Review: Catan Oil Springs

There Will Be Blood

Catan: Oil Springs  (BGG) is an official expansion that is part of the Catan Scenarios series, and can be used with up to 6 players. An official version costs only $5 and revenue is shared with an organization that promotes sustainability, with whom the manufacturers and Catan GmbH worked to develop the scenario. Interestingly, it is also available as a free print and play version. That is the version I played.

What you get

  • 4-page Rules booklet
  • 1 Double sided Cardboard Sheet containing:
    • 21 oil tokens (sequestered oil shown on reverse)
    • 6 metropolis tokens
    • 4 oil springs tiles
    • 1 Champion of the Environment token
    • 7 victory point tokens
    • 1 disaster track
    • 1 oil use marker

A side note about the print and play version. I printed the front and back on an inkjet and glued to a sturdy piece of gray cardboard mat of appropriate thickness. For the print and play, the front and back of the cardboard have to be aligned carefully, so that the oil tokens show the proper symbols on the front and back. All of these have to be cut out, which is simple for the larger square pieces, but is difficult for the round Champion of the Environment token, victory point tokens, and oil use marker. All in all, it still looks very nice when done.

The oil springs tiles consist of two deserts containing 5 and 9 for production, and one forest and one pasture that accept numbered tokens as normal. My biggest complaint with these is that they went to the trouble of making nice art showing oil wells that you immediately cover up with a token. Even though these tiles are squares that are placed on top of the normal hex tiles, They don’t stand out dramatically. I would consider using wooden pieces for the metropolis tokens, but the included tokens are acceptable.

You don’t use all of the oil or metropolis tokens in 3-4 player games, and the disaster track has extra spaces that are only used in 5-6 player games.

What you do

On the surface, this adds a lot to the game. Oil becomes an additional resource type. For almost all intents and purposes, it acts like any other resource card, so it can be produced by a roll, stolen by the robber or another player, monopolized, or obtained with a year of plenty. (Note: We tried playing with the Helpers of Catan and treated it like a normal resource. This did not seem to be a good combination.) Even better, oil can be traded to the supply on your turn for 2 of any one resource. This makes oil a powerful resource. 2 oil can also be used with one grain, sheep, and brick to turn a city into a metropolis, which is worth an extra point and gives an extra resource.

There are some restrictions. First, you can only hold 4 oil at a time. The rules say you may not take the excess oil but do not specify whether you can steal it or not if you already have 4. We interpreted it as not being able to steal it, as opposed to taking it and immediately losing it. You also may not use domestic (4:1) or maritime (3:1 or 2:1) trade to obtain oil, so the only way to obtain it is from production or from other players. Also, for each oil used, the oil use marker increases one space. When 5 oil have been used disaster strikes, and no more oil can be used that turn. This also means that a metropolis (which requires 2 oil) cannot be build if the oil use marker is at 4.

When disaster strikes, the dice are rolled to see what happens. If a 7 rolls, coastal flooding occurs, making port cities settlements, and destroying port settlements. For any other number, one of the matching number tokens is selected (by rolling the dice again if needed), and one of two things can happen. If the selected space is an oil spring, 3 oil are removed from the game, making it more scarce. Otherwise, the production token for that space gets removed from the board and added to the disaster track. If this happens 5 times in a two player game, the game ends and all players lose.

Players have the option to sequester oil instead of using it. Once per turn, a player may sequester one oil. For each 3 sequestered oil, a player earns 1 victory point. In addition, the first player to sequester 3 oil, (and thereafter the player with the most, like roads or Knights) also receives the Champion of the Environment token worth an extra 1 point.

What I liked

So many of the ideas are good in theory. The metropolis adds an additional level of city development, which makes the game feel even more productive. Oil is a powerful new resource providing added flexibility in resource production. The option of using or saving oil adds interesting new strategic decisions, and a new way of earning points, because you can try to gain extra points slowly or go for the quick benefit, and if you push the oil use track to 4, it limits what others are capable or willing to do to risk disaster.

What I disliked

Like the use of fossil fuels, all of these new decisions also have a dark side. Besides the obvious risk of disaster, the negative effects are part of the meta-game. The biggest single disruption to the game is that hexes are no longer roughly equivalent. On average in the base game, sheep are slightly less valuable and ore is slightly more valuable, but the value is more directly determined by the number distribution. In Catan: Oil Springs, that balance is thrown out the window, because oil is much more valuable than other resources. This has many repercussions.

