I first got into the board game hobby in early 2001 when I met a new group of friends who played a lot of heavier strategy games. Until then, my only experience with board games were the ones I had played as a child; simple games like Mousetrap and Hungry Hungry Hippos. Strategy games (like Magic the Gathering and Supremacy) were new territory for me, and I felt like an infant being tossed into the deep end of the pool, powerless and completely out of my depth. I don’t think I won a single game the first year I began playing with my new gaming buddies. My mind was not honed to juggle the pages of complex rules and deep strategic thinking required to be competitive. Still, something about the hobby intrigued me, and I continued to play in spite of the merciless beatings I was subjected to. It wasn’t until 2004 when one of my friends brought a new game to the table that things really started to click for me. That game was Settlers of Catan.
Settlers of Catan (now known only as Catan), is undoubtedly one of the most successful modern games, having sold over 20 million copies since its publication in 1995. It has changed the entire gaming industry and inspired a whole new generation of game players. For many, it is THE gateway game, and for good reason.
The theme of Catan is simple and relatable. You and your fellow players take the role of settlers who inhabit the island of Catan. Your goal is to collect resources to expand your civilization. Doing so will earn you victory points, and the player who is first to gain 10 or more victory points is the winner.
How it plays:
Each player begins the game with two starting settlements on the map These settlements border different types of lands that produce resources such as brick, lumber, wool, grain, and ore. You will need to collect every type of resource in order to build up your colony and emerge victorious, but space is very limited and competition to control these resources is fierce. This often results in each player becoming specialized in collecting certain types of resources (Example: Tim’s settlements collect a lot of lumber while Beth’s settlements collect a lot of ore.) This dynamic works perfectly to promote the trading aspect of the game. Players can make deals with one another to exchange resources they have collected. (Example: Tim offers Beth two lumber for one of her ore).
The resources you collect are mostly used to build new roads and additional settlements, as well as to upgrade your existing settlements into more powerful resource-producing cities. However, you may also use resources to buy development cards and these provide a variety of powerful effects that can help you during the game.
Each player will roll two dice on their turn. The result will activate certain resource regions on the map, and any players who touches these regions with a settlement or city immediately produces the resources. Sometimes the dice are kind, and you will find yourself producing a huge quantity of resources. While this is definitely a welcome boon, you must also beware! Whenever the number 7 is rolled any player with more than 7 resource cards must lose half of them. A roll of 7 also activates the robber (a foreboding black pawn), which can be moved to cover any land tile and block all production of that tile’s resource.
Finally, players will race to earn one or both of the valuable special cards: The Longest Road, and The Largest Army. These awards are one of a kind, and can only be gained if a player has built a road with more segments than any other player (longest road), or if a player has played the most Knight cards (Largest Army).
For more detailed Catan rules, see the resources section at the bottom of the article.
The reason Catan became the major gateway game for so many players is because it strikes the perfect balance of theme, strategy, luck and player interaction.
THEME: The game’s theme feels more ‘grand’ compared to most family board games from the past. Watching your civilization slowly expand across the map feels epic, but the game’s table presence and rules aren’t too intimidating for newcomers.
STRATEGY: Where you choose to build your settlements on the map and which directions you choose to branch out requires keen strategic thought and the ability to plan for future growth. It’s so rewarding to make a plan and execute it step by step over the course of the game.
LUCK: The randomness of dice rolls feel reminiscent of classic children’s board games many of us played while growing up. While some die-hard gamers may balk at this, I find it to be a key factor of familiarity that newbie players relate to when absorbing the game for the first time. It also triggers the same thrill one receives when playing certain ‘gambling’ type games like Craps or Roulette.
INTERACTION: The ability to trade resources is the core mechanism that causes players to fall in love with Catan. You must make shrewd trades with your neighbors to advance your goals, but you must do this without handing victory over to them. Trading in Catan transcends strategy and becomes a kind of art that challenges your personal charisma and negotiation skills.
Catan was the first game I ever played where winning required collecting victory points. I remember being fascinated by this simple concept and how it encouraged players to experiment with different paths to victory. Catan also created a new expectation of what sitting down and playing a board game should feel like. 1-2 hours no longer felt like a long time to play a game. It primed me for future gaming experiences and created a baseline of expectations I would carry over when judging other titles.
Catan is a marvelous gateway game and I would definitely recommend introducing it to convert the newbies at your game table into full-fledged gamers! Below are a few suggestions that may help new players jump into the action without any hiccups:
- Setting up a game of Catan can sometimes freak out a new player. While they will ultimately fall in love with the modular nature of the game, it’s best to have the map set up ahead of time so you don’t need to fuss with this while also trying to explain how the game plays.
- The latest edition of Catan provides a suggested starting map layout for beginners. This also includes starting positions for each player’s first two settlements and roads. It is best to follow this layout for your first play, giving your newbies the best positioned settlements so they have the best opportunities to expand. Once you’ve played at least a game or two this way, you can introduce the standard version of the set-up phase where player may choose their starting locations. This assures that your newbies won’t pick terrible uninformed starting positions on their first play and thus form a bad opinion of the game right out the chute.
- Emphasize the importance of dice probabilities in the game. Experienced gamers understand that not all die results are equally likely to come up, but newbies may not be aware of this (Example: 6 or 8 are much more likely to be rolled than 2 or 12). The pips listed on each of the circular number tokens can help newbies know which numbers are more valuable, so give them fair warning.
All images © 2018 Robert D. Bruce