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Subject: Revisiting a Favorite Island of the Past rss

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Nicholas Hjelmberg
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Introduction

Once upon a time, my game world was without form and void, and darkness was over my game table. Yes, the classical 2-player abstracts like chess and backgammon existed (I'm not that old!) but for multi-player games, I was hovering over Monopoly. And RISK. And Monopoly clones. And a friend said "Let there be Avalon Hill games" and I saw that there were good games like Britannia, Civilization and many other games. But alas, the more my game world grew, the less time did I have to play games and for a long time they were forgotten. Until the game formerly known as Settlers: Catan.

My first impression of Catan was how fast the game was. It had all the interesting decisions of the epic Civilization but the downtime was minimal and you could even play several games in an evening. Next, I started to see the different decision paths. It was not the tactical decision points of Britannia about where to go for the most points for the least effort but rather strategic decision branches, where a decision now would keep coming back and reward (or haunt) me in the future. In short, I had discovered the world of euro games, and it was bigger than I thought possible back in the days of (literally) Monopoly.

Catan was eventually surpassed by Puerto Rico, which I expect to revisit and review soon, and many other games. Today, many people consider Catan to be the new Monopoly - a broken game that should never be played upon penalty of eternal shame. But is this really fair? How well has Catan stood the test of time? Is it still the gateway to modern boardgames, as it was to me, or is everything that was so great about Catan better executed by other games? Let's approach Catan with a critical but open mind and see what it can offer today's choosy audience.



Overview

If I would describe the basics of Catan without mentioning its name, many other games would fit the description. You build settlements to collect resources to build more or bigger settlements to collect more resources until someone wins. This is a common theme today but it was quite unusual back in 1995.

Mechanically, the island of Catan is made up of terrain hexes, where the settlements are placed on the hex corners and the surrounding terrain hexes produce certain resources. A turn is made up of three simple actions:

1 Roll the dice to see which terrain hexes that produce resources to the adjacent settlements (even villages owned by other players).
2 Trade resources, either with other players at a mutually agreed rate, from harbors at a rate of 3:1 or directly with the bank at a rate of 4:1.
3 Use the resources to build roads, build new settlements, expand existing settlements to cities or buy development cards.

Settlements are worth 1 victory point and cities 2 victory points. Victory points are also awarded to the longest road (2 victory points), most played knight cards (2 victory points) and certain development cards (1 victory point). The first player to reach 10 victory points wins. So far nothing revolutionary so let's look a bit closer.



Catan Through the Looking Glass


The "German Design School"


The above description of the game sounds simple, even mundane, but to understand Catan's early popularity, it's necessary to understand the appeal of "German games". Schools of Design and Their Core Priorities differentiates between the engaging German games and the more challenging euro games. Catan is a good example of the former design school so let's start there.

The core priority of a German game is engagement and this is accomplished through approachability, balance, pacific theme and non-violent interactions. Catan's simple rule set makes the game easy to learn for all ages and even beginners will quickly understand what the goal is and how to get there. All players will grow, albeit at different rates, and even if some players will eventually fall behind, all will end up with something greater than they started with. The struggle for resources never turns violent since several players can benefit from the same terrain and the players meet in trades rather than wars.

But this still doesn't differentiate Catan enough from other similar games so let's look even closer at the Catan gameplay experience, starting with the mechanics.

The Interlocked Mechanics

Often you see games advertised as having interlocked mechanics, meaning "Look how many different mechanics we crammed into our game just because we could!". Well, Catan also has many different mechanics but they all make thematic sense. The modular board provides the unknown island to be settled. The road building illustrates the discovery of new terrain and connection of settlements. The dice simulate the unpredictable resource production. The cards represent your resources and the trade lets you trade resources you need for resources you don't need.

The trade of Catan is actually quite clever compared to many other games. Trade is a popular mechanic since it engages all players simultaneously but also a time-consuming one since each player has to negotiate with each other player. Catan solves this by letting only the player in turn trade.

Even the robber makes sense as a balancing mechanic by appearing on the most probable die roll of 7. If 7 had been connected to a terrain, this terrain would have inflated the game economy and given unfair advantages to the lucky few around this terrain. Instead, the robber can be used to bash the leader by blocking a terrain tile and make resources even more scarce.



The Engaging Decisions

The decisions are seemingly simple: decide where to build to acquire resources and what to do with those resources. However, this is not the spreadsheet optimization of many later "multi-player solitaires" because of the high degree of engagement between the players.

Do you need sheep? Then you need to build a road to sheep terrain before someone else does. Perhaps it's better to build a road to wood instead and offer wood for sheep? (OK, it's an old joke so perhaps I am old.) Or is sheep so scarce that it's better to build a road to a harbor instead, which produces less but gives you the flexibility to trade without being dependent on other players' mercy?

