The Alexandrian

Archive for the ‘Board and Card Games’ category

Diplomacy World #102Last week I posted Diplomacy: The Alexander Rules, an effort to revise the rules of Diplomacy to coherently eliminate the ambiguities and paradoxes which still linger in its strategically rich depths.

In an act of synchronicity, shortly after posting the Alexander Rules, I promptly discovered that has assembled a truly massive collection of Diplomacy zines. Hundreds — possibly thousands — of fan publications drawn from across four decades of activity, including Diplomacy World, Comrades in Arms, Graustark, Spring Offensive, and dozens of others.

It’s an astonishing treasure trove of historical curiosity, nascent game theory, and actual game play that stands as a testimony to the incredible legacy of Allan B. Calhamer’s classic game.

Diplomacy – The Alexander Rules

February 29th, 2016

Diplomacy - Avalon Hill (1999)

Back in 2000-2001 I developed what I can comfortably described as an obsession with Diplomacy. Much of what you’ll read below was written in April 2001 and, if my younger self did his job (which I believe he did), should fully explain why — following my in-depth study of the game — I came to the conclusion that a revised rulebook for the game was necessary. Although these rules received a limited dissemination during the spring and summer of 2001, this is the first time they’ve been made widely and commonly available. (If you’d prefer to cut to the chase, click here to download the PDF.)

In the words of The Diplomacy Player’s Technical Guide: “Diplomacy merits such a body of game laws as chess has: One that is clean, clear, consistent, comprehensible, conventional, concrete, concise, complete, discrete, finite, playable, unambiguous, standard, traditional, elegant, firm, precise, and logically whole.”

The Alexander Rules are designed to provide such a set of rules.

It is an unfortunate reality that the rules of Diplomacy – as published by Allan B. Calhamer, Games Research, Avalon Hill, and Hasbro – have always contained ambiguities and inconsistencies: Situations in which a “correct and consistent” adjudication by the rules (i.e., an adjudication which will be identical from one Gamemaster or Judge to the next) is impossible.


For the casual student, the extant rules for Diplomacy (as published in America) are:

H1999 (computer)

The D1959 rules are the original rules as published by Allan B. Calhamer. When Games Research, Inc. acquired the rights to the game in 1961 they published their own rulebook (GR1961) – which was, in all ways, identical to the 1959 rulebook except for typographical design and lay-out.

The rules were first revised by Games Research, Inc. ten years later. A team consisting of Rod Walker, Steve Marion, John McCallum, John Boardman, and others was commissioned to work with Allan Calhamer. The result was the GR1971 rulebook. This rulebook reorganized the entire rule set, introducing the idea of numbering and naming each rule individually. The rulebook clarified a number of concepts and introduced rule XII.5: A Convoyed Attack Does Not Protect the Convoying Fleets. This rule was an attempt to resolve first order paradoxes (see below).

Diplomacy - Avalon Hill (1971)When Avalon Hill acquired Diplomacy in 1976, they published their own rulebook (AH1976). This rulebook was identical to the GR1971 rulebook, but bore a new copyright date.

Six years later, in 1982, Avalon Hill released a revised ruleset. Known as the 1982 or “2nd Edition” rulebook (despite the fact it was really the third edition of the published game), this rulebook (AH1982) again offered revisions in an attempt to create a more consistent ruleset. Notably, rule XII.5 was changed to: A Convoyed Attack Does Not Cut Certain Supports (this rule was an attempt to resolve second order paradoxes) and rule XII.6: Both a Convoy and an Overland Route was added (this rule was an attempt to stop the “kidnapped army” ambiguity).

Avalon Hill revised the rulebook a second time in 1992, resulting in the AH1992 (3rd Edition) rulebook. These rules were, essentially, identical to the AH1982 rulebook, but there were editorial changes designed to clarify the distinction between a Move order, a Support order, and a Convoy order. These editorial changes resulted in an alteration in the numbering and naming of the rules – meaning that referring to a rule by the numerical scheme was no longer practical unless you specified the rulebook you were referring to. (As a result, most players in the Diplomacy community continue to use the 1982 references and ignored the 1992 rulebook.)

Avalon Hill was sold to Hasbro in the late 1990’s. Under Hasbro’s ownership, a new edition of Diplomacy was released in 1999 with a completely revised rulebook (H1999). This rulebook, also known as the 4th Edition, was aimed firmly at the neophyte, illustrated with copious examples and explanative text. Unfortunately, in an effort to make the rules accessible to a family audience, the H1999 rulebook sacrificed precision, ease of use, and consistency: The numerical ordering of the rules was abandoned, the rules were badly broken up by the examples without clear reference, and the second and (under some interpretations) first order paradoxes were reintroduced to the ruleset. On the other hand, the H1999 rules did include the first clear resolution of the “kidnapped army” ambiguity.

