Game Spotlights

Published: February 26, 2024

Adam Knight

Catan: A Wide World

Starting in the 90s, Catan, designed by Klaus Teuber, has sprawled into a wild variety built off its base game of rolling dice and trading resources. If you’ve never found yourself shouting ‘I need brick!’ at a pair of dice like Vegas craps player on a hot streak, then read on to learn what you’ve been missing.

A Game of Dice, Tiles, and Luck

Chances are, if you’ve walked into a game store this century, you’ve seen more than a few boxes with the inscrutable word CATAN emblazoned on the sides. The more recent the encounter, the more likely the boxes sprawled across colors, sizes, and themes. Catan, which began as The Settlers of Catan and has since largely been shortened to the fictional island name, is the quintessential gateway game. An experience at once simple to learn, heavy on luck, but with just enough depth and strategy to hang around in veteran collections for those new gamer nights.

The game, in most every version, begins with a tile sprawl. Hexagons showing grain fields, red mud, grazing pastures and more drop at random, pitching aCatan fresh Catan board layout every game. Smaller circles get tossed on most of those hexes, save worthless deserts, each bearing a number between one and twelve. Those precious digits are among the most loathed and loved in the hobby.

See, Catan is all about resources, no matter which version, which expansion you’re playing with. The primary way to earn those resources comes from the game’s turn-by-turn action, in which the player chucks two six-sided dice and prays to whatever gods are listening that the combined number matches the hexes their settlements border. Have a little house touching a grain field showing six when the dice land on double threes and you’ll get yourself a nice little sack of straw to use.

At first, Catan begins mildly, with turns sliding by as folks gain resources, build roads, and, maybe, buy a bonus card or two. Soon enough, the Robber enters play, blocking hexes when a seven is rolled and sucking away resources from players holding on to too many. An incentive to guard against hoarding, the Robber has no loyalty, following the orders of whomever rolled the last seven, and kicking off Catan’s best element in earnest.

Up to this point, the players have largely been moving around on their own. Frustrated, maybe, when someone’s road or settlement gets in your way, but otherwise any confrontation is little more than mild. As resources pour in, though, the temptation to trade arises. Maybe you need some brick for a road, but the dice refuse to hit a needed nine. Maybe you’re rolling in grain and your buddy’s starved for the same. Catan thrives on deal-making, and soon heads-down solitaire turns into open cajoling, bartering, and pleas for aid.

Catan is, at its core, a race. First to ten points wins, with most of those points coming from cards, settlements, and cities. Giving and getting seems at first a 23333650038h.jpg (2017×2478)simple calculation: is the player you’re trading with ahead or behind yourself? If you’re winning, and the trade would help you win more, well, it’s an obvious deal. What gets trickier is when another player offers something better to your mark, or trading partners dwindle as your points rise. You’ve got to sweeten the pot, but how much before you’re letting someone leapfrog yourself?

This dance is what makes Catan an ideal gateway game. You’ll never see the same board twice, keeping things fresh, while players get accustomed to recipe fulfillment, negotiation, and a version of worker placement (those settlements are, more or less, permanent workers). Throw all these in with a clear victory condition to work towards, and you have a satisfying start in the hobby.

And that’s what base Catan is. A start.

The Different Ways to Play Catan

Much like giving a mouse a cookie, playing Catan more than a couple times will make you curious for more. Thankfully, the game’s popularity since its 1995 release has spawned expansions and whole other settings, taking your island trading into space, ditching the board for cards alone, or bulking up the original with cities, knights, and seas.

It’s easiest to turn first to base game expansions: they build directly on what you know, but up the options and the interaction. Cities and Knights throws in several new resources, called commodities, that can only be earned with a city on a matching hex. Those commodities give you access to new development decks, at once tripling your options while making cities even more valuable. The knights change out the soldier cards from the base game, redirecting the Robber and also defending the island against periodic barbarian attacks. Fail to do your part building the island’s army and you’ll find your cities downgraded, putting some risk into a game previously without any.

Seafarers fleshes out Catan’s edges, shrinking the main board layout and adding small islands and the boats to get there. While sailing might be expensive early on, striking out for a lucrative hex batch can swing the game in your favor. The new tiles add more exploration to the game, adding something of a race element as players try to expand out into the valuable ocean.

CatanStarfarers of Catan sends the island adventure into space, tweaking the rules and adding a bigger board to navigate. As all players start on one board edge with an unknown swath awaiting their discovery, Starfarers adopts a Star Trek tone as your relatively peaceful civilizations sprawl into the galaxy. You’ll encounter aliens, face off with pirates, and built new spaceports all while relying on the same dice-based resource generation as the original. That said, Starfarers is a tad more complex, and the potential for nasty pirate attacks makes it a better play after you’ve enjoyed the original Catan a few times.

Lastly, for those who want their Catan on the go, Catan: The Card Game is an expandable, two-player version that ditches Catan’s variable board layouts for, well, variable card layouts instead. You’re still rolling dice for resources, but instead of hexes, you’ll be turning cards as they give you gifts, granting bonuses as their number gets rolled time and again. You’ll burn those resources to play more cards for points, or to put a stick in your opponent’s eye, slowing them up while you score.

Catan: The Card Game doesn’t quite fit the profile of a Jaipur or Lost Cities, as it’ll take closer to an hour or more to play a round. You’ll have time to build up your island empire as your layover, hotel stay, or night at the pub carries on.

After The Gateway Game

Once you’ve taken enough dice-fueled trips around Catan’s island, you might wander back to your local game store wondering what comes next. It’s probably no surprise to learn that Catan’s broad foundation leads to a plethora of classic titles just a smidge up the complexity ladder.

First, you can take Catan’s ‘get a brick and a wood to build a road’ recipe fulfillment to games like Flamecraft, a lovely title that has you working with charming dragons to do classic dragon things: making coffee and baking cakes. You’ll aim for points, but probably get too distracted by the cute dragons and just have fun instead.

Or, if you’re a fan of managing your hand and competing for space, Concordia expands on Catan’s land grab core but swaps the dice for strategic card play instead. You’ll all start with the same hand and with the same folks all crammed together, but explode out in all directions across several Mediterraneanmfg3073.jpg (195×240) maps, trying to snag resources, build card combos, and bounce off what your opponents are playing. With interaction, heavier strategy, and an evening-friendly playtime at almost any player count, Concordia is a great next step.

We’ve talked a fair bit about negotiation games, the other core pillar of Catan’s design, but it bears repeating that those who enjoy striking deals will find a lot to like in games like Zoo Vadis or Waterfall Park. If your Catan games brought out the dormant schemers in you and your group, you might consider venturing into social deduction too, with classics like The Resistance or Coup, or go big with Unfathomable.

A Game for Any Collection

Catan is a well-deserved classic that remains a great gateway game, where a little bit of luck and social savvy take the place of complicated rules, particularly with the base game. With expansions and variants for every player count and complexity, if you’ve yet to take this board gaming classic out for a play, there’s no better time than now.