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Review: Settlers of Catan

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I've had it long enough for the box to be worn our and well loved
I’ve had it long enough for the box to be worn our and well loved

Despite all the wood that has been traded for sheep and the wheat for brick over the years, it’s hard to believe that Settlers of Catan is old enough to vote.  But here we are, almost 20 years later, still praying that our next roll won’t be the dreaded “7” because we just got that 8th card and we’ve been saving up for this city for-ever. 

Yes, with its continuing popularity, Settlers of Catan is old enough to be considered a classic game.  It really might be considered the game that re-invented board gaming and spawned the hobby as we know it today.  Perhaps it’s been a while since you dug into the game; perhaps you’ve seen it or heard of it, but never even tried it. Perhaps you have no idea what I’m talking about.

Wherever you stand, my friends, come with me on a voyage to a new world; a world of abundance, of freedom, of trade and expansion.

Come with me to the land of Catan.

How It Plays

Settlers of Catan tasks players with building a vast economic empire using only the resources they can collect from the land, and some savvy trading with other players.

The board is a hexagon-shaped grid made up of hexagon-shaped tiles, each representing a different type of land (fields, mountains, quarries, forests, and hills) that produces a specific type of resource (wheat, ore/stone, brick, wood, and sheep), with numbers placed on each of those tiles.  On the edges there is water, which produces no resources, but contains many Harbors which allow cheaper trading to the bank.

Let's settle this once and for all!
Let’s settle this once and for all!

At the start of the game, players take turns placing 2 settlements on the map along with a road connecting to each. Settlements are placed on the corners between 3 tiles (or 2, if you’re on the edge).  The second settlement placed by each player rewards them with their starting resource – one for each tile their settlement touches.

Then, the game begins. Players take turns, and each turn the current player rolls the pair of dice. The total number between the two dice (anywhere from 2 to 12) indicates which tiles produce resources – any tile with a matching number on it. Each settlement touching a tile produces 1 of that resource (and yes, a player with 2 settlements touching the same tile can produce 1 resource each). Cities – an upgraded version of the Settlement – produce 2 resources from one tile.

Of course, if a 7 is rolled, no tile produces resources – instead, the ROBBER is activated.  The player can move the Robber to any tile – it blocks resource producing there as long as it stays – and steal a card from one player with a city or settlement on that tile.  Also, anyone with more than 7 cards in hand must discard half their hand.

Precious, precious resources
Precious, precious resources

After the dice are rolled, the trading phase begins. Anyone can trade with the current player, and any deal can be reached as long as both parties exchange a resource. Sheep for wheat, brick for ore, two for one – players must haggle and pressure and encourage many successful trades in order to get what is needed for their own civilization.

When the trading is done (that is, when the current player is done trading or no one will trade with them), the next phase is the Build phase. The current player may discard their resources to the bank in order to construct new things on the board.  New roads are needed to reach new corners to build new settlements.  Settlements can be upgraded to cities to double their point value and resource production. Development cards can be purchased as well – frequently, these are soldiers that can be used to chase the Robber away, but they can also be extra points, free roads, or the ability to take all of one type of resource from everyone who has it.

A player may build as much as they can afford, and then passes their dice to the next player.

The game ends when a player reaches 10 points. Points come in the form of settlements (1pt each), Cities (2pts), certain Development cards (1pt each), the Longest Road (a road made up of at least 5 continuous segments and longer than any other player’s road) for 3 pts, and the Largest Army – a player with at least 3 Soldier cards in play and more than any other, for 3 pts.

Let the games begin.

Ahh, spreadsheets, the mark of a great economic game, right?
Ahh, spreadsheets, the mark of a great economic game, right?

Two Brick for Stone?

It’s almost hard to think of Settlers of Catan as a “classic” game, but perhaps it is the classic. The inception of Catan effectively marks the dawn of modern hobby gaming; almost all of us have played it, and we played it first, before anything else. We played it, loved it, discovered that board games didn’t begin only with Candyland and end only with Monopoly and Risk, and found the portal into the world of modern tabletop.

