Settlers of Catan is a worldwide phenomenon, becoming wildly popular since it first debuted in Germany several years ago. It is one of the highest rated games of all time, and has a devoted fanbase who regularly meet to play.
It was recently featured in a Washington Post article which claimed that it is the "board game of our time" (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/11/24/AR2010112404140.html). Given its popularity and ingenious randomized tile-based gameplay, are there any other games out there that are similar and could provide almost the same entertainment for avid Settlers fans who want to expand their horizons? Of course! Nothing becomes this popular and fails to have a lasting influence on its genre.
Here are my top three picks for games that are almost as good as Settlers of Catan, starting with one that's fairly similar and ending with one that's completely different.
1. Carcassonne has similar tile-based gameplay to Settlers, but instead of setting up the board at the beginning of the game, each player adds to the existing board each turn. As you add to the board, you create scoring areas (cities, pastures, abbeys, roads, etc) which you can place units on to claim as your own. When each scoring area is completed throughout the game, you remove your pieces and are able to use them again. Other players can attempt to steal your scoring areas by investing more of their limited units than you, and some of the scoring areas are never calculated until the end of the game, forcing you to calculate the benefits of short-term gain over possibly increased long-term scoring. It's fun and fairly quick, and there are several expansions out there to add to the base gameplay.
2. Puerto Rico is somewhat different in that each player has their own board and inter-player competition is less overt. As an administrator of a colony in the New World, you have to construct buildings in your colony and choose what crops to grow and how to distribute your available workforce. Certain crops are more valuable but take more capital to start, and each building has special abilities that uniquely benefit you in some way.
The primary "unique" game mechanic is that the turn phases are in a different order each turn, and all the players accomplish each phase at the same time. Every turn a new player goes "first" (i.e. chooses which phase to start with), and each subsequent player chooses a different phase. There are more possible phases than players, so sometimes a phase will not even occur! Each turn is different, and which phase you choose can have extremely important strategic implications. There is a free downloadable expansion on the manufacturer's website, and it's possible to play several games in one sitting. I highly recommend it!
3. My final recommendation is Dominion (by Rio Grande Games - not the one by Mayfair Games, although that is a good game in its own right), which is completely different from all of these. Dominion is played exclusively with cards - there is no board, no dice, and no scoring track. Instead, there is a library of different card types which you choose from in order to build each game. The object of the game is to have the most point cards at the end - but point cards are completely useless until the very end of the game. Each player has their own individual deck that they build by buying card types on their turn, and can play from that deck in an attempt to buy more cards.
Initially, each player gets one action and one buy a turn, but playing certain cards can increase that number, and eventually allow the player to chain together long card combos in order to buy more expensive cards. Some of the cards allow you to steal from other players, curse them (a negative point card), reduce their card total, or show their hand. A very unique game that doesn't often last more than 45 minutes, but with an incredible strategic depth as there are almost an infinite number of strategies for winning each game - and there are multiple different possibilities for what type of game it will be. I highly recommend it.
Oh, and just in case you've played Settlers of Catan but none of its expansions, you should definitely check them out. The Settlers of Catan: The Seafarers adds different tile types, pieces and scenarios. The Settlers of Catan: Cities & Knights is by far the best, adding an incredible amount of depth and changing several gameplay elements to increase direct player cooperation or competition. The Settlers of Catan: Traders & Barbarians adds some rule changes and unique scenarios that will provide some variety to your standard Settlers game.
And when buying any board game (which, if you buy many, becomes quite an investment), I recommend Amazon. The prices are simply unbeatable most of the time.
Carcassonne - http://www.amazon.com/Rio-Grande-Games-4098395-Carcassonne/dp/B00005UNAX/ref=pd_sim_t_5
Puerto Rico - http://www.amazon.com/Rio-Grande-Games-4098399-Puerto/dp/B00008URUT/ref=pd_sim_t_3
Dominion - http://www.amazon.com/Rio-Grande-Games-370RGG-Dominion/dp/B001JQY6K4/ref=pd_bxgy_t_text_c
The Settlers of Catan: The Seafarers - http://www.amazon.com/Settlers-Catan-Seafarers-Game-Expansion/dp/B000W7G78A/ref=pd_sim_t_2
The Settlers of Catan: Cities & Knights - http://www.amazon.com/Settlers-Catan-Cities-Knights-Expansion/dp/B000W7I7EW/ref=pd_sim_t_3
The Settlers of Catan: Traders & Barbarians - http://www.amazon.com/Mayfair-Games-Barbarians-Traders-Expansion/dp/B00187MWH8/ref=pd_sim_t_4