Once upon a time, my game world was without form and void, and darkness was over my game table. Yes, the classical
2-player abstracts like chess and backgammon existed (I'm not that old!) but for multi-player games, I was hovering over
Monopoly. And RISK. And Monopoly clones. And a friend said "Let there be Avalon Hill games" and I saw that there were good
games like Britannia,
Civilization and many other games.
But alas, the more my game world grew, the less time did I have to play games and for a long time they were forgotten.
Until the game formerly known as Settlers: Catan.
My first impression of Catan was how fast the game was. It had all the interesting decisions of the epic Civilization
but the downtime was minimal and you could even play several games in an evening. Next, I started to see the different
decision paths. It was not the tactical decision points of Britannia about where to go for the most points for the least
effort but rather strategic decision branches, where a decision now would keep coming back and reward (or haunt) me in the
future. In short, I had discovered the world of euro games, and it was bigger than I thought possible back in the days of
Catan was eventually surpassed by Puerto Rico,
which I expect to revisit and review soon, and many other games. Today,
many people consider Catan to be the new Monopoly - a broken game that should never be played upon penalty of eternal shame.
But is this really fair? How well has Catan stood the test of time? Is it still the gateway to modern boardgames, as it was
to me, or is everything that was so great about Catan better executed by other games? Let's approach Catan with a critical
but open mind and see what it can offer today's choosy audience.
If I would describe the basics of Catan without mentioning its name, many other games would fit the description. You build
settlements to collect resources to build more or bigger settlements to collect more resources until someone wins. This is a
common theme today but it was quite unusual back in 1995.
Mechanically, the island of Catan is made up of terrain hexes, where the settlements are placed on the hex corners and the
surrounding terrain hexes produce certain resources. A turn is made up of three simple actions:
Roll the dice to see which terrain hexes that produce resources to the adjacent settlements (even villages owned by other
Trade resources, either with other players at a mutually agreed rate, from harbors at a rate of 3:1 or directly with the
bank at a rate of 4:1.
Use the resources to build roads, build new settlements, expand existing settlements to cities or buy development cards.
Settlements are worth 1 victory point and cities 2 victory points. Victory points are also awarded to the longest road
(2 victory points), most played knight cards (2 victory points) and certain development cards (1 victory point). The first
player to reach 10 victory points wins. So far nothing revolutionary so let's look a bit closer.
Catan Through the Looking Glass
The "German Design School"
The above description of the game sounds simple, even mundane, but to understand Catan's early popularity, it's necessary
to understand the appeal of "German games". The blog post
Schools of Design and Their Core Priorities differentiates between the
engaging German games and the more challenging euro games. Catan is a good example of the former design school so let's start
The core priority of a German game is engagement and this is accomplished through approachability, balance, pacific theme
and non-violent interactions. Catan's simple rule set makes the game easy to learn for all ages and even beginners will
quickly understand what the goal is and how to get there. All players will grow, albeit at different rates, and even if some
players will eventually fall behind, all will end up with something greater than they started with. The struggle for
resources never turns violent since several players can benefit from the same terrain and the players meet in trades rather
But this still doesn't differentiate Catan enough from other similar games so let's look even closer at the Catan gameplay
experience, starting with the mechanics.
The Interlocked Mechanics
Often you see games advertised as having interlocked mechanics, meaning "Look how many different mechanics we crammed into
our game just because we could!". Well, Catan also has many different mechanics but they all make thematic sense. The modular
board provides the unknown island to be settled. The road building illustrates the discovery of new terrain and connection of settlements. The dice simulate the unpredictable resource production. The cards represent your resources and the trade lets you trade resources you need for resources you don't need.
The trade of Catan is actually quite clever compared to many other games. Trade is a popular mechanic since it engages all
players simultaneously but also a time-consuming one since each player has to negotiate with each other player. Catan solves
this by letting only the player in turn trade.
Even the robber makes sense as a balancing mechanic by appearing on the most probable die roll of 7. If 7 had been
connected to a terrain, this terrain would have inflated the game economy and given unfair advantages to the lucky few around
this terrain. Instead, the robber can be used to bash the leader by blocking a terrain tile and make resources even more
The Engaging Decisions
The decisions are seemingly simple: decide where to build to acquire resources and what to do with those resources.
However, this is not the spreadsheet optimization of many later "multi-player solitaires" because of the high degree of
engagement between the players.
