Ever wanted to dive into the wide world of board games, but have no idea where to start? Are you a fan of strategy, conspiring against your friends or just fun in general? Well then, this is the place for you! This series will introduce a handful of popular European board games – providing an explanation of their rules, and some speculation to the reasons behind their success – in the hope of familiarizing them to anyone curious about the many board games beyond Cluedo, Monopoly, and Scrabble.
I will start today with an all-time favourite – The Settlers of Catan.
About four years ago, I partook in my first game of Catan. I was in the University dorm room of a friend of a friend of a friend, and there were so many of us playing that, even using the six-player expansion, we had to play in teams and use a timer to limit the length of turns. It was in this most confusing and inebriated setting that my love for Catan blossomed. There was something about the game that was just so fun that I could not wait for my next opportunity to play. That summer I obtained a copy of Catan, took it with me to every social gathering I attended, and taught the rules to every family member and friend who was willing to learn. The amazing thing was that the fervour spread, and before I knew it many of the people I had introduced to the game had purchased their own copy – conveniently meaning that I no longer had to drag mine around with me.
So, what is this game and why is it so fun?
The Settlers of Catan is a resource management strategy game developed by German Klaus Teuber. Since its release in 1995, it has achieved worldwide popularity, and is today available in over thirty languages. In Catan, you play the role of an intrepid adventurer, determined to settle your people on the new continent before anyone else. You achieve this by gathering resources, trading with your opponents, and building roads, settlements and cities to further your burgeoning empire. Building earns you Victory Points, and the first player to 10 Victory Points wins.
The game board is made up of nineteen hexagonal terrain tiles, each representing a resource – brick, lumber, wool, grain, and ore, plus one barren desert tile. The tiles can be placed according to a number of recommended layouts or arrayed at random – suggested once you have exhausted the provided scenarios.
Atop these hexes, number tokens are placed. Catan is played using two six-sided dice, thus the numbers on the tokens range from one to twelve – all the possible numbers you can roll using two six-sided dice. The dots beneath the numbers represent the probability of that number being rolled. Red numbers have the highest probability.
The higher the probability the better, because when the number atop that resource hex is rolled – by any player – the players settled adjacent to the hex will generate its resource.
Before you can do any rolling however, there is a little more setup to do. Players begin with two settlements each, all with one connected road. Everyone rolls to determine who places their settlement first. This ‘starting player’ places one settlement and a connecting road anywhere they wish – the locations adjacent to red numbers being most desirable. Everyone else takes turns clockwise until you reach the final player. The final player then gets to place their second settlement first, and turn order reverses. This may seem confusing, but the logic behind this rule is sound. It means the placement of starting settlements is fairer than if the starting player were allowed to place both their settlements first.
Settlements must always be placed at least two road lengths apart from each other, and roads must always be connected to settlements – with the exception of your starting settlements, which may be placed separately. Next, all players receive one resource for each tile adjacent to their starting settlement. Once these are collected, you are ready to play.
Play begins with the starting player, determined during set up. All turns from here on have the same three phases:
The player whose turn it is rolls both dice, and resources are generated. Whoever is settled adjacent to a terrain tile with the rolled number on it picks up one card representing that resource. If you have more than one settlement adjacent to the same hex, you pick up according to the number of settlements. Upgraded settlements (‘cities’) generate two resources instead.
The active player then has an opportunity to trade with others. Any trade is acceptable; the only thing you cannot do is give resources away in exchange for nothing. Usually, people trade resources 1:1, or perhaps 2:1 or 3:1 if a particular resource is scarce.
You may also engage with ‘Domestic Trade,’ which is an elaborate name for trading with the bank. Any 4 similar resources may be traded for 1 of another type of resource. The last variety of trade is ‘Maritime’. The coast of Catan is dotted with ports. If you build on a port, you can trade with the bank for a better rate – but the rate might be specific to a resource. For example, you might be able to trade 2 wool for 1 of anything else – but you may only use wool in this deal.
Finally – and most excitingly! – the player may build. Each player has a ‘Building Costs’ card, which acts as a handy reminder of your choices.
Aside from building roads/settlements and upgrading your settlements into cities, players may buy Development Cards. These cards are drawn from a deck at random, but all grant the player a benefit. Some allow the player to build two roads free of cost, while others count as a free Victory Point.
Players take turns completing these phases in clockwise order until somebody obtains 10 Victory Points and wins.
