sense of choice, but fails, for me, in that only one copy of the key card from each set is available. As a consequence, the player who first draws, say, the Hedge Tavern for the ‘Era of Turmoil’ will be the only one able to make use of a further three of the thirteen turmoil cards used in the dual (three of the most destructive to the other player). In that a player can, at the end of his or her turn, pay two resources to exchange a hand card for a chosen card from any pile, it means a player minded to do so can snaffle up the hedge tavern, merchant guild or university at the very start of the game. Indeed, it’s possible for the starting player to take one of these on the very first turn, before the other player has had any chance to act.
Moreover, with any of these themed sets added, games of The Rivals of Catan tend to be long. Seventy or eighty minutes is entirely likely. It’s not unreasonable to want (much) more control when giving that much time to a game.
There’s a solid foundation here in an inexpensive package. Indeed, if Mr. Teuber wants to look back, I’d happily say there are the marks of a great designer here – neat interplays between buildings and action cards, while the trade and strength advantages are fun to compete for. But, sadly, this isn’t a great game.