Review: Rivals for Catan – OperationGamerWife Success
This week, I decided to take a look at a game that has been prominently featured in my recent Operation GamerWife maneuvers. The Rivals for Catan marks the second attempt to bring the world of Settlers into a two player experience. And, despite my initial skepticism, it does a great job of encapsulating the essential Catan experience. It has most of the enjoyment, and some of the frustration, of the original in a two player package.
The Basics. In Rivals, the two players square off for rulership of the island. Each has a starting setup with two settlements, a road between them, and six resource regions. The regions are sheep, wheat, ore, brick, timber, and gold. Even though the players have the same regions, they produce on different numbers, so the variety will begin at the outset.
From there, players will also have a hand of cards. Some cards are one-shots that provide a specific power or ability and are then discarded. They are largely reminiscent of the development cards from Settlers or the progress cards from Cities and Knights. Additionally, the cards can also be buildings or ships which give ongoing powers. These can only be built above or below a settlement and have a specified build cost.
Aside from the cards, players can have different advantages over one another. The two biggest are the strength advantage and the trade advantage. Certain cards will have strength symbols. The first to three gets the strength advantage until the other player gets more. The same with the trade advantage. Generally, having the strength advantage allows you to pick on the other player when the nastiest cards come out. The trade advantage allows you to steal a resource every six turns on average.
Each turn the dice are rolled. One die is numbered 1 through 6 and determines which regions produce their resource. The other indicates which special occurrence will happen that round. Sometimes it’s good for everyone, sometimes its good for someone with a particular advantage. Once the special factor is resolved, the player can spend resources to grow their settlements (thereby getting more regions) or build new buildings that give ongoing power.
In the basic game, the players play to seven points with each settlement being worth one, each city worth two, and either of the advantages being worth one. The base game is a good learning tool, but ultimately the real meat of Rivals is in the included modules. The game includes three modules: the era of Gold, the era of Turmoil, and the era of Progress. In each, there are specific cards that make use of various buildings and abilities. In the Era of Gold, for example, having the trade advantage can be a bigger boon than usual. Same for the strength advantage in the Era of Turmoil.
With the modules included, the players play until 12 points are reached. First to get there is the winner. The game also allows you to mix all of the sets together and play to 13 points.
The Feel. Frankly, one of the best aspects of Settlers of Catan is the trading. And it is simply too difficult to do much of it in a two player game. After all, any trade will only help your single opponent. So it has to help you more than it helps him. And, with a two player game, that is often too easy to calculate. But, despite the loss of trading, Rivals does an excellent job of bringing the Catan experience.
For one, it includes the Robber. There’s a one in six chance the robber is rolled. But, unlike in Settlers, here the robber doesn’t make you discard half your resources (which could be a big blow in Rivals). Instead, it simply takes all of your wool and gold. Of course, wool is useful, but the robber doesn’t touch your other resources.
It also allows for trading. Any resource can be traded 3:1, but if you get a trade ship down, you can start trading specific resources at 2:1. Further, the race to get the trade and strength symbols is highly reminiscent of the race for the longest road or the largest army. So fans of the original will feel right at home.
I also think the inclusion of the various modules was brilliant. Each has a dramatic impact on the game that makes certain tactics and strategies more or less viable. This helps to breath new life into each play. Plus, it allows the players to customize the experience to their tastes. In Progress, for example, there are added event cards that make having cities a liability. This creates an interesting tension and has players calculating when it might be beneficial to build a city. Between Gold, Turmoil, and Progress, there is something in there for just about every player.
But, unfortunately, Rivals also brings some of the negative aspects of Settlers along. Settlers (and Rivals) use dice to determine what resources get produced. Now, over the long haul of many different games, the rolls will conform to the law of averages. But, in any given game of Settlers, you might see a ten or eleven rolled far more often than a six. I know I’ve had the misfortune of getting a great starting space with a five and six next to each other and then gone the whole game without a five being rolled.
With rivals, it’s only a six sided die, so all regions are theoretically equivalent. Even so, sometimes that three seems to come up a ton while ones are absent. And the same goes for the event die. Sometimes (usually when I don’t have the strength advantage) it keeps rolling events. Other times (when I don’t have the trade advantage) it keeps rolling benefits for the trader. You definitely have to be comfortable with some amount of luck and die rolling if you are to enjoy Rivals.
That said, part of the fun of the game is in managing your resources and rolling with the unpredictable nature of the production. There have been numerous times where I didn’t roll the precise number I wanted. But, through trades or clever card play I was still able to accomplish my objective. This is part of the challenge, and part of the fun.
Components: 3.5 of 5. Rivals is on good stock and the cards have serviceable artwork. Interestingly, Rivals chose to utilize all square cards. They can get shuffled a bit, so I decided to sleeve my copies. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find sleeves in that size, so I ended up buying sleeves that were the right width but a good deal taller. Then I cut them down one by one. With the way that you rotate the cards on the table to keep track of resources, I figured it was only a matter of time before they got gunky.
Strategy/Luck Balance: 3 of 5. Part of the strategy in this game comes from recognizing and dealing with the whims of fate. Necessarily, then, there will be aspects of the game that tip towards luck. It is a bummer when your opponent has the trade advantage and that result keeps coming up again and again. If luck is out to screw you, then there’s only so much you can do. But I wouldn’t call this came a “luck fest.” There is more strategy than luck, but be prepared to roll along with the dice.
Mechanics: 4.5 of 5. I love the way everything comes together in Rivals. Especially with the theme modules, there is a great synergy in the cards and a wide variety of strategies. Even in the base game, there can be a tension between early expansion and early buildings. The game has a relatively simple ruleset that can be learned in a single game, yet provide tons of choices and interactions on additional plays. Plus, the idea of keeping track of the resources on the cards themselves is fantastic and keeps resource acquisition open information.
Replayability: 4 of 5. Some aspects of the game will not change. You always start with the same six resources. Expansion will be necessary at some point. But the game takes on new and interesting turns with each play. And the inclusion of the different theme modules really helps to make the game feel very different from game to game.
Spite: 3.5 of 5. Spite is very present (though it will be more or less so depending on the module used). And there are some particularly nasty cards that allow you to destroy a building from an opponent. Still, most of the game is focused away from direct attacks. Even so, when a card comes along that spits on you, it brings the sting of spite.
Overall: 3.5 of 5. OK, so Rivals isn’t perfect. But it is darn fun. It also hits just the right note on game length. It is definitely deep enough to keep you entertained for forty-five minutes or more. But it doesn’t outstay its welcome at all. Like a wizard, the game finishes neither early nor late, but precisely when it means to. And, on top of everything, the game is just plain fun to play – especially if you are a fan of Settlers. If you like Settlers and are looking for a two player version, it would be hard to find a better game that encapsulates the same feel.