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Subject: All the fun of Imperialism! rss

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Zeb Larson
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Puerto Rico is a game that needs no introduction; indeed, I worry that I won’t really be able to say anything new about this game. It’s currently ranked 4th on this site out of however many thousands of games, and last year, an anniversary edition was released. Few games can claim that they have a spin-off, but Puerto Rico has San Juan, its little sister game. Aside from just singing this game’s praises, which is simple enough, I’d like to delve a little into why games like this seem to be so popular. This particular historical era, the Golden Age of Exploration (and imperialism) has inspired a host of games in the last few years, and Puerto Rico is emblematic of this trend. There’s a specific vision of history going on here, one that is simultaneously tremendously fun to play and somewhat problematic. First, for the uninitiated, a little introduction is necessary.

Puerto Rico is a game for between 3 and 5 players. Each person is attempting to build up their city, develop their local economy and ship goods back to Europe, either for money or glory. Each turn, players will one at a time select from a number of roles to perform specific actions. These roles include prospector, builder, captain, trader, settler, mayor and producer. With the exception of prospector, when an action is selected, every player will take part; the person who selected the action gets a privilege for doing so. For example, when builder is selected, every player can build, and the person who selected this role can build for one less doubloon. The prospector gets money, the captain can send goods back to Europe, the trader can sell a good for money, the settler can take a production space, and the producer provides players with goods. The mayor brings over people to work in your city. Buildings and production spaces need people occupy them to do anything.

Buildings are divided into two groups: production buildings, allow you to process specific types of goods, and purple buildings, which offer specific. Five kinds of goods can be produced in the game: Indigo, Sugar, Tobacco, Coffee and Corn. There are also quarries that lower the cost of buildings. To produce these goods, you need to settle these spaces in your tableau and then populate them with "colonists" (I’ll address this in a few paragraphs). Purple buildings provide specific bonuses for the player. For example, the hacienda allows a player to gain two production spaces instead of one during the settle phase. The highest cost buildings give points depending on the number of victory chips the player has, the number of colonists or the number of purple buildings. All of this encourages development down a few different paths.


(Note to reader: Colonists would likely not have been smiling.)

One last rule should be mentioned. When a player selects captain, players must ship any goods that they have back to Europe. The catch is that there are only three ships and each of them must be loaded with the same type of good. If you can’t ship goods, you lose all but one of them. For each good that you do manage to ship, you receive a one-point chip. The number of chips you have and the value of your buildings determines the winner.


This is Puerto Rico in a nutshell. Game-play is not exactly simple because of the sheer number of different development strategies available. One can specialize in production and try to send as many goods as possible back to Europe to maximize points. You can focus on a few key expensive goods to finance your city, or strike a balance between the two strategies. Because the space on ships is so limited, playing captain at the right moment can cheat another player of space to ship their goods. You need to jockey for position as much as possible. Despite this, this is a relatively fast game; three people can do a game in under forty-five minutes. This actually makes it a little simpler than Catan for set-up and play.

That’s Puerto Rico as a game. What does it mean? Puerto Rico has been the leader of a wave of games that take place in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, most of which focus on trade, usually in the New World or the Far East. Other games have included Goa (the Portuguese enclave in India), Macau (the Portuguese enclave in China), San Juan, and Endeavor, which takes place all over the globe. Empire-building is becoming a popular theme, as many of these games are ranked between #1 and #200 on BGG. One can see why it’s a fun theme to approach as well as an easy one to write. Who doesn’t like building a trade empire? From the developer’s perspective, you have a large number of competitors, the right dose of number crunching and abstract strategy and an exotic theme to draw people in.

Basing games off of imperialism has been fun, though it does beg the question whether it’s culturally sensitive. Puerto Rico calls the workers "colonists," but that feels like glossing over what they really were. Europe was not teeming with people dreaming of a better life on sugar plantations in the pestilential Caribbean; the only Europeans who went to work in the West Indies were indentured servants whose lot was nearly as bad as many slaves. The so-called colonists are slaves, plain and simple. Nobody else was cutting Tobacco in Puerto Rico in the seventeenth century. The fact that they’re represented by little brown tokens has elicited a lot of nervous, awkward laughs from my fellow gamers. It’s not the most sensitive depiction of history here.

