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Review: Catan: Explorers and Pirates

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CatanExplorersPirates_BoxCover

Catan? That place is old news. The island’s been settled up and down, left and right, and even underneath at this point. You want to hear about adventure? How about the hidden islands across the sea. And these are no ordinary islands, either. These islands are topped to the brim with deadly pirates, delicious fish, and exotic spices. Oh, and Gold. Did I mention gold? There’s gonna be gold.

Patch up your leaky boats, Lords of Catan, because in this new expansion, Explorers and Pirates, there’s loads of exploring to get done!

How It Plays

Explorers and Pirates builds off the original Catan formula; you know, roll your dice, collect resources, beg for trades, build stuff. This big ol’ box adds a whole sea of opportunity, focusing heavily on exploration. Also, a bit of pirating.

This much exploring!
This much exploring!

Three modules provide a variety of new options and can be mixed, matched, or even combined into one massive game. The rulebook actually provides a series of 5 scenarios that each build on the last, gradually introducing the new elements, but once you’ve gone through that you can do as you please.

The core additions swirl around sailing across the sea and exploring new islands, and as such there are a number of new things you can build. Harbor Settlements, for one, replace cities. They cost slightly less, but still provide two points. Instead of providing 2 resources, however, Harbors have storage slots for other things you can build. Things like Settlers, which cost the same as settlements, but you build them at Harbors and then ship them across the sea to turn into settlements where new land is found. No roads required! You can also build Crew, who also travel across the sea on ships to go on adventures and meet new people. Also you can build Ships, which cost the same as the ships from Seafarers of Catan, but are much bigger, can carry crew, settlers, spices, and fish, and also get to move freely around once they’re built.

A Harbor running at full capacity
A Harbor running at full capacity

So the other core addition is a new Action phase, in which each of your ships gets a few movement points to sail across the sea, discover new tiles, drop of settlers and crew, and pick up spices and fish to bring back home.

Pirates replace the robber; you still place one when you roll a 7, and you still steal a card. However, the Pirate ship raids any player trying to pass it along the sea. Players can attempt to fight off the pirate, or they can pay a tribute to pass freely. What sort of tribute? Gold, of course. These are pirates after all, they don’t have time for your sheep.

Unlike previous expansions, Gold here comes in the form of… well… gold. Gone are the trading harbors of yore; instead, 3:1 trade is the norm, but you can trade Gold to the back and a 2:1 rate. Also, Gold is represented by tokens, which don’t count against your 7-card hand limit when it comes to rolling those nasty 7’s. And, if the resource dice are rolled and you happen to not get any resources, you get to take a gold coin. Huzzah!

Now we get to the actual modules: Fish of Catan, Spices of Catan, and Pirates of Catan.

With convenient score trackers so you know who's the best at everything
With convenient score trackers so you know who’s the best at everything

Fish for Catan: Among the discoverable tiles, 6 blue Fish tiles are added to the mix. During your action phase, you can roll a die for fish; whichever number you roll, add a fish to the corresponding tile if it is visible. Once a fish is on the board, you can bring a ship and pick it up, and bring it back to the Council of Catan. A fishing score track lets you know how many points you’ve earned by fishing, and the “Best Fisher of Catan” gets a bonus point for being the best.

Spices for Catan: In this scenario, you can discover tiles that are already occupied by Natives. You can’t settle a native tile, but you can bring a crewperson there to engage in diplomacy. When you do drop of a crew member, you are awarded with some spices to return to the Council of Catan. Like the Fish challenge, a score track indicates how many points you’ve earned for how much spice you’ve returned and the “Best Spice Merchant” tile awards a bonus point. Unlike the Fish, each Native tile has a bonus ability that is granted once you bring your crew there. These bonuses make it easier to fight off pirates, give you the ability to trade cards for coins, and enhance your ship speed.

Pirates Lairs: Now you can find tiles filled with gold and riches! Well, just gold. However, these wondrous lands always seem to be guarded by pirates. You’ll need to bring crew across the sea to fight those pirates. Once three crew (of any players) are on the pirate lair, you defeat the pirates, receive some gold, and move up on the Pirate Scourge scoring track. The Best Pirate Scourge earns a bonus point, and once the pirate lair is defeated the tile can be settled, and provides 2 gold coins when its number is rolled.

