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The Settlers of Catan – Something Completely Different

July 4th, 2010

The Settlers of Catan on a custom board

Far too much time has elapsed since my last post.  It’s a consequence of life inserting its priorities over my own, but fortunately I’m quite happy. That, despite writing far less, working a great deal more, and cutting back on almost anything remotely entertaining.

Notice I said, “almost.”

Because if one has children and limited childcare, part of getting through summer involves dropping all non-essential activities and turning attention onto them. And the best way to shower attention is through…games, right?

Well, just like all scientists, the only way to find out is through experimentation. Hence, the segway into TinySci – I wanted to see if a 6 year old could learn to play a challenging game of The Settlers of Catan.  And have fun.

This post isn’t about the game play itself, of which there’s a significant chunk of literature out and about the Internet. Suffice it to say, all you’ve read is correct:

  • Settlers of Catan  is fun, novel, balanced, and well deserving of its many awards;
  • It’s easy to learn and excellent  for many people;
  • Despite the rumors, its can be tuned for a nice game for 2; and,
  • The 4th edition board pretty much sucks.

Rather than reiterate all the praise extolled onto The Settlers of Catan, I’m focusing on the last point – the board. And the fact that it sucks. And what I did to remedy it.

But in case you were wondering, the 6 year old and I had a blast playing it.

When laid out according to the instructions, the 4th edition “board” is one comprised of 15 hexagonal land tiles surrounded by interlocking shoreline tiles.  In theory, this implementation is a dream come true, as the shoreline tiles keep the interior hexagonal land tiles in place.  In practice, this implementation is a minor nightmare resulting from hexagonal tiles that are ever-so-slightly too large to fit into an interior space that’s ever-so-slightly too small.

To be exact, each hexagonal tile is about 79 mm wide.  Five of them, end to end, form the longest stretch of land requiring 395 mm of width within the shore tiles. And now, the distance between the shore tiles? About 393 mm. Yup, 2 mm short.


But wait – you’re thinking, how could 2 mm over the span of almost 400 mm make a difference?  We’re talking about a factor of about 1/2 of 1%.  The problem is, the stiff tile boards are about 1 mm thin, which means they can give and take under pressure. It also means if you push and shove, you can fit the hexagonal tiles within the shoreline tiles.  BUT, since some pressure is required to fit the land tiles within the sea tiles, the inevitable happens: Warping.  Warping in a bad way.

My son and I learned and played the game together one late afternoon, we had a blast, but we didn’t put it away when we finished.  We left it in the land-tile-within-shore-tile configuration until the next morning. And that’s when I saw it – the previously flat board had turned into a warped mess.  The land tiles had warped slightly, but the sea tiles warped to the point where using them again made the game altogether unplayable.  I took the sea tiles and had them sit under a stack of heavy textbooks for 24 hours, but that only helped marginally.  I read about how one guy ironed his flat (using low heat and a towel on top), but it wasn’t until I saw the warping with my own eyes did I believe it.

Warp happens.

So, how does one rationally reconcile buying a very expensive board game with these results? Well, returning the game wasn’t an option – it’s too fun. Which meant, going for the gold: Doing something, custom, home-built…but what?

Others have gone this route to varying degrees of success and effort.  I liked the solution that involved ditching the board altogether and creating an entire one, a three dimensional one from scratch using a clay mold and tons of time.  Wow, the result is amazing.  Unfortunately, as I mentioned earlier, I didn’t have the time.

I opted for quicker, cheaper, and a smidgen less nice. The result, still incomplete, is wonderful. It consists of a backing made from artist’s board, foam board to replace the exterior sea tiles, and rubber cement. As you can see from the picture above, everything sits flush, without pressure, without any bend or warping.  The cost of materials?  Approximately $12.

Custom Setters of Catan Board, Top View

Custom Setters of Catan Board, Top View

In a nutshell, I cut out the land tile form from the foam board and glued the remaining frame to the stiff artist’s board which serves as the backing. I also cut out rectangles from the bottom to hold the cards. The result? Carefree enjoyment of the game!

I said I was almost done. The remaining work will occur on the backside where I will create a similar form that will fit the extended 5-6 person game.  This isn’t the highest priority though, as we’re not expecting any company soon.  Still, it’s great because the same board will serve both versions of the game.

Also, I ordered some cheap hexagonal 79 mm wide 3 mm thick tiles onto which I’m going to adhere the land tiles.  Why? Because the ones that come with the set are so thin. After paying so much for the game, I want it to last. Gluing them to engineered fiberboard should do the trick. These tiles should arrive in a week – more about that when they arrive.

