Settlement board game: A four-sided review

The Settlement board game is a 1-4 player gateway/light euro game that plays out in about an hour. The box says for ages 10+, which feels about right.

This is a fantasy-themed worker placement game where you’ll send your meeples off to explore the wilderness (to gain resources) while building your settlement and attracting heroes (read: spending those resources to gain points).

In the box you’ll find five boards (one per player plus one for tiles), 72 cardboard tiles, 48 cards, 130+ wooden pieces, 80+ cardboard chits, 42 plastic gems and a scorepad. The boards are a bit beige. But generally the components are solid/standard quality. At the time of writing, the game wasn’t yet available via comparison site Board Game Prices. It is available direct from the publisher for 50 euros plus 28 euros shipping. Ouch. I’d certainly wait until you can get it more locally.

Teaching the Settlement board game

During each of the game’s six round, players take turns placing 1-4 workers on on their player board and carrying out an action. Most actions only need one worker. But exploring further from home, or fighting tougher creatures, requires more. Additionally during your turn you can attract a hero (once per turn) and freely exchange resources with the general supply. Once all players have passed, a round ends.

Resources have a hierarchy, with the basics (stone/wood/clay) followed by gems, then gold. So, surprise surprise, the better the building or hero you want the more likely they will need the higher level resources. While beating higher level critters will give up more valuable spoils. In addition, two of the available buildings can be used to store rare resources (when triggered by an action) for end game victory points.

Passing makes you the first player in the next round. At the start of the game, each player chooses one of the available artefacts (there are 14 in the box and you play with 5-7 each game). These give you either a one-off or ongoing ability for the coming round. When you pass, you must trade this artefact for one of the others that’s available – just as in Terra Mystica. You also take back all your standard workers, discarding used temporary ones. And you have to discard any remaining basic resources, adding an extra efficiency pressure.

The actions

Two actions allow you to add tiles to your board. Exploring terrain takes 1-3 workers, with more workers gaining tiles more likely to contain better resources. Constructing a building always uses one worker plus the required resources. You have nine spaces (in 3×3 grids) for each type of tile. Buildings can be placed freeform, but terrain must connect out from your first tile – which must be one of the cheapest terrain tiles. Terrain is drawn blind, while you will always have a grid of nine buildings to chose from. Once you have some tiles, other workers can be used to activate them – with one worker triggering all (1-3) tiles in a row.

When you place a terrain tile, it will usually come with a monster. You can send 1-4 workers to fight it, with bigger (read: more rewarding) critters needing more workers. If you activate a terrain row, only monster-free tiles will give resources. Once gathered from, the tile will usually attract a new monster. However, another action space (costing one worker) allows you to place a fortification on a tile – meaning it will no longer attract monsters. And each fort has a worker placement spot of its own, allowing you to collect its resource an extra time.

Hero cards always cost four resources. They all give end game points and some also give (as do some buildings) extra temporary workers, which can only be used once. Artefact tiles give all kinds of benefits, from bonus activations and resources to choosing if your terrain tiles repopulate with monsters. While buildings are similar, giving anything from straight resources to beneficial resource conversions.

The four sides

These are me, plus three fictitious players drawn from observing my friends and their respective quirks and play styles.

  • The writer: I love worker placement and enjoy a light fantasy theme, so was looking forward to The Settlement board game. And my first play started well, looking at the available combos and trying to get a few mini engines going to make my plans work. And it felt like a good length, restrictively short but with enough actions to get some stuff done. The monster repopulating after gathering idea was instantly cool. But nothing else out jumped out straight away. Or on later plays. Or now. Which clearly isn’t enough to keep me, or anyone else I played it with, asking to come back for more plays.
  • The thinker: It doesn’t take long to realise certain tile combos, if available, are much more powerful than others. If you don’t get in on one of these early, which can simply be down to luck of the draw, your goose is probably cooked. I don’t think this is a design problem, as the game is fast, light and breezy. But as a strategist I feel the luck of the draw elements outweigh the others too much for me to enjoy myself. As even a win, after the first few ‘learning the tiles’ plays, doesn’t really feel satisfying.
  • The trasher: The monster fighting system is clever. Some players will want critters to come back, as defeating them can give nice bonuses. Building towers wastes actions, but leaves you free to grab easy resources. But there is no player interaction here to speak of. Unless you count getting frustrated if someone beats you to the building or hero card you wanted. Even for me, that’s just irritating. So no, this one isn’t really for me.
  • The dabbler: What a good looking and simple game! It comes together really nicely as you build out your own settlement, fight off the monsters and gather your wealth. There’s definitely a nice little story evolving each time, if you use your imagination. Especially if you have kids that are into the fantasy genre. And everything is so simple. The rules are well written and all the icons, cards etc are well described. I don’t even mind the beige boards, because there’s plenty of colour elsewhere and your tableau fills with it as you play.

Key observations

According to its website (linked below) publisher I[heart]games, “specialises in creating games with easy and immersive gameplay”. In terms of the Settlement board game, I’d have to say mission accomplished. Players with even a modicum of game experience will be quickly up to speed. While the chunky wooden monster meeples and solid (if generic) fantasy art on the oversized cards help drive the theme home.

But again, we come back to the same old question: in a crowded market, is it enough to just tick those boxes? Do we need another light euro game almost entirely lacking in innovation, however smoothly it may play? Much like last week’s review of The Specialists, Settlement is ticking along nicely on Board Game Geek with an average of 7.2 (at time of writing). But in terms of design chops, it doesn’t feel as if was ever aiming for anything higher than that. Tab A fits into slot B across the board. But rarely in a way that’ll make a gamer go, ‘Oh, cool”.

Which leads to the inevitable follow-up question: Am I the target audience? These guys publish localised versions of games such as Point Salad and Ice Cool, and are most famous for hit Mysterium. All popular lighter games for a family audience. However, each of those did have a really cool twist. They rose above the pack in crowded arenas because they did have that little bit extra. Settlement is solid. But just doesn’t have a spark. In the BGG comments section, the most common phrase is “OK”, or “it works”. Says it all really.

Solo play

While I may have come across a little lukewarm about Settlement, I did enjoy the solo variant. Gameplay is largely the same. The lack of competition gives you a better chance to make the engine you want, so things should be easier. The twist is you always have three artefacts to choose from – but the one you use is removed from the game after use. This brings some random back in, while introducing some interesting dilemmas and gives you a nice way to forward plan a little. Unfortunately, beyond that, its just a ‘try and beat your previous score’ system. But if you like the base game, and want a quick solo puzzle experience, it works very well.

Conclusion: The Settlement board game

If you’re reading this as a ‘gateway gamer’ – someone looking for a small step up from high street family games into this great hobby – Settlement is a really solid choice. Everything works well and looks cool, the rules are simple, and it’s a very nice introduction to standard worker placement game mechanics. Especially if you dig a fantasy theme. Or, if you have children around the 10-12 age bracket you’re wanting to introduce to the hobby, thumbs up. But if you’re a more experienced gamer, I don’t think you’re going to get any wow moments from what is a well executed but ultimately generic light euro game.

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