Settlers of Catan – or just Catan as it’s known these days – is still a giant in the world of tabletop gaming. Originally released in 1995, the game has since sold over 22 million copies and is often cited as the spark that ignited the modern wave of tabletop gaming.
Though I’ve been a tabletop gaming enthusiast for a number of years now – and have an unopened copy of Settlers of Catan sitting on my shelf – my wife and I never found the right time to play. At last, thanks to our friends Brendan and Matt, we’ve finally crossed Catan off of our bucket list. Many years after the fact, is the island of Catan still worth settling?
Your goal is to establish the best settlement on this burgeoning island by being the first to score 10 victory points. These points can be earned by building settlements, cities, creating the longest road, having the largest army, or through perks from specific Development cards. In order to do any of these things, you’re going to need resources. You’ll gain resources from bordering regions, but it’s incredibly difficult to secure two spots that give you access to every resource type. Other players are jockeying for the same positions, which tends to leave everyone flush in some resources and short on others.
Furthermore, areas only generate resources when their numerical values are rolled on the dice. At the start of each turn, players will roll a pair of dice to determine which areas create resources. Some are more likely to create resources than others due to inherent probabilities from rolling a pair of D6 dice, but there is a chance that certain numbers will over-perform or underperform. During our game, wheat was assigned the most common roll values, but that resource was scarce due to so few wheat rolls during our game. There’s also the threat of the thief. If one rolls a seven, players who have eight or more resource cards on hand must discard half of their supplies, rounded down in the case of odd numbers.
Because of the island’s volatile resource market, managing your goods in order to score points becomes the crux of the game. If you don’t have the resources needed to build roads, settlements, cities, or collect Development cards, there are other tactics you can employ. You can trade four-of-a-kind to the “bank” and receive one resource card of your choice. Or you can trade resources with another player. That said, during late-game situations, your group may be less inclined to give you the sheep you need to complete that final settlement.
In the moment, I enjoy the thrill that comes from my numbers being rolled and making deals. Even when it’s not my turn, I have the ability to get involved in the action in some way, minimizing the game’s down time. There’s also a lot of strategy that comes from placing settlements and building roads. Maybe too much strategy.
One of the issues I had with the game is actually derived from one if its biggest strengths. The modular board allows for different terrain layouts and die values. Though the dice will create some randomness around which resources are drawn when, building in the right places can have a huge impact on the outcome, whether that’s through accruing an even set of resources, enough excess from a particular resource to trade with the “bank”, or enough room to build roads without getting blocked by others. Trades and Development cards can help, but players in worse spots can really get burned long-term.
Also have concerns with the game’s length. Between the randomness of the dice rolls and the congestion created by four players expanding on a small island, the game can have moments where you’re all stuck. The game’s overall length can extend further if players are unwilling to trade. While trades can be mutually beneficial, I don’t blame someone for not wanting to be the kingmaker.
Seemingly releasing at a time when the board game market was dominated by shallow roll-and-move games, I can absolutely understand how Catan laid the groundwork for the types of modern board games we love. With a greater emphasis on strategy while minimizing player elimination, I’ve played a ton of games that have cribbed its general approach or even specific mechanics.
It’s still an enjoyable game to this day, especially for those who haven’t played any other hobby games within this realm. However, for tabletop gaming enthusiasts who cut their teeth on more modern games, this one may be a bumpy ride. Others have taken elements of this formula and improved upon it in a myriad of ways, such as Lords of Vegas or Machi Koro. Wouldn’t necessary classify Catan as a must play at this point, but it’s still a good place to start.
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