Starfarers of Catan

I recently wrote a game review for Starfarers of Catan. It’s a favorite in our household and especially enjoyed by my wife.

Introduction

Starfarers of Catan is a game we play at home quite often. In fact, it became one of my wife’s favorite games. People often ask what games they can play that their significant other (usually for a female when this question gets asked); a game that is a little more heavy than an “introduction” or “gateway” game. Another favorite in our house is Puerto Rico, but Starfarers of Catan is very different. For whatever reasons I don’t see a lot of really positive comments about this game and that surprises me. So I wanted to add my voice to those who are fans of this game. It has some production issues and takes a little effort to learn, but it really is a lot of fun and plays many times over very well. Here’s my review of the game.

Quick Summary

In the universe of Settlers of Catan there are now many variants and expansions. Most are actually very good. Starfarers of Catan is an excellent entry into that collection of games. It has a lot of interesting and fun bits, has a large board, and plays well with 2 to 6 players. We use a 2-player variant in our house that plays great, the standard rules suggest a minimum of 3 players.
In this review I also discuss the expansion pack, not because we play with 5 or 6 players, but because of the interesting enhancements it makes to the basic game. Not only do I recommend this game, I recommend using the expansion pack. I think the expansion pack actually makes the game play faster too.

The Cool Bits

Euro-style strategy games often come with lots of cool pieces, many times wooden pieces. Starfarers of Catan does not have any wood pieces. There are cards and plastic components. The exceptional pieces are the “Mother Ships”.
There are 4 Mother Ships provided with the basic game. 1 for each player. These ships serve several purposes in the game. During the game a player sends ships out into space to colonize new star-systems, establish trade agreements with friendly alien races, and battle space pirates. The entire fleet is upgraded in unison, each ship the player has is equipped with the same level of enhancements. The mechanism to track the enhancement levels for each player’s ship is through use of the Mother Ship.
Look at the picture for the Mother Ship. The colored disk on the top (yellow in this shot) identifies the owner of this starship. That colored piece is pressed onto the tip of the ship. The long stem, or tip, has the ability to hold several gray plastic rings. 2 are shown added to the Mother Ship in the photograph. These are Fame Rings. You earn these by helping out stranded spaceships, defeating space pirates and other acts that give reward. The blue plastic pieces festooned around the top of the Mother Ship represent the level of cannon upgrades your fleet has. When you pay for this upgrade you add a blue cannon. Further down along the body of the ship you can see a copper-colored band snapped across the body of the Mother Ship. These are Freight Rings. Each Mother Ship can hold up to 5. This identifies a capacity level for your trade ships. On the Mother Ships in the picture there are no Booster Rockets, but you can also upgrade your fleet with little yellow booster rockets that snap around the lower part of the ship. Adding these increase the speed of the ships in your fleet.
Another feature of the Mother Ships is shown by the plastic cup with two colored balls in it. The cup is permanently attached to the ship and it always shows 2 different colored balls when the ship is upright. These are a neat game mechanic. In each turn a player picks up their Mother Ship and shakes or tilts it to one side and then sets it backup vertical. A different combination of colored balls (red, blue, yellow and black) appear in the bottom. These are used to determine the base speed of the ships – there’s a speed table printed on a card given to each player. Picking the Mother Ships up on your turn an “rolling” it to get this randomness is part of the fun of this game.
The other cool pieces are the little space ships that move around the board. The basic game comes with 4 colors for up to 4 players, red, yellow, blue and green. The expansion pack adds 2 more Mother Ships and 2 colors, gray and white. My son likes to use the gray pieces so we were excited to see those with the expansion pack.

Game Play

Except for occasional encounters with space pirates, this is not a battle or war game. It’s very much an economic and exploration game. Players compete with each other through economic means and space exploration. Each player begins with limited resources and ships. The starting positions are chosen by turn but always from the same end of the board. In the board picture, everyone starts on the right side of the board. These are referred to as the Catan planets. A simplification in this game is that each star system has exactly 3 orbiting planets. The type of resource each planet can produce is known by visual examination of the colors of the planets. Some planets produce food, some ore, some carbon, some produce fuel and some produce trade goods. Small colored cardboard tokens, or chits, are placed on each planet. They represent the production number of the respective planet.

At the start of the game the production numbers of these unvisited planets is unknown and the chits are all face down. When a planet becomes colonized, the token gets flipped over.

