When I started this series, I decided to call it Modern Classics, and if there’s one game which demands a place on a list like that, it’s Catan.
Settlers of Catan was first released in 1995. It entered a board game world dominated by Monopoloy, Cluedo and Mousetrap. It won the highly prestigious Speil des Jahres award– which two years earlier had gone to Call My Bluff the game. Compared to what came before, Catan was truly ground-breaking.
Catan: The Beginnings
The basic principles of Catan are fairly simple. Players are competing to build the best mini-civilisation as they vie for control of the island of Catan. The island is composed of hexagonal tiles, each of which produce 1 of 5 different resources. On top of those hexes, are counters numbered 1-12.
On your turn, you roll 2 dice, and the number you roll “activates” the corresponding hex. When it activates, the hexagon produces the corresponding resource, and each player who has settled on that Hex gains resources in keeping with their presence.
The exception to this is on a roll of 7. None of the resource-producing hexes activate on 7s – instead, a “robber” figure comes into play. The player who rolled the dice moves the robber to a hex of their choice, then steals a card at random from the hand of a player who has a settlement on that hex. The robber remains there until the next time a 7 is rolled (or it gets moved by a card affect) and whichever hex the robber stands on doesn’t produce any resources when its number comes up.
You start with two settlements, each with a single road attached to them. By building extensions to your road, you can reach other parts of the island, and build additional settlements (provided no adjacent space contains a settlement already). Existing settlements can also be upgraded to cities, for double the victory points and double the resources.
All building activity, along with the purchase of cards is done using the five resource types. The more resources you get, the more you can build, allowing you get even more resources, even faster.
You can also trade. At its most basic level, any resource cards can be swapped for any other resource cards, provided both players agree. This allows you to turn your excess in one area into a replacement for a shortage in another area.
Catan was not content to stay with the original island and the limited set of build and trade actions available to players. Over the years, it spawned countless expansions – tweaking what you did on the island, adding ships to take you to other islands, or bringing in scenario-style play, with factories & glassworks, rivers & bridges, or even tiny wooden camels.
For anyone not interested in the non-specifically medieval / early modern theme, Catan blasted off into outer space in 1999, with the Starfarers of Catan, and intermittent space versions have been a recurring feature, with Star Trek Catan appearing in 2012.
At one point, I understand there was even a spin-off novel. I haven’t read it, but the reviews seem to suggest a fairly non-descript piece of tie-in fiction with little to set it apart from the crowd.
The only one of these that I’ve ever owned was the dice game, which came off of the un-played list a month or so ago. As I said then, it was a tolerable, if fundamentally unexciting experience.
Some expansions /expansion modules for the original Catan game did seem to have more going for them than others. The Harbour was always a personal favourite, which gave you a lake to replace the desert, and offered you fish for building your settlements on the coast. As coastal spaces are generally less valuable (the only border 1 or 2 hexes instead of 3), this helped spread people out a bit more.
With the original game only really designed for 3-4, we also picked up an expansion purely because it offered a 2-player variant. The implementation left something to be desired, but it was nice to have the option. The same box also included a deck of cards to replace the dice, and guarantees that over the course of a game, the distribution of the different numbers should tie-in with what basic probability suggests was also eye-catching.
As I’ve already mentioned, Catan was first released in 1995. That makes it 21 years old. In a lot of respects, it feels very dated, and I’m really not that convinced that it’s a game that’s still worth playing.
One of the ‘best’ aspects of Catan is supposed to be the lack of downtime and high level of constant interaction that comes from trading. In reality, though, it just makes for a game that goes on, and on. And on.
Because you can trade with anyone on your go, you can spend an age talking about trades – and then not do them.
The fact is, it’s always better to trade on your own turn. You have control of the situation, you can use the resources you get before they are stolen away. You can trade away a particular resource at a high price, then claw it back with Monopoly (that’s a jerk move, don’t do it). Beyond the vaguest sense of being nice to someone in the hope that they’ll be nice later, trading with someone on their turn is always sub-optimal, and the main reason to do it, is so that the game will be over soon.
The resource curve of the game is also skewed. Early on, everyone wants bricks and wood, as you need these to build roads, and you need roads to get places. This often leads to people using the robber in an attempt to steal brick or wood – but in doing so, they block off the hex that produces these things, slowing the game down even further.
How did we get here?
It’s also worth noting that the location of your starting settlements in Catan is vital. In fact, it’s probably the most important phase of the game – which means that new players will basically have lost before the start of their turn, and anyone else who got screwed and/or made a bad decision during set-up is all set for a few hours of pointlessness. People tend to have differing but very strong opinions on how you do the set-up: randomised tiles and fixed numbers? Randomise both? Or have everything done as part of a pre-planned scenario. Whichever way you do it, the most important event in the game is (arguably) rolling dice to determine who gets to place their settlement first.
Even if you survive the opening rounds, Catan is a game with a lot of blocking involved – the island isn’t big enough for everyone to go where they want, whether it’s the result of a conscious block, or just someone else wanting to be in the same place as you, it’s easy to get stuck in a corner where you can’t do anything. You can be entirely certain after 15 minutes that you can’t possibly win – yet still have to sit there for a further 2 hours.
Fixes Don’t Fix
As noted above, there are various things which the expansions seek to add to Catan – the 2-player option, or the less random spread of numbers. Unfortunately though, the reality was never quite as much fun as it suggested it would be. The way that the game was made playable with two was by adding a dummy player, to ensure that island remained crowded and frustrating. As you alternate control of the dummy player, they are likely to end up blocking both of you, without ever achieving anything of their own (the dummy player doesn’t need resources, they just build when you do.
Again, the way of reducing the variance from the dice roll (a card deck with fixed distribution of different numbers) also added in random events, which just complicated the game that bit more, and made it even longer.
There are 6 games from the 20th century in the top 100 on BGG (well 5, and one from the 19th century). There are a further dozen or so between 100 and 200, before you reach Catan, which has recently slipped out of the top 200.
I don’t remember exactly when I last played Catan – I know it was before Christmas 2014, as that was when I started keeping records – what I do know is that when I think about the prospect of playing it again, it fills me with a sense of weariness and dread.
Catan probably benefits a lot from Nostalgia – for a lot of gamers, it will have been one of the first modern board games they played. In 1995, it was something exciting new, and different, providing a window into a whole new concept of what board games could be. 21 years on though, game design has come a long way, and for all the nostalgia people have for Catan, I don’t feel there’s really any need to keep playing it – if you’ve never tried it before, then it might be worth playing once or twice, just to tick off on a mental list, but that’s about all. In fact, writing this article has been enough to convince me that it’s finally time to move it on.