If you are reading this right now, it won’t come as a surprise to hear that Catan is a wildly popular game. Catan has practically become a household name. I imagine you have played a game or two (or thousand) of it yourself. And there is a reason the game is so universally loved. Catan is a near perfect game.
I love a lot of games. Board games, card games, video games. Many come and go, but few stick around for the long haul. Catan is one of those games. Catan’s design is so masterful and addicting that it has become required playing. You can play it with your friends or your parents or both at the same time. It is really quite amazing.
But why is it so perfect? I have thought about it more than the average person should, so I wanted to share some insights.
The Perfect “Starter” Game
In many circles, Catan has become a “starter” game, as in, the one you play with your friends to hook them onto nerdy board games. That isn’t a knock on Catan. It truly is a great introduction to strategic board games.
Catan is simple enough that you can pick it up in one sitting, but it isn’t Candy Land. It has complexity, but it isn’t Agricola. It has found that perfect balance between a casual and hardcore game that makes it so appealing to play.
Have a new friend in the group? Can no one decide what to play? Does your group not play a lot of board games? Catan is perfect for almost any scenario, unless that scenario is, “We have already played Catan 10 times tonight, maybe we should watch a movie.”
Chance and Choice
Every quality game needs to have a mixture of chance and choice. If the balance isn’t right, players may feel the game is rote. If there is too much chance, the game will feel completely random. If there is too much choice, the game may be bogged down in rules.
Catan manages to find that perfect balance. Experienced players know the strategic places to put settlements and move the robber, which gives them an advantage. But they will also fall victim to unlucky dice rolls or the robber snatching their needed resource from hand. This balance leads to a dynamic play experience. The more experienced players tend to win most games, but the roll of chance allows any player to win.
Multiple Paths to Victory
In Catan, you need 10 points to win. The beauty of the game is that you can collect points in a variety of ways. The most basic way is by expanding via settlements and cities, but it’s very difficult to win using only this method. The game very wisely limits the number of settlements you can have in play, requiring you to upgrade them to cities (and relying on more varied resources).
To reach 10 points, you are not following a path from A to B to C. You are making choices about the best path to take. Are you going to focus on expanding and getting longest road? Or are you going to focus on building up an army? Maybe you are going to go all in on a few settlements and upgrade to cities?
The beauty of Catan is that doing something is always better than doing nothing. If one route to victory is being impeded, you can change directions. Can’t afford settlements? Buy Development cards instead. Can’t upgrade to cities? Build more and more roads. The game rewards you for taking action.
Variance in Play
The board itself is conducive to dynamic play. Due to the hexagonal board pieces, Catan is different every time you play. At the start of a game, every player at the table is seeing the board for the first time. Strategies form based on how the board is laid out. Perhaps a strong sheep tile is near a sheep port. Or there might be a perfect spot to get lots of wheat and ore for cities. The board itself influences how players play.
“No one has any brick!” is something you have probably heard. More often than not a resource will be hard to come by for everyone. By limiting resources, the game becomes interesting. And then there are the dreaded games where the only abundant resource is sheep. How you face this challenge is what makes Catan so fun. Every game you play is different.
Expansions Are Actually Expansions
Never once have I felt that Catan is an incomplete game. Too often these days you play a game that doesn’t feel whole. Designers leave space for expansions, but when you can feel that in the “base” game you feel cheated. Catan is a wonderful and complete game. Each component serves a purpose and nothing is lacking.
The expansions themselves only add to the game, as expansions should do. Cities and Knights, for example, is an amazing game in its own right. It takes all the aspects of Catan and cranks them to 11. And the beauty of Cities and Knights is that it has a distinct feeling from that of Catan. Unlike other games where you would never play the “base” without the expansion, Catan is different. Each expansion adds its own flavor, but sometimes you are in the mood for vanilla.
Catan is about as close to a perfect game as you can get, but what are its faults? I think the obvious weakness of the game are Development Cards. That isn’t to say they are bad, simply not as strong as the rest of the game. The majority of them are Army cards, which often feel like a letdown. Using 3 resources to move the robber often isn’t worth it, especially if someone else already has largest army.
The non-Army Development Cards are also hit and miss. Two free roads is great, but a card like Monopoly seems very out of place within the game. Year of Plenty has utility, but it often feels like a mediocre trade considering the cost of the card itself.
Mostly, these cards feel like a missed opportunity. I suspect I’m not the only one that feels this way, as Cities and Knights did away with the Development Card system altogether in favor of a better system. But this is truly a nitpicky approach to the game.
So It’s Settled
I realize that nothing I have said here is ground breaking, but I wanted to take some time to appreciate the beauty of Catan. There are few games on the market today that have the lasting power of Catan. It appeals to hardcore gamers as well as casual ones. There are deeper expansions for those who desire them. Many of us grew up playing Monopoly or Life. Now there will be a whole generation growing up with Catan.