Why I dislike Starship Catan, yet keep playing it
Starship Catan is the 2-player game based on Starfarers of Catan, which in turn is based on the enormously successful Settlers of Catan game. It was designed by Klaus Teuber and published in 2001 through Kosmos in Germany and Mayfair in the US.
I have to confess to a sort of love-hate relationship with Starship Catan. I've only played two times as of this writing, so my opinion could change in the future. I dare say, though, that I'll almost always feel this way about the game: the idea of playing it is interesting, but the actual fact of doing so is under-whelming.
For those of you unfamiliar with it, here's the 30-second run-down: Players have ships they can upgrade, paying the cost in four different resources. Players acquire resources (as well as trade goods and science points) through colonization and trade. Four decks of cards are used to simulate quadrants of space. Each turn, a player chooses a deck to fly through, hoping to find trading posts to engage or colonies to settle and exploit. The decks are seeded with better/more dangerous cards as the game goes on. There is a memory element to remembering what is in each deck. Sometimes a player encounters a pirate, and must decide whether to fight or bribe him off. There are missions that pop up from time to time, usually giving some sort of benefit if the player can scrape together the required array of resources to solve the mission. Colonies, ship upgrades, trading posts, missions, and defeating pirates are all ways to gain victory points. The first one to 10 VP's wins.
So what's the gripe? First I'll mention some things I do like about the game. The flight decks are the best part—it really feels like you're exploring uncharted space, especially in the beginning. You never know what the next card that's turned up will be. I also like the ship upgrades, it feels like you're adding to your starship, enhancing its abilities. Sadly, this aspect of the game only lasts for about 75% of its length; by that point, you'll have purchased everything that could possibly be of use to you, so you spend the last part of the game blasting through the card decks looking for the last couple of planets or pirates you need to push yourself over the VP total.
In fact, this is the part I like least about Starship Catan: the fact that the game is essentially over (from a decision-making standpoint) long before it's actually over (i.e. the VP threshold is reached). By 3/4 of the way through the game, each player will usually have a strong enough ship to have little to fear from pirates, and will have made all the other upgrades he needs or wants (advanced upgrades are only available once each, so if Player A gets the Enhanced Logistics Module, Player B doesn't have a chance to get it). Sometimes certain modules are not useful late in the game; if you didn't buy it early, there's little point to doing so now, except that the advanced version of each module is worth an extra VP. If your opponent has the advanced version, then there may well be no reason for you to buy the basic version if you can't get a lot of benefit from it. Certain modules are manifestly more useful than others (the enhanced Command Module being the most important one, in my opinion—it allows an extra action each turn). The person who got that module in each of our games won. Being able to do four actions per turn when your opponent can only ever do three is a huge benefit. Sometimes you can't use all your actions, but more often than not the extra action really, really helps.
Players have the option of trading with one another. Two-player trading is hard to implement in any case, since it's zero-sum. The problem is exacerbated in Starship Catan, however, because the resources each player owns are open to view by the other player. So if my opponent offers a certain trade, I know exactly what else he has and what he'll be able to buy if I trade with him. If I know that the proposed trade will enable him to buy an enhanced module, for example, I won't trade unless I get a basket of goods that will benefit me similarly. This problem would be lessened if resources were hidden, because then I wouldn't necessarily know if the proposed trade is setting him up to buy something great, or if it's just an intermediate step that I can afford to let him have.
Another problem is the introduction of money. At some planets you may sell resources, which gains you money. You may also buy resources, which costs you money. The money in the game is simply a medium of exchange, and adds nothing functional to the game. It takes the essentially clean trading system from Settlers and introduces a layer of fiddliness that doesn't add anything to the game play. With a little clever thought, the money could have been stripped out of the game entirely and trades made resource-for-resource, removing the tediousness of passing little money counters back and forth with the bank.
In the end, there really isn't that much decision making going on here. Colonies are a major source of VP's, so you always, always, always want to have a Colony Ship available (these are purchased for resources and are required to colonize a planet; once used up they must be purchased again). So if you don't have one, your primary goal should be to acquire the resources you need to get one. Only after that is it worthwhile looking to buy other things. I can't really think of a reason not to colonize a planet if you have the chance. Sure, sometimes you'll end up with three colonies that all produce on the same die roll, and you can only choose one item for each roll, but they're also worth 1 VP each and if you don't take them, your opponent will.
The game seems like it plays you, rather than you playing the game. Your decisions are often patently obvious (Don't have a Colony Ship? Drop everything and get one. Already have one? Buy the next module you can afford. Which stack to fly through? Well, you've seen what's in them so what do you want to try to find). Add to all this the long set-up time and game length (about 1.5 - 2 hours), and it doesn't seem to have a lot going for it.
So after all this complaining, you'd think I'd never want to play the game again. However, it does have its charm. The exploration is fun. It's sometimes tense to see if you can defeat a pirate (usually early in the game; later you'll have enough guns to not really fear them much). Being able to accomplish one of the missions is cool too. Last but not least, my wife kind of likes it, so we'll probably play it from time to time. But it will sit idle for long stretches while we forget some of the downsides and build up the desire to play again.
- Caleb Diffell