Catan nee Settlers of Catan
The original name of Catan was Settlers of Catan, and this maiden name is more descriptive of the concept of the game, which focuses not only on the hexagonally modular world of Catan, but also the three to four (or six) players that take the roles of the settlers and carve out a niche for their empire. I use the two names interchangeably, but make no mistake, the transition from Settlers of Catan to Catan demarcates a fundamental change in the way the powers that be would have you view the game. The current Catan product focuses on the game setting, while the game that won the Spiel Des Jahres in 1995 and became one of the most popular and most played games in the world was called Settlers of Catan for good reason, as that title puts the focus on the players that would learn just how compelling it was to eke out a victory with five elemental-like cards building commonalities of colored wood and armies of development cards.
Wheels Within Wheels; Hexes Within Hexes
Catan looks and sounds simple, but Catan players obtain their victory with several different types of resource and area management. First, the player must control their hand of cards, so that it will every now and then produce the right suits to build roads, settlements, cities, and development cards, while not attracting the blade of the robber; secondly, the player must eke out a space on the island of Catan, when space on the island is at a premium, and the best way to do this is by manipulation of roads and the “rule of one” to parry your competitors’ growth; thirdly, and optionally, a gamblers’ canny understanding of the probabilities of numbers can be an asset when this results in the ability to make this numerical assessment work in their favor, although it can also be a maddening and frustrating liability when the player doesn’t have an equal understanding that statistics in Catan, just as in real life, describe likelihoods and not laws.
Fortunately for those who do not have a grasp on the statistics of rolling two six sided dice, or want to play Catan in the easy-breezy way, the manufacturers have put a shorthand on each of the numbers on the board. Numbers with a higher pip count underscoring the number indicates a higher likelihood of that number being thrown. The 2 and the 12 only have one pip on them, while the 6 and the 8 have five pips, and this signifies that the 6 and the 8 are five times more likely to be thrown than the 2 and the 12. Just don’t bet your Catan farm on it.
Despite the wheels within wheels description that I’ve just laid out for you—which is 100% accurate and in no way an exaggeration, though many do play oblivious to these organizational layers—Catan is deceptively easy to play, as all the above game mechanics are concealed inside a simplicity of the highest order.
Catan: Playing By Numbers
In basic Settlers of Catan, the winner is the first Settler to move from two points to ten points. Only eight points are actually scored by the victor, as each player starts with two settlements, each worth a point, as well as two roads, which are worth zero points, but are necessary connectors for building more settlements and future points.
To build another settlement, you first need to build at least one more road due to the “rule of One”—which should be called the “rule of Two” because it essentially says that settlements must be two hexagonal sides away from each other at bare minimum—and then spend a brick, a lumber, a wheat, and a wool. Each road costs a brick and a lumber as well, so you can see that at least in the early game and in the road building duel that consumes much of the mid-game, brick and lumber are extremely important.
Another way to score points is to upgrade an existing settlement to a city, which costs three ore and two wheat. Cities are worth two points. As each player only has five settlements in their building supply, worth a total of five points, some upgrading to cities is usually imperative in order to hit ten points. However, each player only has four cities in their supply, so just upgrading settlements to cities won’t win you the game either, as four cities is only eight points. Players that focus on building things to win the game have an assortment of both settlements and cities at the end of the game. Cities also produce twice as many resources as settlements.
The way resources are produced in Catan goes like this: if you have a settlement bordering a Mountain/Ore hex with the number 4 sitting on it, and 4 is rolled, then you would get one ore resource card, and if you upgrade that settlement to a city, you will get two ore every time a 4 was rolled. It is possible to get more than one resource every time the dice are rolled due to the fact that there are two of every number from three to eleven, with only two and twelve are singular. So if I have a settlement bordering the four ore and a city bordering the four wheat (“four ore,” “six lumber,” and so forth, is the nomenclature we use in our gaming group, and I have the feeling it is fairly universal) and a four is rolled, I get one ore and two wheat.
Resources are produced on every players’ roll, and every one that has a settlement or city bordering the rolled number gets to benefit. This can be one of the frustrating things about Catan—on your own turn, rolling a number that is immensely beneficial to everyone but yourself. What is even more mind-numbing and soul-crushing, of course, is one or two (or three) passes around the board without ANY of your numbers being rolled. Fortunately, this doesn’t happen too often, but every time it does, it makes you want to act like that sibling ot cousin that would flip the Monopoly game board. I wouldn’t do this, though, as Catan is a pretty expensive game, and this might get you banned from your Catan timeshare.