Each scenario has a different required number of points to claim victory; the ultimate scenario with all modules included has a hefty 17 point goal. Whoever gets there first wins!

The Council of Catan will gladly pay you in points for your fish and spice
The Council of Catan’s primary export is the Fishy Spice Latte

We’re Gonna Need More Sheep

When’s the last time you played Catan?

In my recent review of the classic game, I made an effort to remind everyone that the game deserves all the accolades it has received, even if has started to show its age. Sure, it’s not without a share of issues, but the underlying system is solid, and it hasn’t sold over twenty million copies by accident.

Even with a long history, Catan itself is still alive and well now in its 5th edition, and it seems to be as popular as ever. Explorers and Pirates lands as the fourth expansion (excluding the 5-6 player boxes), and each preceding expansion has added on new ways to settle, explore, and even conquer the island of Catan. Seafarers added exploration and gold, expanding the board across the sea and adding a small sense of adventure with face-down islands to discover. Cities and Knights added the logistics of city management; not only must you expand across the land, but you have to upgrade the buildings within your city, and protect yourself with an army of knights.

There are a surprising number of fishing-related expansions
There are a surprising number of fishing-related expansions

Then, after a long gap between expansions, Traders & Barbarians showed up with a slew of new variants and “campaigns” you could mix and match to your taste. These variants ranged from the extremely simple (No robber until someone has more than 2 points!) to game-changingly complex, adding barbarian attacks and caravans and such things. (Full disclaimer: I’ve never actually played Traders & Barbarians, but some of the additions look neat. I read the rules).

That brings us right back around to Explorers and Pirates, which, incidentally, loops the circle of expansions back around as well; this plays much like a beefed-up version of Seafarers, but with a broader sense of exploration and discovery. A variety of tiles provide new activities to undertake in your pursuit to rule Catan.

Also, you can sail your Settlements across the sea instead of building roads.
Also, you can sail your Settlements across the sea instead of building roads.

I think one of the core frustrations with base Catan is the (relatively common) situation wherein several rounds go by with unfavorable dice rolls. Without resources, it’s hard to buy the things you need or even participate in trading. Usually these dry spells pass quickly, but it can sometimes feel like you’re not playing much at all. Dead turns aren’t particularly enthralling. So it’s fortunate, then, that Explorers and Pirates does away with those dead turns entirely. Boom!

Thanks to 1. Exploring and 2. Gold, you’re never left without something to do, and that’s just great. It’s just easier to get things done here, which puts the focus on doing those things instead of scrambling for resources. Some people may dislike the decreased emphasis on haggling with your friends, but I think most people will appreciate the breath of fresh sea air from all the new modules.

The key here is with the ships: once they’re built, you don’t have to pay for them again. This is a vast difference from Seafarers, in which ships are essentially roads and you have to keep paying resources to get across the water. Your action phase costs you nothing. In fact, you can often earn lots of bonus resources just by sending your ship out. Exploration isn’t just in the title; exploring drives your economy by rewarding you simply for discovering something, regardless of what it is.

G. O. L. D.
G. O. L. D.

Then there’s gold. Gold is great, and it fortifies the focus on exploration and completing missions. First of all, you get Gold a lot. You get Gold for discovering most of the new tiles. You get gold if you don’t get a resource on a non-7 roll. That means, in a four-player game, assuming no 7’s are rolled, you’ll always be able to get at least 2 resources on your turn (remember, Gold trades at 2:1). 2 resources can build you a boat, or a crew, or get you halfway to a settlement. You can pay to move your ships farther to discover more tiles. You never lose half your gold to a roll of 7, so you can hoard it; there’s plenty to go around.

Exploring gives you the resources you need to expand your empire, but the new missions give you new, fun ways to score more points that are less reliant on resources overall. Crew are cheap, and can be reused after fighting off pirates. Fish are free, as long as you have the space in your ship, and the Native islands with their spices and special powers are a fun way to boost your abilities. All of these things are simple to explain, but add just enough to be interesting and entertaining. Put them all together, and you really feel like you’re expanding your empire into the unknown. Oh, and that Pirate? Yeah, it stinks to lose a card, but a pirate on the board is not nearly as devastating to your economy as the robber can be in the base game.

Geeeyarg! Pay me a tribute!
Geeeyarg! Pay me a tribute!

