Saturday, February 25, 2012

REVIEW: Starfarers of Catan - A hard to find treat

I was introduced to Mayfair Games "Starfarers of Catan" several years ago. In fact, it was my introduction to the Catan universe of games (referring of course to the game "Settlers of Catan" and its many variants and expansion sets). It is a game I have played numerous times over the years, but until recently, I was deprived of the means to do so.

The reason being, Mayfair Games has stopped production for the game. This has happened at least once to every lover of games. A game loved by you is suddenly no longer available. This is the case with Starfarers. You can still score a copy, but it will cost you. On eBay, I've seen this game go for upwards of $200.

A gaming buddy of mine owned the copy I used to play with; however, he left the state and took his game with him. Due to the typical high cost of board games, I try not to buy duplicate copies of games that are all ready available to me in my circle of gaming friends. This is a good money saving strategy, but sometimes a cheapskate's actions can bite him in the butt. Currently, I am deciding if I should by the game "Arkham Horror" (which I recently reviewed here). "Arkham Horror" is a game I am head over heels in love with, and while I don't foresee my friend that owns it moving any time soon, I have been bit once. The cheapskate in me is balancing all of this out and will make a decision in the near future.

I decided about a month ago to buy a copy of Starfarers, as I was nostalgic for the game and wanted to play it again. I did not know at that time that Mayfair had stopped producing the game. A visit to my favourite local game shop and a conversation with its owner enlightened me to this fact. I started searching eBay and similar sites for a copy of my own. Until recently, I was unable to find a copy for a price that I was willing to spend.

I am happy to report that several weeks ago, I found a copy of the main game plus the 5-6 player expansion for $120. That is still about $50 over retail price, but I decided that it was price I was willing to pay to play. A couple of nights ago, two of my gaming buddies and myself decided to put "Arkham Horror" on the shelf for a night and play Starfarers. All three of us had played it before and knew we enjoyed it.

I am going to attempt to give an objective review of the game. That is not easy to do with a game that I love and have a long history with. I will try.

Game play is very similar to "Settlers of Catan" (and here I would like to point out that I am referring to Settlers with out any expansion sets). In a nut shell, "Starfarers of Catan" is a science fiction version of "Settlers of Catan". In both games, each player attempts to collect resources and spend said resources to build. Building is one of the main ways to receive victory points. A pre-set number of victory points are needed to win the game. Both games also rely upon trade being conducted amongst the players to achieve their goals. Both games are for 3 to 4 players (and both games offer expansion sets that allow this number to grow to 5 or 6) and both games take an average of three hours to play. So, at their core, both are the same.

The difference between Settlers and Starfarers is in the former, resources are collected based upon terrain that is settled by the player. Those resources are then used to build roads, more settlements and even cities (an improvement upon basic settlements that is worth more victory points). In Settlers, there is no combat or encounter system. Instead of relying upon combat as a point of tension, the players open trade amongst themselves and attempt to collect the resources they need while at the same time depriving their opponents of resources needed by them. A good amount of strategy is involved.

These observations are true of Starfares as well, with a minor change; in Starfarers the "land" settled is a colony on different worlds. Instead of roads being built, there is a movement system in place that allows a player to move either his colony ship or trade ship (or both) a set number of places. When an area that is eligible for colonisation is reached, it may be colonised by the player. There is still building in Starfares, but there is much more to build. Resources are used to build colony ships, trade ships, spaceports (the Starfarer version of improving a settlement to a city) and players can improve their ships. There are three improvements to be made for the space ships: boosters may be purchased (allowing faster interstellar travel), laser canons may be purchased (improving odds of dealing with space pirates) and freight rings are purchased (allowing increased trade amongst the alien races).

The largest difference between the two games is Starfarers adds the possibility of encounter cards to be drawn. There are generally three different encounter scenarios possible: space pirates can be encountered, which often leads to either combat or attempting to outrun them; the mysterious Travelers could be encountered, which often leads to players having the opportunity to make a space jump to any legal position on the board; or a ship in distress could be encountered, which most often leads to combat.

Coupled with this major change are the randomising factors. In "Settlers of Catan" 2d6 are used to determine resource production. The same is said of Starfarers and in both cases a result of 7 leads to a loss of production (in the case of Settlers the Robber Baron appears, in Starfarers a roll of 7 leads to Earth demanding tribute). Starfarers adds another randomising factor. The player's space ship has four round, coloured balls inside of it, with a clear plastic window at the bottom that allows two of the balls to be seen.

At the beginning of a player's movement phase, he shakes his ship, turns it right side up and looks at the two round balls that are now visible through the plastic bottom of the space ship.

The space ships, pictured to the left (in all its Pimped Out Ride Glory), are used for determining speed and combat success. Three of the round balls (red, blue and yellow) have a numerical value attached to them. A number from 1 to 3. When two of these balls are visible through the clear plastic window (more of a cup actually) are visible their numerical values are added together and give a base number for either speed or combat. For speed, the number of boosters built by the player are added to this number. For combat, the number of cannons built add to the value instead. In both cases, the player will be rolling against an opponent stated by the card (usually either the player to his left or right, and there are cases when the second player to his left or right is called upon).

The appearance of the black ball (numerically worth zero) signifies that an encounter will occur. Thus a whole new element is added to the game that Settlers misses (again, I'm only referring to the base Settlers of Catan Game).

With all of this being said, I wouldn't call Starfarers a superior game over Settlers. Starfarers is cool in a sleek geeky way. The space ships are very old-school Flash Gorden in appearance, and this appeals to my inner sci-fi nerd.

Starfarers does have draw backs. The biggest, in my opinion, is the appearance of the Travellers offers a huge advantage to whatever player is lucky enough to encounter them; especially if this happens early in the game. That player will have access to the furthest portions of the game board and it will take the other players often, too many rounds to catch up. The second complaint I have is while the encounter cards add a really cool element to the game, they happen too often. As I stated previously, there are 5 coloured balls in the space ship, two of which that will be read. So there is always a 2 in 5 chance of having an encounter, that is almost half of the time.

A common complaint of the game is the boosters when attached to the space ship often break the clips that are designed for its use. When the game was still around, Mayfair Games was happy to send replacement clips that are slipped over the original clips. With these in place, it was possible to attach the boosters to the ships without breaking them. With the set I used to play with, we did not have these clips available, so we always set the boosters in front of the ship instead of attaching them. I am fortunate enough that the used copy I purchased has the improved clips included. I do not know if Mayfair will still provide the new clips as replacements or not. When the game was still in print, they would do so for free.

Another con, while it is playable with three people, having played with both three and four, I can tell you it is better with four people. I have also played with as many as six players, and I can also state that more then four players bogs game play down and there is lots of time sitting and waiting for your turn.

The biggest disadvantage is a sad one: the game is no longer available. If you want to play this game, I wish you the best of luck and may the Travellers bless you.

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