Diplomacy - Wizards of the Coast (2008)At the same time that Hasbro released its revised edition of Diplomacy, it also released a CD-ROM version of the game. The CD-ROM game shipped with its own rulebook (referred to as the H1999 computer rulebook), which differed from the H1999 rulebook in only one regard: It did not include a clear resolution of the “kidnapped army” ambiguity, and – in fact – took a step backward here, as well, to the 1976 rules.

Hasbro has also released a H2000 rulebook, differentiated from the H1999 rulebook only by the copyright date. A third version of this rulebook, published by wizards of the coast, was released in 2008 with no significant changes (although the name of the Build Phase had been changed to the “Gaining and Losing Units Phase”).

So, in general, it is safe to say that there have been five versions of the rulebook:

D1959/GR1961 (Original Edition)
GR1971/AH1976 (1st Edition)
AH1982 (2nd Edition)
AH1992 (3rd Edition)
H1999/H2000/WOTC2008 (4th Edition)

With a minor variation of the 4th Edition for the CD-ROM edition of the game.


Ambiguities are situations in which the rules are unclear. There are two possible outcomes of adjudication, but the discrepancy is caused because the meaning of the rules is unclear. If the meaning of the rules were clear, then no discrepancy would exist.

THE COASTAL CRAWL: In the original edition of the game, the definition of a “space” was not as clearly defined as it is today. As a result, one interpretation of the rules postulated that, for example, the north coast and the south coast were two separate provinces, allowing:

F Por-Spa (nc)
F Spa (sc)-Por

Calhamer explicitly did not desire that this move – known as the “coastal crawl” – should be legal. As a result, the 1971 revision of the rules clarified the definition of spaces and disallowed the coastal crawl.

MULTIPLE CONVOY ROUTES: Under the original rules it was entirely unclear how multiple, legitimate convoy routes should be handled. For example:

A Tun-Nap
F Ion C A Tun-Nap
F Tyn C A Tun-Nap

Should such an order be disallowed because it “admits of two meanings”? If it is allowed, should the army be allowed to move to Tunis if one (but not both) convoys are disrupted? In the 1971 revision, rule XII.4 (Ambiguous Convoy Routes) allowed the orders, but stated that “if any of the possible routes are destroyed by dislodgment of a fleet, the army may not move”.

This, however, created new problems. Now all a foreign power needed to do to prevent a convoy was to order an alternate convoy and then arrange for its own fleet to be dislodged. So the 2nd Edition reversed course, replacing rule XII.4 with “More Than One Convoy Route: If the orders as written permit more than one route by which the convoyed army could proceed from its source to its destination, the order is not void on account of this ambiguity; and the army is not prevented from moving due to dislodgment of fleets, unless all routes are disrupted.”

KIDNAPPED ARMY: Another problem with convoys were “kidnapped armies”. Here an army in a coastal province is attempting to move into an empty, adjacent coastal province. A foreign power slyly orders a convoy for the unit, and then arranges for the convoy to be disrupted. Now, it seemed, the army no longer moved – because their convoy had been disrupted (rule XII.3).

The 2nd Edition rulebook attempted to correct this problem with rule XII.6: “Both a Convoy Route and an Overland Route: If an army could arrive at its destination either overland or by convoy, one route must be considered and the other disregarded, depending upon the intent as shown by the totality of the orders written by the player governing the army.”

The problem is that rule XII.6 amounted to absolutely nothing. What does “shown by the totality of the orders written by the player governing the army” mean, exactly?

This problem remained uncorrected until the 4th Edition of the rules, where an unnumbered rule reads: “If at least one of the convoying Fleets belongs to the player who controls the Army, then the convoy is used. The land route is disregarded. If none of the convoying Fleets belong to the player who controls the army, then the land route is used. However, the player controlling the army can use the convoy route if he/she indicated ‘via convoy’ on the Army move order in question.” (pg. 15)

This, however, is the rule which was dropped for the H1999 computer version of the manual, because the CD-ROM game offered no mechanic by which “via convoy” could be indicated. The H1999 computer version of the manual states that “if either the overland route or the convoy route is valid, then the Army will move to its destination”.

Note that both of these rules resolves the ambiguity in a different fashion.

