Retro Review: The Settlers of Catan

I’ve been reading and listening to a lot of interviews with game designers lately, especially the Inquisitive Meeple. One of the recurring themes is that a lot of the current generation of game designers got introduced to the hobby through an obscure game called Settlers of Catan. Well, not that obscure. Hard sales information is hard to come by, but a recent New Yorker article gives 18 million as the number of copies sold since its release in 1995. It is reaching the pop cultural status of Monopoly and Risk, appearing on TV shows as itself and in parody (30Rock’s Colonizers of Malaar and The Simpsons’ Emissaries to Byzantium). Although it still has a way to go to reach Monopoly’s 250 million copies sold, it is starting to show up on shelves in Walmart and Target, instead of just specialty stores, so that sales number is poised to keep rising.

Settlers of Catan, or Catan for short) was one of the two games that introduced me to boardgaming (the other was Empire Builder). And although I wrote a review of the Helpers of Catan expansion scenario for the base game, I haven’t talked about the base game. This month, the Dice Tower Network has named Settlers of Catan the game of the month, so it seemed like a great time to return to the basics, and talk about why Settlers of Catan is still such a great game.

What you get

I own the 4th Edition. Earlier editions are slightly different.

  • Player pieces in four colors: 15 roads (long rectangles), 5 settlements (houses), 4 cities (box with tower), and a building cost and point reference
  • 1 Desert hex tile
  • 1 Robber token
  • 18 Resource hex tiles in five terrain types (4x field, pasture, and forest, 3x hills and mountains)
  • 18 Numbered production chits (ordered A-R)
  • 20 Resource cards corresponding to the 5 main terrain types (grain, sheep, wood, brick, ore)
  • (note: There is often dispute about whether to call the mountain resource “ore” or “stone”, but the official description is Ore, which makes it more thematically flexible.)
  • Various “development cards” mostly Knights, with some points, and other abilities.
  • 6 jigsaw-cut border pieces showing harbors, and extra harbor tokens for randomizing setup
  • 2 six-sided dice: red with yellow dots, yellow with red dots.
  • (note: The different dice colors have no purpose in the base game, but do with some expansions.)
  • “Longest Road” and “Largest Army” cards

The physical part of this game really acts like an introduction to hobby games for new players. It introduces hexagonal tiles. The physical setup for this game is often the first time new gamers realize that you can set up a game in more than one way. The hexes can be randomized, the production chits can be randomized, the harbors can be randomized. You have a deck of cards, but most of them don’t get shuffled at all. And the three wooden bit types correspond to some of the main concepts in euro-games: infrastructure (roads), development (settlements), and upgrading (cities). The rules are also very clearly laid out, and include an introductory game setup.

But the 4th edition also has one major problem. The hex tiles and border pieces almost universally end up warped over time, making them completely useless for holding the board together. This is so well known that there are official replacement boards to keep our pieces in line. I have no doubt that these are very nice quality.

What you do

Gameplay has been discussed innumerable times in other reviews, so I won’t spend a lot of time on the details. Players collect resources, trade and convert them into other resources, and use them to expand, build, and upgrade, in order to be the first to reach 10 points. The game calls them “victory points”, though they are the only points in the game, but it sets up the concept that there might be multiple kinds of points, rather than just a score. I’ve covered the topic of “victory points” in detail. Settlers of Catan has been considered a “gateway” game for a long time, although in that sense, there have been many games in the years since its release that fill that role better. But at least in my mind, Catan established some very basic elements of the Euro-game genre. and because of that, it can still serve as a gateway to more traditional Euro style gameplay.

What I will say about gameplay is that Catan can almost be considered like two games in one. One game is the trading and building. But the other game is the setup. A lot of the game depends on maximizing your resource production for the rest of the game, both in number and variety, while considering other players’ placements to give you room to expand or reach harbors. To neglect this step is to give up the game. This is one reason that playing the recommended beginner game is important, because the setup doesn’t carry as much meaning until you understand how the rest of the game works.

