Siedler is a game about the fundamentals of economics: scarcity, supply & demand and barter. You play one of a group of settlers landing on a virgin isle, ripe for exploitation and rich with natural resources, but sadly not everyone can get exactly what they need. The key to the game is thus trading, as a means to advancing your society and balancing needs and surpluses, cleverly without resort to anything as sordid as money. The player who trades well, with some luck, will be the first to build cities, establish military or civil dominance, earn ten victory points and the win.
The island is composed of large hexagons which depict land or sea areas. Each land area has a specific terrain type showing which commodity is generated there -- grass produces sheep, forests lumber, hills produce clay for bricks, mountains iron ore. The seas are either just that or also depict a port which can be used for trading commodities with nearby islands. The hexagons are laid out either in the suggested basic formation or at random, allowing for substantial variation in topography. Either way, each land hex is randomly assigned a number between 2 and 12 which will determine how frequently its commodity will come to market, based on the combined roll of two six sided dice. Importantly, there is no 7 hex as this roll instead activates a series of special rules, the main one being movement of a thief who stands on a hex and prevents production until he moves on. If you are lucky enough to have settlements (up to three is possible) on the vertices when a hex is triggered, each one generates a commodity card for you, while a city will accrue twice the benefit. The whole concept of a random terrain, with a simple dice roll to stimulate production, is an idea of Manhattanesque calibre and `obviousness'. Has it not been done before? New World somehow rings a bell, but I've long since sold my copy so can't check.
At this point you make a rough estimate of which commodities, on average, will be in short supply, which should be easily obtained either domestically or from imports, and which you might like to get your hands on -- dictating where your settlements and roads will be built. With all this in mind, you make your initial placement of two settlements and two roads. Broadly speaking, roads are used to define the size and location of your empire by linking settlements in the form of a trade route and settlements dictate where you can produce. In time, your settlements will be upgraded to cities and your roads can make advances upon other players as a kind of offensive snake, breaking their trade routes and probing out new production sites. Another option is to place (or later build) a settlement in a port area. The trade off here is that you can only access two production hexes rather than three, but you can trade at any time with the port -- either by delivering a specific good in exchange for your choice (on a 2 or 3 for 1 basis). At any time, even without a port, it is possible to trade four cards of a kind for one; a penal exchange rate, but one often exercised in desperation.
The above options represent an abstracted island market, but the majority of trading occurs between players. In your turn you can offer deals with any of your rivals, but they cannot trade amongst themselves. In theory anything goes, but the most common exchanges are one commodity for one, two for two or two for one. Seldom is a three for one deal seen as this will hurt your hand balance, but it does happen, as do 3:3s or 4:4s and other mega-transactions. In most respects, this is the 'speed and safety' improvement of the Civilization trade system that we have been waiting for -- and it achieves it all by returning to the basics. The mechanism is naturalistic, quick and essentially sound, but in too many of our early games there was a either a reluctance to trade (annoying but understandable) or, more commonly, plaintive cries for wheat, sheep or wood were politely declined (or laughed out of court). This is because the rare items are simply not for sale at any price, or the sellers just haven't got any available.
The problem here then is one of basic liquidity. It is fine to have a game based on scarcity, but you have to balance it carefully. My feeling is that the key production rule has backfired somewhat, causing the shortages, and is compounded by the Seven Card Rule. The latter is, I presume, a mechanism to encourage trading and/or to prevent stockpiling. Whenever a seven is rolled, as well as the thief moving on, anyone holding more than seven commodity cards loses half of them, taking liquidity out of the game and often forcing desperate trades or builds to reduce your hand in time. To my mind, the scarcity motif is a little overdone (for reasons to be explained below) and players simply don't have enough to trade much of the time. Even those with access to ports can't necessarily garner enough similar cards to benefit from 2:1 or 3:1 swaps. And this problem is seemingly aggravated in the three player game due to the lower initial settlement density and fewer trading partners.
Having made your roll, traded and hopefully accumulated a good set of commodity cards, you can then spend the goodies on a variety of items -- again, reducing liquidity. Firstly, you can build roads and settlements using a combination of cards, including bricks and wood. Alternatively, you can build a city, by upgrading a settlement and handing in a further five cards (hard won iron ore and wheat). Finally, and easily the most gamey option, is to buy an Entwicklung card. This is a sort of lucky dip Community Chest that, while always beneficial, adds a much needed random aspect to the building phase. Entwicklung cards will allow either two roads to be built, commodity cards to be selected, add a knight to your army (the most common result by far), to permit a monopoly to be declared (all players give you all of their specified commodity) or, best of all, grant a bonus victory point by way of a notable building in your capital. These latter cards are held until needed to win at game end.
