While Settlers of Catan (or simply Catan as it is now referred to in stores, the fuss and bother of settling-in presumably complete…) has sold millions of copies around the world, it is still relatively unknown to the non-gaming masses.
Personally, I like to think of Catan as a completely reimagined Monopoly. However, rather than a linear track largely devoid of decisions, Catan provides players with a wide-open island to occupy. Towns (‘Monopoly houses’) and cities (‘Monopoly hotels’) spring up across the land, giving their owners access to adjacent building resources. Trading is encouraged, with resources regularly bartered between opponents. And while players won’t be sent ‘directly to jail’, there is a lurking robber that can momentarily stymie a player’s best-laid plans…
Catan provides a satisfying introduction to modern board gaming. In short, the board is made up of different types of resource tiles: wood, sheep, wheat, stone and clay. Each tile is assigned a number from 2 to 12. If you have a settlement adjacent to a tile whose number was rolled – no matter whose turn it is – you receive the resource. Resources obtained can be spent on new roads, settlements and development cards, expanding your reach across the island and further increasing your earning opportunities. Towns, cities and other bonuses generate victory points, with the first player to 10 points declared the winner!
Here's a nice clip of young chaps playing music through Melbourne around the time of Catan's original release. If Catan was a town in Melbourne, I would be picturing St Kilda. Bay views; strong european heritage; colourful town centres; a race to develop the area; and roads controversially built through nearby Albert Park (...ouch... you won't get that type of cutting-edge political commentary on BoardGameGeek.com!)
So where were we? Oh yes. Catan. The basic game structure offers a number of benefits:
- Players can potentially earn resources and trade goods after each dice roll, reducing downtime between turns.
- Different strategies and paths are available to obtain victory points. This includes battles for different island features, such as having the longest road at any time.
- A random board layout subtly changes the strategy of where to locate settlements each game.
- While dice-driven, Catan does not have quite the same random feel of a Monopoly-type game as you are in control of where settlements and roads are placed. So while there may be less competition in building your town next to a ‘12’ space, probability would suggest that the nearby ‘6’ space will be more profitable in the long run. If you can reach it before someone else does… And if the dice behave…
- Finally, there is some inherent satisfaction and achievement in developing your own little network of roads and buildings, even if you are lagging behind in victory points. (A desperate dot point revealing my lack of recent wins…)
As well as the gameplay, I love the aesthetic of Catan. For keen-eyed youngsters, each of the thick cardboard island tiles contains unique artwork; glossy resource cards provide the basis of the simple island economy; and the pieces – those gorgeous wooden playing pieces! In a world of mass produced plastic, there is a tactile joy in receiving a pile of well crafted wooden towns, cities and roads at the start of each game (and then watching how the different player personality types subsequently stack, sort, heap and group their allocation…).
Catan is seen as a flagship game of the current tabletop gaming revival. If you have fond memories of board games, but have not played for years, give Catan a go. It feels instantly familiar, yet still refreshing.
Additional information and suggestions:
- A personal bugbear of mine, the Catan base game is limited to 3 and 4 players. A separate expansion pack (extra player pieces and island pieces) will need to be purchased for 5 or 6 players. I mean, I can obviously sell you one through the Blue Herring Games website, but neither of us is going to be truly happy about it.
- The manufacturer suggested age range is for players aged 10-plus. While all children will vary in their understanding of gameplay and tactics, an age range of 8-plus would seem appropriate with help provided. There are many game balancing tweaks that could be tested when playing with younger children. Simple ideas include letting them ignore the friendly robber rule (see below) and easing trade with the bank (e.g. to three matching cards, or any four cards).
- If you love Catan, you can sleep easy knowing that there is a world of expansions beyond the basic game (phew!). Catan Seafarers is thought to ‘complete’ the game by adding boats and islands to explore. Traders and Barbarians provides a suite of mini-expansions, including a particularly nice game that allows your roads to cart goods around the island. Cities and Knights is more complex and immersive experience, including city upgrades and island attacks. Unfortunately each expansion comes at a premium price – equivalent to the base game – that could be used to buy a completely different type of game. (Or yes, food, clothes, shelter etc etc…)
- Boardgamegeek.com, as the name suggests, is a repository of all things boardgamery. In July 2015, Catan was 27th on the family game ranking.
- Playing this game with the ‘friendly robber’ rule is highly recommended. That is, the robber cannot target, or be placed on tiles adjacent to, players with only 2 visible Victory Points.
- I also recommend downloading and using the Harbormaster rules, reissued as a player aid below: >>Harbormaster card player aid (PDF, 2.4MB)