Any experienced Settlers of Catan player knows that the island of Catan—composed as it is of hexagonal tiles—is prone to landscape-rending disasters caused by the capricious player-gods who call it into being. Stray elbows, wayward dice, and oblivious cats are all responsible for their share of tile-scattering accidents. When one of the major strengths of a game is its creation of a different board for every session, some small drawbacks were bound to present themselves.
Fortunately, Klaus Teuber and the creative folks at Mayfair Games have your back on this. Tired of having to straighten the tiles every time someone bumps the table? Why not do away with the tiles altogether?
Thus was Catan Dice born.
Your Own Private Island
The basic idea underlying Catan Dice is the same as in other Catan variants: construct an island civilization from scratch using the island’s resources as your building blocks. Lumber, brick, grain, wool, and ore are once again the materials of choice in your quest to build roads, settlements, and cities. However, the way one obtains these resources in Catan Dice is greatly simplified from its board-game counterpart: just roll the six well-made, eye-catching dice that come with the game (along with, in most editions, a leather dice cup) and see what symbols come up. You get up to three rolls per turn, with the chance to set aside any number of dice after each roll to preserve their result. At the end of the turn you use the resources you rolled to build what you can.
Naturally, this sort of game leaves players vulnerable to the caprices of Lady Luck, so designer Klaus Teuber introduces a couple of elements to mitigate the randomness. One is a new resource type, gold, which occupies the sixth face of the die and serves a similar function as the coastal ports in the original game. Two gold can be converted to any resource of the player’s choice, which comes in handy at those times when it seems as if God Himself is rigging the dice so that you never, ever roll a grain no matter how fervently you pray for it.
The second tactic the game employs to keep unlucky players from experiencing a frustration-induced stroke is its use of knights. In the board game, knights are used to hamper opponents’ resource production and steal cards from their hands. Because Catan Dice features much less interaction between players, knights are instead used like wild cards. Once you’ve bought a knight, you can cash it in at any time for an additional resource: useful for when you want to build multiple things in one turn or when God continues to punish you with rigged dice because you are a sacrilegious game reviewer.
All this is explained with admirable economy in the game’s single-sheet rules insert. Though the text and diagrams therein could have been laid out with greater attention to legibility, it’s probably safe to assume that most new players will be familiar with the original Settlers of Catan and therefore will require minimal handholding. For novices, the whole game can be learned in under 10 minutes, which makes it a perfect entry point for those who may have found the sophisticated elegance of Settlers intimidating.
Two Ways to Play
Once everyone has learned the basics, they can put them to use in the two game types explained in the rules. In Game Type A, the game lasts 15 turns, during which time each player tries to score as many points as he can. Every road, building, and knight is worth a set amount of points, increasing in value as the player progresses along the track laid out by the score sheet. Game Type B is closer to the gameplay to which Settlers of Catan veterans are accustomed. The layout of the island is the same as in the previous variant, but players have greater freedom in their building choices. The point system is virtually identical to that of Settlers—up to and including the special victory points awarded for Longest Road and Largest Army—and the game only ends when one player reaches 10 points.
Unsurprisingly, the second variant is far more satisfying than the first, simply because the first is so linear and noninteractive. Outside of its uses as a teaching tool and as a solitaire mode for the bored, there’s not much weight to the first variant. Most players will discard it quickly in favor of the second, which, despite still being linear due to the unchanging island layout, at least encourages players to notice what their opponents are doing and adjust accordingly.
It may seem at first blush that Catan Dice is first and foremost an oversimplified reworking of an already established game, with little to differentiate it from the original, but this is untrue on closer examination. Subtle yet important differences—for example, cities are difficult to build without the aid of knights, and they don’t increase resource production as they do in the board game—force even seasoned Settlers players to reevaluate what is important. Additionally, Mayfair Games clearly does not intend Catan Dice as merely a gateway for newbies, to be discarded once they transition to the board game. The game’s portability and fast pace make it ideal for situations where the time, space, and inclination for a more involved Settlers game simply are not there. It’s perfect for a few quick games while waiting for dinner to cook, or passing the time at the airport.
Should you buy Catan Dice? In the end, it comes down to your feelings about games with a significant element of chance. Teuber and company do a fine job of offsetting the randomness of dice rolling as far as possible, but staunch dice haters may still find the game hard to stomach. Most people should enjoy themselves with the newest addition to the Catan game family, though. Taking a risk on a roll of the dice and having it pay off is a thrill. And if it doesn’t pay off—perhaps because of a wrathful deity—the game is over soon enough, and there is plenty of time to jump into the next one.