It’s… it’s complicated
This is an awkward review to write. On the one hand Catan is a well-designed title beloved by millions – one of the few modern designer board-games that can claim genuine fame outside of an ultra-niche demographic of ultra-niche nerds. If you say to most normal people that you are a board-gamer, they’ll look slightly quizzical and vaguely alarmed as they ask ‘What, like Monopoly?’. Your slightly nerdier friends however might ask, ‘what, like Settlers of Catan?’. Catan is, for a geekier group of people, the Monopoly of modern board gaming.
And it’s good – it really is, even for its age it’s hard to look at Catan as anything other than a well designed game. It’s just… you’d need to put a gun to my head to get me to play it, and you’d need to pull the trigger if you wanted to stop me hating you for it.
In this review then I’m going to attempt to walk a tricky line between explaining why I will only play Catan under duress, and also why you should be willing to give it a go yourself. It’s a bit like someone nursing a gut-wound and saying ‘Look, I appreciate this isn’t going to appeal to everyone but maybe you should see for yourself if you like being shot in the stomach. I’ve tried it and I’m not a fan, but don’t let me dissuade you from experimenting’.
Catan joins one of a handful of games we’ve covered on Meeple Like Us where I bought it – knowing full well I don’t enjoy it – purely to discuss it on the blog. Catan is a big deal, and its omission until now has gnawed at me somewhat. While I wouldn’t go out of my way to start anyone off in this hobby with a game of Catan, it’s also the kind of thing people might very well stumble into on their own. It’s an important game to cover then even if on balance I’d prefer to not make the effort. It would be a dereliction of my largely imagined duty to ignore it any longer.
Boardgame Geek makes use of a ten point system for people rating their games. One is ‘awful, defies game description’. Ten is ‘Outstanding, will always enjoy playing’. We don’t mirror that scale here on Meeple Like Us, but it does give us a bit of wiggle room when it comes to interpreting the rating we’ve given. On BGG I rate it as three out of ten, ‘Bad, likely won’t play this again’. That’s my own personal view – I simply don’t enjoy the game. Looking at it from a slightly more detached perspective though I can easily see a game that other people can meaningfully enjoy. So, while Catan comes out of this review reasonably well just remember that if you try to make me play it I will interpret that as an act of assault and report it to the authorities.
Catan is a game of resource acquisition and management, set on a verdant island rich with resources and beautiful views of the surrounding waters. On this newly minted sceptered isle, we and our companions seek to build up the necessarily industrial, economic and military base to exert our dominance over the land and over each other. We do this by building settlements, each of which give us access to resources. We spend these resources to acquire other settlements, roads, and ‘development cards’ which intersect in various ways to award victory points. When someone has reached a set total of victory points, they win and everyone gets to stop playing with a sigh of relief.
God, I’m sorry. I know I said I’d try to review this dispassionately but it’s really difficult for a game for which I have such strong feelings. I’ll do better.
There are five kinds of resources in Catan, used in different quantities for different things. Wood and bricks are used for roads and settlements. Wheat and stone are used for cities and developments. Sheep are used for settlements and developments. Each player begins by placing one settlement in player order, and then another settlement in reverse player order. What each is trying to do is find the statistical sweet-spot for their two settlements that will generate the largest return on their placement.
Every turn, the player rolls two dice and the resources that match that number pay out to any settlement bordering the tile. If you have a city bordering a tile, you get two of the resource instead of one. If you roll a seven, you activate the robber – anyone with eight or more resources stockpiled loses half of their surplus. The player that rolled the robber gets to move him to a tile and then select someone with an adjacent settlement from which to steal a resource. While the robber occupies a tile, it won’t pay out. The robber is a dick, but not as much of a dick as the dick that uses him to dick you.
Sorry, I’m letting my personal feelings get in the way again. I’m calmer now. Deep, calming breaths. In, and out. In, and out.