BRANNAN’S RULE: Brannan’s Rule was an early house rule which attempted to solve first order paradoxes (see below). It was named after Steve Cartier (aka Dan Brannan), and stated: “The army in a convoyed attack is deemed to come from the space occupied by the last convoying fleet.” The primary intended effect of this rule was to make it impossible for a convoyed attack to cut a support directed against a convoying fleet.

However, Brannan’s Rule has a couple of undesirable side-effects: If the army is coming from the space occupied by the last convoying fleet, then the army is occupying that space at the same time as the fleet (something which the rules expressly forbid at all times).

Allan Calhamer disagreed with Brannan’s Rule, and in the 1971 revision an alternate solution was found to first order paradoxes (which specifically prevented the convoy from cutting a support against itself).

The rules, however, have never clearly stated that a convoyed attack comes from the army’s original province – which means that the ambiguity of the issue crops up from time to time.


Unlike ambiguities, the problem of paradoxes cannot be resolved by clarifying the rules. In most cases, the rules are crystal clear: The problem of the paradoxical situation is that it admits itself to two different resolutions under the rules. In order to correct a paradox, the rules must be changed or amended.

FIRST ORDER PARADOXES: The simplest of the paradoxes involves a convoyed attack cutting the support of an attack which would, otherwise, disrupt the convoy:

England: F Lon S F Wal-ENG
England: F Wal-ENG

France: A Bre-ENG-Lon
France: F ENG C A Bre-Lon

Under the original rules of the game, this situation could not be adjudicated: If the convoy succeeds, then the support is cut and the convoy succeeds. If the support is not cut, then the convoy fails and the support is not cut.

In the AH1976 rules, this was corrected with rule XII.5: “A Convoyed Attack Does Not Protect the Convoying Fleets: If a convoyed army attacks a fleet which is supporting a fleet which is attacking one of the convoying fleets, the support is not cut.”

Now the adjudication is clear: The support of F Lon is not cut and the attack on ENG by F Wal succeeds, dislodging F Bre and disrupting the convoy.

SECOND ORDER PARADOXES: But that didn’t solve all the problems:

France: A Bre-ENG-Lon
France: F ENG C A Bre-Lon

England: F Lon S F Edi-NTH
England: F Edi-NTH

Russia: A Nwy-NTH-Bel
Russia: F NTH C A Nwy-Bel

Germany: F Bel S F Pic-ENG
Germany: F Pic-ENG

Do both convoys succeed or are both convoys disrupted because both convoys succeed?

Another revision of the rules was in order, and in AH1982 it was provided with a rewrite of rule XII.5: “A Convoyed Attack Does Not Cut Certain Supports: If a convoyed army attacks a fleet which is supporting an action in a body of water; and that body of water contains a convoying fleet, that support is not cut.”

Unfortunately, this new rule had side effects – altering adjudications in situations where there had been no problem. And, worse yet, the result could almost certainly be described as wholly illogical in those actions:

England: F IRI-MAT
England: F ENG S F IRI-MAT

France: F Spa (nc) S F MAT
France: F MAT C A Por-Bre
France: F Por-MAT-Bre

Italy: F GOL C A Tus-Spa
Italy: A Tus-GOL-Spa

Under the 1976 rules, Italy’s attack on Spain would cut the support and result in the disruption of the convoy through the Mid-Atlantic. Under the 1982 rules, Italy’s attack on Spain has no effect at all. Worse yet, if you add:

Italy: A Mar S A Tus-GOL-Spa

France’s fleet in Spain is actually dislodged, but still offers support under the 1982 rules.

PANDIN’S PARADOX: Plus, the 1982 rule didn’t resolve all the paradoxes. Pandin’s Paradox results from orders like these:

France: A Bre-ENG-Lon
France: F ENG C A Bre-Lon

England: F Lon S F Wal-ENG
England: F Wal-ENG

Germany: F NTH S F Bel-ENG
Germany: F Bel-ENG

Ignoring the effects of the convoy, the attacks on the English Channel from England and Germany are equally supported – which means that France’s fleet in the English Channel would not be dislodged due to the beleaguered garrison rule. But now take the effects of the convoy into account: If the convoy succeeds, then it cuts London’s support, which means that England’s and Germany’s attack on the channel are no longer equally supported, which means that the fleet is dislodged, which means that the convoy is disrupted. Paradox.


The Alexander rules are designed to be:

Clear: The meaning of a rule is never vague or uncertain, and admits of only one interpretation. Ambiguities do not exist in the rules.

Robust: The rules are consistent and logical, allowing for only a single resolution to be possible for any given set of orders. Paradoxes do not exist under the rules.

Precise: Rules can be cited accurately and quickly. The rules have been structured to group concepts into clear hierarchies and are numbered to provide easy reference (under a numbering system which is distinct from previous numbering systems so as to minimize confusion). Terms within the rules are given specific definition.