As stated earlier, the game is won when you have ten victory points. A settlement is worth one, so everyone effectively starts with a two point handicap, each city is worth two and the owner of the longest continuous road or the most knights each earns two more. Because you only have five settlement pieces, it is unlikely that you can win by longest roads and settlements alone (I keep trying, but for some reason come up three short) and so a move to cities is inevitable for both production and victory considerations. Conversely, if you spend a lot of goods on building up your army (which will never fight -- it's a German game) or dipping into the Entwicklung tombola, you are unlikely to have enough goods for infrastructure. It is this constant balance, and the several avenues to victory, that give the game its strong tactical feel. Do you go for settlements, long roads and the odd city? Do you build up roads and knights? Do you build on the coast or towards the centre? Do you go exclusively for Cities from the start? My present feeling is that a mixture has most merit, with longest road (2vp), 2 cities (4vp) and 4 settlements (4vp) being eminently achievable, but however you tackle it, Siedler is a system that is going to take half a dozen tries to get right.
Now I know I am going to get in trouble for this, but I think these tactics and decisions are short range, rather obvious and largely illusory. I won't spoil it for you beyond what I've already said, but the game that confronts you on first opening the box appears full of originality, tactical possibilities, free trading and long term playability. I've seen players ready to hurl their copies of Civilization out the window within half an hour, only to temper their zeal after a few more outings. My hunch is that it won't be played much more than five times, and rarely more than ten. That in itself is good by any standards, but this could have been so much better. I may be wrong, and I'll happily stand corrected, but this one has all the signs of a flash in the pan. As good as the production/trading mechanism is, the whole package is deceptive and doesn't gel as well as one might think. The resulting game has neither the depth, subtlety nor the tactical flexibility to make it a winner. It's close, but there is definitely no cigar.
So, in exactly the same way as with Modern Art, I thoroughly enjoyed my first play, but had some concerns. Unlike Modern Art, these have not gone away and have in fact increased as I've played it since. Let me stress now that when it works, it works well and all have a good time. But it doesn't work all the time. What troubled me were game pacing and downtime, some heavy random influences, the rather abrupt ending with one player running away and the natural disposition of some players refusing trades. Hmmmm.
To take these points in reverse order, the game has a number of considered mechanisms that make trading something you will want to be actively doing -- without it your chances of a win are minimal. And unlike the bitter pill Civilisation trade system, this is true, bare-bones barter and good for that. As for pace, the game can indeed slow badly in the early stages, accelerating steadily to a sometimes overly sudden finish. While I had wondered if this was intended, in fact it is all just part of the game. In theory, it should give you time to evaluate longer term strategy, it shows just how important your early plays are and it also indicates where you might pitch your stall -- do you try for iron ore, or perhaps corner the wood market, link up with a port to guarantee tradeable items, or build steadily towards earning the big victory points?
The main problem with the game is that little of this strategy or active trading ever comes off. Why? Because the classic simplicity of the production numbers is dependent on the laws of normal distribution. Of course, when the laws are having an off day and distribution most definitely isn't normal, then the players sitting smugly on the 5,6,8 and 9 hexes are going to whinge a lot. There are a fair number of rolls in a game, but as we had in four of the first five we played, that doesn't mean that 2s, 3s, 10, 11s and 12s aren't going to be flavour of the day. It doesn't take much, just a subtle shift away from the middle range of numbers, but the entire game can hinge on this.
The result, as you might expect, is complete chaos and planning goes right out the window. The banker numbers, 6 and 8, can just not come up at all (well, once or twice then). Meanwhile the 12 might come out three or four times. Turn after turn can go by with no wheat (cue Woody Allen's Love & Death speech). Conversely, you might be lucky to see two sheep in a tight game, then you get fifteen of the buggers in the next one. It doesn't much matter that you have the 'best' sites. If they don't fire, then you sit with an empty hand and zero prospect of getting cards until your number comes up, and more severe, no way of building or trading your way out of the situation. You can, quite simply, do nothing but wait till one of your hexes produces. And then wait some more because you always need at least two of a kind and trading doesn't always work if the market is tight. Add to this that in the early game numbers often fall on barren ground (ie not owned by any player) and you start to get the picture.
