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Catan board game boss talks Starfarers, expansions, and amoebas

Starfarers, the classic Catan board game's sci-fi spin-off, just got its first real expansion - we got the full story from studio boss Ron Magin.

Catan Starfarers New Encounters board game expansion - Catan Studio artwork showing your spacecraft flying past giant space amoebas over the surface of a planet

There’s a new expansion out now for Starfarers (the sci-fi spin-off of Klaus Teuber‘s classic Catan board game). It’s called New Encounters; it costs a weighty $59.99 (£64.99); and it adds three new scenarios to this space-spanning strategy board game, including pirate hunting, contacting new species, and wrangling giant space amoebas. Why, though, is Catan’s much less famous, much younger space board game sibling getting such a chunky expansion in 2023, four years after it first hit shelves?

To find out, we sat down for a cozy video chat with Ron Magin, chief operating officer of Catan Studio, who – in his own words – “oversee[s] all of the analogue game publishing side” at Catan. “If it’s a game on a shelf, that’s something that my team oversees,” says he.

At team Wargamer, we’re no stranger to either Catan or the many Catan expansions – it’s one of the best board games around. But, like many board gamers, we’ve spent far less time with Starfarers and its arrays of colorful plastic doodads.

So we started by asking Magin what in the galaxy was going on here. The following is our conversation, edited a little for readability.

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Wargamer: For anyone who’s only played regular Catan, what’s the deal with Starfarers anyway?

Ron Magin: Well, Starfarers is like Catan, in the far, far future. The Catanians have sort of grown beyond their planet, beyond their solar system, and now are reaching out into the galaxies. It’s sort of a really big box game. You have dice rolling, like any Catan game, and resource production, that’s sort of a core, you know.

But you also have this big plastic rocket ship called the mothership, and you can use your resources to upgrade it to make it fly farther, or store more stuff, or fight pirates better, with boosters and cannons and freight modules. So it’s more or less the Catan you know, but you’re exploring out into outer space.

You can play a lot of different ways: you can have all the information revealed at the beginning, or (because the board is completely modular) you can shuffle up all the little planet systems and number discs, put them face down – then you’re flying into unknown space; you get there when you get there, and you see what you find.

And then you decide, is that a place worth settling? Or do we move on to another galaxy? That’s, at the core, Starfarers.

Starfarers has been out for four years, only getting a 5-6 player add-on so far – why release a full expansion now?

Well, the game warranted it, you know, the sales have been good. Like you say, with the ‘five-six’ [player expansion], we expanded more, we put in another alien race in there. So there’s a little additional content, sort of story wise.

But this expansion is basically three stacked scenarios that give you a little bit more world building and story of what this very future Catan looks like, and different Catan type game mechanics to explore.

It’s for the fans that like the flying out into space and fast-and-loose dealing with the situations as they pop up; like a lot of deep space exploration shows, you’re like, “Oh, what’s this here I’ve got to deal with? Oh, there’s a big problem happening that I have to get involved in”. So it’s that kind of ‘space opera’ feel, in three chapters.

Catan Starfarers New Encounters board game expansion - Catan Studio image showing a close up of a setion of gameboard from Starfarers. including componenets for a ship and lost peoples

So how do the three new scenarios work? Are they separate or can you add all three to the game at once?

You can if you’d like a long game session. I mean, it lengthens the game a bit, but for people that like Starfarers, that’s great. They’re like “awesome, let’s play lots more”. So you know, each one’s probably going to add half an hour to 40 minutes to a Starfarers game.

In the first one, you’re battling a notorious Space Pirate. The Galactic Council has called on you for some help, and you’ve got to go figure out where he is. You use a sort of randomization method for him moving about. He’s marooned a bunch of pirates on various locations, so you’ve got to go and find these pirates, capture them, bring them back to the council and get information so you can find out where his base is.

So it’s a lot of pickup and delivery, kind of if you’re just going into raw game mechanics – but you’re like flying around, finding stuff. And then that gives you like, closer and closer information. Then, once you find Hog Kahm, you can fly in with little battleships and try to overwhelm him and send them out of the galaxy, because we don’t need pirates in this sector!

Catan Starfarers New Encounters board game expansion - Catan Studio image showing the packaging, some components, and the logo for New Encounters

So the three scenarios can be played in one session, but they’re not necessarily designed to be?

Not really, they’re more of an episodic series, they don’t really depend upon one another, like some of the Legend series Catan things that we’ve done. They tell kind of a long story, but it’s not like the effects of one scenario have impact on the next.

