Monday, April 27, 2015

"Catan" - The Gaming Equivalent Of A Comfy Pair Of Slippers

Picture it: Halifax, Winter, 1997. Your humble narrator is an unrepentant, hardcore, twenty-seven-year-old collectible card game addict, buying Magic: The Gathering and Star Wars Customizable Card Game boosters and singles like a gerbil strung out on bath salts. 

One of my biggest enablers at the time was InQuest magazine ("Hey, kids, remember magazines? No? Hurm...") which was dedicated to legitimizing the diseased, compulsive thought patterns of OCD gamers such as myself. As if he knew that the CCG bubble was completely unsustainable and would eventually burst, writer / games editor Jeff Hannes decided to sneak the following article into the "On Deck" section, which was specifically earmarked for "reviewing the latest releases in collectible card games".

It was a review for an obscure German (?) board game (!!!) that had been published just two years prior, taking its home country by storm. Here's the very same article in its entirety:

Now, it's no accident that I read this since I voraciously consumed every single issue of InQuest from cover to cover at the time. What was fortuitous was that Jeff dared to insert a review for this weird German board game that he discovered and fell in love with into a column dedicated exclusively to collectible card games. Wherever you are, dude, I owe you a beer. 

This was tantamount to hearsay at the time. In the mid-Nineties, gamers were worshiping blindly at the altar of Wizards of the Coast, I.C.E., Decipher and other producers of CCG's. Board games and role-playing games were dead! Long live the new flesh!

It's also kismet that Jeff chose to end his review in such an adamant and memorable way:

"So the next time you're at your local gaming store, put those costly booster packs down and pick up a copy of Settlers of Catan." 

I distinctly remember reading this and thinking:

"Y'know, I used to like board games. They were great; you'd buy 'em and know exactly what you were gettin' inside the box. Okay, Jeffy, you sold me...the next time I manage to scrape thirty bucks together I'm gonna head on down to Odyssey 2000 or Wilkie's Wonderful World, blow past the booster boxes and singles binders and pick up a copy of Settlers of Catan."

"What's Settlers of Catan?", I hear you asking. "Is that, like the same thing as Catan?" 

Um, yes, it's the same exact game. We just had a little more time to say stuff back then 'cuz the internet sucked. In fact, we all called it Settlers. "I say, old bean, would you and your charming paramour care for a game of Settlers?" you'd say.

Jesus, I sound like Grampa Simpson now.

Anyhoo, after buying Settlers of Catan I brought it home, broke it open and immediately devoured the rules. Now, just in case you've been living underneath a vein of Ore for the past eighteen years, here's how the game works:   

You start by generating an island using five different types of terrain hexes. Hills produce Brick, Pastures produce Wool, Mountains produce Ore, Fields produce Grain, Forests produce Lumber and the lone crappy Desert tile is a dead zone. Next up players select a starting space for two of their Settlements and two of their Roads. Settlements must always be placed two spaces away from each other. Starting Resources are then generated from the placement of your second Settlement. 

During their turn, players roll and then total the sum of two six sided dice, producing a bell curve result from 2 to 12. Each one of the terrain hexes on the island has a number assigned to it, so if a player has a Settlement adjacent to that numbered hex, they receive the matching resource. For example if I have a Settlement at the crossroads of a Pasture hex marked with a six and then a "6" is rolled at any time I can take one Sheep from the supply.

After rolling the dice you can then propose trades with your opponents. If everyone around the table is being a tool and won't trade with you, then no worries, you can always return four of the same Resource back to the supply in exchange for any one other Resource. Plus if you manage to get a Settlement built on any of the Harbor spaces around the edge of the board you'll enjoy a more optimal trade deal. Having said that, negotiating with your fellow players is typically the best way to get what you want.

So what can you do with all of those Resources, you say? Why you can build stuff and get more Victory Points, of course! Every player starts the game with two Victory Points apiece (one for each starting Settlement) and can generate more by building new Settlements, upgrading these Settlements to more efficient Cities, building the "Longest Road", retaining the "Largest Army" or dipping into the Development Deck. The cost for doing all of these things is summarized on a handy-dandy Building Cost card which every player has sitting in front of them. 

Oh, one final wrinkle: a "7" activates the *dun, dun, duuuuun* Robber. Anyone who's been hoarding more than seven Resources Cards is forced to dump half of them (Yikes!) and the person who rolled the dice gets to move to Robber to any hex on the board, covering up the number token so it can't generate Resources. They can also steal one card at random from any rival who has a Settlement adjacent to that space. Yoink! 

