Posted by: gschloesser | August 31, 2011

Catan Histories: Settlers of America – Trails to Rails

Design by:  Klaus Teuber
Published by:  Kosmos / Mayfair Games
2 – 4 Players, 3 hours
Review by:  Greg J. Schloesser

NOTE:  This review first appeared on the Boardgame News site.

The Settlers of Catan juggernaut continues to roll.  Designer Klaus Teuber has continued to utilize and adapt mechanisms present in the ground-breaking Settlers of Catan, producing new games wherein elements of the parent game are recognizable, but mixing in enough new ideas and concepts to give the games a fresh feel.   Many of these ideas were born in early spin-offs and continue to be modified in subsequent creations.

One of Teuber’s innovations in the series is the “Catan Histories” series, which utilizes Settlers mechanisms in historical settings.  The latest in the series is Settlers of America, which is set in the United States during the 19th century.  The massive migration westward has begun, and the push is on the verge of exploding with the expansion of the rail system.  Players are challenged to send forth their settlers, establish new towns, and link their rail networks to opponents’ cities so their goods can be delivered.  The first player to deliver all eight of their goods (ten in a three-player game) becomes an American dynasty and wins the game.

As can be expected, Settlers of America has much in common with Settlers of Catan and many of its offspring.  There are production rolls to begin each player’s turn that may – or may not – produce resources.  Players can trade these resources with each other in efforts to build various items and found towns.  The infamous “robber baron” stands ready to block production and steal resources.  Yes, the game has a familiar feel.

However, there are significant differences.  Players now build settlers, trains and rail lines.  Resources are required to send these settlers forth, who then settle new towns.  Resources in the east are gradually depleted, forcing players to move westward.  Rail lines connect a player’s town to those of opponents, where goods are delivered.  Victory points aren’t earned.  Rather, victory goes to the first player to deliver all of his goods.  Let’s look at the phases of the game in a bit more detail.

Production Phase.  This is identical to that found in most Settlers games.  Dice are rolled, and all areas depicting that number produce resources for players who have a town adjacent to that area.  If a “7” is rolled, the robber is moved by the active player to an area, which allows him to steal a resource from an opponent and blocks further resource production from that area until the robber is subsequently moved.  In addition, all players in possession of more than seven cards must discard half, which prevents hoarding.

One of the frustrations expressed by some Settlers players is the luck factor involved with the production rolls.  It is possible to go numerous turns without receiving a resource.  Teuber has integrated a popular variant by awarding a gold coin to players who do not receive a resource when the production dice are rolled.  Coins can be used to purchase resources and pay rail line fees.  This works well and reduces some of the pain when luck isn’t going your way.

Action Phase.  Players may trade resources, buy development cards and build.  This phase operates similar to the original Settlers, but players may perform these actions multiple times and in any order they wish.  What is built, however, is different.

a)      Settlers are required to construct new towns.  Resources must be expended to construct and move them.  When a settler reaches a town site, it is removed from the board and a town constructed.  Each town is paired with a good, which becomes available to be moved when the town is constructed.

b)      Trains are required transport goods to opponents’ towns.  First, however, a player must construct rail to connect his cities to the cities of his opponents.  These are constructed in a fashion similar to roads in Settlers.  Players pay resources (coal) to move a train.  When a train reaches an opponent’s town that doesn’t already contain a good, he may place one of his goods there.  Remember, players must construct their own towns in order to make goods available, so players must pay attention to both tasks.

Borrowing from other train games, when a player moves his train across another player’s rail lines, he must pay that player a gold coin to utilize the route.

c)      Development cards convey benefits to a player, including free resources, extra movement, etc.  Since the game is won by delivering all of one’s goods, there are no victory point cards present in the deck.

Note that resources must also be spent to move settlers (grain) and trains (coal).  Early in the game, grain is important to construct and move settlers.  As the game progresses, however, other resources – particularly coal – become more vital.  Ideally, as in the original Settlers, players should construct their towns in a fashion that maximizes their chances to receive all types of resources.  This, of course, creates some keen competition for favorable town sites.

Players each have two settlers and two trains available.  Players begin with one of each on the board, as well as three towns.  Since a settler is removed when it reaches a town site, these must be rebuilt regularly.  When built, a train or settler can be placed at any of a player’s towns.  When placing settlers, it is important to keep an eye on lucrative expansion routes and potential resource production.  Trains should be placed in areas where they can reach opponents’ towns quickly in order to deliver goods.

As players migrate west and found new towns, resource numbers are removed from their locations in the east and moved west.  While this doesn’t completely deplete eastern areas of potential resources, it does provide an incentive to continue the westward push.  This mechanism is somewhat similar to that found in Settlers of the Stone Age.

At the conclusion of each player’s turn, every player gets the opportunity to build.  They may not move settlers or trains – just build.  This is a mechanism found in the five-to-six player Settlers expansion.  This does help speed-up the game, as player construct items quicker and are less susceptible to losing cards if the dreaded “seven” is rolled.

As mentioned, the ultimate goal is to be the first to deliver all of your goods.  This is accomplished by constructing rail lines to link your town to opponents’ towns and then moving your train to those towns to deliver goods.  Of course, in order to make these goods available, you must first construct towns, which requires the construction and movement of settlers to available town sites.  So, there are a lot of factors to keep in balance.

While it has many similarities and familiar mechanisms to its ancestors, Settlers of America has enough new twists and concepts to give it a fresh feel.  Players must be adept at balancing all of the different aspects, and there are important timing considerations.  The ability to bounce back and forth between the different actions – building, trading, moving – allows players wide creative latitude and provides ample opportunity for clever play.  All of these are big plusses and would appear to make this new version one of the best in the series.

There is one significant drawback, however:  time.  Every game I’ve played has lasted three or more hours.  That’s simply too long.  The game tends to drag as players wait to amass the needed resources.  Plus, there are so many steps required to ultimately deliver a good, and players must deliver eight to win the game.  That takes time – too much time.  Mind you, I play and enjoy many games that have a duration of three hours or more.  However, what I seek in longer games is continuing excitement and progressive development.  The excitement should continue throughout the game, without a déjà vu feel from turn-to-turn.  With Settlers of America, that feeling begins creeping in as the second hour is approached.  As is, it is about an hour to long.  There is an abundance of excitement and tension in the early and latter stages, but the middle stage tend to drag.

I am sure there are other groups that can manage to play the game in two hours or less.  I am impressed, as we have not been able to come near that time frame.  I’ve played with thousands of folks from around the world, and I don’t find our group particularly slow.  I can’t blame it on our group.  As structured, Settlers of America is simply too long.  The next time we play I plan on removing one or two towns and goods from each player.  This should knock off some time, but likely at the expense of not fully developing the board.  We’ll have to see.  If this change does not significantly reduce the time it takes to play the game, I fear that in spite of its interesting mechanisms and fresh feel, Settlers of America will fade into obscurity.  That would be a shame.

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Responses

  1. I love Settlers… but “Trails to Rails” left me cold. One 3 hour games (w/3 speedy players) was enough.

  2. A train game masquerading as a settlers game. This is so different from regular settlers that I understand why Mark and others don’t like it. I enjoyed my first play a lot. I like the added trade/buy phase for each player.


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