Do you need sheep? Then you need to build a road to sheep terrain before someone else does. Perhaps it's better to build a
road to wood instead and offer wood for sheep? (OK, it's an old joke so perhaps I am old.) Or is sheep so scarce that it's
better to build a road to a harbor instead, which produces less but gives you the flexibility to trade without being dependent
on other players' mercy?
And once you have enough resources, what do you do with them? Invest in a settlement so that you can produce from more
terrain hexes (spread your risks)? Or in a city so that you can produce more from your existing hexes (focus on your core)?
Or build more roads to expand your network (quantity first)? Or simply gamble and buy a development card that gives you
special options, such as Knights to move away the robber (quality first)?
Those are all decisions that will affect your long term gameplay as well as the relations to the other players and they
are truly engaging. But even things that you can't decide are engaging.
The Engaging Non-Decisions
Dice add randomness to games, something that is often considered bad design, but many modern games get "dice done right".
Dice can be used to provide equally strong options or let the player react after they have been rolled. Catan does nothing of
this - after the dice have been rolled, production will only take place in the designated terrains and there is nothing the
players can do about it.
Yet, instead of indicating success or failure for only the player in turn, the die roll engages all players since all
players can benefit from it. Thus, Catan makes the best out of the old roll and move mechanic by leveraging the thrill from
the die roll to all players.
The Negative Engagement
But the engagement is not only positive. Although there is no violent interaction in Catan, there are ways to bully each
other and the game even encourages them. I'm talking about the ways to bash the leader.
First, you can refuse to trade with the leader. Not everybody is convinced about the advantages of free trade in the real
world but in Catan, less trade means less useful resources for all players and actually removes one of the mechanics that
make the game fun.
Second, you can place the robber where he hurts the leader the most. The robber is easier to use to target specific
players but is also an example of the unpopular take that mechanic.
In a friendly game like Catan, one would have expected friendly ways to catch up with the leaders, such as advantages for
the trailing players. Instead, the task of balancing the game is delegated to the players and the tool is sacrificing fun
parts of the game.
The Unfair Randomness
We've talked about the positive aspects of the random production but do they outweigh the negative ones, the risk of
unfairness due to bad luck rather than bad play? One could argue that the many die rolls should balance out in the end but
there are actually other mechanics that prevents this.
Catan is an engine building game in the sense that resources invested early can return much more later. This means that a
few early bad die rolls (or robber placements) may cause a player to fall behind so much that no amount of good die rolls can
save her in the end. In fact, once a player has a good lead, she will have spread out so much that she will produce resources
at almost every die roll, with or without a robber in her terrains.
Now, this wouldn't have mattered much in a short game and Catan was indeed shorter than many other games of its time. But
for a game that may last up to 2 hours, you don't want a few bad die rolls in the first minutes to decide the rest of the game.
In Conclusion - A Game Smaller than its Parts
In conclusion, Catan has implemented many mechanics very well. There are many interesting sub-games, such as the rush to
get the best areas, the pursuit to build the best engine and the competition to strike the best trade deals. However, the
commendable ambition to put all the sub-games in the same game while still keeping the whole game short and simple was a bit
too optimistic. Depth was sacrificed for breadth as the outcome of the many decisions depends on randomness anyway. There are
many other games which focus on fewer mechanics but carry them out in more depth. Discovering gamers may certainly be
entranced by all the seemingly interesting decisions but more seasoned gamers will want to move on quickly.
Nevertheless, Catan is still a fun game and one of few games where many different player types may meet; young and old,
beginners and experienced. By hinting to the many different mechanics that modern boardgames may offer, Catan remains
unsurpassed as the best gateway game out there and even heavy boardgame freaks like myself should allow themselves to return
to Catan every once in a while for a fun and relaxing game session.
The Quest for the Perfect Game is an endeavour to play a variety of games
and review them to extract the essence of each game. What you typically will
find in the reviews include:
What does the game want to be?
How does the player perceive the game?
What does the game do well and why?
What does the game do less well and why?
Is it fun?
What you typically will NOT find in the reviews include:
A detailed explanation of the rules.
An assessment of art, miniatures etc. with no impact on gameplay.
Unfounded statements like "dripping with theme" and "tons of replayability".
Unless stated otherwise, all the reviews are independent
and not preceded by any contacts with the game's stakeholders.
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