Why Settlers is not my favorite game
I had a very painful game of Settlers of Cataan (cities & knights expansion) on Saturday which got me thinking about the problems with the design of that game. (I also got to play a fantastic samurai-themed Burning Wheel one-shot, and a fun round of the new D&D board game, so game day was mostly good.)
Settlers is insanely popular lately; it seems to be the one board game that even non-gamers have heard of and are willing to try. It's the new "Monopoly", in a way. I've even heard that it has replaced golf as the main schmoozing game for rich businessmen in Silicon Valley. It's much less terrible than Monopoly, in that it has the fun of trading and building without the pointless board-circling, and it's possible for a game to actually end. (The Monopoly rules might as well say "play until everyone gets bored, then quit. Nobody wins.") Settlers was a big step forward in game design in 1995, almost every Eurogame since then owes something to it, and it's worth playing and studying, but it's got some big problems which lead to un-fun gameplay situations.
The Kingmaker problem: towards the end of the game, you get into a situation where you can't win, but you can choose which of the other players will win by who you choose to throw your support behind. (in Settlers: who you trade with, whose roads you block, and who you put the robber on, basically).
Some game designers might not see kingmaking as a flaw, because it doesn't obviously break anything in terms of game math. You would have lost anyway, so what? The reason Kingmaking is a problem is social: having to be the kingmaker puts you in a really awkward spot socially, especially when the leading players start saying things like "I'll give you a cookie if you help me" or "You have to help me, I'm your wife". Now you are no longer playing a strategy game: you are playing the game of popularity-via-social-leverage, and most people got enough of that back in high school.
The Bucket O' Crabs problem: I am coining a phrase here. If you put a bunch of crabs in a bucket, as soon as one is close to crawling out, the other crabs will grab its legs and drag it back down.
The endgame of Settlers can drag on way too long, because as soon as one player is close to winning, everybody does everything possible to stop that player. How often have you heard "Don't trade with him, you'll help him win!" ? And when people stop trading in Settlers, the game slows to a crawl.
People know that the leader will be targeted, so nobody wants to be the leader. Everybody's vying for second place while trying to take the leader down. This drags things out even more.
The screwed-by-the-dice problem: sometimes a string of bad rolls means you don't get any resources for ten or eleven turns in a row. This tends to happen to the player with the fewest settlements/cities meaning that the player who's already farthest behind tends to fall even farther behind. But the worst part isn't the game balance issue - it's that Settlers is insanely boring when you don't have anything to do (except offer people trades you know they don't want) for thirty minutes. That's the kind of situation where you wish you could just drop out of the game and go do something else, but Settlers doesn't believe in player elimination. I wouldn't mind losing so much if there was at least something to do on my turns while I was losing.
Another form of screwed-by-the-dice is when you have the resources to build a city, but then lose them before you can spend them because somebody rolled a 7 and you were holding 8 cards. I know this rule is in the game to discourage card hoarding, but sometimes you're trying to spend cards and you just can't. There's no skill to it, you just get randomly hosed by the dice. It happens even more often in the cities & knights expansion because there are more kinds of cards to hold and more things you need to save up for.
Setting the end conditions for a multiplayer (n > 2) game turns out to be an extremely difficult design problem, if you want the game to remain fun for all players up until the last round. Most multiplayer games have some kind of weird issues with the endgame.