Van won the game 13-8. Once again, she won the race to build the 5th settlement, leaving me with 4. There have been comments on the forum that building the 5th settlement is key to winning and so far in our 2 games, the trend hasn't been bucked. The notion of having 2 extra resource fields does seem a huge advantage as Van out-built me for most of the game. I didn't even have a lick at the knight and commerce tokens, which she didn't relinquish once she took them into her hand. She built a couple of buildings which provided additional VP and with her city upgrades, easily took her to 13 before I could do anything significant to claw back the advantage. I don't think the game is broken by any means and at the moment, will reserve judgement whether the odd settlement card ought to be removed so the max for each player remains at 4. I think the race element of getting to the 5th settlement does dominate the early game which is fine, but the real question lies in whether the opponent has a fair chance of winning despite losing the race. So far, it has been a struggle clawing back the advantage - perhaps that is due to me still coming to grasp with the cards and coming up with an actual strategy of sorts.
We hardly got through the cards of the Barbarians & Traders deck and I still do not have a good sense of the flavour of its theme. In fact, while having gone through more of the standard cards, I'm not sure I know them well enough to formulate a coherent strategy. At present, it's about building the best card in hand, then building with the intention of achieving good combos. Unlike Glory to Rome, there is limited cycling through cards due to the smaller hand size and the rules governing exchange of cards in hand. The multiple use of cards in GtR enables a player to familiarize oneself with the various cards much more after 1-2 plays.
My initial plan was to run through a new theme deck with each play so that Van and I will be able to get to the tournament variant asap. However, that is dependent on us being familiar with the cards, particular those in the various expansion theme decks and so far, that doesn't seem feasible with just a game per deck. The expanded game adds substantial amount of cards to the game and therefore unlike the standard game, it makes it tougher to get an opportunity to run through the various cards in game. Furthermore, the early game utilizes more cards from the standard deck as there are limited green cards in the theme deck. Red cards can only be built with cities while yellow action cards can only be used when the combined score reaches 7 VPs.
Perhaps some of the standard cards can be removed to allow greater use of the theme deck cards. Will look through the BGG forums to see if such variants exist.