The additional level of development also adds a level of production, meaning the right or wrong get dice rolls can mean an even more dramatic swing in fortune in the game. This is even more so for oil springs tiles. The additions also accelerating play slightly, making the small sampling of rolls less likely to be well distributed.

Because progress in Catan is a feedback loop, starting off with a few lucky rolls that produce oil can be incredibly lopsided, making it difficult for players without oil to catch up. This is compounded by the loss of production hexes due to disaster, which disproportionately hurts those without good oil production, since oil hexes are never lost. A metropolis on an oil hex ends up being even more overpowered. Ideally, sequestering oil should help slow that effect, but it is too slow to be useful.

Sequestration felt underpowered, partially because it is slow, and partially because you are effectively giving up 6 resources for a point, which is relatively expensive. (A settlement is 4:1, a city is 5:1, 3 knights is 9:2, 5 roads is 10:2) As it is, sequestering only begins to be a good idea after players have expanded somewhat, and disasters have started to remove production hexes. This not only makes it easier for players who got ahead to stay ahead, but also limits the strategy, making the game less interesting. A 2:1 oil to point ratio would make it more valuable, and makes a completely environmental strategy more viable. With a max of 15 oil available in the 3-player game, an unlikely 7 points is still far from a runaway victory.

Initial placement is also affected due to the higher value of oil. Setup is supposed to be a careful balance between production numbers and resource types. But the oil makes it vital for each player to have some oil production, unbalancing setup. (As a side note, we did not find the rules for variable setup to be sufficient, because we ended up with very low numbers on sheep and very high numbers on wood, making one very productive oil hex and one almost non-productive oil hex.)

Oil does make it easier to accomplish some builds, (like leaping ahead with roads, or building cities) but the player following a disaster benefits disproportionately by being able to use several oil on his turn at no risk, which creates an imbalance of risk and reward. Limiting a player to 2 oil at a time would reduce that effect, as well as mitigate the effect of a metropolis on an oil hex. Because disasters are so random, bad luck can destroy a player’s chances. In our game, my lone port city was hit with coastal flooding, and both adjacent hexes were lost to pollution/desertification. No other players felt effects from disasters.

The threat of a disaster also discourages building along coasts, unless you can turn it into a metropolis. The problem is that upgrading a coastal settlement to a city and a metropolis is a lot of resources to spend on something that doesn’t produce much of a benefit. The inability to trade for oil from the supply is another discouragement from building on a coast. This could perhaps be mitigated by allowing coastal metropolis cities to trade at even more beneficial rates, or trade for oil from the supply.

Oil is rarely a good trade between players, so it makes the stealing interaction more vicious. The robber now goes almost exclusively to oil hexes, unless you happen to roll a 7 right after using a knight. This means that it is harder for players to focus on slowing the leader, since you have less flexibility. With this new interaction and disasters, other players’ actions begin to overwhelm your own ability to make decisions in the game.

I would like to see oil production tied more to development, building oil wells, etc.

Conclusions

You can argue that the addition of oil to Catan brings out the worst in players. Perhaps this is intentional to instill fear, anger, resentment, greed, and a feeling of complete disregard for the environment into the game. If so, it seems like the game is intended to lecture or punish, rather than teach. Or perhaps it is just supposed to be a metaphor for how we as humans deal with oil as a society.

In any case, the potential that oil brings to Catan is not fulfilled.The more aggravating parts of Catan are amplified, and some of the balancing features are diminished. It is slightly more chaotic, and the extra rules for oil use are not always intuitive and sometimes fiddly.

I need to interject that my group really enjoys regular Settlers of Catan. We probably play it once a month. We do not complain about the randomness of the dice, or a vicious monopoly or Knight play. We enjoy these as part of Catan. But we disliked the effect that Oil Springs had on that game. Maybe we got a very rare game where everything went wrong, but we saw more potential hazards than benefits.

I would like to see oil production to be more progressive. As a third, alternate path to expansion or development, I think it could work well. It could start slowly, needing oil wells to be built at the risk of allowing others production, possibly limiting the rate at which it can be extracted. Disasters should follow the progress of oil, hitting larger cities and oil producing areas hardest, with long term effects of losing entire coastlines. Environmental stewardship could be made a choice rather than a backup plan.

I respect the lesson the game is trying to teach, but I didn’t enjoy the game aspect as much, because I felt like it brought out the worst in the game, and the worst in us as players. I’m glad I tried it, but I don’t expect this to reach the table again.

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