In Candamir, the players are taking the roles of Frontiers-people, perhaps, rather than Settlers. Instead of building roads, settlements and other infrastructure bits, you are personally going out to acquire resources and items for use by the first four Catanian colonists. Doing so requires strength, skill, and charima as you face down wolves, bears, snakes, and bandits to fulfill your objectives, but if you do so you are rewarded with experience, tools, and helpful herbs, as well as the raw materials required to win.
Your persona in the game is a character who will probably have a couple special powers and be rated in four attributes: Strength, Dexterity, Charisma, and Fighting Prowess. There are four default characters, but there is also an interesting point-buy system allowing you to build your own. Over the course of the game, you have to pass many tests, each of which is against one or more of these abilities, and has certain penalties for failure and payoffs for success (some even have up-front costs as well). Each test is simple – you roll a d6, add your ability score, and win or lose. The costs and benefits are all clearly laid out in nice friendly icons.
You earn victory points by gathering familiar Settlers resources for the colonists. To do this, you have to trek across the land, which is a square grid. Each time you want to move you draw a card from a travel deck, revealing what lies in each direction: sometimes nothing, but sometimes dangers, sometimes opportunities, and sometimes a bit of both. You then choose which way to travel – to risk a dangerous encounter to take a straight path, to divert to pick up some herbs, or to chance a possibly beneficial encounter.
When you return from your travels, you will probably have picked up resources. The colonists generally want swords, trunks, and some sort of window shade thing, all of which are assembled from multiple resources, so you can use what you’ve got or do the traditional trading. Providing a colonist with an item will provide a flat VP out of the ten you need, but each colonist also provides a bonus VP, longest-road style, to the player who provides the most items to him or her. Additionally, once you get back to the village, herbs that you may have collected on your travels can be brewed into various beneficial concoctions. Because this is a Settlers game, you have the opportunity to trade resources and herbs with your fellow-players.
I think there is actually a lot of stuff to like in Candamir. The character/adventure subsystem to me works much better than, say, Return of the Heroes because it’s much more subtle and incremental. There is a lot of pressure to up all your abilities to be able to defeat challenges both for their payoffs and for the time savings; but doing this is slow, and you have to choose between acquiring resources for the colonists and acquiring the experience to improve your own abilities, so you’ve got the usual nice tension between building up your capabilities and doing stuff that will actually score points. The game is also thematically quite rich, and is also really quite straightforward and easy to play, while still being quite varied and giving you interesting choices. There is also little reason why you can’t use the German edition even if you don’t speak German; the only relevant text is two character special abilities plus the special power for Mead, which isn’t that big a deal.
The potential pitfalls are downtime and game length. With 3 players, we just didn’t have a lot of trading going on, less than Settlers or Starfarers. That’s a little unfortunate, since trading is such an important part of all Settlers games, keeping everyone engaged most of the time. I’m not sure if it was just the game we were playing – managing unpredictability is another key feature of Settlers games – or if it’s the way the system goes. More play will be required on that count. It seems like trading could be quite productive; each character has certain movement bonuses that makes gathering certain resources easier than others (my character was a climber, for example – good for moving in the mountains and thus gathering Ore). It also seems clear that more players will lead to more trading, as in every Settlers-type game; but in Candamir, more players will lead to significantly more downtime, as the game is much more tactical. In Starfarers you’re moving a lot of pieces around and resolving encounters, but here you have many more moment-to-moment movement decisions – as well as possible encounters – so things could take a while. These are not hard or momentous decisions, and with the right group should move briskly. But they can add up, especially if you’re playing with one of those folks who feels that if they are presented with a choice, they really need to spend some time thinking about it.
At the end of the day, though, I liked Candamir. I have a few reservations that will require more play to work out if the problems are real or imagined, but the game had a good feel to it, and it had the always-welcome features of being straightforward, new, and different. I look forward to giving it another try, next time hopefully with 4.