Clean: When notes and comments are included, they are clearly separated from the rules themselves. (Notes are identified as such and contained within parentheses. These notes comment upon the rules, but are not part of the rule set.)

Elegant: The rules seek to provide the simplest means to any end. Unnecessary rules are avoided. Duplication of rules is avoided whenever possible.

Traditional: The Alexander Rules do not represent an alteration of Diplomacy, except in those circumstances when it is required to correct a paradox.

Complete: The Alexander Rules contain all the rules necessary to play Diplomacy.

Specifically, here are ways in which the ambiguities and paradoxes mentioned above have been resolved in the Alexander Rules:

Coastal Crawl: As per the most recent edition of the rules (following the GR1971 revision), the definition of a “province” in the Alexander Rules is precise and the coastal crawl is not allowed.

Multiple Convoy Routes: As per the most recent edition of the rules (following the AH1982 revision), multiple convoy routes are allowed and the convoy is not disrupted unless all routes are disrupted.

Kidnapped Armies: The Alexander Rules use a simpler standard than the most recent edition of the rules. If an Army could reach its destination via either a land route or a convoy route, it is assumed to move via the land route unless it is specifically ordered to move “via convoy”. Furthermore, an Army ordered to move via convoy that has all of its convoys disrupted will still attempt to move via land if that is possible.

Brannan’s Rule: As per the most recent edition of the rules (following the intentions of Allan B. Calhamer), a convoyed attack is always considered to have come from the province from which the attacking army is moving.

Paradoxes: The Alexander Rules contain neither the 1976 nor the 1982 anti-paradox rule. Instead, the following rule (IV.5.g) is used:

“RESOLVING PARADOXES: If a convoy would be disrupted if not for the effects of the Army being convoyed, then the convoy is disrupted. If a convoy would not be disrupted if not for the effects of the Army being convoyed, then the convoy is not disrupted even if a Fleet involved in the convoy is dislodged (this is an exception to rule IV.5.c).”

When adjudicating a convoy under this rule, first assume that the convoy fails. If the result of this assumption is that all possible convoy routes are disrupted, then the convoy fails. If the result of this assumption is that the convoy succeeds, then the convoy succeeds (even if the result of that success is that the fleet involved in the convoy is dislodged).

In first and second order paradoxes, this rule results in the Fleet being dislodged and the convoy being disrupted. This is consistent with the 1976 and 1982 anti-paradox rules, but avoids the unwarranted side effects of the 1982 rule.

For Pandin paradoxes (which have never been resolved under an official rule set), this rule creates an exception to the rule that a convoy is disrupted if one of the Fleets involved in the convoy is dislodged. This approach was taken because its result is more consistent with the resolution of analogous orders. The classic Pandin’s Paradox is represented by the moves:

France: A Bre-ENG-Wal
France: F ENG C A Bre-Wal

England: F Wal S F Lon-ENG
England: F Lon-ENG

Germany: F NTH S F Bel-ENG
Germany: F Bel-ENG

As described above. Take the following orders, however:

France: F ENG-Wal

England: F Wal S F Lon-ENG
England: F Lon-ENG

Germany: F NTH S F Bel-ENG
Germany: F Bel-ENG

Resolution: The French attack cuts Wales’ support of London. Germany moves into the English Channel.

Or the following orders:

France: A Yor-Lon

England: F Wal S F Lon-ENG
England: F Lon-ENG

Germany: F NTH S F Bel-ENG
Germany: F Bel-ENG

Resolution: The French attack cuts Wales’ support of London. Germany moves into the English Channel.

Or the following orders:

France: A Bre-MAT-IRI-Wal
France: F MAT C A Bre-Wal
France: F IRI C A Bre-Wal

England: F Wal S F Lon-ENG
England: F Lon-ENG

Germany: F NTH S F Bel-ENG
Germany: F Bel-ENG

Resolution: The French attack cuts Wales’ support of London. Germany moves into the English Channel.

In short, given the following orders:

England: F Wal S F Lon-ENG
England: F Lon-ENG

Germany: F NTH S F Bel-ENG
Germany: F Bel-ENG

The only way that France can attack Wales and not cut the support of London (allowing Germany to move into the English Channel) is if it attempts to convoy an army through the English Channel.

The Alexander Rules solves Pandin’s Paradox by handling the French convoy through the English Channel in the same way as all other French attacks upon Wales: The attack succeeds, the support is cut, and Germany moves into the English Channel. This means that the French fleet in the English Channel is dislodged, so a special exception is made which prevents the dislodgement from disrupting the convoy.

