Fun to play
Well-designed board and pieces
Teaches how human settlements develop
Takes time to understand
My kids and I are gamers. Not the kind who put on headsets and sit in front of a glowing screen. Instead, we prefer the ones in cardboard boxes. We have a solid stack of reliable games, but we recently wanted to try something new and turned to Catan.
Released in 1995 by Klaus Teuber in Germany, Catan is the name of the fictional island on which the whole game is played. It’s fun and challenging on multiple levels, and I’m not the only one who agrees: Millions of copies in over 30 languages have been sold, and, in addition to numerous other accolades, Catan won The Game of the Century Award at Gamescom in 2015. I wanted to see if this popular family board game, which is also known as The Settlers of Catan or simply Settlers, was up to the challenge of entertaining each of my five kids, from ages 7 to 15.
Design: Beautiful and high-quality
The board itself is made up of 19 interchangeable hexagonal tiles, each representing different terrains: forest, field, mountain, hill, and pasture. Each of these terrains corresponds to a “resource”—lumber, grain, ore, brick, and wool, respectively—that players need to grow their settlements. There is also one desert tile (which gives you no resources), and number tokens (which will correspond to the numbers later rolled on the dice).
The edge of the board is made up of six thin coastal frame pieces representing the ocean. There are also small wooden tokens representing houses, cities, and roads that let players literally build their settlements on the board. The tiles themselves, the game cards, and all the rest of the pieces are colorful, sleek, and beautifully designed.
The strategic thinking needed to decide when and what to buy is somewhat sophisticated, giving more mature players a leg up on younger ones.
The backside of each hexagonal tile features the same water design as the coastal pieces. This design element allows the resource on the front side of each tile to stay hidden so that the tiles can be drawn and placed at random when the board is set up at the start of the game. It also allows for the integration of the Seafarers of Catan extension, in which the tiles are placed upside down to form an ocean. In this version of the game, players seek to expose resources through exploration during each turn.
The game is designed for three to four players. If you have a larger group, you can either team up, as we did, or try one of many game extensions available, which can accommodate up to six gamers. There are also many other versions of the game available, including, aptly, a Game of Thrones edition.
Setup: Fun to switch up
It takes about five minutes to set up the board for each game and then around an hour for each match. We often play two games back to back, usually at my insistence, so I can have another (usually fleeting) chance to best my kids.
The strategy and tactics components come into play during setup: Each player takes turns placing two settlements (little houses) and two roads; settlements may be placed anywhere on the board as long as there is no other settlement within one road segment. This creates a unique terrain that looks like a map for each game.
Once the last player places his or her first settlement, that player gets to then place his or her second road and settlement, followed by the remaining players in reverse order. You need to strategically place your settlements in spots near a variety of resources on the board. For example, if you choose a spot surrounded only by hills (which gives you brick), then you won’t be able to get the resources necessary to advance your gameplay later on. Choose well, and you’ll reap the rewards with each roll of the dice; choose poorly (or unluckily) and you’ll quickly be cursing those choices.
When my family plays, we try to make the tile selection process as “fair” as possible, evenly distributing the resources as well as the number tokens. Overall, we found the setup process easy and enjoyable—similar to putting together a simple puzzle with multiple moving pieces. In fact, my teenage son Charlie says that after winning, it’s his favorite part of the game.
Concept: Winningly creative (and competitive)
The game is over when a player earns 10 points—and in our experience, it tends to be competitive until the last point is won (or stolen, depending on your perspective). Points can be racked up a variety of ways: building houses and cities, owning the longest road or the biggest army and holding point-bearing “development” cards.
Catan tends to be competitive until the last point is won (or stolen, depending on your perspective).
Rolling: Each turn begins with a roll of the two dice whose sum will correspond to the number token on a hexagonal tile. If your settlement is adjacent to that tile, then you earn the resource that it represents. Settlements earn one resource card each and cities earn two. So, for example, if you placed two cities next to a mountain tile with a 5 on it, you’ll get four ore cards every time a 5 is rolled.
