Game Review: The Rivals for Catan

In preparation for the release of The Struggle for Catan (a new 2-4 player Catan-themed card game) and in celebration of The Settlers of Catan's 15th anniversary, Mayfair Games has revised and relaunched its original 2 player game, The Rivals for Catan. But 2 player games are notoriously hard to make competitive and engaging. Does this one provide enough of a Catan experience to make it worth your while? Read on for the full review:

Just the Facts:

Players: 2

Playing Time: 45-60 minutes

Age: 10 to adult

Publisher: Mayfair Games

MSRP: $20.00

Release: Q4 2010

The Gameplay:

The focus in Rivals for Catan, much like Settlers of Catan, is to collect resources that allow you to expand your principality in pursuit of victory points. These points can be achieved by building new settlements, upgrading existing settlements to cities, growing your army, or expanding your trade capability.

After a brief setup phase, both players have a nearly-identical principality set up on opposite sides of the table, with various draw stacks of common cards dividing the table down the middle.

In the above picture, the center of each player's setup is a combination of two settlements with a road in-between. Since settlements are worth one victory point each, the players begin with two. Players each draw a 3-card hand, and the game is ready to begin. Turns play out over four phases:

  • Rolling the Dice: A resource die and an event die are both rolled to start the turn. The resource die is number 1-6, and will correspond directly to one of the six resource cards in the active player's principality. They will gain 1 of whatever resource was rolled that turn. The event die has more unpredictable results. Depending on what is rolled, the active player can gain a bonus resource, steal resources from the other player, draw an event card, or even be attacked by brigands and face potentially massive resource loss.
  • Taking Actions: There are several potential actions a player may wish to take, and they can perform as many of these actions as the cards and resources they hold allow. The two major types of actions are playing cards or trading resources. Furthermore, cards can be played from a player's hand or from the common stacks in the center of the table.Cards from a player's hand may either be settlement/city expansions or actions. While actions typically have no cost and provide an immediate effect, expansions are permanently placed in a player's province and provide a lasting effect. However, players must pay a set number of resources as listed on the card, and must have room for the expansion. Expansions can only fit above or below settlements and cities.

    Cards from the center of the table allow you to grow your principality with new settlements and cities, which provide two benefits. Additional settlements are worth one additional victory point each, and also expand your principality by adding two new resource collection regions. This means you now have a chance of gaining two or more resources off of an event die roll. Cities replace existing settlements, but are worth twice as many victory points. They also allow you to play city expansion cards. As opposed to settlements that can hold 1 expansion above and 1 expansion below themselves, cities can fit two expansion cards in either direction, giving the player more options

    The final action is to trade. Unlike the original Settlers of Catan, there is no trading amongst players in this game. Instead there is a set resource exchange rate of 3-to-1. That is to say, a player can turn three matching resources into any other resource at will. This is helpful because no player can ever hold more than 3 of one resource.  Alternatively, some expansion cards lower the exchange rate to 2-to-1 for specific resources.

  • Checking Your Hand: Players must have three cards in their hand at the end of this phase, and will be forced to draw or discard to reach this number. The only exception is if players have used expansion cards that grant a "progress point", the only purpose of which is to allow that player to hold one extra card in their hand per point.
  • Exchanging a Card: At the end of each turn, the active player may choose to either draw one random  card from the top of any draw pile, or pay two resources to select one draw pile and sort through for the card they want.

Additional victory points are also awarded once a player reaches three strength and/or trade points from their played cards. There is a special token to mark who currently has the most of either of these points, which serves a similar function to the "largest army" and "longest road" stiff cards from Settlers of Catan. Ownership of each token grants one victory point.

The game continues until player reach the required number of victory points. Depending on the way the game was originally set up (there are several modes of play outlined in the rules), this goal can be 7 or 13 points.

The Components:

  • 180 Cards
  • Production Die
  • Event Die
  • Trade Token
  • Hero Token
  • Rules Booklet w/ Card Index

The components of Rivals for Catan are generally a strong point. They are all well thought out aside from the plastic box insert, which is almost hilariously impractical. Taking a look at it, the insert must be designed as a universal piece that can support multiple games, because it is impossible to keep the cards for Rivals of Catan stable and sorted inside. My recommendation is to simply throw this out and use a few plastic bags to store your sorted cards.

The cards, dice, and tokens are all of a good production quality and otherwise not noteworthy. The artwork, from original Catan artist Michael Menzel is definitely well done and within the original the theme of the Catan universe.

The rulebook for this game is about as good as they come. The rules start with an introductory game, and provide four additional modes of play. Three of these are "theme games" that slowly introduce players to the different types of play. The final mode of play, "The Duel of the Princes", is the advanced game where a mixture of all cards is used for a true two-player duel. As an index, there is a card directory that show as a picture of and explains the usage of every single card included in this game. That is above and beyond what anyone should expect.

As great as this rulebook is, you are given the option to skip it outright if you are a more visual learner. The front cover directs you to where you can watch a flash tutorial. This is one of the few games I have played of late where we got every single rule right on the first try.

Final Thoughts:

The Rivals for Catan is a tough game to judge. Although the artwork and theme feel like Settlers of Catan, the game does not feel very similar at all. Yes, you are collecting resources and spending them to expand a province, but the same strategies one would use in Settlers have been gutted. The collection of resources and placement of settlements no longer has any skill involved, and has devolved into a complete game of chance.

Before you go writing this off as a negative review though, know that there definitely is some complexity present in Rivals for Catan. Appropriate for a card game, the depth is actually in the cards. What resources you collect is beyond your control, but there are definitely room for strategic play.

The big challenge with any two-player title is the balance between maintaining your own progress versus beating the opposing player down. For the latter, there is a mix of direct interaction cards that will derail your opponent. The ability to pay resources to sort through the decks is the key to this game. While Rivals does not have the brinksmanship of say, Twilight Struggle, there will still be times in the game where one player or another is clearly looking for a certain cards. In this game, it will either you or them who gets it, so you'd better start fishing.

For experienced gamers, I recommend skipping immediately to the "Duel of the Princes" advanced game mode. Yes, it maybe a little rocky on first play, but I also suggest passing the rule book back and forth to make liberal use of the card index. A quick scan of those pages will give you enough knowledge of the cards you have not yet seen to make intelligent moves even on your first play.

Overall, The Rivals of Catan succeeds more often than it fails. As mentioned earlier, the two player market it a hard niche to fill. As a card game, I'm also more inclined to forgive a few flaws as it is both inexpensive and easily portable. Considering all of the above, Rivals is an above average game and would be a quality addition to your collection if you are looking for a two player card game with moderate strategic depth.

Mayfair Games provided a complimentary review sample of this game.