Another way of looking at it: Pandin’s Paradox arises specifically because the Fleet in the English Channel, while being a crucial component of the attack on Wales, does not move out of the English Channel during the attack. As a result, unlike a unit attacking on its own, the convoying Fleet can be dislodged from its province of origin – which would disrupt the convoy and causes the paradox. Similarly, if units elsewhere could attack without moving, you’d end up with all sorts of paradoxes. For example, try to resolve the following attack under the assumption that the army in Bohemia attacks, but doesn’t move and that dislodging the Bohemian army stops it from attacking:

Austria: A Boh ATTACKS Vie
Austria: A Gal S A Boh ATTACKS Vie

Germany: A Sil-Boh
Germany: A Mun S A Sil-Boh

Turkey: A Tyl-Boh
Turkey: A Vie S A Tyl-Boh

Ignore the Austrian attack. Bohemia is the scene of a stand-off, which means it benefits from the Beleaguered Garrison rule and is not dislodged. But when you take the Austrian attack into account, it dislodges the Turkish support from Vienna (cutting it), as a result Germany moves into Bohemia, dislodging the Austrian army, which prevents it from attacking, which prevents it from dislodging the Turkish support… Paradox.

This analogy allows us to precisely identify the two sources of the paradox: (1) The fact that the Austrian army doesn’t move while it attacks. (2) The fact that dislodging the Austrian army causes its attack to fail.

Back to the convoy: Obviously we don’t want the Fleet to move while it is convoying (that would open up a whole new can of worms). Nor do we want to allow a convoy to succeed when the Fleet has been dislodged, because the convoy would then be immune to disruption. The solution? Create a single exception, in which the convoy can succeed even though the Fleet has been dislodged, but only when the convoyed attack is responsible for the Fleet being dislodged. (Which is, of course, exactly what the Alexander Rules do.)

As a final note, it should be understood that accessibility – per se – is not the goal of the Alexander Rules. Simply reading the Alexander Rules is not a good way to learn how to play Diplomacy: The rules are designed for precision and clarity, but not instructional value. The ideal situation would be a comprehensive Beginner’s Guide to Diplomacy using the Alexander Rules – a project which I hope to complete at some point in the future.


My personal theory on “take-backs” in tabletop games. If:

(a) There is no new information; and

(b) the game has not changed

Then a move can be changed.

In more complex games, we are also generally pretty relaxed about retconning standard maintenance tasks that get overlooked as long as they don’t impact ongoing events. (So you can’t say, “Oh, hey, I forgot to add a reinforcement to this province that’s about to be attacked.” But it’s probably okay if you say, “I forgot to grab $300 for occupying Yu-Shang.”)

Tagline: Best German Game of 1995. Best U.S. Board Game of 1996.

Settlers of Catan - Mayfair GamesGood board games are hard to find.

This is a truism which comes about because, the plain and simple truth is, board games are expensive to produce and hard to distribute. As a result, it is extremely difficult to introduce truly experiment in a meaningful way with board game mechanics (because it’s expensive to do so), and this inevitably leads to stagnation. (Cheapass Games, as I (and many others) have said before, has escaped these limitations by pioneering an entirely different marketing strategy. But Cheapass Games is special.)

To make matters worse, where a roleplaying game can be considered successful if you use it for one or two campaigns, for a board game to be successful (at least in my opinion) it needs to have lasting replay value. Or, to put it another way, even though Citizen Kane is a better movie than Die Hard, I don’t regret watching Die Hard. On the other hand, why would I play a substandard board game with my friends when I could be playing a better board game? To put it a third way: There’s a narrower potential for variety within any niche of the board game market than there is within the roleplaying markets or movies.

So, like I said, good board games are hard to find.

Which is why it’s always a joy to find a game like The Settlers of Catan. Sure, the cynic can claim that we’ve seen everything here before (hex-based maps from every wargame you’ve ever seen; combinations of resource cards are basically a mechanic from Risk; maintaining diplomatic relations from Diplomacy; variable board set-up from Chess variants; and trading resources from many variants of Monopoly), but the true aficionado will recognize a whole which is greater than the parts.


The first thing to like about this game – and something so cool it deserves its own little section in this review (although largely because I’ve been a proponent of this type of lay-out for roleplaying games for a long time now) – are the dual manuals which come with it.

The first manual, Game Rules, is used – in combination with a large, full-color Game Overview sheet – to learn the games. It reads like a fairly standard game manual – taking you step-by-step through the game, with examples of play, repetition of concepts, etc.

