Saturday, June 14, 2008

Starfarers of Catan

This time up in my run through my game collection, we have Starfarers of Catan, essentially a variant of the designer's famous Settlers of Catan game. Whereas the original game had the players colonizing a small island, this time the players colonize the galaxy.

Each player starts out with two colonies and a spaceport in the home systems. Colonies and spaceports are important, because each planet has a number. Colonies and spaceports are always between two planets. Every turn the active player rolls two dice, and whichever number comes up, those planets produce resources for the players with colonies or spaceports next to them. Thus, numbers that come up more often, like 6 or 8, are more desirable locations to have. If a 7 is rolled, you lose resource cards if you have 8 or more, and whoever rolled the 7 gets to steal resources from the other players. This is basically the same system as in Settlers.

The differences quickly become apparent, though. In this game, you have spaceships, either colony ships (which build new colonies), or trade ships (which build trade stations at alien outposts). You have this monstrosity called a mothership, which represents the qualities of all the ships in your fleet. You can add guns, engines, and trade modules to your mothership, but you also move ships by shaking your mother ship and seeing which colored balls fall out the bottom. Yeah, it's about as weird as it sounds, but it works. The colors give you different numbers, and you add the numbers together to determine how far you move. You also shake the mothership to conduct space combat against pirates.

However! If you a black ball comes out when shaking for movement, you draw an encounter card. Or, more specifically, the player to your left draws the encounter card, and then reads it to you. You almost always have an option on encounter cards: trade or not, fight or not, try to skirt the black hole or not, etc. As the active player, you don't know what the results of your actions will be. For example, many encounter cards involve meetings with alien traders, and you have the option of trading resource cards to the alien. Sometimes if you don't trade, they bad mouth you and you lose fame (which earns victory points to help you win). Othertimes, they feel sorry for you and you get free stuff. And sometimes the trader is really a pirate posing as a trader, and they just steal your stuff without giving anything back. I must admit that I like this system quite a bit, as it adds some new twists to the game, but not enough to really through the balance out of whack.

The planets on the map must be explored before founding new colonies with your colony ships. Many planets are able to host colonies, but some house pirates or are ice worlds, and in both cases you have to clear the planet before founding a colony next to it. Pirates require lots of guns to eliminate, and ice worlds require lots of trade capacity to eliminate. This is a bit of a pain, but you do get victory points for clearing those hurdles, so it can be worth it. As you colonize more worlds, you get the chance to earn even more resources from the rolls every turn, as well as victory points, so you will want lots of colonies. Colonies can also be turned into spaceports. This gives another victory point, and also lets you build space ships from that point. This can be critical, and you will need at least one additional spaceport deeper into the map to allow you to make new colonies and trading posts quickly.

Trading posts are also very important. Not only do trading posts let you gain bonuses from the aliens you trade with (anything from bonuses to weapons or engines, to allowing easier trading of resources, to bonus resources, and beyond), but the player who has the most trading posts with any specific alien becomes their "friend," and gets two bonus points. In the game I played, this is how the winning player got to 15 victory points way before anyone else even had a shot; while everyone else was trying to build colonies, he just went straight after the aliens for trading, and got 6 victory points. He lost 2 of those points after another player put more trading posts on one of the alien stations, but he was too far ahead by then, and it was all over.

In the end, the game was more fun than I thought it would be. It definitely feels like a Catan game, but has a number of important differences from the original Settlers game, and it plays like its own game. Definitely one I'll want to play more in the future.

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