house-rules1How do you feel about game rules?

By Ken St. Andre

Are you one who believes in playing the game the way the rules tell you to play it every time, or . . . are you willing to mess with the written rules to get a game that is more fun with just a few tweaks and changes?  You know what kind of guy I am.  If I were always willing to go along with the original rules, Tunnels and Trolls would never have been created.

Today I’d like to talk about House Rules for Settlers of Catan.  Settlers is an excellent  game.  I like it a lot.  Klaus Teubar’s game of colonization, construction, and empire building is brilliant, but after a few games one gets the feeling that it could be better.

catan[1]I will assume that my readers know how to play this game.  If you don’t know, you could look it up at wikipedia or other places online, so I won’t recap the rules for you.

I’ve tried some of these suggestions out on other people.  Some of them like them, and some don’t.  That’s okay.  Everyone has their own style.  I’d like to offer some ideas to you.  Use them or not, as you please.  (Once you get your own copy of the game, it’s yours, and you can play using whatever rules you please.)

1.  The standard game board has only 19 hexes on it.  That’s too small.  Get more hexes, and make it bigger.  For that matter, why does it have to be perfectly symmetrical.  It could be laid out in a truly random pattern, and come out looking like Italy, or Australia.

2.  Place the hexes on the board in a random pattern, face down so you don’t know what you’re getting until you build a road along the hex or a city on one of the corners.  Put some exploration and luck into the game.

3.  Add gold to the game.  (Some expansions and published variants of Catan already do this.  Why should the desert be barren, and unproductive?  (I live in a desert state–Arizona–and I tell you that stereotype is a lie.  Deserts are amazing places and have a lot to offer.)  Desert hexes can be gold producers.  This works especially well if you have more than desert hex in the game.  Another option is to give any player who doesn’t get any resources on a turn, a gold piece instead.  What is gold for?  It buys resources from the bank–two gold per resource.  (That’s a simple version.  I would price the resources more higher–wood and grain cost two, brick and stone cost three).  This idea came from the Settlers of America variant, but it works just fine in the Settlers of Catan version too.  If players also have money, they can expand the idea of trading among themselves, and buy resources from each other.  It adds to the social interaction of the game.

Deserts produce minerals such as gold, which in its raw state looks something like this.4.  Don’t follow the prescribed pattern for laying down the numbers.  Mix them up and put them down randomly.  Randomness always adds interest to the game.  I like random options a lot, as long as they’re fair to everyone in the game.

5.  But it can be just as much fun to take the random element out of a game sometimes.  Instead of rolling the dice when a player begins her turn, why not simply call the number you want it to be?  If you have a settlement on a grain hex that only produces on 12, you won’t get much grain from it if you rely on dice, but if you can simply call 12 when it’s your turn and you want grain, that changes things a lot.  Probability goes out the window, and strategy becomes much more important.  If you get to call your own numbers, do you strive for numbers that no other players have, or do you try to put settlements on hexes that are important to other players so that when they benefit, you also benefit?

6.  Let all players have a building phase at the end of each player’s turn.  That speeds up the game, and keeps the players involved on every turn.

7.  And the one rule I can’t talk anyone into playing with me–Catan to the death where players can build armies of knights and conquer each other’s settlements and cities.  All this peaceful competition seems kind of unreal to me.  It really is an empire-building game, so let’s get real and factor human aggression into the mix.

Klaus Teubar’s original idea for Settlers was for a bigger, more complex game, but he dumbed it down for the commercial market.  That was a marketing decision, and has probably made him wealthy.  The general public isn’t really ready for truly complex games, or even moderately complex ones.  Some of the larger ideas remain, and you see them in the Catan variants that have been released in the last decade.  Settlers of America is. imho,  especially brilliant, and more so if you put some house rules into it to open the game up.

You can use my ideas–no charge (grin)–or you can come up with your own that might be even better.  My point is that many board games (and roleplaying games) are unnecessarily restrictive.  Game design is fun.  It’s creative.  Get into it by making your own house rules and variants of things.  Or don’t–it’s up to you.

If you have your own house rules for Settlers of Catan, why not leave a comment here? I can’t be the only person who ever messed with the rules.

Game on!