Many of us have moved on from Catan almost completely, yet it endures, perhaps because it is the flagship title of our universe. We tell people we play board games, and they immediately think of suffering through hours of Monopoly, just waiting to be eliminated at last from their brother’s economic choke-hold.  We mention Catan, and almost everyone has heard of it, and it breaks away from the old clichés.

Where we're going we don't need roads... oh wait yes we do
Where we’re going we don’t need roads… oh wait yes we do

Catan has been in my family – my extended family, at least – for so long that it is still generally referred to as Siedlers, because the first copies that made the rounds came from Germany before the english version was even released. Die Siedlers von Catan struck a chord that played for many years at family holidays and our yearly camping trip on the shores Lake Michigan.  It’s hard not to think of the robber as the ritter, and development cards were always called Super Secret cards because no one actually spoke German and we couldn’t remember the right word for them.

The point of all this storytelling is simply to remind us that Catan is a classic, and not just because it is old, but because it endures. That’s important to remember, because even as our hobby has expanded and grown and learned from itself, even as games have improved on what Catan began all those years ago, there’s no denying that Catan is special.

We’ve moved on, many of us, remarking on the game’s flaws, or how it is too much reliant on luck. Truthfully, though, Catan was and still remains a brilliant and elegant design. It is a perfect bridge between the familiar and the new, and I think that’s why it gained such popularity. There are dice and they are rolled, you collect cards which represent economic value, and you build small house-shaped tokens on the board so that you can later turn them into larger house-shaped tokens that will make you richer.

It takes these familiar, monopoly-esque elements and rebuilds them into something fresh.

These are the super secret cards everyone super secretly wants
These are the super secret cards everyone super secretly wants

What is so remarkable about Settlers of Catan is it’s simplicity. When you first learned the game as I did, perhaps it seemed complex, but this was simply because it was new. A College Humor video (note: this link takes you to the College Humor website. You’ve been warned) once teased the complexity of Settlers by parodying Mcdonald’s annual Monopoly game with an absurdly complex explanation of Catan’s rules, but in reality (and lightly teased in the video) Settlers is a much simpler game of economics. While Monopoly gives you the ol’ reliable Roll-And-Move which dictates your turn, you’ve got a lot more calculations going on when dealing with larger (and more detailed) values of currency. In Settlers you roll, trade, and buy, but really that’s it. A helpful cheat-sheet makes it incredibly easy to see the cost of everything, the rules for what can be placed where are incredibly straight forward, and your currency – that is, your resource cards – doesn’t exceed values much higher than 7.

The birds-eye-view of Catan’s strategy is much easier to grasp as well.  The goal is so straightforward: just earn 10 points. You can approach it from a few different directions – get the longest road, build a lot of cities, or collect a handful of development cards – but regardless of which direction you want to choose, it is clear what you need to take the next step. This makes sensible trading much easier to pick up quickly – if you need a wheat to build that next settlement, you trade the cards you don’t need to get it. The 4-for-1 bank trade not only gives players an out with too much of an unwanted resource, but it also clues them in to what a reasonable trade entails.  Obviously you would never give a player 5 cards for 1 resource in an exchange since you have a cheaper trade built in. 1-for-1 is the ideal trade, and those two extremes give you a nice range to keep in mind. So many people struggle through Monopoly because it’s extremely difficult to value one property against another, and it requires a lot of experience to make good trades.

This longest road won't hold forever
This longest road won’t hold forever

Trading in Catan is key to the success of the game, and as long as players don’t make incredibly foolish decisions in that regard (as easy thing to avoid), this is what keeps the game’s economy in balance – it’s why I don’t believe Catan really is a “luck-fest.” I have written about it in the first few months of this website’s existance, but I’ll reiterate it here; trading balances out the dice rolls. You never know what numbers will come up; probability says that 6’s and 8’s should be most common, but you could easily go most of a game only showing 11’s. It doesn’t matter, because the most commonly-rolled number will always produce the same resource within a single game – and that resource becomes the least valuable resource, thanks to supply and demand. You’ve got all the wheat you could ask for, maybe, but I’ve got the brick, and there never is enough brick, is there? Even though my number has only been rolled once or twice, and yours has come up 5 times, you won’t get 1 brick for 1 wheat. Brick has become valuable because it has no supply, and so our trades will balance out the results. Two wheat for a brick, or perhaps even 3 if you are desperate. Economics. Supply and demand. The savviest trader wins the game. And yes, luck can play a role in who wins – but in what game that you love does it not? Few games have zero luck or perfect information.  When it comes down to it, if a game has a tiny amount of luck, that luck will be the deciding factor between two equally-skilled opponents.

