Thursday, September 02, 2010

Settlers of America: Trails to Rails First Impression

Last week I finally got out to Matt's again for Tuesday gaming, and despite a warm day and no A/C at Matt's, we had a good turnout and a great time. Matt's is always nice because we get so many old-timers who date back ten years or more to the very early years of Rip City Gamers, and while I like the new people too, it's always nice to relive that old skool vibe.

So how apropos it was to play the newest iteration of one of the most venerable franchises in eurogames, the newest Settlers variant Settlers in America: Trails to Rails (I will call this one America, after the country of my birth), the most recent in the Histories variant line that started with Settlers of the Stone Age and continued with Struggle for Rome.

I should note that while I thought there were some cool features in Stone Age, it sure seemed like it was easy to get cut off and in an untenable position through the luck of the early dice throws, made worse as Africa dried up. I was clearly in that position once, and it soured me for the title. I have played Rome a couple of times, and it was my favorite Settlers major variant, although it still has the basic problem of Settlers: the dice can kill you. Will America stand proud and free and break the chains of dice tyranny? The answer is a qualified yes.

The Histories line tends to emphasize maneuver rather than build it and forget it, which I think is a good thing. One of the biggest problems with vanilla SoC is that once you get blocked in you are done, which is forgivable in a short game that takes an hour or so. And, since the way the resources roll early has a lot to do with how boxed in you can get (as do your opponents), there tends to be a problem if you are the person actually *going* first in the game when playing against experienced opponents. It's actually worse if you are playing against people who don't know what they are doing, as they can often throw the game inadvertently to others. Or to you. Regardless, it tends to be a somewhat less than fun situation.

So maneuver is good, if you can do it. In America, there are two forms of maneuver, one that uses Settlers (wagon trains) to get to preset city sites (no building cities here, you build the Settlers and they move to an open site and that's it). Settlers can't stop on an open city site without building, nor a vertex with another Settler, nor can they stop on an opponent's city, although they can stop on your own. They can move up to three vertexes per wheat card played. As you can imagine, how your cities get placed can be critical for reasons that will become clear later.

Settlers equal Trails, so of course Trains equal Rails. Unlike Settlers, Trains can only move along Track, the rough equivalent of roads. They lie along edges and channel where the Trains can go. They get built when you have a city or existing track adjacent to the edge you are building on. once you get past the Mississippi, if you build track on an edge with a track symbol, you get to build one more track adjacent to the track just built, which can speed things up quite a bit. Trains have a stacking limit of two trains per edge, although you may always move through "full" track segments. Moving along your opponent's track costs one gold per turn to move along all of one player's track you wish. As with Settlers, movement is between one and three edges and takes a coal and can be done multiple times during your turn.

So instead of towns, cities, and roads, you are building settlers that eventually form cities, tracks, and trains, and using resources to also move settlers and trains as well as buy the ubiquitous Development Cards. The cities are in preset locations, some of which give you a gold bonus if you build there. What else is different?

Borrowing a mechanism from Stone Age, America starts out with the 9, 10, and 11 resource spots randomly placed in the eastern half of the board. As players build cities in the west, those with ?? symbols, the easternmost "floater" resource spots pick up and move west. This is a very important mechanism to understand well, as it tended to stall some of our players, including me. I had thought that a 10 was a great number for me until I figured out that all of my coal production had tapped out and moved to Montana and Arizona. Understanding which resources are at risk will drive your decisions throughout the game, from initial city placement to new city placement. And make no mistake, coal is a critical resource at game end, as critical as ore in the vanilla version.

The key, of course, is how you end up winning, and this is perhaps the largest diversion from the standard Settlers VP system yet. You don't get VP in this game. Instead, you are trying to deliver goods cubes to other player's cities by moving your trains next to their cities, and the first person to deliver all of them wins. You start with one cube in your "roundhouse" and every time you build a city you add one cube to this pool. In other words, you have to build all of your cities in order to deliver all of your cubes.

Gold is also added as a resource. If a given non-7 resource roll doesn't garner you any points, you get a gold. Two gold can be traded for a resource, but only during your turn. They are also used to move along other player's track. There are no ports, although you can trade three of one good for one of yours, again only on your turn.

America also uses the "extra" turn idea from it's five and six player variants, where once the active player has built and traded the other players can now build, but only build. No moving, no trading, and no playing of Dev cards (which you can only do on a turn where you haven't just drawn that card). This requires a certain amount of alertness on the part of all players, as one person doing the boardgame equivalent of picking flowers when they should be playing 4-year-old girl's soccer is all to possible. Brisk play! We did OK once everyone got familiar with the various building/moving formulae and understood the board better, but be prepared to have long and convoluted "extra" turns the first several rounds.