Catan: Road Wars, Development Hell, and Robber Knights
If the Catan rules stopped with the mechanics of production and construction, though the resulting diversion would have immense replay value due to the modular and random nature of both the resource and number tiles, what we would have would be a kind of math game favoring only the mathematically inclined and those lucky at dice. There are, however, some additional point-scoring opportunities, and with these additional factors in the game, there are many winning strategies, and it isn’t so much of a luck and numbers anymore, but a gamers’ paradise. Or a gamers’ hell, or a gamers’ purgatory, depending on your attitude to Catan. To be fair, playing Catan gives you access to all of Dante’s journeys; it just depends on your luck in the particular game.
These additional scoring opportunities include the two point Longest Road card, which is won by the first player with five contiguous roads uninterrupted by another player’s development, and it can only be taken by a player that has exceeded the length of the previous Longest Road; the two point Largest Army card, which is won by the first player with three Knights (see below), and can only be taken when another player exceeds that player’s quantity of Knights; lastly, there are also five victory points in the deck of 25 development cards.
To buy a development card, you spend a wheat, an ore, and a wool. Development cards are not recycled, which means they are a finite resource for every game. In the deck of 25 Development Cards, there are 14 Knight cards, 5 Victory Points, 2 Road Building cards, 2 Monopoly cards, and 2 Year of Plenty cards. Most of the time (56%) it’s a Knight, but 44% of the time it’s something else, which can occasionally wreak havoc on those players that are counting on getting the Largest Army card to cinch their victory. Not that the other cards aren’t nice—the Road Building card lets you throw down two roads, which can let you block another player or reach a viable building spot; the Monopoly card lets you ask for everyone’s production of one single resource; the victory point cards are the cheapest way to get a victory point in the game; and, the Year of Plenty lets you get any two resources from the bank that you want. On the face of it, the Year of Plenty card seems like a bum deal—you just spent three cards to buy a development card that gives you two—but it’s a better trade rate than the Maritime Trade rule (4:1), and it does give you the exact resources you need at any time. Plus you can save the card until you need it, which means they’re resources that you can hold on to without being a sitting duck for the robber.
Oh? I haven’t introduced that shady gentleman, The Robber, yet? When a player rolls a 7, they move the robber onto any tile, with three consequences: 1) production stops on that tile until the robber is moved again; 2) the robbing player steals a resource from any player with a settlement bordering the blocked tile; and 3), every player with more than 7 cards must discard half of them. This third effect means that veteran Catan players tend to keep their hand as light as possible, and, even when saving for settlements and cities, might, for fear of the robber’s halving blade, buy a road or development card instead, just to prevent saved cards from becoming liabilities. The only way to move the robber other than with a roll of a 7 is to play a Knight card either before or after you roll the dice on your turn. This lets you move the robber immediately, but without the production-destroying third effect above. And yes, it is possible to move the robber twice on one turn, if you’re so lucky as to play a knight card and then roll a 7 too, and you can even do it the other way around if you’re a soul-sucking entity with ancestry in one of the circles of Hell.
Since there aren’t too many rules governing the robber, usually Catan groups develop their own shady practices, such as bribing the player that threw the seven with a card to avoid the robber’s obstructing influence. Since there isn’t a rule prohibiting it, I’m gathering that this is a legal practice, especially considering trade and negotiation rules are the other factor that prevents Catan from becoming math club.
Trading With Banks and Other Bandits
While it is possible to trade in Catan without going to other players, trading with the impartial bank sucks. The rules call this “maritime trade,” and it has a very unfavorable rate of exchange: 4 resources of the same kind for the resource that you want. If you have a settlement bordering a port, you can get a more favorable rate of exchange, depending on the port in question. There are five 3:1 ports, that drop the maritime trade rate from 4:1 to 3:1, and there are also specialty ports that let you trade 2 of one specific resource for 1 of another. So there’s a 2:1 wool port, a 2:1 lumber port and so forth, and these can be game-winning settlements when you have a lot of production of that specialty resource.