The added attraction of the thief just makes the whole experience far worse. As a general rule of thumb, if you have snagged the best position, perhaps two or three settlements around a forest, hill or wheatfield with a big red 8 thereon, then you can rest assured that unless you are way behind and a good talker, the thief will sit happily there for most of the game screwing up your yields (and, again, the bell curve). Adding insult to injury, every time he turns up, the moving player nicks a card from your hand. It is hard to explain the sensation of trading for a valuable wood, only to have it immediately re-appropriated by a grinning opponent, who promptly offers to trade it back to you . Of course the thief moves on with an average roll, or you can try to buy Knights to shift him, but when you only get five 7s in one memorable game (yes, it was me on the receiving end), you rapidly lose faith in bell curves, normal distribution and stats boffins in general.
Whatever, as you know it is necessary to roll an awful lot of numbers to get a perfect bell curve and the game has relatively few rolls in this respect. The result is that your great plan based on the 8 forest, the 10 wheatfield and the 6 bricks fails horribly, leaving you with no income, paranoid about the thief, trailing a poor last and a bit fed up with the world. And the reason for the disillusion is not that you have tried and failed, but that you are powerless. You are not acting, but acted upon. Kafkaesque gaming, you might say. Now I know life can be like that, and fans of chaos gaming will doubtless live with the hardship, but it is never a pleasant feeling, and we gamers expect at least a modicum of control in this type of game. You don't often get that in Siedler.
Discussions with Merfyn Lewis, Alan Moon and Mike Schloth, who have each played it more than a dozen times, lead me to believe that we are not alone in encountering these substantial dead spots. Alan's view, which I find interesting, is that it is part of the game's self-balancing mechanism such that if two or three players are lagging behind, chances are the leader will be doing well and accelerating away to a quick victory. More self-unbalancing really, but I know what he means. If I understand right, Alan sees this as part of the game, even a strength, as it is over `quickly and painlessly' as a result. I can grasp this to a point, but can also imagine droves of competitive gamers all over the world disliking, even quickly discarding, the game as a result. As you know, I'm not usually fussed by such matters, but the transitory feelings of powerlessness, and complete lack of proactive options, is almost too much to bear. And there are no experience gaming qualities to take your mind off matters (just as with Adel). Perhaps closer to the point is the chaos angle: bad things are happening, you know you have no wheat and bricks and no prospect of getting any, while Johnny Neighbour has it coming out of his ears. But there is little to rationalise all this against. You have no story upon which to build, no reason beyond a raw die roll for this to be happening to you. The island lacks a coherent pattern and ethos.
So how much of a problem is the luck factor? Big enough for me to wonder if development and play testing was sufficient, whether people will get fed up with this one, look to substantial tweaks or simply sell it on. It is a huge shame, because the system should work well, and does half the time, but the other games are a bummer for those not sitting on the right hexes. The chance factor cleaves it in two and the result is that you can't sit down to a game knowing reliably it is going to be a worthwhile exercise. Siedler has a split personality: a Dr Jekyll in which the odd extreme roll is accepted, that works extremely well, and is undoubtedly fun to try and win, and a Mr Hyde that varies between frustration and pain, and produces at best a hollow victory. The underlying flaw is that, once you know about the lurking dark side, you never much enjoy the 'normal' games.
I would be happier if it were something that you could plan for. But it isn't -- you are already thinking from the start that 5,6,8,9 are good, the rest are bad. On average they are, in practice they sometimes aren't. You can set out saying right, this is going to be a bizarre day on the dice and place your bets on 11, 12 and 2, 3. Chances are you might just get it right, but you are going to have 90 minutes of boredom if you don't. If you adjust your tactics mid-game, and spread all over the place aiming for almost blanket coverage, then production of roads and settlements draws so much from your resources that you probably won't win anyway. The middle route of building on useful commodities, regardless of their seed number, is okay, but goes against the grain somewhat, and the rub is that all the commodities are useful in their way, and always at times of shortage, yet you can't seem to cover everything. And if you have a bad day, you have a bad day wherever you are.