The point is, the game in general does not dictate your turns or play itself; you roll the dice and hope you get your numbers, or someone gets your numbers, and it will eventually. Unless, perhaps, you placed your settlements poorly, which is entirely possible – more experienced players will seriously consider the numbers their first settlements start on as much as – if not more than – the resources they provide. The wider array of numbers you possess, the more likely you are to get something, and when you have something you can use it or trade it.

The last piece of the puzzle is the Robber, the inevitable 7, because it protects the game from running aground. One cannot simply hoard all the resources, refusing to trade away anything so as to prevent actions by the other players. If they do, a 7 will show up, and they will lose their cards. Players will notice this, and thus behave as the threat of this number intends them to behave; they will be amicable to trades wherein they must give two of their lesser resources for one of something good, and they will spend their cards when they can, forcing the game forward.

Curse the foul robber!
Curse the foul robber!

The end of the game is inevitable after about 1 hour and a half; it cannot spiral onward forever if at least one person wants to win.  Every action a player will undertake – unless they are intentionally misplaying or incredibly obtuse – pushes them towards the endgame, towards victory. Roads earn the longest road and more places to build settlements. Settlements and Cities boost resource production AND points. Development cards provide an array of benefits, from enhanced resource collection to the Largest Army to free, hidden points.  I’ve seen winners with both the Largest Army and the Longest Road to make up for a lack of extra settlements; I’ve won the game myself with out any bonus points, simply by building all my cities and the extra settlements required to go the distance. A lot of games land somewhere in between with various combinations of points for the win.

Yes, it is possible that the game can skew to one side or the other, awarding one player all the resources and the others none. Truthfully this is a rare occurance, as rare as any outlying scenario of any other game. Perhaps total incompetance can allow these skewed games more easily, and the game does not railroad players into competance as much as some other popular modern games, but if players are playing to win and paying attention, the odds are very high that they will have a strong chance to claim the victory.

The enviable Largest Army card.
The enviable Largest Army card.

The real low point of Catan? There are stretches of the game in which you may not get to collect any resources for several turns. There will be stretches when 7’s are rolled again and again and again, which is frustrating and which slows the game down. But, I do believe that these stretches merely require some patience, and that except for the occassional rarity, you can weather a drought and still have an excellent fighting chance to win the game. Yes, patience is required. Only sometimes. I am not of the opinion that every game must rush us through each turn and constantly engage our minds with frantic decisions. Take a moment. Slow down. Play Catan.

If you have experienced Catan and moved on, but haven’t tried the expansions, I would encourage you to do so. While I won’t go into full details here, Seafarers adds an element of exploration, which can be exciting (and the sea gives you something to do with all those extra sheep).  Cities & Knights is a game-changing expansion that, while still relying on the basic premise of rolling dice and collecting resources, adds a slew of new and interesting challenges. The enhancements take Catan to the next level and make it even more special.

 

It's all coming to an end now, soon enough
It’s all coming to an end now, soon enough

It’s time to wrap this all up.  I hope most of all that I have reminded you of that moment when you first got Catan, when you saw what board games could be given the chance. Many of us may have moved on to better things, but we shouldn’t forget the classic, the game that re-started it all.  Catan is not going away, and it’s still a great gateway game.  With tokens of familiarity drawn from certain mass-market games, to an elegant simplicity and easy-to-understand strategy. Catan has entrenched itself in our culture and I hope that it continues to grow and reach more people, to show them the doorway into a new land. Settlers of Catan is not my favorite game of all time. It’s not even a game I commonly pull out at my table. but it is a game I can remember with fondness, for all the good times it created with family and friends. It has a legacy, and I think it will last well into the future when many of our current favorites have fallen into obscurity. It is a legacy the game has earned, and it is well deserved.