The resulting game curve looks like this:

Build settlers to build cities, preferable interspersed with other player's cities, ideally with one other player to avoid competition for their city spaces (only one goods cube can be delivered to a single city).

Start building track to get to other player's cities. Gold is a useful resource (you can trade two gold for a resource during your turn as often as you like), but if you can allow another player to build up track that will help you, even better. Conversely, you need to think carefully about what track you build to help them! During this phase, your Settlers continue to build cities.

Operate your trains to get those goods cubes delivered. Which means you need uncommoditized opponent's cities nearby, which can also be a trick if there are multiple opponents in the area. Because you can't win if there aren't cities to deliver cubes to.

Yup, it's a train game.

I'll also mention that the rules are very good, especially for a Catan game where for some reason Teuber felt that having the rules split into two sections would make things easier for people to look up. Right. Here, the Almanac is mostly historical information about the various Dev cards. Since there are no VP, there are no Dev VP, no soldiers, no longest road, so the Dev cards are all about special bonuses, such as building extra track, trading a resource for gold, etc. The rules also take care to be sensitive to the issues of Native Americans, mentioning that the Settlers were Settling land that wasn't really theirs to take. Given the modern German cultural taboos against combat games, I suppose that Klaus was put in a position where he wanted to give a nod to the First Peoples of North America but actually placing them in the game would have not only made the game seem tasteless in the US but also feel a little dirty. The Native Americans are still there in history, and he makes the nod, but they are a non-factor except in the abstract (such as the Cavalry Dev card, which doesn't say who the Cavalry are actually saving the Settlers from). It's a fine point, but for some it might be more of an issue. Recently, some East Coast Native Americans were terribly unhappy about MMPs latest wargame, King Philip's War, which depicts colonial American warfare against a Native uprising. It was a relatively bloody conflict that helped set the stage for not only the Revolutionary War, but also the "French and Indian" War 15 years earlier. The designer went out of his way to be sensitive to Amerind issues, but I don't know that that was ever the point of the protests. The history is there, it can't be changed, we can only be aware and sensitive and do the best we can. For America, i think Teuber has tried to be sensitive, but if my ancestors had been Plains Indians, i might have trouble enjoying this game or any other that focuses on Manifest Destiny in the US in the 19th Century.

Enough political digression.

There's a lot to think about in this game, and indeed our game took abour 2.5 hours after 'splainin'. And it took some 'splainin', even to people who had played several Settlers variants before. Having played one of the other Histories games would probably have helped, since each of them has a similar maneuver element, but the goods cube delivery system is the critical part of this game, and the fact that it doesn't really kick in until much later makes it hard to explain this in a meaningful way to new players and they will forget how important it is.

To be honest, 2.5 hours seems like a long time, although I spent a good three hours playing Catan Express with six at GameStorm last March and almost enjoyed it. I would expect game time to drop with experience down to two hours, probably a good number with four, and 90 minutes with three players, although I'd be concerned about there being a little too *much* wide open spaces in that case, and too easy to build two-player enclaves where you could get cubes delivered easily while locking out the third player, but I'm just thinking out loud. I do look forward to playing this game with three, however.

In the end, I have to wonder if, as my good friend Mike says on occasion, that it's Settlers. Which means you are at the whim of the resource dice. As Rome had it's own way of trying to distribute a more normal statistical curve, America seems to try to avoid the problem by having a lot of resource rolls. We had cards flying around like crazy in the early game, and i can see why the extra build rounds are so important - otherwise everyone would lose resources to the robber very quickly, and there is a lot to build in this game. The curve seemed to be pretty good overall, but I could see how rolls in a small part of the game could temporarily hobble players. That said, in our game Alex had a very slow start but managed to pass Ben when Ben looked like he had the game locked up once his last city got built and all he had to do was deliver cubes. I made a good run myself at the end, unfortunately building a city where Alex could deliver his last cube.

In the end, this is possibly one of the most strategic Settlers games out there, and (political correctness aside) a good game even if it wasn't part of the franchise. To use another venerated franchise in eurogaming, this is Carcasonne: The City, a game where the luck and fluffiness of the original game is bulked up to a much more strategic game by a clever and nicely thematic evolution of the design. If you like the core idea of Settlers and want a more strategic version and don't mind the game length, this may be the variant for you. It sure worked for me.

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