This is Puerto Rico’s only problem, and it’s not an easy one to work around. Would it be better to be honest and just acknowledge the existence of slavery in the game? Endeavor does that, though it’s not central to the game as it is here. Is there a line in the sand that we collectively won’t cross in making these games? I blanche at the idea of a game based on the slave trade, but are we that far away from the topic? We should try to be as careful as possible going forward from here, before we end up dancing around a trading game loosely based on the slave trade.
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Sean Franco
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EmperorZeb wrote:
That’s Puerto Rico as a game. What does it mean? Puerto Rico has been the leader of a wave of games that take place in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, most of which focus on trade, usually in the New World or the Far East. Other games have included Goa (the Portuguese enclave in India), Macau (the Portuguese enclave in China), San Juan, and Endeavor, which takes place all over the globe. Empire-building is becoming a popular theme, as many of these games are ranked between #1 and #200 on BGG. One can see why it’s a fun theme to approach as well as an easy one to write. Who doesn’t like building a trade empire? From the developer’s perspective, you have a large number of competitors, the right dose of number crunching and abstract strategy and an exotic theme to draw people in.

Basing games off of imperialism has been fun, though it does beg the question whether it’s culturally sensitive. Puerto Rico calls the workers "colonists," but that feels like glossing over what they really were. Europe was not teeming with people dreaming of a better life on sugar plantations in the pestilential Caribbean; the only Europeans who went to work in the West Indies were indentured servants whose lot was nearly as bad as many slaves. The so-called colonists are slaves, plain and simple. Nobody else was cutting Tobacco in Puerto Rico in the seventeenth century. The fact that they’re represented by little brown tokens has elicited a lot of nervous, awkward laughs from my fellow gamers. It’s not the most sensitive depiction of history here.

This is Puerto Rico’s only problem, and it’s not an easy one to work around. Would it be better to be honest and just acknowledge the existence of slavery in the game? Endeavor does that, though it’s not central to the game as it is here. Is there a line in the sand that we collectively won’t cross in making these games? I blanche at the idea of a game based on the slave trade, but are we that far away from the topic? We should try to be as careful as possible going forward from here, before we end up dancing around a trading game loosely based on the slave trade.

Not to read too much into this, but this review seems to be a set up for the last three paragraphs so you can criticize the theme which isn't mentioned in the game of slavery. There's not a lot about what you liked or didn't about the game, while the title of the review previews what you find offensive. Was your intent to start a conversation about this and, if so, why did you choose the guise of a review to do so?
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logopolys wrote:

Not to read too much into this, but this review seems to be a set up for the last three paragraphs so you can criticize the theme which isn't mentioned in the game of slavery. There's not a lot about what you liked or didn't about the game, while the title of the review previews what you find offensive. Was your intent to start a conversation about this and, if so, why did you choose the guise of a review to do so?


To be fair, people have plenty of different rubrics for analyzing the worth of a game. Moral implications are no less valid topics for discussion than mechanics, artwork, or components. And I personally find it enlightening and well thought out.

I personally don't like this game for the moral implications, the terribly dry game play, and because I have other role-selection games I prefer.

While there is no mechanic in Macao for imperialistic exploitation of the native people, it does not both imply it and then gloss over it in quite the same way Puerto Rico does. Singapore even explicitly deals with opium and illegal work conditions. If you're going to make a historically themed game, and use a mechanic AND game pieces that heavily imply slavery, I believe it should be mentioned.
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hanibalicious wrote:
If you're going to make a historically themed game, and use a mechanic AND game pieces that heavily imply slavery, I believe it should be mentioned.

Sure! For much the same reasons I think Memoir44 should mention grenade dismemberment, exploded skulls and the effect of landmines on human guts.
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Zeb Larson
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I like Hanibalicious' point a lot, so I won't repeat what he said and try to paint it as my own. I wrote this review the way that I did because A: there's not much use in me writing a review about how fun this game is because 9,000 other reviews say the same thing and I'm not going to bring anything new to the table, B: I really enjoy the game IN SPITE of some questionable historical decisions, and C: I think it gets people thinking about it by just tossing out an eye-grabbing title. I'm interested in point B especially, and how my conscious brain can divorce my enjoyment of the game from a point on the history that I disagree with.

As for why I structured this as a review, this is the game that jogged my thinking on this topic. It could be a forum post, but it is specific to this game, and I think it's something useful to think about for new players.
 
