18th Dec2019

‘Catan: Starfarers’ Board Game Review

by Matthew Smail

catan-starfarers-box

The original Settlers of Catan (later shortened to Catan) remains the gateway game that introduced legions of new players to modern board gaming. A mixture of luck, strategy and player agency as well as a simple, attractive layout ensure that the original remains popular even now. But what happens when the relatively simplistic gameplay begins to wear thin? What happens when the players need something with just a little bit more crunch (not to mention giant plastic rockets)? Well, that’s where Catan: Starfarers comes in.

The original release of Starfarers of Catan has been out of print for many years, following its initial release in 1999. The version that we’ve been sent to review (renamed as Catan: Starfarers) is a brand new remake of the game, which features essentially the same rules, but comes with a large box and a raft of updated components that modernise the experience. There’s no doubt that some of the features in this remake are more “show” than “go” but if you look back at the original, it too came with big plastic rockets and a few other slightly excessive features.

Like the original CatanCatan: Starfarers is best played with its full complement of four players, but it can also be played by three. There’s no option for a two player or solo mode, although it is feasible that players could house rule a two player variant, or possibly download one from a forum such as BoardGameGeek. In any case, each game passes relatively quickly, whilst still being considerably longer than the original Catan. A playtime of around 90 minutes to two hours should usually be about right, since the map is quite large and exploration begins fairly slowly.

On that note, the game begins with the players laying out the six large board pieces and clicking them together. Each one has several openings in it to house planetary system tiles, each comprising of three planets. These will be placed into the spaces either randomly during the advanced setup, or in a specific order for players who are just starting out with the game. Each planet will then have a token placed face down onto it based on the symbol on both the token and the planet. A series of starting planets are positioned along one edge of the board, and these come with specific starting tokens that are flipped as soon as the game begins.

Each player will take three resources from a random draw pile, as well as all of the colony, trade colony, spaceship and spaceport pieces in their colour, and then a large plastic rocket that has a sticker in their colour on the bottom. Again depending upon the variant you are setting up, at least a few of these pieces will be placed onto the board during setup on the home colonies – this represents the Catanian people taking their first steps into space flight by colonising their home systems.

Catan: Starfarers is a very straightforward game from a structural perspective, and the first part of every turn will have the active player rolling two dice, just as in the original game. The result of these dice will generate resources on each planet with a matching number shown on their token. Every number from two to twelve is represented at least once across the starting planets, and any player who has a colony or spaceport placed adjacent to a planet that produces resources will then be able to take those resources from the supply.

In the second phase of each turn, the active player (not all players) is then able to take up to two resources from the same random stack that is drawn from during setup. This feature is not present in Catan, and it’s intended to help the players with the initial need to build colony and trade ships in order to expand their reach, just in case production is not kind to them. The scoring track along the side of the board indicates how many cards the player will take based on their current score – at the beginning of the game, players will draw two cards and then as their score increases, they’ll draw one and then none. I should also mention that the first player to fifteen points wins.

After these resources (from both the roll and the random draw) are taken, the active player will be able to make trades and build in any way they wish. Trades with the supply can be made based on trading in three of any resource in exchange for one other, or trading in two of the more valuable goods cards for any one other. Trades can also be made between players – with the active player usually asking the other players if anyone would like to supply them with a specific resource, for example one carbon. Deals between players can be made up in any combination of resources, but each player must pass something to the other – no gifts are allowed.

When it comes to building, this is a simple case of exchanging a number of specific resources for a building/ship or a rocket upgrade. Where buildings and ships are concerned, the cost might be equivalent to say, two goods, one fuel and one ore for a trade ship, or two food and three carbon plus an existing colony for a spaceport. Each construction has slightly different rules – trade and colony ships start adjacent to spaceports, whilst spaceports must be built as an upgrade to a colony, etc, but these are simple enough to follow.

Upgrading space rockets works in the same way in terms of paying costs into the supply based on whatever you want to do, with boosters, lasers and cargo pods all possible additions. Each of these offers a slightly different benefit as I’ll explain later, and every upgrade applies to all of your ships universally. Upgrading has a lovely, tactile aspect to it which has the players actually slot new parts onto the model rocket ship that each player has. It’s both satisfying and addictive to have a ship bristling with lasers, or with the full complement of six boosters slotted onto it.

