Settlers of Catan (as it was first known) was the original gateway game. I know so many people who got into the hobby through Catan. Even today, over 20 years since its release, I think Catan is responsible for introducing more new people to modern boardgames than any other game.
Today, Catan typically outsells Ticket to Ride, Carcassonne and Pandemic, the other primary contenders for biggest selling gateway game. Remarkably though, while historical sales usually favour the older games, if you look at current annual sales, it even sells more than Clue(do) and Monopoly in many countries.
This is a remarkable achievement and represents a cultural shift in people’s perceptions of boardgaming and the popularity of the hobby in general. What makes Catan so good? Does it still stand up today or is it past its prime? Let’s have a look…
The first thing that strikes you about Settlers of Catan is the name. Or more specifically, how you’re supposed to pronounce the Catan bit. Is it KAY-tan or CAT-an, or even kuh-TAN? Nobody seemed entirely clear when it was first released. To be honest, nobody seems to be sure today either. To avoid the issue, we always simply referred to it as Settlers.
So when it was announced that Settlers of Catan was being rebranded to shorten the name, we were all convinced that it would become Settlers. But no. They went with Catan. What can you do? Well, you could secretly carry on calling it Settlers like we do!
For those who never got around to playing it, let me briefly explain how it plays. You start with a couple of settlements on the island of Catan and the objective of the game is gather resources from the surrounding fields, forests and mountains and use those resources to expand your network of settlements and grow them into cities.
Each settlement is worth a victory point (VP) – which incidentally was a relatively new concept at the time – and each city is worth two VPs. The first player to reach 10 VPs wins. Simple. It has an ingenious resource collection mechanism though.
Each of the resource generating spaces has a number on it from 2 to 12. When it’s your turn you start by rolling two dice. Any space with a number on that matches the total of the dice produces resources for every player with a settlement or city next to it.
It means that, even when it’s not your turn, you’re still invested. So many games prior to this had you sat around doing nothing while you waited for your turn to come around. In Settlers, sorry, Catan, it feels good when your number comes up, and your numbers come up a lot because even your starting settlements are next to quite a few of them.
You cash in these resources on your turn to build more settlements and cities, which allow you to gather even more resources as you occupy more of the spaces around the board. There’s a wonderful, engine-building escalation throughout the game. After a while, you’ve expanded your civilisation and you’re raking in the resources, which feels great!
It achieves something that I always love in games. That sense at the end, when you survey your empire and say, “I built that!”. A sense of achievement and accomplishment. Even if you lose, the whole experience still feels worthwhile.
The other thing you can do on your turn is trade resources with other players. This adds a nice chunk of player interaction to the game and makes negotiation an important skill. If you’re the only one with any wood for example, you can probably get people to give you several other resources for one wood.
For many, their first play of Catan can only be compared with boardgames they played as a child like Monopoly and Risk. It stands in stark contrast to these old games for a number of key reasons:
- There is an in-built time limit. Not an artificial timer, but a natural progression as people expand their networks. It is inevitable that one player will reach 10 VPs within a reasonable period of time.
- It has a modular board. Each time you play, the resource spaces (and the numbers on them) are in different places. This allows it to feel like a different game each time you play.
- Like all the new ‘Euro’ games coming out of Germany at the time, it has little direct confrontation. There are a couple of ways that you can steal a resource off someone (eg. by playing certain cards) and you can elect not to trade with someone who is clearly winning, but these things feel like more of an mild irritation than an explicit attack.
- There is little downtime as you are potentially collecting resources and trading on other players’ turns.
Catan is still a great gateway game and stands up very well to more-modern games I think. I felt like I’d moved on from it to a certain extent though – I haven’t played it in a while having played it so much when I was younger. That was until I watched the Catan final from the Mind Sports Olympiad earlier today.
I had forgotten how much I enjoyed it and hearing the commentary opened my eyes to the amount of skill that can be employed in the game. I want to play it again now!
Have you played Catan recently? What do you think of it?