But the game you learn is only a beginner’s version of the rules – most noticeably, the variable board rules (see below) are excluded in favor of a “standard board”. After playing your first game, you can proceed to the Settler’s Almanac to spice things up.

What makes this so cool, though, is that the Almanac is a reference for all the rules in the game. In the Almanac, however the rules are grouped by topicality, and are presented in a very technical format.

What does this mean in practical terms? Well, I’ve always disliked the fact that – with most games – you have to go wading through a manual designed to teach you the rules in order to reference the rules. The rules themselves are often spread out and buried behind the explanatory text. No such problem here. Because the Almanac is nothing except rules, reference is easy. And because the system starts simple and then lets you add in the more complex elements, its very easy to learn. The Game Overview sheet also contains a handy turn sequence reference, and every player gets a Building Costs card which summarizes the resource cost of building (see below).

Make no mistake about it, The Settlers of Catan is a moderately complex game (some would argue that it is a very complex game, but then some have never played Advanced Squad Leader). But the system they’ve implemented for new players to learn makes it seem as simple as Monopoly.


So what is this game all about?

The game is played by three or four players. Each player represents a group of colonists who have come to the largish island of Catan. By building settlements and roads you control various resources on the map, and by possessing resources you can build settlements, cities, roads, or development cards (see below).

GOAL: The goal of the game is to collect 10 victory points – which you do by building settlements (each worth one point) and upgrading those settlements to cities (making them worth two points). You can also achieve victory points through certain combinations of development cards, or by achieving certain meta-goals (such as the “Longest Road”, which gives you two victory points).

BOARD SET-UP: This is probably the most commented upon feature of the game: The board for The Settlers of Catan is variable, meaning you set it up differently each time you play. (Imagine, if you will, that Park Place and Boardwalk were in different places every time you played Monopoly.)

Basically the board comes in the form of seven types of hexagons: Mountains, Hills, Forests, Pastures, Fields, Harbors, Ocean, and Desert. Using a specific set of guidelines you randomly place these hexagons out onto the table, ending up with the island (composed of the five types of land the single desert card) in the middle, encircled by the ocean and harbor hexes. In addition, there are chits which bear little numbers on them – following a specific pattern these are placed one to each land hex (except the desert).

Finally, each player places two cities and two roads onto the board (there is a specific mechanism to figure out who gets to place their cities first and so forth). Cities are placed on the intersections between hexes (and thus always border three hexes) and must be at least two intersections away from any other city. Roads run along the edges of the hexes, and must be connected to one of the player’s cities. (Each road piece is one hex is long.)

GAME PLAY: Play proceeds in turns. First, you roll two six-sided dice. Compare the number you roll to the numbered chits on each hex – any hex which contains a chit which matches the number you rolled produces resources on that turn, based on the type of hex it is. (Mountains produce Ore, Hills produce Brick, Pastures produce Wool, Fields produce Grain, and Forests produce Wood.) Any settlement (yours or other players) which borders one of these hexes collects a resource card.

TRADE AND NEGOTIATION: There are two types of trade in the game: You can trade with other players (only the player whose turn it is can engage in trading); or you can trade overseas. Trade with other players is based entirely on negotiation and is, in my mind, the core of the game’s effectiveness and replay value – because it adds the complexity of human interaction into the outcome.

Trade overseas is mechanical. Anyone can trade four resources cards of one type for a resource card of any other type. However, if you control a harbor (by having a settlement on the intersection with a harbor hex) you will get better trade ratios – sometimes on all resources, sometimes on only one type of resource. (It depends on the harbor.)

BUILDING: Finally, resource cards are spent in specific combinations to build new settlements and roads, updating settlements to cities, or purchasing development cards. Development cards can do a variety of things (from giving you additional victory points to garnering you resource cards).

THE ROBBER: Finally, there is the “Robber” – who wanders around the board stealing resources from one player and giving them to another. There’s a specific set of mechanics governing the use of the Robber, but I won’t go into them here.


The Settlers of Catan was originally released in Germany in 1995, where it promptly won the Spiel des Jahres. When it was released by Mayfair in the United States in 1996 it followed up its performance by winning the Origins Award for Board Game of the Year. With the third edition (the one you’ll buy if you buy Mayfair’s version), the rules were internationally standardized (they had not been before).

There are also a number of expansions for Catan — notably an expansion allowing play for five or six players (instead of three or four). The most major supplement to be released in the States to date is Seafarers of Catan, which develops the overseas elements of the game to a larger extent (there is also a 5/6-player expansion for Seafarers). For some reason the 5/6-player expansions are not compatible with the German edition (and the German expansions are not compatible with the United States edition). I don’t know why (although, obviously the artwork on the cards wouldn’t match).