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Zeb Larson
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The difference being that Puerto Rico turns a blind eye towards slavery, which led to the suffering of millions of human beings, by labeling them colonists and removing all of the moral onus.

Memoir '44 doesn't depict being dismembered by grenades as an experience other than that what it was. If combatants were removed from play to "kitten heaven" and grenades were described as "sleepy bombs," I'd be criticizing it for the same thing.
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Andy Leber
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EmperorZeb wrote:
The difference being that Puerto Rico turns a blind eye towards slavery, which led to the suffering of millions of human beings, by labeling them colonists and removing all of the moral onus.

Memoir '44 doesn't depict being dismembered by grenades as an experience other than that what it was. If combatants were removed from play to "kitten heaven" and grenades were described as "sleepy bombs," I'd be criticizing it for the same thing.


I don't understand thoughts like these. So just because it doesn't come out and be all "in your face" about slavery, it's turning a blind eye? This sounds like a lose/lose situation for the game maker. If they came right out and had "slavery", sure there would be some of us that would "respect their honesty", but I think the negative fallout would have been potentially far worse.

Perhaps they "gloss over it" simply because they have no interest in making a social statement of any type, and simply want to be a fun game with production in it. You need someone to work in the fields and factories. I don't know that the designer has ever claimed to be attempting to make a historic sim with hyper realism. We have people who work in fields now that aren't slaves.

I personally don't know if slavery was rampant in Puerto Rico in that time period, and have no desire to research and find out. But even if there was, would it be acceptable if the game were taking place in a different region, or different time period? One that had no association with slavery? Because if so, than what is the difference? Why are we looking to a game to learn about and judge history? It should be what it is... just a fun game.

I just don't understand why nothing can take place in the world anymore without people being offended. It seems to me like the designer tried their best and (possibly) tweaked history to make them regular civilians who are working an honest living, and the designer is STILL getting raked over the coals by a vocal minority over a simple mechanic in a game.

If this were some sort of revisionist history taking place in a historical documentary... then I might would take issue with it. But it's a game. For all I know, it takes place on the island of Puerto Rico on the planet Zargon.

(and Emporerzeb, this rant isn't directed specifically at you.... it's just my 2 cents on the matter in general).
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Zeb Larson
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Andy, first of all, thanks for being willing to come out and debate this with me. Part of why I posted this here is because I feel that gamers, paradoxically, can debate these issues with a lot more politeness than many other people. We have a common interest that unites us, and we seem to be more inclined to respectfully debate it, call it good and then go drink a beer and play a game.(At least in my heavily romanticized view of the world-I know there are table-flippers out there, but I've yet to encounter one on here so far).

I would respond that other games have managed to address these issues by being honest, and personally, I think that's fairer. Endeavor is a game that is literally about Imperialism; you play as Europe establishing a trade empire in the rest of the world. But it doesn't make any bones about it; hell, in that game, you can use slaves as a mechanic. I don't find that questionable It doesn't paint over an ugly past, which I think is the best way to approach history. Calling slaves "colonists" is a bit of revision, because they are substantially different things.

And yes, slavery was a critical piece of the economy in the Caribbean, both on Puerto Rico and elsewhere. It involved a lot of suffering, forced deportation and death. There are people today who are still stuck with the legacy of those actions. It's nobody's fault now, but it doesn't hurt to remember that.

I'm probably irritating the piss out of everybody being up on a soapbox, and you could point out that I have no reason to be so invested in being a nag. I'm an upper-middle class white dude. Part of why I'm bringing this up is because it is still relevant to some people in the world, and I'm a student of history, so I tend to be concerned with accuracy and fairness. I'm not big into the PC thing; I like to call things by what they are. Call a slave a slave (or a laborer if you really want to avoid that word), and let's play.

Beyond that, however, I'm really excited by what I see in boardgames, because there is an astonishing capacity for high-concept games. I love that a game like Twilight Struggle can make people think critically about the Cold War, and this is a trend that is happeneing elsewhere. My reaction to that is to keep pushing it in that direction. Why can't games be art and make people think, too?

Anyway, that's my 2 cents to your 2 cents.
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Adam Kazimierczak
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I find the "slave worker" issue in Puerto Rico to be a case of the game maker having cold feet (avoiding the "S" word) and the opponents having microscopically thin skin. It's not like there are "whipping post" spaces where colonists go if they aren't productive enough or white "master meeples" who keep your work force in line.

