Dale Yu: First Impressions – Catan: Explorers and Pirates

Catan: Explorers and Pirates

  • Designer: Klaus Teuber
  • Publisher: Mayfair/Kosmos
  • Players: 2-4
  • Ages: 12+
  • Time: 30min to 2hrs (depends on which modules you play)
  • Times Played: 2 (1 play with Land Ho! Module, 1 play with all 5 modules) with copy provided by Mayfair


The newest release in the Catan line of games expands the base game quite a bit providing the gamer with both some new pieces as well as some new rules.  There are multiple modules to the expansion, and each builds on the ones prior to it.  You can, however, play with any modules in or out of the expansion.  It is most definitely an expansion as you will need knowledge of the rules of the base game as well as some of the components.  (The stuff is best compatible with Mayfair 4th edition (published 2007) or later). This first impression piece will assume that you are familiar with the basic rules of Settlers of Catan.

When you first open the box, you will likely be overwhelmed with the abundance of components in the box. There are 382 wooden pieces, 16 punchboards of chits, decks of cards and a whole bunch of Ziploc bags.  The rules actually devote an entire page instructing you how to punch and sort all the components for this expansion.  There is also an extra bag to allow you to keep your stuff from the base game separate from the expansion material.  Kudos to the publishers for including legend cards for each bag to make it easy to confirm that each bag has the correct components in it.

In Explorers and Pirates, like the base game, you do not have a traditional board to play ON, but instead you construct the board with hexes.  Some of the initial scenarios have smaller play areas, using only 31 hexes – but the full scenario will require the full complement of 79 hexes!  Like the base game, as the map is constructed, you place number tiles on the different hexes.  You still use roads, settlements and resource cards as in the base game.  There are no cities though, they are replaced by harbor settlements (which look very similar to cities).  Additionally, there is not a robber – instead, each player has a pirate ship in their color which can be on the board.  Players also have new pieces: ships and settlers.

As I mentioned earlier, there are 5 different modules – well really 4 different modules and a final one which combines all 4.  There are some rules which are used in all of the modules and some which are specific for a particular module.  I’ll go through the basics of each one now.  NB: the rules review here is not meant to be exhaustive nor complete – I am trying to explain enough to allow you get the feel for the game without re-writing the rulebook!

Module 1: Land Ho!

This first module adds in the rules for ships, settlers and pirates.  The board setup for Explorers and Pirates is a little different than the base game – instead of having a simple hexagonal island, you now have a known base island on the left and islands to explore on the right.  These new islands are separated by seas which you will have to cross with your ships in order to explore the new world.  All the hexes in the new world are face down to start – you will not see what type of land it is until you explore!  Ships move along the borders of the hexes, i.e. the place roads would go between land hexes.  The map in this first module is the base for all the later modules – this general pattern will be expanded for the later modules.


The basic structure of a turn is very similar to the base game

1)      Roll the die and all players produce if they have a settlement (regular or harbor) on a hex with matching number.  If you produce nothing, you get a gold piece.

2)      Trade and build – there are no trading ports in this game, but all players can always trade 3 same resources:1 other with the bank or 2 gold:1 resource at any time.

3)      Movement – this is a new phase – you can now move each of your ships and conduct an action with them

Building is pretty similar to the base game – except that there are different pieces that can be built, and there is a restriction of where pieces can be placed upon creations – ships and settlers must be next to harbors.

The movement phase is new, and this involves the ships.  Each ship has a platform on it which allows it to carry 1 large piece (such as a settler) or 2 smaller pieces (get to these later).  Cleverly, the size of the physical pieces makes it easy to remember what fits and what doesn’t.  Each turn, each ship has 4 movement points – though you can buy an extra 2 movement points each turn for a wool card.  As you move along, you can load and unload things for free.  Once you are done with movement, you can then do an action if you want.

Exploring is one action – if you are adjacent to an unknown tile at the end of your movement, you MUST discover that hex – flip it over and place the number tile on it.  If your ship had a settler piece on it, you could choose to found a new settlement at this site, you would remove the ship and settler from play and place a new settlement on the vertex where you discovered the new hex.  If you choose not to found a settlement, the ship+settler remain on the board to travel again next turn.

Settlements and Settler have the same cost.

Settlements and Settler have the same cost.

You win this scenario when you get 8 VPs.  The only way to score points here are settlements (1 VP) and harbors (2 VP).

Module 2: Pirate Lairs

This one uses the rules mentioned above in Module 1.  It also adds in the pirate ships, crew members and missions.

