Part 1: The Official View
The reviews are in, and they are good. Catan: Explorers & Pirates is the expansion that has breathed new life into the venerable Settlers of Catan.
Catan: Explorers & Pirates is an interesting departure for Mayfair Games and Catan inventor and designer Klaus Teuber. Over the years, the Catan universe has grown to include various thematic expansions (Seafarers, Cities & Knights, and Traders & Barbarians among them), expansions that allow 5 or 6 players to join the fun, mini expansions such as Oil Springs and Frenemies, and spin-offs such as the Catan Histories. Explorers & Pirates brings a new game play mechanic to the base game, however — that of exploration and discovery.
Explorers & Pirates uses a 5-scenario model to introduce itself to players. The first scenario, called Land Ho!, has players leaving the known world (the visible island hexes) to explore and discover two new islands. Unlike the relatively simple game mechanic of Seafarers of Catan, where sea routes were just ocean-going roads, in Explorers & Pirates players must use their ships to carry settlers to the new world.
In the second scenario, Pirate Lairs!, players must fend off (or defeat) marauding pirates. Capturing a pirate hideout will gain you gold and Victory Points.
The third scenario is Fish for Catan! Food shortages on land force players out to sea, where they must compete with pirates and each other for roaming shoals of fish. Again, returning to shore with a hold full of fish will earn a player Victory Points.
Spices for Catan! is the fourth scenario. As in Fish for Catan!, players are seeking spice to bring back to the main island in a quest for Victory Points. Players who reach the Spice Islands can learn much from the Islanders, however — including how to fight off pirates, or improve their sailing techniques (handy stuff to know, right?)
The culminating scenario is Explorers & Pirates, in which all the elements are combined: exploration, pirates, fish, and spice.
All in all, this is a very strong addition to the Catan line-up. I don’t think that it can be played in conjunction with Cities & Knights or with Seafarers (the game would be super long in the first case, and the ocean movement mechanic is completely different in the second, rendering Seafarers kind of obsolete). Still, I think you could use both the land and sea tiles from Seafarers to increase the size of the game board even more, as long as you didn’t care about using the border tiles. (We haven’t tested this yet, so don’t take my word on this.)
As it stands, Explorers & Pirates roughly doubles the length of a game, from the 45 minutes or so for an average run-through on the Catan base game, to at least 90 minutes for this expansion. I’d say it’s worth it, though, especially considering the fact that the Explorers & Pirates scenarios are designed for 2 to 4 players — one of the perennial complaints heard about the original game is that it requires at least 3 players. The fact that this expansion makes the original game even richer and more interesting, while simultaneously allowing two players to battle it out with no compromise in quality of game play, makes this one a winner for me.
We’ll be play-testing Explorers & Pirates over the long weekend. Look for part 2 of this review on Wednesday 4 September.