A lot has been made of the randomness of the rolls. Indeed, the probability of each number is no guarantee. I have played games where a 7 (highest probability of 6/36) has only rolled once or twice in the game (which may last around 60 turns). I have played games where an 8 (5/36) never rolls, but a 3 (2/36) turns up 5 times out of 10 rolls. And if I ever struggle to collect resources, I am practically guaranteed to roll a 7 as soon as I collect enough to do something with.  That’s one thing I liked about the Helpers of Catan scenario, is that it offers tools to let you mitigate the randomness. But don’t let the randomness fool you. The same people frequently show up near the top of tournaments, so skill is not underrepresented.

Player interaction is another subject that causes much angst. Players tend to trade freely early on, but as soon as a player nears the top, the gloves come off, and the game turns more aggressive. Trade grinds to a halt, the robber is used viciously and vindictively, and friends become enemies. Some people are greatly turned off by this part of the game. And while I normally dislike negative interaction, it seems appropriate in Catan.

What I Like

For me, Catan often serves as a template for creating a new game or mechanic. The resources are so ingrained into my mind, that I use them as placeholders. New Bedford uses brick, wood, and food from Catan by way of Agricola. And don’t think that I hadn’t considered adding sheep and stone at some point or another. Five is just such a good number, and one I should write an article on.

The theme is generic enough that it makes a good starting point for games ranging from ancient history through the industrial revolution. Add some defining technology to set the time period and setting. In fact, several variants of Catan exist that do just that. There is a series of Catan Geographies that adapts the terrain to mimic places as exotic as New England, Majorca, and Ohio. Settlers of America: Trails to Rails adds railroads and covered wagons and relocates to the 18th century US. And Star Trek: Catan is almost a direct port to the Star Trek universe, showing that the mechanics are pretty universal.

The extensibility of Catan is another defining feature. The Seafarers and Cities and Knights expansions appeared very early, as did corresponding expansions to increase the number of players. More recently, Traders and Barbarians provided a number of different scenarios that radically change the game, and Explorers and Pirates revamped the exploration aspect. A number of smaller “scenarios” like Helpers of Catan and Catan: Oil Springs were also released to give players something different. The game system is flexible enough to adapt to players and new ideas, including adding house rules. Catan really serves as a model of how to provide expansions to keep the experience fresh.

As a designer and writer, Catan’s prevalence makes it a good reference point. The game inspired a lot of the industry, so it incorporates a lot of elements that are familiar to other players and designers. The vast majority of readers will instantly be able to relate to references. Having a common conceptual base is absolutely crucial for productive discourse. I can use it to discuss probability and randomness, trading, interaction, network building, strategic tradeoffs, and a ton of other concepts. It is already one of the topics I most commonly tag in my posts.

As far as gameplay goes, because it is so well known, I can pull it out and start playing it quickly with a lot of different groups, without having to relearn the rules every time. When I want to play something I’m familiar with, it hits a lot of the elements I like in board games.

What I Dislike

The randomness does get to me sometimes, but I feel like the Helpers of Catan largely resolves that concern. On the other hand, the Helpers of Catan dramatically cut down on trading.Without trading, the randomness has more of an effect, and it is discouraging to be unable to progress through no fault of your own. The game can play a little long for its depth, due to the trading aspect.  Sometimes, spending so much time thinking about the setup makes the game feel a little bit like a wind-up toy, in which players are just going through the motions to see who had the best setup. But I enjoy the setup aspect of it so much that I wish they could make a game that focuses more on that, and spends less time on the trading and building. I somewhat doubt that such a game would really work, though.

Conclusions

Catan sometimes gets criticized because there have been so many “better” games since its release–games that are more elegant, more complex, more thematic, more epic, more accessible, more involved, and more fun. I won’t try to argue against that. There are plenty of games in the 19 years since its release that have improved upon one element or another. There are definitely other games I enjoy playing more. But sometimes, I am in the mood to play Catan, for the unique combination of elements it brings to the table. And its continued popularity at gaming conventions shows that I’m not the only one. Some people might accuse me of liking a sub-par game when there are so many other great games available, but when I play Catan, I don’t think of it as settling.

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  1. #1 by Kyle on May 5, 2014 - 11:57 pm

    Great review Nat! Like you said, there are a lot of games that are “better” but Catan is still special to me because it was my gateway game. Love that your review is from a board game designer’s perspective as well. Keep up the good work!

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