For those who are interested, here are step-by-step instructions:

The Ingredients:

  1. Go to Aaron Brothers and buy a pre-primed engineered guaranteed-not-to-warp artist’s board. I got one that’s 18 inches by 24 inches for about $8.  This will serve as the backing of your custom board.  You could go larger if you wish.  Smaller, I wouldn’t recommend, as you’d have a tough time to squeeze in the outer sea chips.
  2. While you’re there, also buy rubber cement (or other glue of your choice), and foam board. I purchased two pieces of foam board for about $5 each.  I also went with black, but you could go for a more “realistic” blue to simulate the ocean.
  3. You’ll need either an Exacto-knife or a box cutter (I used a box cutter with a new blade).
  4. Tracing paper helps but is not necessary. A ruler and a pencil is required!  Tape helps.
  5. Sand paper.

The Build:

  1. Smooth out the edges and especially the corners of the artist’s board.  They’re sharp.  And, this is optional, you may want to smooth out the edges of the land tiles to remove the “hanging chad” (You’ll know what I mean when you see it.  I did, but be careful and don’t sand away too much of your tile!).
  2. Cut the foam board to the size of the artist’s board. Start by tracing the artist’s board over the foam board and use a ruler to help make your cuts.  BE CAREFUL AND DON’T CUT YOURSELF.  Having access to a cutting board helps.
  3. If you have tracing paper, lay the land tiles on it and trace its circumference with a pencil.  It helps to place a weight over each tile so it doesn’t move once you set it down (I used empty water glasses, though, room temperature cans of soda work too).  Make sure you lay the tiles adjacent to each other, but not snugly. Give yourself an iota of wiggle-room so that everything lays down perfectly flat without bunching up.  Once you have your trace, superimpose it over the foam board and center it as you see fit.  I centered mine width-wise but off centered it length-wise.  Once you have your tracing paper positioned, tape it in place.
  4. If you don’t have tracing paper do step 3 but directly on top of the foam board.  Be sure to center the tiles (or, in my case, off-center them) as you see fit.  Trace the circumference of these tiles with a pencil, then remove the tiles.
  5. Cut out the land section from the foam board. If you have tracing paper, just cut through the paper. It helps to start your cuts on the outside and to work your way into the piece to be discarded.  It also helps to use a ruler.  And, again, BE CAREFUL AND DON’T CUT YOURSELF.
  6. If you want, cut out rectangle slots for the cards, but BE CAREFUL AND DON’T CUT YOURSELF.  You’ll need six slots for the 5 different resource card and the development cards.  I spaced my cuts as such (starting at the edge): 0.75 inches, 2.25 inches, 0.6 inches, 2.25 inches, 0.6 inches, 2.25 inches, 0.6 inches, 2.25 inches, 0.6 inches, 2.25 inches, 0.6 inches, 2.25 inches, 0.75 inches for total of 18 inches.  While the cards are 2.125 inches wide, I added the extra 1/8th inch to avoid putting pressure on the cards.
  7. Glue your masterpiece to the artist’s board.  I used rubber cement because I thought it would make things easy. In retrospect, I may have opted for Elmer’s glue, as the rubber cement dried a bit too fast for my tastes. In the end, it worked.  Be sure to place a few text books over the foam board for at least an hour to help the glue set. The nice thing about rubber cement is that if you make a mistake, it’s very easy to remove the glue and start over.
  8. That’s it – go and play!

As I said, I’m waiting for some sturdy 3mm hex boards to arrive, upon which I’m gluing the land hex tiles.  I purchased them from – I ordered a “quart”-worth (I know, odd, but hey, that’s how they roll) and I’ll let you know how many I get, if it’s worth it, and if it works within the frame I built.  All signs point to an optimistic outcome. Still, even without that, this modified board works like a dream.  It’s a shame that something similar doesn’t come with the purchased product.

And, I’m confident that if anything, we’ll get more mileage out of the game. Which, in the end, hopefully implies a more entertaining summer for me and my son.


Cool Piece of Astronomical Software of the Day: Stellarium

September 4th, 2009

Stellarium (courtesy of

Stellarium (courtesy of

Ever wonder what is that third star from the right?  Could that planet be Jupiter or possibly Venus?  Or, are you just planning a stargazing trip to someplace distant sometime in the far off  future and are wondering what you can expect to see?

Then, Stellarium is just for you.

While the free downloadable software (Windows, Mac, Linux) has been around for a while, it still hasn’t hit version 1.0.  As of this article, it’s on version 0.10.2.  Still, despite my best efforts, I could not get the program to crash, and I run an old P4 1.73Ghz PC.  I can only imagine how it will work on a newer computer.

As you can see from the screen shot, Stellarium will give you a view of the night sky, as if you walked outside your home on a clear, dark night.  But, that’s just the beginning.

Read more…

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