The fourth phase of each turn involves movement, and begins with the active player, erm, shaking their rocket. When placed upright, two coloured balls will appear below the rocket, indicating its speed for the turn. Blue is one, yellow is two and red is three, and there are one, two and one balls respectively, as well as one black one. This results in a maximum “base” speed of five, plus one extra for each booster – potentially leading to a maximum total speed of eleven for each ship.

If a black ball is ever revealed during this step, then before movement happens, the player in question must resolve an event. At this point, a neighbouring player will draw a card from the event deck and read the top passage of text. Examples include being attacked by pirates, intercepting distress calls or being hailed by a merchant, and the active player will make a choice. Often, the player will then need to “shake off” their rocket against another player, with the outcome being determined by whatever the card says. It’s worth noting that the upgrades that opposing players have on their ship do count towards their total, but you can house rule the game to count only the “basic” value of the balls appearing in the ships – but doing so renders weapon upgrades useless.

After any event has been resolved (if there was one) then the player moves their ships up to the number of spaces (a space being the corner of a hexagon in Catan: Starfarers) allowed. If their ship is a trade ship that reaches an alien docking station, then the player may be able to befriend the aliens, taking one card from the matching colour deck and leaving their trade colony behind. Players can befriend aliens by having one cargo pod more on their spaceship than there are trade colonies already there, so for example, if there was one trade colony on the green alien dock, the next player to befriend them would need two cargo pods.

If a player wishes to settle a planet with a colony ship, then whenever that ship is at the apex point between two planets, they may disconnect their rocket and do so. This means that whenever the number (which will now have been revealed) on each of the adjacent planets is rolled during the first step of each turn, that player will claim resources as appropriate. Each planet is colour coded to show which resource it produces, and the colour scheme is clear enough that players need only glance at planets to know what to draw.

There are a few other rules in Catan: Starfarers, such as that when a seven is rolled, any player with more than seven cards in hand will need to discard down to half (rounded up) and then there are some card stealing and redrawing mechanics, but it’s all relatively simple stuff. What I really like about this game is how it takes the core Catan concept, then builds on it in several interesting ways. The rockets, for example, are silly and excessive – yet actually very good fun. Adding the upgrades to them is a remarkably clean way of keeping track of your progress, and the only thing I was surprised about is that there doesn’t seem to be an element allowing players to add to (or remove) the balls in their bases, which would have added an element almost like deck building to the game.

I also love the inclusion of the alien races, which are also simple, but change the game quite a lot. Each stack of five alien friendship cards has a different theme, with one focusing on upgrades and another on increasing the efficiency of your trades with the supply. Another allows the player to draw two of a specified resource when their planets produce, rather than just one. The event cards also add a simple layer of interest, being quick to resolve and having interesting effects including the ability to score medal pieces – with each completed medal worth one point.

There are a raft of other small, subtle differences between Catan and Catan: Starfarers which, dare I say it, make me think that it is the better game. For starters, whilst the board is larger and arguably less heavily contested than that of the base game, the players need to actively strategise about how best to get across it. This can be a matter of boosting movement speed, or one of producing colony ships. It might be that you feel going directly for alien friendship cards (I should mention that the first friend to each alien receives two victory points) is the way to go. I also really like that the game gives players two bonus resource cards each turn early on, but that any runaway leader will feel pegged back when they drop down to one, then zero.

Catan: Starfarers is more complex than the original game from which it is inspired, but it’s also more balanced in the sense that it can probably appeal to both experienced gamers and newcomers alike. The space theme, I feel, will also be preferable for many players especially when they see the rocket ships, the huge board and all the nice plastic pieces. As such, I have no hesitation in recommending the game, however I do feel that it carries a very strong RRP, so it’s a game that I recommend you try before you buy, because I wouldn’t want anyone to sink almost a hundred pounds on something that isn’t their cup of tea.

**** 4/5

Catan: Starfarers is available online at 365Games.co.uk, or at your local games store. Don’t know where yours is? Try this handy games store locator

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