STARFARERS OF CATAN - Review by Paul Brooks

Starfarers of Catan

By Klaus Teuber

Published by Mayfair Games

Players 3-4

Game Duration 1.5 – 2.5 hours

Price £45-£50

Anybody that is interested in boardgames can’t have failed to notice the phenomenon that is the Settlers of Catan series. I’ll not say too much about the original Settlers game here except to say that it was designed by Klaus Teuber: former dentist and thanks to his Catan games, currently a millionaire ex-dentist. That’s not to say that he is a one-trick-pony as a games designer, he’s won the very prestigious Spiels de Jahres (Game of the Year) four times which is no mean feat.

The original (and best) Settlers of Catan boardgame uses some extremely elegant game mechanics that see players gathering and trading resources in order to increase their civilization, which in turn allows them to gather and trade more. As you’ll have guessed, Starfarers of Catan takes this basic objective and the mechanics that enable it , adds more layers to the game and recasts the game in space. But is it any good? Well lets start at the beginning.

First impressions count. Opening up a new game is always a nice feeling and after spending a relatively large sum on a new game you’ll be hoping for decent production quality and plenty of new stuff for your cash. Opening up Starfarers for the first time and I was immediately struck by the huge board and the very large number of components. After the nicely presented board, the second most striking set of components are the four 6” plastic rockets, one for each player. These are used for a couple of key game-mechanics and are novel and innovative, or gimmicky and silly, depending on your point of view, but we’ll come back to them later. Other components include small resource production cards, large event cards and hundreds of plastic pieces that represent your explorers and colonies, and all your upgrades to your civilization. The rules are in colour and the artwork across the game is excellent so first impressions were very good indeed.

The object of the game is to out-score your opponents by colonising planets and trading with alien races. The players start off with colonies clustered around a set of planets at one end of the board and use their turn to determine which occupied planets generate resources, spend resources on upgrades such as speed boosts, weapons etc and to move their colony ships and trade ships towards other (hopefully) profitable planets and alien systems. This is where the two functions of the large plastic rockets (the motherships) come into play .

Firstly the rockets are used to record and represent any upgrades that you have managed to accrue for your civilisation. So for example boosters that enable all of your ships on the board to move faster are literally clipped onto your mothership to show how many bonus moves your ships have. Freight upgrades that allow better trades with alien races are clipped on and cannons that increase your ships chances of fighting off pirates are also recorded on your mothership.

Secondly, the rockets are used to generate the random elements of the game. The rockets stand upright and by shaking them, two random coloured beads will become visible as they drop down into a clear section of the rocket. The combination of colours will for example dictate how fast all of your colony ships and trade ships can move across the board during that turn. This will in turn be modified by the number of booster upgrades that are clipped on to the mothership.

However - one of the beads within the mothership is black, and when that drops into place it signifies that a random event has occurred. These are represented by encounter cards read out by another player that each have a flow-chart of choices available. For example, if a card starts out describing that a distress call has been received, the player might have to make the choice as to whether he diverts to the aid of the stricken ship, the flow chart will then say what happens - perhaps its a trap, sprung by pirates.

Then the player will need to decide whether to fight them, each choice being made without being sure as to the consequences. The key to surviving these encounters is in the rocket upgrades such as boosters, cannons and freight rings and so provides further incentive to spread the spending of resources in as balanced a way as possible.

An elegant mechanic in common with the rest of the Settlers series is that the chance of resource production occurs for all players during each players turn and that each player can choose to trade with all the other players during their turn. This means that even when it is not your turn, there are invariably things happening for, or to you. Thus player down-time is limited and players are always involved in the current action.

 

The biggest plus points of Starfarers for me are the lack of downtime, the resource-production mechanics and the nice circular mechanic of “gain resources so as to buy colonies so as to gain resources”. When these three are put together they make for an extremely fluid and elegant game. However – these fine aspects of Starfarers are in fact all lifted from the original Settlers game and if you want that excellent combination you are in my opinion, actually best off playing the original Settlers of Catan instead. I say this because although Starfarers keeps hold of the best aspects of Settlers, it then encumbers them slightly by layering on a number of other mechanics, such as the upgrades, frequent random encounters, alien trading, combat etc which although are all fun, do slow the game-flow, increase the players down-time and increase the game-time greatly.

 

I would say that if you are a fan of the original Settlers of Catan game and are looking to try a completely new way of playing it with a nicely presented new theme then I would recommend this fairly strongly. On the other hand, if you’ve never played Settlers (or you’ve not played its Seafarers or Cities & Knights expansions) then concentrate on learning and loving the originals first.