Later this year we’ll also be seeing Settlers of Catan: Cities and Knights which will expand the city rules and add warfare to the game.

In addition to all this there is a Settlers of Catan card game (non-collectible), which can be played by two players. Personally, I am very excited by the forthcoming United States release of Spacefarers of Catan, which is a stand-alone game involving colonizing space in a variable universe.


This is an elegantly designed game, and deserves every bit of praise it has earned over the past few years. The Diplomacy-like elements of the trade and negotiation which are at the heart of the game make the game a joy to play with friends and strangers alike. But Klaus Teuber has not failed to back this up with some strong strategic and tactical considerations. For example, the resources you need at various stages in the game shift gradually over time – thus you need to carefully plan how you’re going to get the resources you need to expand now, but also what resources you’re going to need to finish the game. (On more than one occasion a rising juggernaut which seemed incapable of being defeated ground to a halt because the player failed to get the proper access to the right resources to finish the game.)

Basically I’ve got only two, small complaints to level against Settlers of Catan: First, the price is a little steep. It’s well worth it, but it made the game a tough buy to get into. The prices on the expansion packs, though, really leave me wondering in some cases. (Particularly the $35 sticker on Seafarers of Catan, when the blurb says that “certain scenarios” will require the purchase of two of them!)

Second, and perhaps more importantly, there have been a significant fraction of sessions with this game where the random factor played – in my opinion – too large a roll (no pun intended). Although dice rolling is built into the system, it seems to me that the emphasis of the game is on strategy, tactics, and negotiation. But a handful of lucky rolls can really alter the whole course of the game. This was not a major problem, but it was a troubling one.

Style: 5
Substance: 4

Author: Klaus Teuber
Company/Publisher: Mayfair Games
Cost: $35.00
Page Count: n/a
ISBN: 1-56905-091-0

Originally Posted: 2000/04/06

This is a fascinating review to read in hindsight. First, because it’s kind of weird looking back at a time when Settlers of Catan was not completely secure in its position as a juggernaut of the board game industry.

Second, because my opinion of Settlers of Catan has soured considerably. (And it soured fairly quickly after this review was written. I don’t think I’ve played the game in at least a decade.) My primary problem with the game is that it masquerades as an extremely strategic game, but the outcome of any given game is heavily dependent on luck while featuring a very limited palette of experiences. It tends to attract the worst kind of casual player: The ones who think they’re Grandmasters of Chess because they have a basic grasp of probability.

One point I now firmly disagree with my former self about: Games featuring a division of their rulebooks into a beginner’s tutorial and an alphabetized rules reference generally suck. The entire methodology appears to be designed to achieve no other end than to guarantee that you’ll end up playing the game incorrectly while burying rules under arbitrarily arranged titles.

(This complaint does not necessarily apply to all games featuring introductory rulebooks. For example, Space Alert features an incredibly clever tutorial system that iteratively introduces new players to the complexities of the game. The key difference, however, is that Space Alert also features a complete rulebook which is organized procedurally for easy and intuitive reference.)

For an explanation of where these reviews came from and why you can no longer find them at RPGNet, click here.

Ex-RPGNet Review – Mao

March 7th, 2015

Tagline: “The only rule we’re allowed to tell you is this one.” Great fun for the clever, the intrigued, and the sadistic.

MaoImagine: You sit down at a table with your gaming buddies, and they’ve all got a funny grin on their face. “What is it?” you ask, oblivious to your inevitable fate this evening will bring to you. “We’ve got a new game,” they say. “Oh?” you say. “Sounds cool. What’s it called?” “Mao.”

Maniacal laughter echoes through the room.

You’re confused. “Meow? Like the sound a cat makes?” “No, no,” they say. “Mao as in Mao Tse-tung. But that’s unimportant.”

Brave soul that you are, you say, “Well, what are the rules?”

More maniacal laughter.

“The only rule we’re allowed to tell you is this one.”

“Which one?”

“The only rule we’re allowed to tell you is this one.”

“You mean you can’t tell me any of the rules, except the rule which stops you from telling me the rules?”

“The only rule we’re allowed to tell you is this one.”

“Uhh… okay. Let’s go.”


Mao, as you may have already surmised, is a card game where the first and foremost rule is that you cannot state the rules. You must learn while playing, all the while being penalized for breaking rules which you don’t even know exist. (Obviously you learn what you should be doing based on what you shouldn’t be doing and are getting penalized for, as well as the example of correct play from the other players.)