Each scenario adds different themes and stuff – do you think they add anything the core game was lacking? Will players find things here that they might have missed in the original game?

I wouldn’t really think of it in those terms, I generally don’t think of expansions in those terms. A core game needs to stand on its own, tell a nice tight story, get you into what it what it’s about, and be lots of fun.

But you know, like, any great show, or book, or music, if you keep listening to it, or watching it over and over, eventually you want a little more. So you listen to the next track, or you look for a different way to approach that movie, or book, or go into a book club, or talk to a film director, or whatever.

And so expansions take mechanics that you already know and play well, and then throw in a bunch of different rules and ways to break and manipulate those rules. And that’s what we did with this: take the core stuff, add a little bit more of that, and put in some different strategic and tactical changes and choices.

What kind of board gamer is this expansion going to particularly suit – and who might it not be right for?

People that like longer games, because it’s definitely long – if your ideal game is a one hour experience, this is not it – and that’s fine.

You know, we’ve got other games for that, there’s tonnes of games out there for that. Some people love random, other people hate random. You know, Catan itself has probability, but often too much random for some folks.

But if you’d like kind of a rip-rollicking, fun roam around the galaxy in this weird opportunistic race with your opponents, with different things popping up randomly; if you’d like a box with a lot of bits, and different exploration, and dealing with the chaos – this is the game.

Catan Starfarers New Encounters board game expansion - Catan Studio image showing the plastic battleship and space amoeba components

So, what’s physically in the box? What are we gonna get here?

We get a whole bunch of things. So you’ve got big plastic amoebas, you’ve got tonnes of cardboard counters, some new decks of cards, a rule book, of course. And little freight modules that bolt up onto the bottom of your little onboard ship.

[In Starfarers], you have a big mothership that represents your entire fleet and its capabilities, and then you have these little individual rockets that fly around the board – and then you put on things to them and move them about. So we’ve added a new component for that: this freight module, or container, if you will.

In some scenarios, you use it to ferry the pirates; in other ones you’re using it to carry scientific equipment for dealing with giant space amoebas that are coming in and wreaking havoc in the galaxy.

We’ve got a new deck of alien races, including this lost, alien, technological race that are sort of mystical, historic, nobody knows if they really existed – but we found some clues, and you’re trying to find some sites that may be theirs.

For example: cool plastic amoebas, because Starfarers is about big plastic bits – ridiculously pink and green, amazing things. That’s mostly it, that’s what’s in the game.

Since reviewing Catan 3D, I can see your team has fun with Big Plastic Bits…

We’ve had that phase for sure. You know, people like toy value. And sometimes it’s a lot of fun to put in, you know, cool toys.

I mean, games are for adults and games are great ways of building community – but opening up that inner child by getting to play with cool stuff, that’s awesome.

I think that’s another one of the appeals of Starfarers in general, you know, big plastic rockets flying around.

Catan Starfarers New Encounters board game expansion - Catan Studio image showing the new extra game board and components from the New Encounters expansion

So – what’s coming next for Starfarers and Catan?

Immediately next, coming out in January, early February-ish, is a two-player Starfarers (we were kind of in a Starfarers kick for the last few years).

It’s a remake of the old ‘Starship Catan’ from the early 2000s. It’s a two-player head to head, kind of like Rivals for Catan. But this one, you’re flying through space like Starfarers, exploring different sectors, trying to amass points.

We made a lot of changes to the old one. Mechanically, it’s more or less the same, but we created a deeper mission system. So it’s a little bit more randomised, you have sort of some fixed goals that you can accomplish for victory points.

We completely redid the art, you know, big square cards, like Rivals. And I’m really pleased it’s got like a big giant ship, with spinny dials and things to keep track of your resources.

So that’s our immediate horizon. Got a lot of other things coming after that, but I’m not at liberty to talk about it!

Understood. So when can we get Starfarers: New Encounters, and how much will it cost?

New Encounters is releasing right now, and the price is $59.99 US.

Thanks, Ron!

You’re back with team Wargamer now – if you can’t get enough “deep space exploration” and New Encounters appeals, you’d probably enjoy our Star Trek Infinite preview – that game is Paradox’s (arguably inevitable) crack at reinventing the Stellaris format for a PC grand strategy game in the Star Trek universe.

Alternatively, if it’s the expanding and colonising new worlds bit of Starfarers you like, we’d bet there’s something for you among our favorite 4X games.