So yeah, you’re going to worry a lot less about getting the right dice rolls this time around. That doesn’t mean the core system is gone; you’ll still get the thrill when your ideal number is rolled. You’ll still be better off if you don’t forget to build new settlements across the sea, and especially upgrade them into harbors. You’ll still trade with the others to maximize the efficiency of your turns; it’s just that you won’t get stuck effectively passing your turn three times in a row thanks to a lack of resources.

I do believe that this expansion, especially with the full set of modules, lasts longer than the original. At least, it will until you get used to all the new rules and can play them fluidly. I’d put this closer to the 2-hour range (whereas the base game is more like 60-90 minutes), but your first full play might be 2-3 hours. 17 points is a lofty goal, but it’s doable, and it’s the right number for all the things you can do.

Spice is the spice of life
Spice is the spice of life

I really only have one complaint, and that is just that I wish there was an overall score tracker. There are a LOT of ways to earn points, what with missions, settlements, and harbors, and it’s so easy to lose track. The game definitely slows down near the end when everybody is constantly checking to make sure they counted their points, and a track would certainly have made that a non-issue.

There’s only one other thing I wish was different, and that is, I wish this was a standalone expansion. It doesn’t seem to mix well with the other expansions. It replaces and surpasses Seafarers entirely, and it removes Cities (the key element of Cities and Knights.) It even sort of remixes some of the elements from Traders and Barbarians, and I don’t think it would play well with the more advanced campaign options. Basically, it stands as a complete game in its own right. I think as a standalone game, more people could be convinced to try it out and discover this new, modernized Catan. As it is, will people who have left Catan behind reinvest in the base game AND an expansion box? I don’t know. I hope so.

Hunting pirates is the spice of life
Hunting pirates is the spice of life

But maybe you have Catan sitting on your shelf, gathering dust because it’s too much of a classic to let go of, but no longer brings your friends to the table. If so, it’s time to un-dust the box and pull out those tiles and those red-and-yellow dice, and get your hands on Explorers and Pirates. It’s time to see what’s beyond that yellow glow on the horizon.

If you’re still a fan of Catan, this is a no-brainer. Explorers and Pirates is almost an entirely new game, built off the Catan engine, but offering so much more.

iSlaytheDragon would like to thank Mayfair Games for providing a review copy of Explorers and Pirates before they sold it off to Asmodee.

Okay this storage solution included in the box is AMAZING.
Okay this storage solution included in the box is AMAZING.
  • Rating 9
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Summary

Pros

It's a lot easier to get resources, so you never get completely stuck
Missions add interesting new ways to score points
Exploring is fun and surprising
Ships (and the action phase) keep you active
Mix and match the modules as you please

Cons

Reduces emphasis on trading
Some minorly finnicky rules
Could stand to have a score tracker
Would be better as a standalone game

9.0 Excellent

Futurewolfie loves epic games, space, and epic games set in space. You'll find him rolling fistfuls of dice, reveling in thematic goodness, and giving Farmerlenny a hard time for liking boring stuff.

Discussion2 Comments

  1. I’ve been thinking of dusting off my old copy of Settlers, and this certainly raises the stakes — sounds like a brilliant fix for the things that bothered me about the base game. Plus it seems to add a dash of Entdecker.

    I’ve considered upgrading to the latest edition of the base game, for the nice new artwork, but every time I go to Its Amazon page I see all the angry reviews about the mis-aligned tiles, and decide to wait until they’ve straightened out (sic) the problem.

    And then there’s the whole Asmodée thing — are they going to update/improve the packaging in the near future?

    • I don’t know if Asmodee will change anything, although with the 5th edition being brand new, I doubt it. As far as the quality of components… I didn’t notice anything. Looking at my own photos, nothing is drastically misaligned and certainly not in any way that affects gameplay.

      My only real issue with the components is when I punched them out, I had some tearing. It was only on a border piece, and it doesn’t ruin anything. Actually when playing the base game, the tear is face-down. So… if you do get the new edition, just be careful when punching things out. for the most part I had no problem.

      Also, if you have 4th edition, you don’t need to upgrade. 3rd edition or earlier, you might consider it – I played a few times with the third edition, and the mismatched art and lack of border tiles was ugly, confusing, and encouraged me to get the 5th edition base game.

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