Pirate ships: this is the analog to the robber.  When you roll a 7, you remove the exisiting pirate ship and place your own color pirate ship on the board.  You steal one resource card from any player who is adjacent from the pirate ship. Furthermore, if any other player wants to move away from or onto an adjacent sea route, they must pay the pirate 1 gold piece in tribute.  If you have not yet moved and are adjacent to the pirate, you get a free attack to chase the pirate away – normally you would need to roll a 6 on 1d6 to chase it away.

Crews: These are small pieces which travel on ships – up to 2 per ship. They will be used in this scenario to attack pirate lairs.

Pirate Lairs: These are special hexes that are randomly placed on the new islands.  In order to defeat a pirate lair, three crew members need to be deposited on the hex – these crew members can be (and usually are) of different colors.

Missions: So, if you’ve noticed from the first module, there is no Longest Road nor Largest Army bonus in this game.  The Mission(s) take the place of these VP producers.  There is a Mission card for each of the three Missions – you can score between 1 and 3 VPs depending on how far you have progressed along the mission track, and there is also a Mission VP card, worth 1 VP, given to the player furthest along the track.  Ties are won by the player to first reach the tied spot.

Defeating the Pirate Lair: So, when the 3rd crew member is deposited on a pirate lair, the explorers have enough strength to defeat the pirate.  Each player who has at least one crew member in the lair receives 2 gold pieces and also moves their marker up one space on the Mission track, in turn order from the active player.  Then, all involved players decide who was the hero of the fight by rolling 1d6 and adding the number of crew members present – the highest total is the Hero and gets to move an additional space on the Mission track.  The Hero has to take one crew member and return it to the supply.  The other crew members remain on the space and can be picked up and moved again on a later turn.  The pirate lair hex now gets a number token on it, and it will now produce 2 gold on the number on the chit.

Winning: Goal is 12 VP.  Points are: 1 VP for settlement, 2 for Harbor, 1-3 points from mission track, 1 VP for the Mission card.

Module 3: Fish for Catan

There are a few changes to setup here – first, there is a Council of Catan hex which is placed in the sea between the Old World and the New World.  Additionally, in addition to the pirate lairs, there are also fish tiles which are added to the randomized new islands.

All of the previous rules apply to this module. Here are the new rules.

Fish hexes: When you discover a fish hex, you get 2 gold.  Nothing else happens.  Each fish hex does have a die pre-printed on it (value varies from 1 to 6).  On any player’s turn during the movement phase, you can choose to roll for fish.  You roll 1d6, and if the corresponding fish tile is on the board, a fish wooden bit is placed on it – unless there is already a fish piece on it OR the pirate is on the hex.

Fish pieces: The fish piece stays on the board until it is picked up by a ship.  Once it is picked up, the player who has it will want to bring it to the Council of Catan hex.  When you deliver the fish to the Council, you get to move your marker up on the Fish Mission track one space.

Fish Mission: This works pretty much the same way as the Pirate Mission track.

Winning: First player to  15VPs wins this scenario.  Points are 1 VP for settlement, 2 for Harbor, 1-3 points from Pirate mission track, 1 VP for the Pirate Mission card, 1-3 points from Fish mission track, 1 VP for the Fish Mission card.

Module 4: Spices for Catan

There are a few changes to setup here – you still use the Council of Catan hex which is placed in the sea between the Old World and the New World.  Additionally, the pirate lairs are replaced with spice hexes.  You still use the fish tiles.

All of the previous rules apply to this module if the pieces are in the game. Here are the new rules.

Spice hexes: When discovered, the discoverer gets 2 gold pieces.  Additionally, once found, the hex gets a number of spice sacks placed on it equal to the number of players in the game.  When you place a crew member on the spice hex, two things happen:  1) you place a spice sack onto your ship – you may only collect one spice sack from a particular spice hex and 2) you will get a special ability from that spice hex.

Special abilities: Each spice hex has a different special ability printed on it.  If you have a crew member on that space, you have that ability for the rest of the game. The abilities are: 1) +1 movement point to your ships, 2) you get one extra number to drive away the pirate, 3) you may trade 1 gold for 1 resource ONCE each turn.

Delivering Spice: like delivering Fish, you bring Spice sacks back to the Council, and for each sack brought back, you move one space up on the Mission card.

Winning: First player to 15VPs wins this scenario.  Points are 1 VP for settlement, 2 for Harbor, 1-3 points from Spice mission track, 1 VP for the Spice Mission card, 1-3 points from Fish mission track, 1 VP for the Fish Mission card.

Module 5: Explorers and Pirates

The only thing here is that the setup is slightly different because you’re essentially using everything.  No new rules.