I remember getting more and more excited as I plowed through that rulebook for the very first time. And when I started teaching the game to anyone who'd listen to me my enthusiasm became contagious. Everyone was in agreement: this game was unlike anything we'd ever played in our lives! I mean, classic games like Payday, Monopoly, Clue and Risk have their place but many of them  involve player elimination or sitting there for twenty minutes waiting for your turn to come back around.

Not so in Settlers of Catan. You were always plotting your next move. Even when it wasn't your turn you were constantly engaged. You paid close attention to every die roll and every trade proposal because you didn't want to miss out on some precious Resource that you needed. And as soon as it was your turn you'd instantly transform into a master negotiator, trying to chisel a single Wheat out of an unsuspecting rival so that you had just enough cheddar to buy another Development Card, hopefully snag another Soldier and finally score that "Largest Army" card.

Catan was so good, so original, and so revolutionary that we played it continuously. Almost to a fault. Eventually we played it into the ground. Even after flirting with the 5-6 Player Expansion, as well as Seafarers and Cities and Knights, the game was inevitably buried under a tsunami of equally-amazing European board games which followed.  

Eventually Settlers of Catan went to fallow in my game collection. Every time I wanted to revisit it some alluring new hawtness lured me away. But, speaking as someone who continues to teach it to new players, the game is still great. Lately I've been downright envious of this new generation of gamers who are discovering Catan for the first time. They're just as smitten with it as I was way back in 1997.

Which is precisely why I brought Catan along with me when we visited Cheryl's mom on Easter weekend. After waxing nostalgic with Carcassone, there was a genuine buzz of recognition, surprise and anticipation when I whipped Catan out of the bag and started to set it up.  






After generating what I needed to buy a Development Card, I enjoyed a "Year Of Plenty". I took two Bricks from the supply and cobbled together two Roads which linked my highway together. It was my intent to race Sheila to the coast, build a Settlement on a Wheat Harbor and take advantage of some optimal trades.

As the first player to roll a "7", Sheila sicced the Robber on both of us, stealing a card form Cheryl just 'cuz she had more of 'em at the time.

This theft, plus an inordinate number of four and twelve rolls quickly gave Sheila the edge in Resources. She blew right past me in Road construction, quickly reaching the coastline and snapping up primo Harbor real estate with the establishment of a brand new Settlement. This also qualified her for the "Longest Road" and two more Victory Points.

SHEILA: 5 Victory Points

Thanks to oddball rolls like "10" and "5", Cheryl did rather well for herself in the initial Resource lotto, scoring enough raw materials to build two more Roads and two more Settlements, the later of which she placed in "pinwheel" configuration.

CHERYL: 3 Victory Points

She then proceeded to make out like a bandito on sixes and tens, the perfect mix of Resources to upgrade one of her Settlements to a City.

CHERYL: 4 Victory Points  

Sheila also wasn't idle. Just as I'd predicted, that 2-1 Wheat Harbor really kicked her economy into high gear and she quickly upgraded her northernmost Settlement onto a City. This solidified her stranglehold on the "Longest Road" card.

SHEILA: 6 Victory Points

And where was your humble narrator during all of this? Why, still loitering around at the starting line, of course.

I placed my first two Settlements next to sixes and eights which should have turned up fairly frequently, but, hey, guess what? They didn't. Occasionally the Odds Gods did smile upon me, allowing me to scrape together just enough Resource Cards to upgrade a Settlement to a City and build a single Road at great expense. With that I tied Sheila for the "Longest Road", which temporarily placed those two Veeps back in limbo.

ME: 3 Victory Points
SHEILA: 4 Victory Points 

Since I couldn't get anything as simple as a friggin' Road built, Sheila quickly re-established herself as the Queen of the Autobahn, clawing back the "Longest Road" award as quickly as she lost it.

SHEILA...6 Victory Points

Thanks to her new City, Cheryl was now generating double the amount of Wheat on a roll of "6" and triple the amount of both Ore and Sheep when a "10" or a "5" came up. Which is to say, inordinately often when you take into account the standard laws of statistics. Anyhoo, the flood of inbound Resource Cards she received were quickly put to good use, as was the Resource Card she pilfered  from me after rolling a "7".

Wow, talk about kickin' a brotha' when he's down.

She paved two new Roads up north and then dropped a Settlement down at the crossroads of a Pasture, a Mountain and some Fields. This dove-tailed perfectly with her strategy, as did the construction of yet another Settlement on a 3:1 Harbor space.