The ultimate truism is that when there is a major shortage of a commodity (usually wheat, bricks or wood), you sit there with a thief on your 8 forest saying things like, ``If you lot let me produce some wood, it would increase supply and we could all trade''. This is in fact a lie. If wood is short, and you get hold of the stuff, the tendency is to spend it, not trade it. The instant gratification of a new road or outpost is rarely declined, and the only way you might trade it away is for multiples of something else. This is risky because of the seven card watershed, so you just buy another settlement and the game is back to square one with liquidity problems. And then, all of a sudden near the end of the game, the problems aren't there any more. Just when you have all struggled to build your big empire so most hexes are producing, and the cities start to pull in the double productions, the game finds another gear and hurtles off over the hay bales to a rapid conclusion. Usually in favour of someone who you thought, about half an hour ago, you might not catch. Weird, and worrying.
Siedler is an original game that you want to love, but it is much weaker than the plaudits indicate. Possessed of embryonic short and long term strategies, acceptable interaction, a good trading system, some sparkling ideas and regular decision making, it is unlikely to disappoint initially. You'll enjoy it while it lasts, but don't expect it to last forever. At around 90 minutes, sometimes a little less, it is paced a little slowly (apart from the end game), a feeling compounded if you suffer excess downtime. A sure sign of its above average quality, when it works, are the lengthy post mortems that the game encourages, and the fact that we played it again immediately sets it apart from much of what has gone in the last two years. Even the usually aloof publisher has come up with some revelations as, apart from the usual courteous nod to excellent component quality, this is not typical Franckh fare. A quite meaty, original game, reasonably priced and far removed from the Wittig school of innocence. There is already talk of an expansion kit to 5 or even 6 players.
Nagging in the background though are those major concerns over balance. Perhaps too long and too quick to end, with definite `leader stays ahead, unlucky players stay last' problems, certainly too dependent on chance for true play balance and showing slight signs of underdevelopment and imminent playability tail-off. While not yet fully founded, these are heartfelt quibbles to maintain the reviewer's legendary escape route. My main worry is that the game is better in perception than practice -- of the seven games I have played so far, only one could be termed balanced and exciting, and that was the longest of all. If you want my personal hunch, it is a nearly-there and no more, with some material flaws that will manifest themselves over time. As I said, I can't see this being a stayer (cf Siggins vs Adel, 1990, jury still out).
Despite, or perhaps because of, all of the above, the mind quickly turns to variants. I have a strong hope that the increased numbers of players will improve the liquidity situation (but will inevitably take longer) and also the game's flexibility -- three or four players sounds alright, but can but can be restrictive. Elsewhere, one wonders about doubling basic production (with three cards from cities), irregularly shaped islands, a deferred appearance for the thief and perhaps temporary absences, distributing Seven Card excesses to the other players, a third dice to indicate bonus production, randomizing the seed numbers completely, deploying without knowing hex values and so on. The game is one of those that, with a novel base to work on, you are tempted to think up more and more tweaks. It would have been nice however if these could have all been enhancements to a sound system rather than steps to make it work rather better. The most profitable way forward however may lay in 'Kelly Cards', a system occasionally used in sportsgaming or more commonly in simulation applications. For adaptation to Siedler, these would comprise a set of 36 cards numbered 2-12, replicating all the 2d6 combinations. Rather than a dice roll, you could turn a card instead, shuffling when you had worked through the pack, thus ensuring that each number would come up with some regularity. In this way, you effectively enforce the bell curve. For a hint of chaos, you might remove 1-6 cards from each pack, each time through. As this variant is so far untested, I have no idea what this might do to the game. Just regard it as a suggestion for now.
Despite the personal envy engendered by creative work of this standard, I am still disappointed by Siedler. It promised a lot, got played more than many games, but didn't live up to potential. That isn't to say it can't be salvaged. The theme is highly appealing, the ideas and structure laudable, but the implementation is ultimately dodgy. Despite my misgivings, I am sure it will be a huge success and there are already gamers in raptures as far as the eye can see. ``10! It's a 10! Oh Joy!'', they shout, while crabby old Siggins mutters ``Humbug'' under his breath. I think this might be me against the world again, but we shall see. Whatever, with the current zeitgeist dictating numerical ratings everywhere, Siedler von Catan represents a 3 on a bad day, a 7 on a good one. We still await the flawless 10 from a man who, along with Knizia, Tresham, Vasey and Moon, is evidently the most qualified to create excellence. With the above reservations in mind, which will doubtless pan out between now and the next issue, Siedler comes conditionally recommended for a few plays; it must be your choice as to to whether you buy on this basis.