The full board

The full board

Winning: First player to 17VPs wins this scenario.  Points are 1 VP for settlement, 2 for Harbor, 1-3 points from Spice mission track, 1 VP for the Spice Mission card, 1-3 points from Fish mission track, 1 VP for the Fish Mission card, 1-3 points from Pirate mission track, 1 VP for the Pirate Mission card.

Thoughts on the game

Well, I’ve only played it twice (which is why this is a first impression, and not a review) – but I have definitely enjoyed the one full experience I had with it.  I’m honestly not sure if I’d choose this over basic vanilla Settlers, but there is definitely a time and a place for this version.  Like Catan Histories: Settlers of America Trails to Rails, this can be a full game session in itself.  Our game took just over two hours for a 4p game, and it is clearly more involved and complex than basic Settlers.

What I like:

I like the added complexity – the new rules cause the game to be longer which really gives you time to develop long-term strategies that the 40-60 minute length of the basic game do not allow.  The different mission tracks give you a few more things to focus on.

I like the incorporation of the unofficial “food stamp” variant – where players now get a gold each turn that they don’t produce something.  This helps mitigate awful dice luck because it means everyone generally gets at least one half a resource with each roll.

I like the way the rules are laid out to learn the game.  The rules are written in a nice fashion to learn things piecemeal as each section only introduces the rules you need to get going for that section.  It is quite easy to jump right in and get started.  The initial module only takes 20-30 minutes to play, and the rules for that scenario are fairly easy to pick up.  If you were relatively new to Settlers, you would not be overwhelmed, though you might be if you had to read 24 pages of rules.  The format here limits you to 3 or 4 pages of rules for the first piece…

Though the rules are written for learning in pieces, I feel pretty confident that you could jump right into the full monty after a good explanation.  The overall complexity of the full game is about 5 or 6 out of 10. In the end, the missions all work the same, you just have different ways of triggering them. The ships, harbors and pirates rules should be easy to assimilate as well.

The new pieces work well and are easy to pick up.  Unlike regular Settlers where the biggest thing is to try to collect resources to build things to get points, the Missions give you reason to go “do” things.  This subtle change does open up a lot of interesting strategies.  Certainly, you can try to gain most of your points through billing – though, there aren’t enough settlements and harbors to get to 17 by building alone.  However, it is also quite possible to win with a minimum of settlement building and instead concentrating on using your ships to catch fish or deliver spices.  If you maximized the mission tracks, you could have 12 VPs from that alone… You start the game with a settlement and a harbor, so you would only need 2 more VPs from building.

What I don’t like – mostly niggly things

Niggly thing about the bits – I wish that the spice sacks were in player colors.  It is fairly easy to look at the spice hexes to see where crew members are to know who has picked up which spice sack.  But it would have been even easier if the spice was color coded.  If you didn’t see your color spice sack, you just can’t take one.

Other niggly thing about the bits – I kinda wish Mayfair had included the full frame in the expansion box because my set is so old that I don’t have the other frame bits needed!  Of course, you don’t really need the frames to hold everything together, it’s just neater if you do.

Gameplay-wise: depending on how the game goes, there is a little bit of churny-ness in the middle portion of the game.  You now need to get to 17VP instead of 10VP, and at least one player in our full game felt that despite the different missions, it was a slog to score points.  This didn’t really bother me, as it didn’t feel any different than getting the last few points in base Settlers.  I just think that all players need to be ready for a 2 hour game when they start.  As I mentioned earlier, if you preferred the Trails to Rails game from a few years ago, this will be right up your alley.

I don’t like the way the rules are laid out for reference to a question.  This is simply due to the style of book, and the same problem I have with some Vlaada Chavtil rulesets.  When you have a question, you have to figure out where the rule is introduced to the game to find them in the rulebook.  However, there is a handy index which you can refer to, and this helps a lot.


Catan: Explorers and Pirates is a very nice addition to the Catan universe.  For those gamers looking for a more involved and complex version of the game, this will be a must-have.  I suppose you could play 4 introductory games (as the rules suggest) to get to the full Explorers and Pirates, but I do think that most accomplished gamers should be able to handle it on the first go – knowing that this first game will probably be upwards of 2 hours for a first game.  By the mid-point of our first game, we had assimilated all the rules, and we really didn’t have any rules questions or need to refer to the rulebook any further.  I’ll admit that this isn’t the version of Settlers that I would gravitate to, as I honestly still prefer the base game most of any Settlers version – but I’m glad to have this on the shelf for when  I want that longer, deeper experience.  Admittedly, I’ve only played the full game once so far, but I should be able to get it back to the table either at Origins or just after.

About Dale Yu

Dale Yu is the Editor of the Opinionated Gamers. He can occasionally be found working as a volunteer administrator for BoardGameGeek, and he previously wrote for BoardGame News.
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