Those of you who have very observant hawk eyes – or perhaps are actually hawks – will have noticed that none of the number tokens display a ‘7’. Seven is special. When seven is rolled, two things happen:
1. Anyone who holds eight or more cards must give half to the bank (to prevent players from hoarding resources), and
2. The active player must move the Robber. This devious character lurks on the desert hex until the rolling of a seven summons him to wreak havoc on the Settlers. The robber is placed by the active player on any other resource hex tile. While on this tile the robber blocks that tile’s resource production. The player who moved the robber also gets to steal one resource at random from the player whose resource production they have chosen to block.
Finally, there are two ways to earn ‘Special Victory Points’ – ‘Longest Road’ and ‘Largest Army’. The first is self-explanatory – whoever builds the longest road gains this card. The second is obtained by playing the most ‘Knight’ cards. Knights are Development cards whose effect is to allow the active player to move the Robber when used – as if a ‘7’ had been rolled. Obtaining ‘Largest Army’ requires at least three Knights to have been played. Both these special cards can be stolen from the first player to obtain them by building a longer road or larger army.
So that is how the game is played, but why is it so much fun, and why has it been so successful?
Catan has wide appeal because it engages anyone who enjoys strategy, and ‘strategy’ includes a wide genre of games – classic RTS such as Stronghold and Age of Empires, mobile strategy games like Plants vs Zombies, even traditional card games such as Bridge, Canasta, or Hearts are strategy games.
Despite its strong strategic elements, Catan is also very social. It does not matter how sound your strategy is, there is always some element of luck involved when it comes to resource generation. As a result, trading is essential to get the resources you actually want, and trading is never as simple as offering your surplus and receiving what you need. Catan can get very competitive very quickly, making you feel as cunning and suspicious of your fellow players as a courtier might do in King’s Landing.
All board games have something I term the ‘Social Element’, which is the extent to which your social participation in the game (rather than just your strategy) influences how likely you are to win the game. In Catan, the Social Element is a strong factor – it impacts the game’s mechanics. If you do not engage in trade with other players, game progress will be slow, and it’s unlikely that you will win. This almost compulsory social interaction means you have to be fully engaged to have a chance of winning, and if everyone is engaged and interested, the game feels more exciting for everyone.
The random generation of the board means that every game is different. It keeps each session fresh and interesting, and prevents experienced players from developing a faultless ‘win strategy,’ which would create a gap between new and experienced players. Experience still counts, but it is far from the only important factor. The downside of random board generation is that you can end up with an unbalanced playing field – for instance, there may be plenty of lumber in circulation, but bricks may be near impossible to attain. Although this kind of situation can be frustrating, the various trading mechanics mean it is never game breaking.
Visually, Catan looks great. The quality of its art and graphic design on all the game pieces is impressive and immersive. It sets a high bar for the quality of board game graphic design. The detail of some of it is actually quite startling. It was only after playing the game for a few months that I noticed the depth of detail on the game hexes.
Although Catan has fairly wide appeal, it cannot be said that it is for everyone. I have introduced the game to a wide diversity of people – including my eighty-six year-old grandmother, and my friend’s seven year-old sister. I have found that anybody familiar with any kind of strategy game or board game will be capable of picking it up, and usually enjoy it; however, the onslaught of rules can be daunting, especially when trying to play with tabletop beginners. In my experience, it is best to use a ‘learn by doing’ approach and play a few practice rounds to keep everyone engaged and allow a safe space for questions to be asked. Both my grandmother and seven-year-old Zoe seemed to enjoy Catan, despite not being totally up to speed with the strategy. The social side of the game saw them engaged and entertained, despite the gaps in their knowledge of the rules.
The few negatives that can be applied to Catan are features I have already touched on – the learning curve can be steep during your first game, and the random nature of resource generation can be frustrating for hardcore strategists. What I have not mentioned is how intensely, even nastily, competitive this game can get. Most board games encourage a healthy competitive spirit – Catan is likely to bring that out in your friends and family tenfold. Most of the time this makes the game full of fun quips and interesting dynamics, but it only takes one person to be feeling a little grumpy for things to get uncomfortable fast. It is tough to say whether this is a result of the game’s design however, and herein lies what makes board games so interesting – who you are playing with, ‘The Social Element,’ can really effect the nature of the game.
It is easy to see why Catan has become so successful – sound strategy and mechanics, highly impressive graphic design and illustration, and a strong Social Element. The high level of strategy at play in Catan means that you are unlikely to win your first game. However, the random nature of resource generation means there is always a chance for the underdog to get lucky and make a glorious comeback. Anyone who has the patience to learn the rules will likely enjoy it. All board games require some degree of patience – the quality of the game determines whether or not this waiting and learning is worth it. In the case of Catan, it certainly is.