Playing a game is a lot like taking a Rorschach test – both reveal much about their participants. Engage in either activity at your own risk, for what you learn about yourself, or others, may not easily be forgotten. The first time I played Monopoly with my grandma I thought she hated me. Gone was the little old lady, known for her sweet disposition and even sweeter mandel bread, and in her place sat the most ruthless of capitalists. She was our resident railroad tycoon, ensuring all infrastructure fell under her domain. Grandma played to win.
I did not inherit the competitive gene. Granted, failure is never my goal. The thing is I do not HAVE to triumph; my fun does not hinge on emerging victorious. More than anything I take pride in testing the limits of whatever rules are imposed upon me, in-game or otherwise. During introspective moments I’ve contemplated whether or not this might serve as a defense mechanism, that I’d rather appear carefree than calculating. Or maybe even that I deflect the potentially bitter sting of defeat with a penchant for nonchalance. Either way, I aspire to entertain more so than to conquer.
Introducing a new game is always awkward for me. No matter if it is Street Fighter or Mancala, I worry that beating the first-timer will put them off from playing again. Then there’s the other side of that coin, such that you certainly don’t want to make it obvious you’re taking it easy either. I’ve never introduced a tabletop game to anybody before bringing Star Trek: Catan to Jessie’s family’s house for a game night. Our experience was no exception to my expectations.
We were playing with her brother, Eric, and her mother, the wonderful Lynn. Neither had seen Catan before and this was still only the fourth or fifth match for me and Jessie. But we weren’t merely playing Settlers; no, we were vying for supremacy in space, the final frontier. Instead of traditional settlements and cities, the Gene-Rodenberry-inspired version of this game features Outposts that you can upgrade into Starbases. Tiny, plastic Starship Enterprises connect these space stations in lieu of terrestrial roads. Planetary resources include the three necessities, water food and oxygen, as well as the futuristic substances Dilithium and Tritanium. A Klingon Battle Cruiser has replaced the robber as a resource-stealing antagonist to complete the thematic immersion into Federation space.
The rules are exactly the same as the classic edition aside from the inclusion of crew cards, which evidently is an adaptation of the Helpers of Catan expansion. These cards feature Kirk, Spock, and the rest of the gang from the original series, and each crewmember offers a circumstantial, one-time benefit unique to their character. We gave Starfleet’s finest the day off since all four of us were still getting used to the core set of rules. Hopefully that pointy-eared bastard would agree with our logic. (Obligatory RIP to the legendary Mr. Nemoy.)
While Jessie and I had the advantage of having played before, the last thing I wanted to do was underestimate either of our new challengers – at the end of the day I must still appear worthy of Jessie’s affection, or so I hope. Lynn is an accountant by trade, and her eye for juggling numbers and details had me at red alert. I do not know much about the enigmatic Eric other than that he is quite intelligent and, though new to Catan, has definitely played a game or two in his day. After setting up our randomized planets in the customary hexagonal formation, we had our own little Alpha Quadrant ready for the taking.
What I’ve gathered from the few sessions under my belt is that the placement of the initial two settlements can make or break your chances of success. There are two phases of every match: the early game is predominantly focused on building roads and settlements (or shall we say starships and outposts, respectively) and then the later turns emphasize the importance of upgrading to cities/ starbases. Resources that assist with construction in the beginning slowly but surely lose their significance as you transition toward upgrading your infrastructure. Catan is engaging mostly thanks to how it balances the randomness of dice-based outcomes while rewarding strategic resource management. That, plus the political and social implications of allowing players to trade with each other. A veteran player could very well connive or even chance their way to the ten points required for victory should they face unfavorable positioning early on, but just about anybody can win if they land on prime real estate.
This time around I fumbled toward interstellar domination thanks to the second of the aforementioned scenarios. My beginning outposts were fortuitously located on the corner of lavishness and luxury. The only reasoning that guided me was to keep my spaceships near as many colors (resources) as possible. I like colors, and the dice, which are fittingly star-spangled, seemed to like me. Simplicity can go a long way when luck is on your side. My fleet of starships spread across the map despite my desire to expand leisurely. I was swimming in oceans of water while hoarding enough oxygen to make even President Skroob envious. Sooner rather than later all my outposts were fortified starbases, and the deed was done. I had earned my reluctant victory.
As a new game for a bunch of new gamers, Star Trek: Catan has its shortcomings. The resources, deviating from the classic brick, wheat, sheep, wood and stone, are so abstract that it can be hard to keep track of their value. I found myself, and others, referencing the Building Costs cheat sheet more often than not. Between that and the somewhat intricate addition of crewmembers, it may be best to use the standard version of Catan when introducing beginners to the struggle for hegemonic superiority. The sci-fi setting is a welcomed modification to a beloved game; it’s just a bit much to take in all at once.