Our Retrospectives look back at older games and see how they’ve withstood the test of time. We won’t rate these older games as we do with our reviews of newer games. We simply determine whether it’s a classic, it just aged well, or it’s now showing its age.
Sometimes referred to as “the new Monopoly” for its part in rejuvenating the board game industry, Catan (formerly known as The Settlers of Catan) is one of the most iconic board games of all-time.
Players compete for dominance over the island of Catan by building settlements, cities, and roads. At the start of each game, the board is assembled randomly with hexagonal tiles, each displaying a land type and a number corresponding to a possible dice roll. Players start by each placing two settlements on the board during setup.
Each turn, the active player rolls dice to determine which resources the island will produce, meaning the active player’s roll could actually produce resources for their opponents, not only themselves, depending on the location of everyone’s settlements and cities. Throughout the game, you’ll expand your network if you have the necessary resources, and if there’s enough room for you.
On their turn, the active player may trade resources either with the bank or with other players, and this aspect of negotiation is truly what makes Catan shine. Players can also steal resources from other players and buy development cards that offer help in a variety of ways. The first player to reach 10 Victory Points wins. There are a few other rules, but that’s the meat of the game.
With over 30 million copies sold worldwide in over 40 languages, Catan truly has transcended what it means to be a board game. Expansions, digital versions, merchandise, pop culture references… the list goes on. Catan has done it all.
HIGHLIGHTS AND CRITICISMS
When I first played Catan around 12 years ago, I would’ve had very few criticisms. After hundreds of plays, however, Catan’s flaws stand out.
The biggest flaw, in my opinion, relates to the balance of luck and skill. Randomness plays such a massive part in Catan, and although it helps the design in certain aspects, ultimately, it’s the primary reason I no longer have any desire to go back to it.
The longer a game is, the less it should rely on luck. If my success can hinge on something out of my control so late in the game, what’s the point of all the decisions I make if they have little to no bearing on the final result? If I lose a 10-minute game due to bad luck, at least it’s a short game and I’m probably willing to try again right away. This makes these shorter games more accessible to newer players because everyone has a chance to win, rather than the most experienced player simply dominating every game based on their skill. In a case like this, the injection of luck makes sense to me, and elevates a light game.
On the other hand, when I’m playing a game that takes at least an hour on average, I don’t think luck should be one of the main factors to determine how well I do. It’s not uncommon in Catan to have a turn where you simply roll the dice, do nothing for yourself, watch your opponents collect resources, and then pass the dice to the next player. It’s also not uncommon, especially in a 4-player game, to get boxed into a corner early on, unable to build any new settlements. I’ve played games of Catan where either I or another player felt stuck less than 20 minutes in, knowing the game isn’t even halfway done. It never feels good for anyone at the table, knowing that another player feels completely out of the game so early.
This is all compounded by the fact that the biggest decision of the entire game happens during setup, before anyone has taken an actual turn. Choosing your two initial settlements essentially determines what you’ll be able to do for the rest of the game. Sure, if I get stuck in a corner it very well might be my own fault, but it’s still quite punishing for a game that aims to be so accessible to such a wide audience.
Many people consider this the ultimate gateway game. While Catan wasn’t the main game to get me into board gaming (that was Carcassonne), it’s probably number two on my list of most influential games for me. Many of my friends were introduced to board games through Catan. It’s an excellent way to convince your friends that in-person interaction around a table can be more fun than playing video games, but if someone asked me to name some games that would be good to teach a new player to ease them into the hobby, especially someone who might not like mean games, I wouldn’t even mention Catan. It’s an unforgiving game and the most successful players are often the ones who are able to talk other players into trades that they know benefit them more. A newer player will almost always lose to a group of experienced players.
Also, experienced players can often see who will win and who will lose by the halfway point of the game. Sometimes the last 30-40 minutes of the game is just a matter of playing out the turns until the player in the lead finally clinches the victory. This isn’t always the case, and I don’t want to discredit the amazing comebacks I’ve seen, or times when the player in the lead threw it all away with a bad play, but for the most part, you know where you stand and how soon the game will end.
