Friday, May 21, 2010

Settlers of Catan- Maybe Better Never than Late

The expensive and cleverly designed Eurogame has only been in existence a short while. Until recently gamers could enjoy popular games like bridge or chess or delve into the underground with miniatures games or wargames but that was it. Settlers of Catan could be considered one of the first major successes in the world of new games. It's sold over fifteen million copies and has achieved great notoriety. I picked up a copy recently and gave it a trial run.

As with many classic games the rules to Catan are simple. The board is pieced together from tiles selected randomly and arranged into an island. Each tile represents forest, fields, meadows, or some other type of terrain. Each tile is assigned a number from two to twelve. Players get two starting settlements to place on the board and the game begins.

Each player takes a turn rolling two dice. The terrain tiles corresponding to that number "produce" some commodity. Woods, for example, produce wood. Anyone with a settlement bordering that tile gets a "wood" card. After distributing cards the players can then trade cards amongst themselves and then the player whose turn it is can trade cards for some product or upgrade to their civilization. You could buy another settlement, some roads, or a some component of a civilization like a university. The player who accumulates a certain number of upgrades first is the winner.

Catan has many nice touches. Players know that they are more likely to roll an eight than a two so some territories are more likely to produce than others. A player may receive goods during any turn so there is less down time waiting for other people to finish their turns. Finally, players must trade commodities in order to win the game. As a result each turn is really a chance to interact and further your game.

That being said I hated my game experience. I have to say I was in a bad mood when we started and had no desire to cajole people into trading with me. Further, my setup left me with no chance to acquiring a vital resource and that left the other players with exactly zero incentive to ever trade it to me. I found that once I had fallen behind there was no way to catch up and the remaining time was really just dull. So in one sense this is not a game for ill tempered children who hate to lose.

Joking aside my experience does demonstrate some issues with Catan. If you don't want to trade then do not play this game. If you just want to win because of luck or great tactics then this is not your game. This is a game that demands cheery trading and interaction. Further, while I'm sure experienced players will feel otherwise, I think beginners really can fall behind and get left in the dust in Catan. Granted the game is over quickly but even so this may be an issue to consider if you have cranky children who hate losing.

On the positive side Catan is fast and simple and insanely clever in its design. I think the trading mechanic is great for people who want a trading game and probably would work very well for four players. The board has a variable setup which ensure each game will be different and the quickness of play ensures that if a player is unhappy with a given game they will be playing a different one soon enough.

In the end I'm glad I have finally tried Settlers of Catan. I think it's terrific for the right players but not for cranky folks.

Pros: simple, fast, clever design, strategic, fun

Cons: not for the cranky, irascible, or people not in the mood to trade

Beyond the Basics: a subtle game with lots of replay value


  1. I have to admit that I am one of those cranks. There's some deep-seated paranoia in me that fears any time I trade resources with another player, I'm going to be on the losing side of the deal. It's kept me from playing Catan more than a handful of times, and then only when pressed.

  2. It's a dilemma! You have to assume someone is trading to their advantage and so you Do wonder who's coming out ahead. We played again and while it's more fun with four the trade dynamic either makes or breaks the game.