Here’s another interesting game mechanic. At the beginning of each turn each player rolls a dice. The number on the dice indicates which planets produce that turn. If you have a planet with a 5 token on it and you roll a 5 then whatever that planet produces (trade goods, food, ore, carbon or fuel) you get that resource that turn. The cool thing is that this applies to every player in the game. When you roll the resource die all planets produce, not just your own. That’s cool because everyone gets something with every turn. In fact you can actually have the misfortune of rolling a resource die number that produces something on everyone else’s planets that turn, but not your own planets.

As resources get produced you collect resource cards.

These resources are in turn used to purchase colony ships, trade ships and space stations. You also consume resources to add upgrades to your Mother Ship.

 

 

Along the way you can experience Encounter Cards in your turn. These vary.

Sometimes they are encounters with other friendly aliens. They often ask you for some sort of resources as a gift and when you comply they grant you a Fame Ring or some other benefit. Sometimes you encounter a space pirate who attempts to steal your cargo. You have to either surrender what the pirate wants or fight. Sometimes you encounter aliens who grant you special abilities if you give them resources.

As you explore the universe and colonize planets you also will see alien trading outposts. These are places to establish trade agreements. Trade agreements yield special benefits for the remainder of the game for your fleet. When you make a trade agreement with one of the alien races (there are 5 in the expanded game) if you have the most amount of trade agreements with that alien race you get to take a friendship token. It is possible to have more than one trade agreement with a specific alien race, and it is possible you may have more than any other player. The trade agreements, number of colonies established, number of Fame Rings and number of space ports all contribute Victory Points for each player. That’s how you tell who is winning. The player with the most Victory Points is winning the game. And when a certain number of Victory Points are accomplished by any player the game ends.

So the basic strategy of the game is that you build up production on planets to create resources, you use those resources to build more colony and trade ships and you explore the universe for the best combinations of locations and resource production planets to give you an edge. The accumulation of Victory Points is how you measure you progress and ultimately win the game.

One of the cool enhancements you can purchase for the game is a set of little figures for each of the alien races encountered in the game. You can use these figures instead of the friendship tokens. It adds to the theme and overall fun of the game.

 

 

Some people have reported that the game takes 3 hours to play. We found that this is true for maybe the first time as the rules get understood. But after that we often get a game completed in about 60 to 90 minutes. I think the expansion pack is one of the reasons. It adds planets to the universe and that makes the game develop faster. I also have observed that resource production and game play are fairly slow early in the game, but once the players start to colonize and make trade agreements the Victory Points start to accumulate fast. Once the game gets to what feels like it should be the half-way point, it starts accelerating and gets to the finish often much sooner than the players expect.

Some Production Issues

The game has a few faults. Number one is those Mother Ships. As soon as you get this game send an e-mail message to Customer Service at Mayfair Games (custserv@mayfairgames.com) and ask for the replacement booster rings for your Mother Ships. The plastic clips that hold the booster to the Mother Ships are too fragile. You will break one as you play this game. Mayfair, to their credit has responded to this problem well. Just send them an e-mail and they will ship you 6 replacement rings that snap over the ship. They send 6 in case you purchased the expansion pack. They will do this free of charge.

Update 11-May-2009: Mayfair has corrected this problem and is not including these rings inside the box.  If for some reason you do find an older copy of the game somewhere you can still write for a set.

There are some comments on Board Game Geek about this problem and one of the recommends is that you carefully use an emery board and open the clips up. I did that with my ships and we still broke two.

The second issue we have is that we think the resource cards are poorly covered. They pick up dirt very easily and start to feel grungy after you play the game a number of times. Truth is, we tolerate this because we like the game so much, but I’d love to see a better set of cards – like those produced by Days of Wonder for “Ticket To Ride”.

The expansion pack was designed to add support for 2 more players to the game, bringing the total up to 6. It also provides for added star systems and one new alien trading system. These new star systems and alien outpost are provided as removable decals to be applied to the game board. When you finish the game you are expected to take these decals back off the board and put the decal sheets and board away. You actually have to take them off the board because the recommended location for some of the new star systems is directly across where the board is divided up. The sticker cannot stay on the board if you intend to fold the board back up to return it to the box. This removal and re-application of the stickers seemed problematic to us. So I changed the layout of the decals to allow us to just leave them on the board. Here’s how we worked that out.

Conclusion

I recommend this game. It’s a great economics and exploration game. Our 11-year old boy loves it. The theme is fun. And maybe just as important for many folks reading this review, my significant-other loves this game. It’s a cool thing to find a game the whole family enjoys. It’s really cool when the game has some depth to it.

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