Summary

  • Rating 9
  • User Ratings (2 Votes) 8.5
    Your Rating:
Summary

Pros

  • Very simple gameplay structure
  • Simple structure still creates an interesting and dynamic economic system
  • Easy to understand the overall game
  • Valuing trades is possible even for beginners
  • Uses familiar elements from mass-market games but reinvents them for a better experience
  • Trading balances the luck of the die

Cons:

  • Can get slowed due to rolling 7's too often
  • Player skill/attitude can severely affect the game's balance
9 Excellent

Futurewolfie loves epic games, space, and epic games set in space. You'll find him rolling fistfuls of dice, reveling in thematic goodness, and giving Farmerlenny a hard time for liking boring stuff.

Discussion6 Comments

  1. I feel you did not give the development cards the credit they deserve.
    “In Settlers you roll, trade, and buy, but really that’s it.”
    Actually, using development cards can get you over the edge and help you secure the victory much more than only building roads and settlements. Early game, road building works the best. Mid and late-game, monopoly can turn the tides. If you can see an opening in early game, you can risk with it, but then there probably aren’t that many resources in your or anyone else’s hand to make a very big change. Knights and year of plenty are always useful. Development cards is where you can manipulate the outcome the most.
    Talking about supply and demand, I also disagree. Not entirely but on most points. Due to the fact that there are 2:1 ports, supply and demand does not always work that way. It can even work in the opposite direction. Having all grain fields to yourself with the grain port, you can dominate the game because everything except roads needs grain to build.
    Luck can be a deciding factor in Catan, but since the game is for 4 players, the other players have to play against that luck somehow. Be it not trading with the lucky player or blocking his resources. The lucky player also has to make the best moves to start snowballing out of control. It can happen but usually the other 3 players realize what they have to do and manage to stop it before it is too late.
    Nothing can help with extreme luck though. If this is the case, play a number of games and see who wins the most or who gets the most points in total.
    This game in great only if everyone plays for themselves and no-one tries to mess up the game “for shits and giggles”.

    • Hey there, thanks for your comment.

      My line reducing Settlers to “roll, trade, and buy” was not to capture the overall strategy of the game in all its facets, but to describe the simplicity of the turn structure. Sure, playing Development cards switches things up a bit, but not in a drastic way. The point is the game is very streamlined and doesn’t have players going through multiple complex phases each turn to make things happen.

      You are right about the 2:1 ports, but usually someone building a massive trade engine like that happens closer to the end of the game. It’s pretty rare that you can land a 2:1 for a resource in addition to multiple spots for that same resource; even if you do in the early game, you’re forcing yourself to trade for EVERY resource and giving up a potential 6th number to award you goods. Limiting yourself to 1 resource – even if you have a free 2:1 – is a pretty risky bet in the early game.

      By the end of the game, paths have diverted anyways. Some people may have a whole variety of resources; others may have cornered off a particular resource. Many will have more efficient trade stations of their own; in any case, the game is sure to end in a few rounds regardless. This isn’t so much as a balance issue as it is the game intensifying and accelerating to the end point.

      • I have noticed that usually the one who plays a monopoly card, wins. Getting the knights bonus also helps because it is very hard to steal away. If you get road building development card early game, you can cut someone off unexpectedly and gain a massive head start. I suggest you try to play a development card oriented strategy sometimes. (You have to expand on the board too, don’t remember that! When you can not build a settlement but can build a development card, 60% of the time, it’s good to get a development card.)

        I have seen a good 2:1 port strategy happening very early. Other players can not do anything against it so the player can expand even further and not only take the port’s resource but some other resource that he is missing. Snowballing effect can happen with ports much faster. True, you should not limit yourself to only one kind of resource. If you keep it balanced, it can still help a lot. Usually if you have lots of sheep, you have nothing else to do with them other than trade.

        In the endgame no-one trades anyway, so you better have a good diverse resource income. Everything depends on the map though.

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