And once you have enough resources, what do you do with them? Invest in a settlement so that you can produce from more terrain hexes (spread your risks)? Or in a city so that you can produce more from your existing hexes (focus on your core)? Or build more roads to expand your network (quantity first)? Or simply gamble and buy a development card that gives you special options, such as Knights to move away the robber (quality first)?

Those are all decisions that will affect your long term gameplay as well as the relations to the other players and they are truly engaging. But even things that you can't decide are engaging.



The Engaging Non-Decisions


Dice add randomness to games, something that is often considered bad design, but many modern games get "dice done right". Dice can be used to provide equally strong options or let the player react after they have been rolled. Catan does nothing of this - after the dice have been rolled, production will only take place in the designated terrains and there is nothing the players can do about it.

Yet, instead of indicating success or failure for only the player in turn, the die roll engages all players since all players can benefit from it. Thus, Catan makes the best out of the old roll and move mechanic by leveraging the thrill from the die roll to all players.

The Negative Engagement

But the engagement is not only positive. Although there is no violent interaction in Catan, there are ways to bully each other and the game even encourages them. I'm talking about the ways to bash the leader.

First, you can refuse to trade with the leader. Not everybody is convinced about the advantages of free trade in the real world but in Catan, less trade means less useful resources for all players and actually removes one of the mechanics that make the game fun.

Second, you can place the robber where he hurts the leader the most. The robber is easier to use to target specific players but is also an example of the unpopular take that mechanic.

In a friendly game like Catan, one would have expected friendly ways to catch up with the leaders, such as advantages for the trailing players. Instead, the task of balancing the game is delegated to the players and the tool is sacrificing fun parts of the game.



The Unfair Randomness

We've talked about the positive aspects of the random production but do they outweigh the negative ones, the risk of unfairness due to bad luck rather than bad play? One could argue that the many die rolls should balance out in the end but there are actually other mechanics that prevents this.

Catan is an engine building game in the sense that resources invested early can return much more later. This means that a few early bad die rolls (or robber placements) may cause a player to fall behind so much that no amount of good die rolls can save her in the end. In fact, once a player has a good lead, she will have spread out so much that she will produce resources at almost every die roll, with or without a robber in her terrains.

Now, this wouldn't have mattered much in a short game and Catan was indeed shorter than many other games of its time. But for a game that may last up to 2 hours, you don't want a few bad die rolls in the first minutes to decide the rest of the game.

In Conclusion - A Game Smaller than its Parts

In conclusion, Catan has implemented many mechanics very well. There are many interesting sub-games, such as the rush to get the best areas, the pursuit to build the best engine and the competition to strike the best trade deals. However, the commendable ambition to put all the sub-games in the same game while still keeping the whole game short and simple was a bit too optimistic. Depth was sacrificed for breadth as the outcome of the many decisions depends on randomness anyway. There are many other games which focus on fewer mechanics but carry them out in more depth. Discovering gamers may certainly be entranced by all the seemingly interesting decisions but more seasoned gamers will want to move on quickly.

Nevertheless, Catan is still a fun game and one of few games where many different player types may meet; young and old, beginners and experienced. By hinting to the many different mechanics that modern boardgames may offer, Catan remains unsurpassed as the best gateway game out there and even heavy boardgame freaks like myself should allow themselves to return to Catan every once in a while for a fun and relaxing game session.



This review was also published at The Quest for the Perfect Game - Reviews to Extract the Essence of Games.
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Mister P
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I agree with your thoughts on this modern classic. I have learned through some painful experiences (read drawn out matches where the leader is continually smashed) not to play Catan: Cities and Knights at a player count above four. It is just painful. I enjoy having the 5/6 player expansion as our family can all join in but it isn't the best way to enjoy Catan.

This also remains my go-to gateway game to introduce people to modern board games.
 
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Nicholas Hjelmberg
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I did indeed own both Catan: 5-6 Player Extension and Catan: Seafarers but they never got played and I eventually sold them. The base game is fine but the time added by the expansions does not add enough interesting gameplay.
 
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Peter G
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I mostly agree! The base game has a lot going for it but, for me - after the addition of Catan: Cities & Knights - I will never play the base game again.

Other expansions simply add interesting elements that are mostly one offs (Catan: Traders & Barbarians)or add a few meeples, board pieces, and rule changes (Catan: Seafarers) to make it temporarily more interesting, or worse, increase the length of the game.

Step aside 'other expansions,' here comes the grand daddy of essential game expansions...

By adding in more paths to victory, more ways to mitigate luck, and balancing the overall game-play, C+K improves on nearly everything that made the original so good while removing it's weakest points. To me, Catan was designed to be played as Cities and Knights.
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