On your turn, you can spend your resources to solidify your claim of dominion over the island. You can also attempt to broker a trade deal. ‘Does anyone have wood for my sheep?’, you’ll ask. Everyone will stare at you because this is the board-gaming equivalent of telling everyone you used to be an adventurer until you took an arrow to the knee. That is to say, a tediously unfunny joke that will make some people smile politely and the rest want to kill you.
God, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I’m just – look, I’m just processing some powerful feelings here.
Someone will agree, or not, to your offered deal. Or they will haggle, or counter propose, or offer you a different deal. You can also choose to offload a trade to the bank at an extortionate ‘four of one resource for one of another’ exchange rate. If you settle a port you can build up a discount on that, but still – oof.
Here’s where you find most of the real meat in Catan – in the trading meta-game that accompanies play. It’s also where the mechanics of the game have a tendency to become most egregiously out of sync with the expectations of basic playability. We’ll talk about that later.
You’re looking to obtain mastery over the island through the building of settlements and cities, each of which are worth victory points. You can never place a settlement adjacent to another though, and everyone is going to be trying to claim all the good bits of the island. As such, you’re trying to build as quickly as possible to ensure you’re generating sufficient resources in the right quantities to underpin your long-term strategy. You can only build a settlement when you’ve got a road that leads to its eventual location, so you’ll need plenty of wood and clay. The player with the largest road too earns a couple of extra victory points as long as nobody overtakes them. It’s well worth investing early in clay mines and forests to support your road building objectives. Seriously, what have the Catanians ever done for us?
Except of course you’ll want to actually build settlements when the road stretches out to their location, and so you’ll also need sheep and wheat to make that happen, That’s on top of the wood and clay that you’re already hopefully producing. You can’t double down too much on specific resources unless you want to put your future success in the hands of everyone else around the table. That is risky because Catan takes good, decent people and turns them into literal monsters straight out of a horror story. They’ll be staring at you with their dull, dead eyes waiting for the opportunity to consume your hopes to sustain their…
Again, I apologise.
You’ll also need stone (lots of stone) and more wheat (quite a bit of wheat) to upgrade a settlement into a city. You need four very specific resources to found a settlement, and equally specific resources to do anything else. Remember, any time someone rolls a seven you lose half your resources if you’ve let them stockpile over eight. Turns in Catan require you to synchronize your resource production with your plan for development. Unused resources are a tempting treat for your opponents. Too many resources are tempting fate with the robber. You want to have just as many resources as you need at any time, and no more. Playing Catan well requires you to carefully craft an engine that works, as best as is possible, with all the precision of a fine watch. Unfortunately, it doesn’t give you any of the tools you’ll need for that and instead throws an infuriating number of monkey wrenches into your hard work every single minute you’re forced to suffer through a game of this dread…
I don’t think I can stop myself. You’re just going to have to live with it.
The development cards you purchase give you various options for more strategic play. Year of Plenty can be discarded to provide two resources of your own choice. Knight cards let you move the robber on your turn before you roll the dice, and playing enough of them earns you the ‘largest army’ victory points. There’s a card that lets you build some roads free of charge. Some are secret victory points, held in reserve until you can say ‘Ah-ha!’ and win the game in a surprise revelation. And then there is the monopoly card that lets you steal all the resources of a particular type from all of the other players.
Actually, let’s use that card as a lens through which to evaluate how much you’ll like Catan. Picture this, Sicily, 1912:
‘Okay, I’m looking to trade some stone for wheat’, you say.
‘Great, I’ll make that trade’, says Pauline. She’s already two victory points ahead of everyone else and as such everyone is wary about giving her anything she might want.
‘I don’t have any wheat’, says Michael, ‘But I’ll trade you three sheep for a stone’ . Michael is two points behind, trailing the pack. You can’t use sheep right now, but maybe if someone rolls the right number you’ll be able to trade four sheep at the port for the wheat you wanted.
‘Deal’, you say, taking in the three sheep Michael was offering and giving him the stone instead. The turn passes to Michael. He rolls the five that gets you two sheep! It all went perfectly! You’re the best around! You knew when to hold them, and knew when to fold them. You’re cheerfully making your plans for expansion when you hear a card slap down on the table. It’s the monopoly card.