If you don’t like either 3:1 or 2:1 exchange rates, though, you can always try trading with other players, and those negotiation terms are whatever you can hash out with that other player. So if you can get someone to trade you a brick and a lumber for two ore, the more power to you. More likely than not, experienced players will try to take advantage of your need, and make you pay more than a 1:1 rate, but they won’t be so usurious as to make you go to the bank.
The only restriction on trade is that you can only trade with the player whose turn it is. The rules don’t specify that the player who just rolled has to initiate trades, only that trades must be between that player and another player, so there’s nothing stopping you from being aggressive and leading with a trade proposal before your competitors come up with one. Also, sometimes you have to be fast: if the trading player says “I have an ore for a wheat,” it’s likely that another player might grab that deal before you if you’re not paying attention.
So You Want to Be a Catan Bastard…
Some other shady but legal practices are 1) initiating trade to discover who has the resource you need so that you can play a Knight and gamble on stealing it without giving up a resource; or, 2) if you have nothing but wheat and a monopoly card, trading away all your wheat to get what you need, and then playing the monopoly card to get it back. The only official restriction on this kind of behavior is that while you can buy as many Development Cards you want every turn, you can only play one per turn. So if you played a Knight card to move the robber at the beginning of the round, you can’t use that Monopoly card too.
Some shady practices that are completely illegal are 1) lying about a dice roll; 2) lying about how many cards are in your hand, or sitting on excess cards, to avoid the robber; 3) during a pause, snatching a few resource cards from the bank or adding a pivotal road to the board; 4) when someone gets up to grab a beer or use the john, swapping their hand with random cards from the bank.
In the interest of having a complete catalog of Catan villiany, please add your Catan Bastard best practices in the comments below!
Your Brain on Catan
So, when it’s your turn, you might have many questions running through your brain:
am I playing a road to block my competitor or get cards out of my hand, or am I saving for a settlement?
am I flipping this Knight card now, or saving it for when my tile is blocked by another player?
am I saving this ore and wheat for a city so I can double my production, or am I buying development cards so as to get the Largest Army advantage or the victory points in the development card deck?
how bad will everyone hate me if I play this monopoly card, and how much worse will they hate me if I take back all the brick I just traded them?
who can I get to trade me a wool?
I’ve been saving for this city for three turns, no one will trade with me, and I have eleven cards now. Do I keep playing chicken with the dice and hold out for that ore I need, or do I cash in these two ore, two wool, and two wheat for two development cards?
I just hit eight victory points. Do I focus on building settlements and cities, or do i channel all my production and trade into road production, so I can steal the Longest Road card and win the game?
My (wife, husband, significant other, boss, best friend, brother, sister) really wants to win this game, and I have nine points on the board and three ore and two wheat in my hand. Do I give up (sex, a happy home, my promotion, two decades of best friend-dom, holiday cheer) to win this one?
While I have no idea exactly how many games of Catan I’ve played, it’s certainly over a hundred with flesh and blood players, as well as another few dozen on the Catan app for iPhone and iPad. What keeps me coming back to the Threefold Island, which at times is Heaven, but just as often is an Inferno of frustration, and mostly is a Purgatorio of waiting for my number to come up?
Catan’s message is a noble one. Unlike Monopoly or Risk, in which all the other players are literally removed from play by being bankrupted or conquered, in Catan, every player stays in the game until the end. And that end isn’t wholly bitter, it’s a bittersweet closure, because each player builds their own discrete development, and while others can interfere or compete with you, they do not do so by tearing down or destroying your work. And even for Catan’s winner, the satisfaction is greater, because your worthy opponents’ might is still evident on the board, and your win seems more worthy as well, while in Monopoly or Risk, having not only trounced everybody but erased their very mettle from the board, the satisfaction is small. Because Catan isn’t an elimination game, the win is a more social and less solitary event, and seems less Pyrrhic and more exciting by being witnessed by all players. Compare that to the games of Monopoly that we played as children, in which vanquished opponents vanish from the table, and it ends with two economic juggernauts wasting most of an evening vying to be the final winner, only to rejoin the other players, who say, “you were still playing that? We lost hours ago, and we’ve been watching movies and The Simpsons.”
The game is called Catan, it isn’t Utopia or Paradisio, and it makes no pretense of being a perfect world. But it is one of the best games this world has to offer, no matter how much I like to bust on it in Catan Blues, and when I hear that someone has never played Catan before, I feel sorry for them. They’re missing out on not only one of the best tabletop games, but one of the generation-defining creations of the past twenty years.
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