Posted by Rampant Coyote on June 23, 2014
My favorite mode is one that comes with the Seafarers expansion called “Fog Islands.” It’s got all the fun stuff that comes with the expansion – ships (putting that wood to much more use!), and gold (which allows you to draw a resource of your choice), the pirate (which the AI never uses). It gives players a bit more “elbow room” to explore the map – and create truly lengthy “roads.”
But the biggest factor for me is that something like a third of the map is “fog” – not filled out – and you have to explore to see what you get and find the best places to land. Maybe it’s the whole gambler’s high thing… the thrill of maybe scoring a jackpot this time and discovering a gold square with a high-frequency value. Or a high-frequency stone so you don’t have to rely on other players on paying at a 4:1 ratio to the bank for the stuff.
Against the AI, I’m usually one of the first players off to explore the fog islands. It’s definitely not the only way to win – depending upon initial placement, it may not even be the best way to win. Getting the “longest road” badge early turns you into the punching bag for all the other players for the whole game, but it’s sometimes worth it. But really, I do it for the thrill of exploration. The gamble. What’s nice is that the mode gives you a little of both – you can focus on the known (or what becomes known) for traditional Catan strategy, or try your luck in the islands. For a high-score-limit game, you may need to do a little of both.
There is a cost to explore. There is often a resource cost – extending your ship route, or risking the creation of a permanent road that may go nowhere interesting. There may be an opportunity cost as well. You may be bypassing a viable landing point or the chance to build up your position in known territory. But other than the “known” cost, there’s no risk involved in exploration. At worst, you encounter nothing interesting, but now have a better idea of the map layout, and better guesses as to what is left in the undiscovered tiles.
When I play a game that much, I overthink it. It’s how I roll. I compare the addictive exploration dynamic in Lost Islands to my own love of exploration in RPGs. I love diving into the unknown in hopes of profit. Catan abstracts the game mode down to its bare essentials, and while I don’t know if the implementation is perfect, it works well.
In RPGs, a big part of the fun is exploring – but sometimes the exploring is mandatory. Going off the beaten track is half the fun. As a designer, one issue is that there’s no cost to doing this – and those rewards on the side quest will provide your character(s) with advantages. The only cost is the player’s time. I don’t usually have a problem with this, but is it truly “optional” if it’s really the best path to the end of the game? Should the player who overcomes the greater adversity by making a beeline for the end-game get anything for their efforts other than bragging rights? Should some exploration cut off other avenues? Would that be even fair if the player doesn’t get to make an educated decision?
It’s easy to get caught up in the details, which is why I like looking at a very high-level, abstract game like Catan and ground myself.
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