The only reason the slavery issue was ever brought up in the first place is because the pawns are brown. Nobody is defending the poor downtrodden serfs of Carcassonne (or all those independent contractors who were blown up while working on the second Death Star, but that's fodder for another thread).

I for one have moral issues with my Agricola farmer sleeping with livestock, forcing his newborn child to work in the fields and being involved in some bizarre village sex cult that only allows one alpha male to procreate each season.

Long live offensive abstractions!
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kaziam wrote:
I find the "slave worker" issue in Puerto Rico to be a case of the game maker having cold feet (avoiding the "S" word) and the opponents having microscopically thin skin. It's not like there are "whipping post" spaces where colonists go if they aren't productive enough or white "master meeples" who keep your work force in line.

The only reason the slavery issue was ever brought up in the first place is because the pawns are brown. Nobody is defending the poor downtrodden serfs of Carcassonne (or all those independent contractors who were blown up while working on the second Death Star, but that's fodder for another thread).

I for one have moral issues with my Agricola farmer sleeping with livestock, forcing his newborn child to work in the fields and being involved in some bizarre village sex cult that only allows one alpha male to procreate each season.

Long live offensive abstractions!


First, Meeples "look" happy. They are cute. Downtrodden they are not!

We often mimic the 'crack of the whip' when we take 'colonists' (independent contractors) from the ship during gameplay. I know, it might piss off the occasional lefty, but who cares. That's just a bonus, right?

laugh

Great fun.

Who doesn't like a good, topical sound effect?
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kaziam wrote:
I find the "slave worker" issue in Puerto Rico to be a case of the game maker having cold feet (avoiding the "S" word) and the opponents having microscopically thin skin. It's not like there are "whipping post" spaces where colonists go if they aren't productive enough or white "master meeples" who keep your work force in line.

The only reason the slavery issue was ever brought up in the first place is because the pawns are brown. Nobody is defending the poor downtrodden serfs of Carcassonne (or all those independent contractors who were blown up while working on the second Death Star, but that's fodder for another thread).

I for one have moral issues with my Agricola farmer sleeping with livestock, forcing his newborn child to work in the fields and being involved in some bizarre village sex cult that only allows one alpha male to procreate each season.

Long live offensive abstractions!


Yes. The point is that those discs are brown and not called slaves, given the time period and locale. It's not even like they're natural wood, so the decision was made by someone, somewhere, to make them brown. Slavery was how those plantations were worked, so if you want to avoid the topic, make them white and call them workers. Or, like in Endeavor, deal with the topic. Don't willingly paint them brown and then imply that, during that time period, they were anything but chattel slaves and indentured servants.

It's not the deal breaker for my not owning this game, but it certainly brings up odd feelings, and the presentation of this information to people on the fence about owning this game is simply disclosure. Yes, it doesn't offend you at all, but perhaps, to some people, it might be construed as such.
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Stephen McHale
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EmperorZeb wrote:


I'm probably irritating the piss out of everybody



Yes, you are, but who knows, maybe now I won't have to get up 3 times during the night because of a full bladder.
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Zeb Larson
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Eh, I'd be lying if I said I didn't like seeing how aggravated people get over this line of criticism.
 
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A famous, but long dead French entertainer called Pierre Desproges, once said that you can laught about everything, but not with everybody.

Now, I think we can all see things through various coloured lenses. In the game of PR that I played, the colonists where different from the one pictured above and simple brown disks. I never really thought about what they could represent in an imaginary collective. PR is an abstract euro after all and they were just the worker placement side of the game.

Now would we have this discussion if they had been white? or Pink? Why do we immediately associate brown discs with slavery ? The Romans Empire was built on slavery, mostly of other white people. Is there a bit of tunnel vision here?

Is anybody concerned that Hey, That's My Fish! is encouraging overfishing? (yes I am taking the Mickey).

And what about Maria in Santiago de Cuba? Why is she giving you 2 VPs? Are you her pimp?

Aren't all worker placements game promoting capitalism?

Slavery is a major historical issue which consequences are still being felt nowaday. Also, it still exist today. I somewhat think that it is being trivialised when discussed in the context of "brown discs" in a board game when there is an estimated 27 miilions people living in slavery today.