CHERYL: 7 Victory Points

Sheila tried to stall Cheryl's inexorable advance by sending Soldiers after her, nabbing the "Largest Army" Card in the process.

SHEILA...8 Victory Points

But the military campaign did little to impede Cheryl's progress. When she leveled up yet another Settlement to a City it seemed as if nothing could stop her.

CHERYL...8 Victory Points

With so many Settlements and Cities producing so many Resources on so many bizarro dice rolls, Cheryl's victory seemed inevitable. Using loose change she found underneath her sofa cushions, she cobbled together another Road segment, providing an ideal spot for yet another housing project. Next up she generated enough Resources to build a new Settlement and upgrade it to a City all in one turn. *BAAAAAAAMMM!!!*





We had so much fun that both Cheryl and her moms were up for playing a second match. And thank Zeus, 'cuz I really had to make up for that incredibly poor first showing!




With my initial set-up last game I was hoping to mass produce a few specific Resources, namely Ore and Wood and then leverage this surplus for exactly what I needed. Unfortunately I didn't get the payout frequency that I needed and no-one had any Brick to trade during the early goings of the game.

This time out I decided to be more self-sufficient, making sure that I had at least some chance of earning the Resources needed to kick start early development. Even the most sound initial placement won't work if the numbers don't come up but this time out nines and sixes appeared with reasonable frequency.

I quickly parleyed this early windfall into three quick Road segments. Not only did this seal up the gap between my two starting Settlements, it also gave me a primo spot to build another one. At the same time I fulfilled the requirements for "Longest Road", scoring two more Victory Points for this achievement. Cheryl responded to my early lead by sending the Robber out to gank me!

ME...5 Victory Points

Even though Sheila placed her initial Settlements next to some questionable spots, she did get some pretty decent payouts of Wood and Brick which she quickly transformed into a couple of Roads. A lot of eights were also rolled up front, giving her the perfect opportunity to upgrade her southern Settlement into a City.

SHEILA: 3 Victory Points

The constant influx of both Wheat and Ore, now doubled by the City, paid for a second City upgrade not long after.

SHEILA: 4 Victory Points

But those eights were also helping me out. Along with a few freakish tens which paid out my westerly Mountains, I quickly initiated my own City upgrade in an effort to keep pace with Sheila.

Meanwhile, Cheryl was trying to set up her own little nexus of productivity. Her initial placement on a 2:1 Wheat Harbor was kinda risky but eventually it started to pay off. After making a few shrewd exchanges she had the Resources required to add two bridging Road segments and a brand new Settlement.

CHERYL: 3 Victory Points

Despite the fact that I had the friggin' Robber dug in like an Alabama tick on my one and only Hill, both Ore and Wheat were still coming in waves. This gave me a chance to upgrade my second Settlement to a City. I wanted to do this as quickly as I could in order to double my Resource income and hopefully get a jump on my opponents.

ME: 7 Victory Points

And it certainly did. Pretty soon I was rollin' in the Wheat. Which is by far Adele's worst song.


Meanwhile, Cheryl's progress, like my own in Game One, had completely stalled. Generally speaking, whenever people find themselves buying Development Cards it's usually a sign that they don't have the Resources to score guaranteed Veeps through Building. But in Cheryl's case, the move paid off in spades when she drew and later played the "Monopoly" Card.

Given how much Wheat Sheila and I were producing, her Resource pick was a no-brainer. As a result, she walked off with no less than nine of our Wheat cards!  *Ugh*

This instantly fueled a Settlement-to-City upgrade!

CHERYL: 4 Victory Points

Since I was still in the lead, I got dinged with the Robber two more times, with the ripe bastard eventually settling onto my 9-pip Forest space like a cat in a shoebox. Even though my Wood supply was curtailed and my opponents were hesitant to trade with me, I was still generating an obscene amount of Wheat and Bricks on just about every turn. Brick was still pretty scarce for everyone else so I managed to, convince Sheila to trade some Wood to me.

Using these Resources I paved a two-segment Road to the coast, building a Settlement on the 3:1 Harbor. As soon as I did that, my economy jumped from impulse power to Warp Factor Eight!

ME: 8 Victory Points

Boxed in by my urban sprawl, Cheryl was forced to build a Road along the coastline while Sheila made a bee-line for the 2:1 Sheep port.

Even with that furshlugginer Robber all up in my Hillz, I still managed to perform another Settlement-to-City upgrade.