‘Give me all your sheep, everyone’ he says. Eight little sheep make their way into his hand from the grumbling table. He then trades all eight for two pieces of stone and builds a city, making use of the stone you gave him and the sheep he stole from you. And the worst thing is, he clearly had enough wheat to make the trade you wanted.
How does that taste in your mind? Does it taste unpleasant? Does it feel like you’ve been made to swallow a bitter little pill? Well, that’s the crux of what you’re getting yourself into when you play a game of Catan. Your friends? They’re not your friends. Each and every one of them is the literal Devil.
Catan is really no more complicated than I’ve discussed here because it is fundamentally a very straightforward game. It’s one though that is all social edges and backstabbing nastiness and as such I find it thoroughly unpleasant to play with most groups. It’s full of secrecy and misdirection, and those elements cohere in a way that creates the context for some really spectacular bullying.
Picture this, Sicily 1912…
You’ve got zero resources. None. Nada. You’ve gone five turns without generating a resource in a streak of bad luck that shows how cruelly arbitrary fate can be. You’ve seen the twos and the twelves pay out, and it’s been about a dozen turns since your sure-thing sixes and eights gave you anything. Those served you well early on, and you’re currently the leader as far as anyone can tell. You’ve got the most settlements, and a couple of them have been upgraded to cities. You’ve got the longest road. You’re two victory points ahead of the pack, barring anyone with any secret victory cards. Your turn comes around, and you look at your barren cupboards. ‘Uh, I guess I pass’ you say for the second time in a row.
Then the rolls come in, and they start coming in your favour! A six, generating you two stone! An eight, getting you two wheat! One more stone and you can upgrade your settlement! A piece of wood comes your way. You can’t do anything else on your turn, but next turn, next turn it’s all going to be okay! ‘I pass’, you say cheerfully, knowing victory is within your grasp.
The next player plays a knight card, and uses it to move the robber onto your mountains. They steal a stone card from you, and you think ‘Okay, that was inevitable’. And then they roll the robber and… Jesus wept, they move it onto your forest and steal another resource from you – one of your wheats. Ouch.
Then the next player plays a knight and moves it back to your mountain and steals another wheat. They roll the dice – it’s a six. That would have gotten you two stone but the robber is there so you get nothing. The next player rolls a natural seven, moves the robber to your forest and steals the wood you had gained earlier. You roll your dice and get nothing.
In the space between ‘This is all going to be fine’ and ‘now I get to do what I had planned’ you went from having two stone, two wheat and a wood to one piece of stone and there was nothing you could do to prevent it.
‘Uh, I guess I pass’, you say. You think ‘Well, at least I’m still two points ahead of everyone else’. In the next turn, the player to your left uses the stone card and wheat they stole from you to build a city and then flourishes their hidden hand to reveal the secret victory points that took them over the threshold. There you were being relentlessly bullied by the table and you weren’t even the one in the lead – you were just the one with your head noticeably higher than the others.
This, in essence is why I don’t like paying Catan. I find very little fun in watching people play their turns while I have to pass because I have nothing I can do. The fact that I am often deprived of my turn by the actions of other people makes it especially galling – they’re not stealing resources, they’re stealing my ability to do anything when my turn comes around. In certain respects this tends to fall disproportionately on the purported leader in the victory point race, but that leader may not be the actual leader.
That can be okay in a game where you have the ability to mitigate these kind of situations with careful planning. In Catan you really are at the mercy of the dice. This is such a significant problem in the core game that variants permit for a kind of ‘welfare’ system that gives you a resource when you haven’t had one for a while. That though is a stop-gap solution layered onto a system that has unfairness built into its bones. Some people even play Catan making use of a card-stack to at least even out the distribution into what it should be rather than what it is within an individual game. Both of these compensations are, again, attempting to put a band-aid onto a bullet wound. If you don’t mind that you might lose an entire game because of nothing more than the way the dice rolled, Catan can be a very charming experience. It’s certainly a lot more fun when the dice do go your way. This is a point we make frequently on Meeple Like Us but it’s as true for Catan as it is for games like Monopoly – it’s a poorly expressed game design when the only way you could have done to play better was ‘roll more favourable numbers’. I want, after a drubbing, to look back at how I played and think ‘ah yes, I see where I made mistakes’. That definitely happens a lot in Catan, but so does looking back and thinking ‘there was nothing I would do differently’. Sometimes that’s because you miss out on a teachable moment. Sometimes it’s because when you end up with zero resources on your turn you don’t have anything you can do. Sometimes it’s just because playing optimally isn’t enough in a game where the dice are so important to play.
