Morning Table Talk is a series where our designer Trevor Harron takes Sunday mornings to muse about games and game related topics.
This Sunday I wanted to talk with you about a game that has been played far and wide, from Germany and all across world: Settlers of Catan. Settlers of Catan was created in 1995 and since then has been a worldwide success with mobile game versions, expansions, specific themes like Star Trek, enhanced tokens galore, and even children’s versions created. It is a game worth examining by any measure. As a note before I dive in I am going to just look at the original game with no expansions this morning.
Before going into my thoughts on Settlers of Catan, let me go over some of the core concepts briefly so that everyone is on the same page. In Settlers of Catan we are settlers trying to take our claim on an Island made up of Mountains, Forests, Hills, Fields, Pastures, and a Desert. The winner is the player who first gathers 10 Victory Points. Victory Points are gathered from Settlements, Cities, having the Longest Road, playing the most Soldier development cards, and even from some development cards. Each turn a player rolls to see with of the Island’s hexagons produce resources, can trade resources with other players, build structures, and can buy development cards with their resources and play a development card. Of course there are some other rules such as rolling a seven means that the current player gets to move the robber to a hex and take a resource card from a player and block all resource production from that hex too until the robber is moved. This doesn’t even touch on the rules for set up and the harbor trading as well.
Now there are many really good things about Settlers of Catan.The first thing I want to mention is that this a very simple game to learn and to teach to players. This come from the fact that the turn is simple enough to explain, easy to learn, and easy to remember since at its core a turn can be as minimal as rolling the dice and taking your resources. With a turn being simple this helps player plans their turns. Also players can be engaged on every other player’s turn with trading
At its core Settlers of Catan is a social game that is easy to learn and takes an hour or so as compared to Monopoly. With that comparison there are also a few more differences that are key to its success. First being that you can adequately plan on your turn even with the dice given that you are not limited in your actions by where you are on the board. Not that you cannot be cut off from building a key road by your opponent but that you are still presented with the same actions regardless of how many turns have passed, whereas in Monopoly you are limited by where you land on the board. Also the conflict in Settlers of Catan is mostly indirect and not as punitive as Monopoly. This means that people are more willing to play over and over again since the actions of their opponents are not likely to be harmful to their board state (though there are a few exceptions including the robber and a few development cards). There is also something for everyone in Settlers of Catan as well. Many designers have spent time looking at player types and reward in games and they can be loosely put into 4 card suits (many thanks to Bartle who did this work): Spades, Clubs, Diamonds, and Hearts. While I would love to go into more detail at a later time just know that Spades like trying new strategies (development cards), Clubs love to dominate (the robber), Diamonds love to collect (points for the Longest road), and Hearts love to interact (trading resources). All of that mean that more people are willing to play since it caters to things they like in games. Finally, Settlers of Catan is replayable with nearly uncountable board configuration that can be set up as well as the random factor of the dice.
With all of this praise there are a few things that can be frustrating in a night of playing Settlers of Catan. First in my opinion is the dice, since they can make one rich in resources or frustrate every player by generating resources in spaces that aren’t occupied or trigger the robber. This can lead to a disparity in resources or even a shortage in a key resource making trading inadvisable for anyone who has what other people need. The second thing that I noticed is that if a player starts falling behind it becomes more and more difficult to win and get there resources you need. In short what I see is that if you don’t have resources (or ones everyone has) you cannot make a trade for what you want and thus cannot build more settlements to help you generate more resources. Finally, the set up and putting away can take a long time with the numerous pieces required to play. None of this however would stop me from playing, it is just something to keep in mind.
Settlers of Catan is a modern classic by every measure and deserves that place in our boardgame history. Is it perfect? No but every game has room for improvement and Settlers of Catan does many things correctly. So the next time you play Settlers of Catan, or any game for that matter, look for things that you like, things that seem frustrating, and keep in mind that games are suppose to be fun.