ME: 9 Victory Points

Periodic rolls of "8" and "10" gave Cheryl the exact payout required to upgrade another Settlement into a City.

CHERYL: 5 Victory Points

With a general surplus of just about every commodity and access to that handy 3:1 Harbor I could pretty much do whatever I wanted at that stage in the game. Anticipating some inexplicable source of interference, I dropped three Roads down in a fit of paranoia and then built another Settlement to lock down the win.






  • Initial placement is key. In a perfect world you should have a least a shot at producing every type of Resource. If this isn't possible then try to concentrate on Wood, Brick, Sheep and Wheat since this stuff lets you build Roads and Settlements. No matter how good a trade is, there's nothing better than rolling a badly-needed Resource for free!   
  • Snagging a single high-frequency Resource and its matching Harbor is another solid move but remember: those number tokens represent relative frequency and certainly don't account for luck.
  • Try to predict the rarity of certain goods. If you can corner the market on something precious then you'll quickly become the most popular person around the table. 
  • Propose trades with your fellow players every single turn. As good as the Harbors are they aren't better than a good, ol' fashioned one-for-one trade.
  • Personally, I only buy Development Cards if absolutely nothing else is percolating for me. 
  • If you don't have a lot of room at the start of the game try to expand with Roads as soon as possible. Victory or defeat can easily be dependent on who manages to eke out the most space for new Settlements. 
  • Try to avoid placing Settlements on just one or two tiles and avoid the Desert like the plague.
  • Wrestling the "Longest Road" away from an opponent and / or dropping down your third "Soldier" card for the "Largest Army" makes for a great "finishing move".
  • Victory Point leaders should always become the default target for trade embargoes and Robber attacks!
  • If you have a chance to buy something, do it! There's nothing worse than losing half of your cards (or one really pivotal one) when the Robber strikes or Soldiers break down your door.


  • When its set up, the game looks colorful and appealing. Even if people have never played a Eurogame before, they won't feel as if they're drowning under an avalanche of confusing components.
  • The rules are crystal clear and the game is easy to jump into.
  • A game turn in Catan is actually quite simple: roll for Resource production, initiate trades and then build. The appeal of the game comes from the minutia of how you interpret these actions. 
  • The variable set up helps to throw veteran players off of a scripted game. 
  • Noobies who've been burned by player elimination in Monopoly or Risk will be relieved to see that they're in it to the end.
  • Between watching anxiously for payouts and constantly negotiating trades, you always have a vested interest in what's going on.
  • Since Victory Points come from Settlements, Cities, the "Longest Road", the "Largest Army" and "Development Cards" there are just enough strategies to explore without overwhelming gaming neophytes.
  • I like how the Robber makes hoarding cards risky. There's also something immensely gratifying about stealing a Resource from someone!
  • Picking crappy starting spots for your first two Settlements can hamper your entire game. 
  • There's nothing more infuriating than cold dice in Catan. Bad luck can reduce players to a standstill as well as an emotional wreck.
  • Since the game relies so heavily on trading, you can really shut someone down or play kingmaker. As a side note, Catan vendettas can get pretty nasty!
  • Comebacks are pretty rare in Catan. Once you're trailing behind it can be tough to dig yourself out of a hole. 

I don't know exactly when it became fashionable to hate on Catan but I'm willing to bet that hipster gamer douche bags probably started to turn their nose up at it around the same time it began to sell at Target and Toys "R" Us stores.

"Yeah, man, I used to love Catan but now that everyone knows that I'm not really getting Wood for Sheep well, it just doesn't seem as, y'know, as cool anymore." 

But unlike shitty corporate rock bands, board games don't typically change as soon as they become popular. It's not like Catan now includes a random Robber movement template or a Cards Against Humanity-style Development Deck with a "Year of Queefing" card. Anyone who dismisses Catan as the U2 of Eurogames is indulging in snobbery of the highest order.

I'm giving Catan a perfect score not because it's the best game I've ever played but because it's one of the most important. Like Dungeons & Dragons, Axis & Allies and Magic: The Gathering, this thing changed my life. And since I teach it to new gamers almost constantly I know for a fact that its still changing lives to this very day.

Catan scores six pips outta six. Don't be hatin'


Looking to become the world's most tardy bandwagon-jumper? Curious about the shiny new edition of Catan? Then click on the following link to learn more about the game and give this here blog some badly-needed Victory Points!

No comments:

Post a Comment