You can see the first part of our Catan: Explorers & Pirates review here.
We began play-testing Explorers & Pirates on Sunday afternoon. We were already a little tired by then (we are babysitting a Lab puppy, who wakes up between 4 and 5 a.m., so by early afternoon we are well into our day), and when I pulled off the shrink wrap and opened up the box it was a little overwhelming to see just how much stuff was inside. Especially since you need to have your copy of Settlers of Catan in order to play Explorers & Pirates … what you are doing is taking your base Settlers game and grafting this expansion right on top of it. So, the upshot is “Don’t be in a hurry to play”. It took me about 20 minutes just to pop the cardboard pieces out, and to sort them according to the requirements for the five scenarios. Mayfair helpfully provides additional, empty, ziplock plastic bags so that you can separate and store the bits and pieces for the different scenarios.
There are lots of new wooden pieces to play with, too: each players gets actual settlers, sailors, ships, harbours, fish, spice, and circular markers with which to keep track of pirate lairs vanquished, fish caught, and spices hauled home. This treasure trove of new pieces is on top of the components you need from your base game: roads, settlements, various hexes, number tiles, and dice. Oh, and the ocean frame pieces.
In the first scenario, Land Ho!, the game uses 15 land hex tiles from the base game, plus 16 land hex tiles from Explorers & Pirates, plus assorted ocean frame pieces (some from the base game, some from the expansion) to hold the whole thing together. The land hex tiles from the expansion are marked with either a sun or moon on the obverse (eight of each), and are placed face-down, randomized, into their areas at the start of the scenario. The instructions are reasonably clear (including diagrams), to help you set up the first game. The frame tiles from the expansion are clearly marked (A1, A2, B1, B2, and so on) to make assembly as easy as possible.
We did find that the frame tiles from our Settlers game (the tiles are used upside-down, by the way, so that the various trading harbours are hidden and not used) were much thinner cardboard than the frame tiles from the expansion, and that they would not stay together well. This is not by any means a deal breaker, but it was irritating.
Land Ho! serves merely to introduce the idea of exploration via ships, and settlement-building on the distant islands via settlers on board those ships. Each settler costs the same as a settlement; you are essentially building a settlement and transporting it via ship. When a ship, which (ordinarily) has 4 movement per player turn, touches a face-down hex, it is considered to have “discovered” it. The hex is flipped face-up; if it is a land tile, the discovering player gets one appropriate resource, then a number token is taken from the face-down pile and applied to the hex. If the player’s ship contains a settler, he has the option of creating a settlement on the newly-discovered land. He’s not obliged to settle the first hex he finds, however: it might be strategically better to discover adjacent hexes, since settlements cannot be built at the intersections of discovered and unknown hexes. Similarly, roads may be built on the new islands, allowing settlements in the interior, but only between two discovered hexes (all hexes are reachable by sea).
In the second scenario, Pirate Lairs!, the game board is enlarged once more, this time by the addition of gold-field hexes. These are shuffled into the unknown hex groups, and are then dealt out into the frame face-down. Now, when players explore, they have a 3 in 11 chance of discovering a gold hex — but when they do, it becomes a Pirate Lair. The Pirate Lair is indicated by the disc shown above, placed on the revealed gold-field hex. Players may try to conquer the Lair, by ferrying crew members to it; when 3 crew stand upon the Lair, it is overcome, and the disc is flipped to indicate the dice roll to be used henceforth. Victory Points are awarded for defeating Pirates (there’s a mechanic for determining who has been the Hero, if more than one player has taken part, as in the photo above).
Pirate Lairs! also introduces the Pirate Ship, which operates sort of like the Robber in the base game. Each player has one Pirate Ship, which is played when a 7 is rolled, and must be placed on the sea hexes of the game (i.e. not on the frame pieces or immediately adjacent to the starting island). The player who places his ship on a hex after rolling a 7 may steal 1 random resource card from an opponent who has a ship on a sea route of this hex. Furthermore, if players wish to move one of their ships onto, along, or off a hex occupied by a Pirate Ship, they must pay tribute of 1 gold piece per ship.
The Pirate Ship may also be chased away by an opponent’s ship, in a sea-battle carried out by means of dice rolls. Initially, you must roll a 6 in order to successfully rout the Pirate, and you then replace it with your own (in the Spices for Catan scenario, the two of the Spice Islands can confer superior pirate-fighting abilities to players who land sailors upon them). Avast, me hearties! The Pirate Ship, like the Robber, keeps the game from becoming a straight chase game, where the points leader becomes essentially unstoppable.
Shouldn’t It Be Called Fish Ho?
Scenarios 3 and 4, Fish for Catan and Spices for Catan, introduce the concepts of, well, fishing and spice exploration respectively. Finding a fish shoal hex, catching a fish haul, and successfully delivering it to the Council of Catan (a new hex placed into the board) earns a player Victory Points. In Spices for Catan, players seek Spice hexes, where they may trade crew members for spice to be delivered to the Council of Catan. Each spice bag successfully delivered moves the player’s marker forward one space on the mission card, and counts as a certain number of Victory Points. Each spice hex also confers a special ability to a player who leaves a sailor upon it: extra ship movement, pirate-fighting ability (see above), or super bargaining powers that allow a player to acquire a resource from the bank for a single gold piece instead of three.
The final scenario is, in fact, all the scenarios played at once. Players explore, fight gold-hex pirates, deploy their own Pirate Ships, seek fish and spices, and race towards the goal of 17 Victory Points. The board is very large, with all pieces in play. Hexes are dealt out randomly on the starting island as well as on the unexplored islands, as are the number discs.
We’ll be playing this one this afternoon, and I fully expect that a game — even with only 2 players — will take a couple of hours. The two-player variants of the scenarios play quite well, by the way. Four neutral pieces (harbours and settlements) are deployed on the starting island to make things more crowded and difficult.
So far, we’re up to Fish for Catan, and Richard has whupped me 3 games to 0. This is embarrassing. I may demand a Spice for Catan rematch later today — but honestly, these defeats have stolen my mojo. I can only hope for the best.
I managed to squeak out a victory in the full game. The game took a little over two hours to complete. The two-player version was quite satisfying, although we look forward to playing again with four. I think that the strategy might have to be quite different with a more crowded board.
Catan: Explorers & Pirates
- Our assessment: 9/10