Review: Catan Enters the Dark Ages in New Card Game Expansion

Back in 2011, Mayfair Games went a bit Catan-crazy, publishing a new version of the Catan dice game as well as two different card games, The Struggle for Catan and The Rivals for Catan. Although they all sport the Catan brand name, each contains a completely unique experience. Gamers have been burned in the past with popular franchises such as Carcassonne, which uses the sausage factory model for pushing out expansions and off-shoot games, so the surprise here was that all of the new Catan games were actually quite good.

Just the Facts:

Players: 2

Playing Time: 45-60 minutes

Age: 12+

Publisher: Mayfair Games

Game Designer: Klaus Teuber

MSRP: $15.00

Release: November 17th, 2011

The Gameplay:

The usual warning applies here: Age of Darkness is an expansion set to The Rivals for Catan, so you'll need to own that base game in order to play with the new cards I'll be reviewing here. If you haven't played Rivals for Catan and want to read more about it, check out my review which was posted here on MTV Geek back in April 2011.

Age of Darkness contains three new sets of cards: The Era of Intrigue, The Era of Merchant Princes, and The Era of Barbarians. Just like with the three sets included in The Rivals for Catan, you can choose to play a full game with just one set, or for a bigger game, pull select cards from a three of the six available sets to play "Duel of the Princes" mode.

This expansion includes a few new card types, all of which are locations. Many of these are region expansion buildings, which are played above or below the resource-collection sites. There are also many more extraordinary sites (Rivals included only one, the gold cache), which are played just like units and buildings attached to settlements and cities, but serve to add a new type of card that does not apply for effects that may target a building or a unit.

There are also a few "road complements" which are played over existing road cards to add new abilities, much like a city would be played over top of a settlement. Speaking of which, Age of Darkness adds the "metropolis" card type, which is another layer of building that is placed over an existing city. Although only one of these cards is included in the set, the rulebook mentions future expansions where we may see the metropolis cards pop up again.

The last new type of card is the foreign site, which allows you to place cards into your opponent's principality, giving you a method to foul up their best-laid plans. For example, building the trading station card will occupy one of your opponent's city expansion sites while also allowing you to buy away his resources for 1 gold each.

As for the theme sets themselves, "The Era of Intrigue" focuses on religion in the island of Catan. Like any good church, you'll be collecting heaps of gold with the cards included in this set, but two "religious dispute" cards are mixed into the event deck. When these come up, players can lose their entire hand unless they've build the proper religious sites.

In "The Era of Merchant Princes," cards focus around owning the trade advantage and creating stronger exchange rate combos than your opponent. Key cards in this set include the Ship Builder, which sets up future success by lowering the cost of all future ships, and the Cloth Merchant's Residence, which can beef up your trade advantage if you continue feeding it wool.

Lastly, "The Era of Barbarians," players will have to deal with three copies of the "Barbarian Attack" event card and two copies of the "Contest of Heroes" attack action card, both of which will eat up saved resources. They key to surviving is to fill your principality with units and defensive structures, and doing so will earn you victory points. Whenever a player survives the barbarian attack, they earn a victory point (up to a maximum of three).

The Components:

  • Three 30-card expansion decks
  • Rulebook with full card index

Michael Menzel, the long-standing Catan artist returns here to provide illustrations for all 90 cards. You'll get pretty much what you expect from Menzel and a Catan game: paintings of medieval architecture and portraits of European dudes (who to their credit, don't look nearly as pissed off as the average Euro game character).

Although the artwork is up to standard albeit not noteworthy, there are a few nice touches such as the card "Good Neighbors," which pays homage to some old Settlers of Catan box art and "Reiner the Miller," a tribute card to prolific game designer Reiner Knizia.

From a production standpoint, the card quality is of no concern. Mayfair Games has been doing this a long time and they've got the formula down. The only difference between this game and the original Rivals for Catan is that Mayfair also ditched their puzzling "omnisert" plastic tray, instead shipping Age of Darkness with just a deck of cards and a book in a 1.5" x 6.375" x 4.75" box. If that sounds a bit big for what you're getting, it's because the German edition came with fancy plastic score tracker, which was left out of this release.

You'll only find this plastic trinket in the German-published edition of Age of Darkness.

(Image by BoardGameGeek.com user MarcelP)

Final Thoughts:

They are small, but there are definite improvements introduced with this expansion. First off, the rules for Age of Darkness are written better than those in the Rivals for Catan base game. Here, setup instructions for incorporating the theme decks are provided in very specific detail. Where the Rivals book may have been the slightest bit vague, Age of Darkness takes the time to list out exactly what cards you should be including in your expansion site and event decks. Even I, a notorious of game rules on first attempt, was unable to botch the setup for Age of Darkness.

The increased player interaction is also a welcome addition. In my Rivals for Catan review, I struggled with the fact that certain skill elements of The Settlers of Catan had been downgraded (strategic placement of roads and settlements). Having a bit more opportunity to tinker with your opponent's progress shifts this more towards a test of skill, which is exactly what buyers of a 2-player card game are most likely to be looking for.

On that note, Rivals for Catan truly blossoms when both players have a full working knowledge of the cards in each set. There are mechanics in Rivals that let you fish through the draw stacks and circumvent the randomness of the card game, so if you really know what you are looking for (and what your opponent might need as well), you can turn Rivals for Catan into quite a chess match. Adding in three new decks with Age of Darkness allows you to up that skill cap as players much have a stronger working knowledge of what cards are in play, and how a winning strategy can be build around them.

If you're already a fan of Rivals for Catan, then you don't need to think twice about picking up Age of Darkness. It only enhances the game, so you'll definitely enjoy the new cards. On the other hand, if you've never played Rivals for Catan, then there is no rush to add in Age of Darkness. Rivals is an above-average game on its own, so you don't need an expansion to "fix" it. You'd actually be doing yourself a disservice by trying to learn so many cards at once. Remember what I said: you need to have a strong knowledge of the cards in Rivals for Catan to unlock the game's true potential, so get the original first and master that game before considering the expansion. Age of Darkness will always be there for when you're ready.

MTV Geek received a complimentary review sample of this game