The other trick up Mao’s sleeve is that at the end of every round of play, the winner of that round gets to add a new rule to the game – a rule which he doesn’t tell to anyone else. The rule can take any form (including the overriding of the core rules) and remains in effect for the rest of the evening. Thus, even once you learn the game, you still haven’t learned the game.

The only other thing I can specifically tell you about this game is that it is played with two normal decks of 52 playing cards.


There is, of course, at this point an obvious dilemma: How do you learn the game if I (and no one else) can tell you the rules and no one local to you knows how to play?

By reading an example of play.

With such an example no one is telling you the rules (and thus breaking the rules), but they do allow you to conclude what the rules are through inference.

The best resources I have found thus far are the pages of Ka Wai Tam. His examples of play are the best and most concise I have found, and he links to several other Mao resource pages.


Things aren’t quite as easy as I’ve lead you to believe.

Anyone who is a card game aficionado (I occasionally like to think of myself as such) knows that the rules of games tend to fluctuate wildly over time. Although certain centralized resources such as Hoyle’s compendium have a tendency to lock certain games into specific patterns (Parker Brothers’ version of Monopoly, for example, has successfully wiped out the vibrant sub-culture of variant Monopolies which preceded it), the tendency is still there. Anyone with a roleplaying background shouldn’t find this all that surprising – the dawn of the industry were basically hacks of D&D which differed from it to various degrees, and today the web serves as a central clearinghouse of home rules, variants, and expansions for many popular systems.

A moment’s reflection should lead you to the quick realization that the basic nature of Mao would quickly lead itself to healthy perversions, growth, and variation. After all, the core spirit of the rules discourages setting anything down in stone – and someone who plays a brief session may never pick up on some of the subtle nuances (and thus would carry a distorted version of the game with them to be taught to someone else). Plus, the fact that you are supposed to add a new rule to Mao after every round of the game lends itself to the development of favorite home rules which may lead to their incorporation into the core rules.

The exact origins of Mao are unknown. There is a strong probability that it derived from a German card game called Mau-mau (note the similarity in name). Another path traces it to Bartog, a similar card game. All of these may ultimately be bizarre perversions of Nomic.

The earliest reference to Mao is to Mark Alexander’s group at Ithaca College in New York. Where it went from there is unclear, but apparently students carried it from one East Coast college to another. By the mid-‘80s there were hotbeds of Mao variant activity in Brooklyn, Pennsylvania, and Tennessee. Today there are at least three major “families” of Mao variants, and probably far more hanging around out there that we don’t know about.

(Check out Jason Holtzapple’s Unofficial Mao Card Game Site. He has a Mao Family Tree, documenting variants which are known to him. If anyone has knowledge of other variants, I’d loved to hear about them – and I’m sure Holtzapple would, too.)

Ka Wai Tam’s version of Mao is known as “Waterloo Mao” – it’s a fairly simple and straight-forward version, and is greatly helped by the fact that his examples of play are comprehensive to a degree which many other examples fail to achieve. (The only problem I had was figuring out some specific rules relating to spades. After some brief correspondence with him I believe I’ve got that sorted out, though – and will gladly help guide anyone to the proper conclusions. Then again, maybe I’ve intuited it all wrong and have introduced a whole new variant to Mao. Such is Mao.)


If you aren’t intrigued by Mao at this point, definitely skip it. It’s obviously not your type of thing. Personally, I stumbled across references to the game while doing some web research on Nomic (which I may eventually get around to reviewing as well) and was instantly ensnared by the concept. The game is both clever and complex, successfully existing at multiple levels of play, comprehension, and strategy. I heartily recommend it to card game fanatics everywhere.

Style: 5
Substance: 5

Author: Anonymous
Company/Publisher: None
Cost: Free!
Page Count: n/a
ISBN: n/a

Originally Posted: 2000/03/21

I remember this review creating a fascinating schism of reaction: A lot of people criticized me for posting a review of a free and public domain game. This seemed to be driven by a couple of factors: First, there were people who felt the primary purpose of a review was to tell them whether or not they should spend money on a game (and therefore a review of something free, which they could check out without paying anything, was pointless). Second, there were people convinced that Mao (or one of its variants) was so common that it was impossible that people hadn’t heard of it.

XKCD didn’t exist yet, so I wasn’t able to reference the lucky 10,000. But I felt personally vindicated in the review by those who replied to say that they hadn’t heard of the game but were intrigued by what I had to say.

For me, personally, Mao was both a revelation and a 60 day fad: I enjoyed it a lot. One of these days I should really teach it to myself again.

For an explanation of where these reviews came from and why you can no longer find them at RPGNet, click here.



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