It is laudable that people are concerned about slavery, past and present, but then there are other places where their time and energy will be much more valued and valuable. Start here for example http://www.antislavery.org

~J
Edited for typos
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In Eclipse you can develop neutron bombs as a convenience to kill off planetary populations quicker. I've never seen anyone bring this up as something tasteless or immoral.
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Really, there are VERY few games out there (in particular the ones we enjoy) that don't involve something that is 'distasteful'.

And, for many of those games, the distasteful element is actually the goal of the game.

For example, the wargame Small world is all about Genocide.
(Just trolling the wargamers a bit... )

I think getting worked up about any element within a game isn't worth the effort. Since, if this bothers you, then why not the other 95% of games that have equally horrific things in them?

About the only games without this type of element are the abstract ones.

Ultimately, we all have one or two hot button items, and, when we encounter those we get all excited, yet, we ignore other peoples hot button items as something 'to not get so upset over'.

 
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Hank B
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When the color of disks in a boardgame offends you, it is time to re-evaluate your life.

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Zeb Larson
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Again, my issue is with the word choice of "colonist" instead of slave, and the fact that lots of other games, many of which have been listed here, don't politely change the name to paint it in a better light. If in Eclipse using neutron bombs "made the population happy and compliant," that would be disturbing (although as it's not based on reality, it would mostly be just weird). Likewise, I don't complain about the serfs in Carcassone, because I don't think there's any intellectual dishonesty going on there.

The color of the discs, while a tiny bit unfortunate, is really irrelevant in contrast to the bigger picture issue here.
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Settlers of Catan does not improve with your house rules. The best option if you don't like the rules as written is to just select another game.
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After I kill Hitler, see the shootout at the OK Corral, witness the birth of Christ (and his crucifixion), talk to my father adult to adult, and a few other things, my next stop in a time machine is to go back to the drawing board sessions during Puerto Rico's inception and convince them to make it a space exploration game.

Seriously - did your group really have nervous laughter over this game?
 
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Zeb Larson
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You mean where you take little brown discs, load them on a "colonist ship" and put them on tobacco plantations and sugarcane fields? Yeah, it was a bit awkward.
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Settlers of Catan does not improve with your house rules. The best option if you don't like the rules as written is to just select another game.
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EmperorZeb wrote:
You mean where you take little brown discs, load them on a "colonist ship" and put them on tobacco plantations and sugarcane fields? Yeah, it was a bit awkward.


I thought the color of the disks didn't matter?
 
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Sean Franco
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EmperorZeb wrote:
Again, my issue is with the word choice of "colonist" instead of slave, and the fact that lots of other games, many of which have been listed here, don't politely change the name to paint it in a better light. If in Eclipse using neutron bombs "made the population happy and compliant," that would be disturbing (although as it's not based on reality, it would mostly be just weird). Likewise, I don't complain about the serfs in Carcassone, because I don't think there's any intellectual dishonesty going on there.

The color of the discs, while a tiny bit unfortunate, is really irrelevant in contrast to the bigger picture issue here.

Would you have the same issue with the word "colonist" if the game didn't portray the island fields and instead only portrayed the city? Then you'd have "colonists" working in buildings much the way that they would in, say, Caylus.

It's entirely possible that the scope of overlapping populaces in this game includes both slaves and freemen, but given the interchangeability of them, the designer chose to fall on the side of one instead of the other and dear God why is this even an issue that is still getting discussed it's just a bloody game with abstractions, not a thesis of denial concerning ages past blarg
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Zeb Larson
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All I said was that the focus on the color of the discs was irrelevant in the bigger picture. If you're going to take little dudes and pack them on a slave ship and make them brown to boot, yeah, it makes it awkward.

And Caylus isn't about slavery. I'll grant you that this isn't some revisionist text claiming that Puerto Rico was settled by pro-Democracy WASPs seeking a better, freer and more just life in the Caribbean, but the people who were coming to work coffee plantations were not colonists, and I don't entirely understand why it's asking so much of the game develop to call them by their proper name: slaves.
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Sean Franco
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EmperorZeb wrote:
And Caylus isn't about slavery.

Thank you for missing the bigger picture about interchangeability with workers in city buildings. The question was: Would you have the same issue with the word "colonist" if the game didn't portray the island fields and instead only portrayed the city?
 
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Settlers of Catan does not improve with your house rules. The best option if you don't like the rules as written is to just select another game.
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WTF?

http://www.boardgamegeek.com/article/10884982#10884982
 
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