And that dovetails into the other big problem I have with Catan – it’s very rare nowadays that you play a game where you have to simply pass your turn. Everything in Catan requires resources, and in specific combinations. You might have an abundance of riches and still be unable to do anything. Let’s say you have two stone, three wheat and three wood. That’s enough to trigger the robber’s attention should you roll a seven, but still not enough to do anything unless you have access to a port. In the best case scenario, you could use a port to trade three (or two) wood for a stone and then build a city – but ports are an opt-in investment and come at the cost of resource generation. If you don’t have one, then the minimum buy-in for maritime trade is four – not four random resources, but a set of four of the same resource.
You can turn to trade with players, but if nobody has what you might want, or nobody will trade it – what do you do? You might try sweetening the deal. ‘I’ll give you two wood for one brick, come on that’s a great deal. Okay, three wood for one stone? Please? Anyone?’. If you can’t broker a deal, or someone brokers a better deal than you can you pass your turn, and run the risk of losing those resources to robbery or monopoly cards. That’s a really punishing system and it can make for very long streaks of incredibly boring play. If nobody will trade in Catan, it becomes a gruelling crucible of endlessly tedious dice-rolling interspersed with frustrated weeping. That is my default experience with games of Catan, and it’s the reason why I find it so unappealing to play.
You might though notice there four words that are hugely important – ‘If nobody will trade’. If people will trade Catan is an entirely different, and much better, game. It can become a frantic experience of wheeling and dealing, with only a few restrictions on what trades can mean. They have to involve a transfer of resources from both players, and they can’t be a ‘like for like’ trade – no sneaky ‘three sheep for one sheep’ systems of wealth redistribution. The ease and flexibility of trading makes Catan a far more directly active and interesting game, but it doesn’t sand off the rough corners of the randomness or the extent to which the game becomes about undermining the purported leader.
Catan then is a Jekyll and Hyde proposition. At its best it’s a fun and vibrant game of trading and double-dealing, where alliances are as fragile as the production chains you build upon the dice. At its worst it is a horribly tedious and grimly mean-spirited hike into the most miserly parts of the human soul. When playing Catan I get stressed. I get anxious. I get angry. That is not fun for me at the best of times, and it’s positively unbearable when I’m actively out to enjoy my recreation. When I see myself rolling the key resources I needed after a dozen turns of nothing only for everyone else to immediately, actively and intentionally steal them from my hand it makes me want to flip the table. They’re stealing my fun. They’re stealing the fun right out of my life and that’s intolerable. It’s not their fault, it’s Catan that is to blame. Or more accurately, I’m to blame for sitting down to a game that I know in advance I’m statistically likely to regret. Catan though shoulders a significant amount of responsibility too – the best games are fun, or at least interesting, to fail within. Catan is pointedly unpleasant when things don’t go your way.
In my experience, games of Catan tends to be far more about the emotional grindhouse than the energetic mercantilism and it’s why, when offered a chance to play, I’m not willing to take the risk that this will be one of the fun sessions. There are just too many games out there that don’t need me to take a gamble on enjoying myself. If I play Catan now, it’s always through the mobile app – that way when I feel the need to violently rage quit the only real person it impacts upon is me.
Still, for the right person with the right temperament Catan is undeniably a game that has earned its bones. Insofar as a game that is only twenty years old can be a classic, Catan definitely meets the criteria. I have to acknowledge that in the rating the game has been given here. Just – keep it well away from me and we’ll all remain the best of friends.
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