Oh Catan, you glorious bastard. It’s the game that got most of us out of the Monopoly board gaming scene. Often loved, sometimes reviled, it brings a mixed bag of emotions with a side of nostalgia ever since it was first produced back in 1995.
Mostly it brings an inordinate amount of sheep, though.
After two decades it’s still being printed and still hitting the gaming table, loved by all ages and backgrounds.
Let’s delve deep today and find out why I can’t stop playing it.
Settling into Catan
To take it back to the beginning, Settlers of Catan was originally designed by Klaus Teuber for his kids. They (adorably) still keep track of games and compete with each other to this day. They all work together on new expansions and design elements. It’s always nice seeing a family company survive through the whole corporate aspect and is a testament to the bonding powers of board games.
Settlers of Catan has since been rebranded as simply “Catan” with newer versions sporting a more uniform commercial packaging.
There’s been numerous expansions since Catan’s first inception in 1995.
I personally really enjoy vanilla Catan but there’s a strong following of players who refuse to play without certain expansions, like Cities & Knights.
If you’re looking for a complete rundown and review of Catan expansions, you can check our ultimate guide here!
Before we get started lets hit some of the basic mechanics and components you’ll run into on Catan.
There are 5 different types of resources in the game. You’ll use these for various buildings and to ultimately win the game.
Chances are that the board will be set up so that one particular resource will be either difficult to obtain or someone will screw everyone over with a monopoly. It happens, but isn’t necessarily a game-breaking occurrence.
The iconic hexagonal tiles of Catan each correspond to a different resource, so when a tile’s number is rolled you’ll get the resource depicted if you have a building touching it. They are all color coded to the resources, so it should be easy to see. Sometimes I’ve played with a few people who were a bit color blind, so sometimes the greens were hard to see for them. The new artwork is a bit easier to differentiate.
The tiles and their corresponding resource are:
Sheep: Light green pasture.
Wheat: Yellow fields.
Wood: Dark Green forest.
Brick: Red/Brown mud pit.
There’s one other tile that doesn’t have any resources, and that’s the desert. That’s where the dreaded robber starts out. We’ll talk more about him in a minute.
What it Takes to Build Stuff
Having resources is all fine and good, but you’ll need the proper ones to actually build specific upgrades. Luckily each player gets their own cheat sheet tile that lists all the available buildings and their costs.
For example, it takes 1x brick and 1x wood resource to build a road. It makes sense from a thematic sense, so it’s good to take a look before you start the game. That way you know what you’ll be going for.
If you’re looking for something a bit different you can pick up a development card. They’re not free though. They cost a sheep, ore, and wheat resource. They do have some amazing abilities though. It’s mostly filled with militia cards that move the robber, but it also has some devastating abilities like the Monopoly card.
Everyone still hates Monopoly, even in Catan. You could potentially trade away a ton of resources to your opponents, then take all the resources back by using Monopoly. It’s a real underhanded move. There are also cards that straight-up give victory points, so you never really know who’s winning.
There are 2 ways to get bonus points throughout the game, and whoever controls them is fluid.
The first player to build a continuous road of 5 or more gets 2 points for building the longest road. After that, anyone who builds a longer road than them steals it away.
Remember the militia cards from the development deck? If you manage to play 3 of them first, you get 2 additional points. Just like with the longest road though, if someone plays more than the current largest army they can steal the points away.
There’s been a debate about how quickly you can actually teach the rules of Catan. To be fair there is a rulebook that is several pages long, but the time it takes really depends on who teaches you the game.
Did you get the 45+ minute explanation that includes literally every nuance of the game?
What about the 2-minute bare-bones overview?
It honestly can vary anywhere in between. Most players will be able to jump into the game with only a few minutes of explanation and they’ll be able to pick it up as they go.
If you’re unfamiliar with the game, I’ll give you the simple rundown.
- Every turn, someone rolls 2 dice.
- You get resources if you have something built on the corresponding total number from the dice.
- You use resources to build stuff.
- Stuff = Victory Points.
- The first player to 10 Victory Points, wins.
- Don’t roll a 7.
Honestly, with that much explanation, you can jump into the game guided by someone who knows what they’re doing. You may not win the first game but believe me, there will be a second.
You’ll also have to stop to teach the nuances of the game but in my experience people are much more receptive to stopping mid-game to learn a few fiddly bits than they are willing to sit through my hour-long retelling of every single freaking rule.
The final verdict is that the entire game can really be learned in about 10-15 minutes with an eloquent explanation.
What the heck are you talking about?
If you’re new to Catan and have never played before then…
Congrats, you’re in for a treat.
Catan was my gateway game. I literally sat around for 3 days straight after Christmas when it was gifted to my brother and me. I also wasn’t a little kid. It was probably 2010-ish when I first played it.
Enough gushing though. If you have no idea what Catan is, let’s clear that up now.
In Catan, players take on the roles of different groups of settlers on the fictional island of Catan. They’ll need to build their settlements and cities to earn enough points to win the game.
At the beginning of the game, each player will choose 2 different locations and place 2 settlements and 2 roads down on the corners of the hexagonal tiles, so that each building is touching 3 different tiles.