The game length also keeps me from using this as a gateway game. The Boardgamegeek listed time of 60-120 minutes seems a bit excessive, as most games are usually in the 60-90 minute range, sometimes even 45 minutes with an experienced group and some beneficial dice rolls. Still, I’d rather teach something like Ticket to Ride or Azul if I’m looking for a gateway board game. Those don’t capture the negotiation aspect of Catan, but if I’m looking for an entry level negotiation game, I’d choose Bohnanza because the negotiating not only works better than in Catan, but it’s also an easier game to teach and much less punishing than Catan.
The issue with game length is further compounded by the reduced trading as the game goes on. In a way, I like that Catan has the end-game tension from one or more players inching toward victory. You never really know if you’ll get another turn or someone will end the game before it gets back to you, but there comes a point in every game of Catan where you no longer want to trade with the player(s) in the lead, or maybe not with anyone at all, meaning the game can grind to a halt as everyone scratches and claws for any way to get that 10th Victory Point.
Even though it’s flawed, Catan does plenty of things right. Low downtime is one of its biggest strengths. When it’s not your turn, you’re invested in which numbers are being rolled to generate resources, and you need to be ready to negotiate trades at all times. Not many games can keep everyone interested when it’s not their turn in the way Catan does.
It’s also a game of ups and downs, due to the randomness and the social nature. One turn you might acquire a bunch of resources and build something, and then the next turn someone might steal a resource from you with the robber and build some roads that block you from getting where you need to go next. Then on your next turn, you might trade away all your ore to other players, only to play your Monopoly development card to take it all back. It’s a great way to make sure nobody wants to trade with you ever again, but it’s also the perfect example of how you can go from feeling low to feeling like you’re on top of the world in a single turn. Most games don’t have moments like this.
My favourite part of the game is actually the beginning, when piecing together the modular game board and starting to analyze the different spaces on the board and plan your strategy. Most of my favourite games either use no dice or offer ways to manipulate the dice in some way, either by choosing from a pool of rolled dice, or using a die for something other than the value shown. In Catan, what you roll is what you get, and although the system isn’t perfect, it’s really impressive to see a 25-year-old strategy game that relies so heavily on dice rolls in a way that works, even if it’s not perfect.
Arguably Catan’s most impressive feature is that it combines so many elements without being too complex as a whole. Klaus Teuber worked on Catan for years and it saw various forms as he patiently trimmed away at the fat, finding a way to distill everything into an accessible, cohesive ruleset. Catan doesn’t feel bloated with excessive rules, nor does it feel too light or without substance.
HOW DOES IT STAND THE TEST OF TIME?
Any designer would be thrilled for their game to sell a million copies. Meanwhile, Catan has averaged more than a million copies sold per year since its release 25 years ago, and that doesn’t even include any of the expansions, most of which have also sold millions of copies. It’s a remarkable achievement that should be celebrated not only by Klaus Teuber but also the board game community.
As I pointed out, Catan isn’t a perfect game, but it’s incredibly bold. How many games can you name that combine resource management, network building, frequent dice rolling and negotiation, while remaining accessible to almost anyone alive? Any you can name were likely released after Catan.
I think of Catan in the same way I think of Goldeneye for Nintendo 64. Innovative and eternally nostalgic, but dated. I’ve spent hundreds of hours enjoying it in my lifetime, but I have no desire to revisit it any time soon. I look at the box and I’m immediately flooded with so many fond memories of playing it, but I’m also reminded of the limitations that have kept me from wanting to play this again.
Catan gets a lot of unfair hate, and has for many years. Many people who have moved past it simply trash it as a flawed game without giving it credit where it’s due.
As with any artistic field, improvements will come along and older iterations will be replaced by newer and better ones. That doesn’t mean we should ignore or downplay the significance of something simply because there might be better alternatives. Instead, we should all celebrate Catan for being the main reason the board game industry is where it is today.
So after 25 years, it is showing its age, but considering its impact on board gaming, it’s also considered a classic. I can’t deny its numerous flaws and that better options are available today, but I also can’t deny that this is one of the most influential board games of all-time, and millions of people still play it today. I might never want to play it again, but I’ll always cherish the impact it has had on me, my friends and my family, and I doubt any other game will make me feel the same way again.