Catan: A Review of the Modern Classic

Catan is one of the undisputed games that helped breath life back into the board game industry, while simulatenously introducing the United States to the Eurogame genre in 1995 (The Atlantic).

My first encounter with this game was back in 2010, when I played it on the floor of Erika’s dorm room. Prior to this, my typical idea of a fun board game would’ve been Axis & Allies, or Risk. A game without domination didn’t make much sense. We only played one or two rounds of the game before we went to visit a local quarry-turned-park. I didn’t think much of Catan at that point, but several years later I bought it for her birthday, and things changed completely. I fell in love with Catan and we quickly started snapping up expansions and extensions whenever they were on sale. Now, we’ve created such intense variations of the game that take the complexity of the game to new limits!

Catan Board Game with Components
Standard Catan with all of it’s components (Catan)

So what exactly is Catan? It’s a game where you become a settler and work to expand your settlement size while acquiring resources through trading, smart development, and luck.

Understanding the Components

Catan Game Pieces
Catan Game Pieces (Board Game Geek)

The amount of pieces that exist in Catan might seem overwhelming at first, but don’t worry, they all make sense and will be easy to understand in no time. 

I’d like to divide the pieces and parts into two different categories: General Components and Player Components. I’m going to skip some components that can explain themselves (looking at you Game Rules booklet and dice)

General Components

  • Sea Frame Pieces: The Sea Frame Pieces define the game board. Each of the six pieces have different harbor values on them. These harbors are useful for setting up special trade deals with the bank.
  • Terrain Hexes (Tiles) : The Terrain Hexes are what makes up the inside of the gameboard. The terrain hexes are also some of the most crucial pieces to the game. There are in total six different types of terrain available:
    • Hills produce brick, which is necessary for roads and settlements.
    • Pastures produce wool (sheep), which is necessary for settlements and development cards.
    • Mountains produce ore, which is necessary for cities and development cards.
    • Fields produce grain (wheat), which is necessary for settlements, cities, and development cards.
    • Forests produce lumber (wood), which is necessary for roads and settlements.
    • Desert produces nothing
  • Harbor Pieces: Harbor Pieces allow you to change the values of the harbors on the sea frame. I’ve never really used these myself, but I’m sure others love them!
  • Chits: Chits are the circles that show the value that needs to be rolled in order for a resource hex to produce goods. The second thing a chit shows is the pips corresponding to that number. Pips might seem like a weird word, but the pips actually represent the odds of that number being rolled. The more pips a chit has, the greater chance the resource hex will produce goods. 
  • Resource Cards: There are five resource cards you can collect. Brick, Wool (commonly referred to as sheep), Lumber (commonly referred to as wood), Ore, and Grain (commonly referred to as wheat). Each of these resources are vital in allowing you to purchase new items in your turned. As a decent rule of thumb, lumber and brick are crucial at the start of the game, wool and grain are almost always good to have, and ore is vital toward the end of the game.
  • Development Cards: Development cards allow for different boosts or actions to take place during your turn.
    Its important to note, that you can only play one development card a turn, and you must wait a turn after buying a card before using it (VP cards do not adhere to this rule. If you buy a development card and it’s your 10th VP  you can use it that turn.)
    There are three types of development cards:
    • Knights: Knights allow you to move the robber to a new terrain hex, they are a good defensive card to have on hand. In the event someone places a robber on one of your hexes, you can use the knight to relocate the robber elsewhere. Secondly, playing the most knights within a game will give you 2 Victory Points for having the Largest Army.
    • Progress Cards: These cards allow you to take special actions, such as building two roads immediately, declaring a monopoly, getting a resource you really need, or other things.
    • Victory Point Cards: VP cards earn you a victory point immediately. You don’t need to show this card until you’ve won the game, or it has ended. 
  • Robber: The Robber is undoubtedly one of the more frustrating components to the game. Whenever a 7 is rolled, the player who rolled the 7 gets to move the robber to a hex occupied by other players and steal one resource from a player who has a settlement or city on that hex. While the robber occupies that hex, any resources that would be produced on a die roll are ignored. We’ve created our own house rule to make the robber a little more fun.
  • Special (Victory Point) Cards: The Special Cards give you 2 VP’s for each card that you acquire. There are two cards you can win, and both require specific requirements. 
    Each of the cards can be stolen by other players as long as they have one more than you of either of the requirements. If they tie you after you have earned the card, you still retain it.
    • Longest Road: The Longest Road Special Card is given once a player has 5 roads connected in a single line.
    • Largest Army: The Largest Army Special Card is given once a player has played 3 Knight Development Cards.

Player Components

  • Settlements: Each player gets their own stash of settlement pieces. For every settlement you build, you earn 1 VP. Settlements can only be built when a road connects it to another settlement, and the new settlement will be two or more intersections (points where terrain hexes connect) away from a neighboring settlement or city. Whenever a resource hex has it’s chit rolled, you will now collect 1 resource for each settlement touching that hex.
  • City: Cities are worth 2VP’s each. Cities can only be built after a settlement has been built. Cities also double your resource collection, so you receive two per roll of a resource instead of one.
  • Road: Roads are a very important part to the game as they are what allows you to expand and build settlements. You always want to take the shortest route possible to a new area, but beware of competitors looking to get to the same place.
  • Building Card: The building card is just a guide to let you know the cost of all the pieces mentioned above and the development card. If you play enough, this can quickly become useless.

Starting Out

One of the greatest things about Catan is that the rulebook runs you through the first scenario really well. It tells you how to place the game hexs, where to put the chits, and even where to put your settlements. This is crucial to getting started and understanding what is going on.

Catan starting map
The official Catan starting map (Catan Game Rules & Almanac)

Secondly, the rulebook does an amazing job of getting you the most-needed information first, and then providing an almanac for those what-about-this scenarios that always happen.

Your first game will be naturally slow as you get used to playing the game. You’ll be able to define your strategy.

  • Will you become a reliable person to trade with?
  • Will you focus on expanding first or building up first?
  • Will you cut people of from their goals?
  • Will you focus on development cards to turn the tides?

There’s a lot of different ways to get the necessary victory points and strategy will ultimately depend on how you build, and the roll of the dice.

Continuing the Game

Once you’ve completed a couple rounds of the starting map you can begin to get a little creative. I’d suggest starting out by shuffling all the terrain tiles and placing them randomly. When your comfortable with that, shuffle all the chits randomly and then place both items randomly. This will give you that random map that can be a lot of fun. 

You can also get really adventurous and find giant Catan boards, or even get customized parts and pieces.

Giant Catan Board at the 2012 Championships
Giant Catan board at the 2012 Championships (Imgur)

The biggest frustration that I have for Catan is the fact of randomness. There have been games where I’ve established my starting pieces on really good chits, but never had good rolls. If the dice aren’t in your favor for a game, it can become an extremely boring game. 

Lastly, I encourage you to check out the expansions, they really add a new way to play the game and can change your strategies completely. 

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