On every turn, a player will roll 2 dice, tally up the total, and look on the board. Each hexagonal tile has a number on it. Whatever is rolled corresponds to 1 or 2 spots on the board. If a number is rolled and you have a settlement or city touching that tile, congrats! You get some supplies to build or trade with.
You’ll notice a lack of 7s on the board. If 7 is rolled then nobody gets any supplies and the little black/grey pawn called the Robber is moved by whoever rolled the 7. They get to place the Robber on an opponent’s hex tile and steal a card from whoever has a building touching it.
Anyone with more than 7 cards also has to discard half of their total resources.
As with all societies, trading and bartering are a huge part of success. If you have a ton of resources you don’t need, you can trade them with your neighbors for stuff you do need. Your opponents are, of course, under no obligation to trade, so it’s up to you to cajole and weedle your way into a better position.
There’s a lot of guilt and empty threats thrown around at this stage. Or maybe it’s just my gaming group…
If you’re at 9 victory points and about to win, chances are that nobody is going to trade with you. Luckily, you can always trade with the bank at a 4:1 ratio.
Building in between an opponent’s roads
This will come up eventually if you play long enough.
One player has the Longest Road and before they can build a settlement along the path, another player comes in from a third direction and builds a settlement right in the middle of their longest road.
Is that even legal?
If there’s a valid location to build a settlement and two players build roads to reach it, the first person to build the settlement gets it. Not only that, but another player’s settlement breaks apart the road, and it’s no longer considered connected for the Longest Road.
It’s a real jerk move, but totally legal.
Your First Game
Before you even begin, every player needs to place their starting 2 settlements and 2 roads. Pick whoever goes first and rotate it around the table until everyone has placed 1 settlement connected with 1 road. The last person to choose gets to immediately place their 2nd settlement. They basically get to pick twice in a row because everyone else had first pick. The player who started gets first choice, but also the last.
It’s often thought that the setup is where players win or lose the game. You’ll want at least 1 of every resource or even spots that will consistently be rolled.
I personally like to ensure that I have a lot of ore and wheat coming my way. That makes it super easy to upgrade settlements into cities.
You’ll also want to pay attention to the numbers on each space. You’re using 2 dice to roll for resources and the odds of getting certain numbers are mathematically higher. The highest probability is a 7 but nobody likes nor cares about 7s.
The highest probability numbers you can actually get resources from are 6 & 8 (sometimes colored in red). These are probably going to go quickly on the first picks.
There’s also something to be said about luck. Remember, probability means that it’ll probably be rolled. It’s not called forsureability. I’ve played a lot of games where 2s are rolled a bunch and there’s barely a 6 or 8. My personal go-to is 9. It’s never let me down.
If you have no idea about probability, look at the little dots underneath the numbers. The odds have already been calculated so you don’t have to bust out the calculator and realize you’ve forgotten how to calculate probability from high school.
The more dots under the number, the more likely that number is to be rolled. If it’s your first game and you have no idea what to do, count up the dots and place your settlement wherever you have the most.
Rules Part II: Rule Harder
As simple as the rules are, there’s a few rules that everyone seems to misinterpret or miss during their first few games. I’m no exception.
For whatever reason, this is always missed but then as soon as you’re told the rule, you want to slap your forehead at how much it makes sense.
When starting a game, the second settlement you place gives you one of each resource it touches. So if your second settlement touches a forest, a mountain, and a wheat field, you’ll start the game with 1 wood, 1 wheat, and 1 ore in your hand. It was probably a year or so before I got this right.
Why is Catan so popular?
If you ask a lot of “hardcore” gamers, there are going to be a lot of mixed reactions about Catan.
So, how can somebody in the same breath both praise and refuse to play a game?
Most likely: nostalgia. Remember, Catan came out in 1995. The board games available at the time were either rage-inducing Monopoly or too gimmicky like Splat.
The idea of a serious thinking board game that was fun, required strategy, and most importantly didn’t require you to get a restraining order afterward didn’t really exist (at least in the US) in the 90s. Catan opened up American audiences to the strategic world of Eurogames.
So for many of us it’s nostalgia but nostalgia only goes so far. It’s a solid all-around game that has such a wide appeal. It’s easy for anyone to fall in love with it.
Catan is going down into the history books of board gaming. That’s simply a fact.
It’s praised for elevating board games in the mainstream from a last resort to the main event of many social gatherings.
With all of the fancy board games coming out of the Kickstarter generation with highly-detailed miniatures, highly-thematic roleplaying systems, and grand stages of strategy, is the tiny island of Catan still worth visiting?
I would say yes.
The game itself is built on a solid ruleset, it’s easy to understand, and above all, it’s a fun experience all contained within a small cardboard box.
To this day, I still make new friends who have never played a game of Catan and when introduced, all they want to do is play another round. Even after countless games, that sincerity and thrill of laying down wooden pieces and trading sheep still remains.
At the end of the day, that’s exactly what I want out of my board games: something fun that I can share with my family and friends. It won’t fill every niche or satisfy every gamer but no game does. That’s why we end up getting those massive IKEA shelves.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on Catan. Leave a comment below.