The game also marks the number tokens with the probability that they’ll be rolled using one to five small dots. Five dots and a red-colored number means that it’s one of the most likely numbers to be rolled (both 8 and 6 have this designation). The least likely numbers (2 and 12) just have one dot. You’ll definitely want to place your settlements near tiles with higher-probability numbers in order to win.
The Robber: When a sum of 7 is rolled, that player gets to place the “Robber Pawn” on any tile. The robber brings death to the tile it sits on, which means no resources can be collected there until the robber moves. It’s placed or moved on the board when the next player rolls 7s or when a “knight” development card (purchased by that player), is played. Additionally, whenever a 7 is rolled, players with more than seven resource cards in their hands have to discard half of them (rounded up).
Collecting Resources: “Resource cards” display pictures of the coveted resources, which provide the building blocks for everything a player wants to do. This includes expanding roads, building new settlements, converting settlements into cities, and purchasing “development cards” (more on those later).
My family found that the ability to earn resource cards each time the dice are rolled, even when it’s not your turn, kept everyone engaged. The only drawback is that sometimes you end up in a game where you have no chance of winning, and that can be less than fun.
Building: Each person has a building cost card that shows what combination of resources they need for each possible purchase. A road can be bought with one wood and one brick resource card. A settlement costs one each of wood, brick, wheat, and sheep. An existing settlement can become a city with two wheat and three stone. Development cards cost one wheat, one sheep, and one stone. It’s good to refer to the building cost card throughout the game to see what resources you need to target next in your gameplay.
Trading: Players may attempt to trade resource cards on their turn with any other player. If both agree, then any trade is permissible. You can only initiate a trade during your turn, and you must be part of the trade taking place.
Holding Development Cards: As we mentioned, players can buy “development cards” using their resource cards during a turn. These cards are picked from the face-down stack so that you don’t know what you are getting. There are five types of development cards: knight, road building, victory point, monopoly, and year of plenty.
The knight cards (which symbolize a settlement’s military might) allow you to move the robber and work toward winning the “largest army” card (worth two points), which means you have at least three knights and more than all the other players. A road-building card will give you two free roads to place without having to use your resource cards. Victory points are what they sound like: You can turn these cards over at the end to secure your win. A monopoly card allows you to take all resource cards of a certain type from all the other players. Say, for example, you really need ore cards, but your settlements aren’t placed well to get them. You can turn over the monopoly card in that case. Finally, the year of plenty card allows you to take two resource cards of your choice from the bank.
The only drawback is that sometimes you end up in a game where you have no chance of winning, and that can be less than fun.
Earning Bonus Cards: Bonus cards, each worth two points, are earned by the player who has the longest road and the biggest army. Fellow players steal this honor (and the points) if they build a longer road or bigger army, meaning these points are always in flux until the end of the game.
Entertainment Value: Prepare for Catan to take over your game nights
For adults: Though I’ll pretty much try any game at least once, I’ll admit that the concept of Catan was originally off-putting to me—partly because the idea of building settlements didn’t sound exactly exciting. Well, I was completely wrong: It turns out that Catan is an awesome, absorbing game, and vying to build the biggest settlements is as exciting as it gets.
For teens: My eldest boy, Charlie, 14, is our most frequent family champion; he tends to win at least half the games he plays. He particularly likes the strategy element, as well as the process of setup. The only time he loses interest is when he’s in the rare game that he seems destined for a loss.
Catan is an awesome, absorbing game, and vying to build the biggest settlements is as exciting as it gets.
My 15-year-old daughter, Violet, maddeningly, is the next most likely to capture the 10 points needed to win. She does so in a seemingly haphazard fashion, keeping her intentions close to her chest and not always following the conventional wisdom of building on the high-frequency numbers. Violet enjoys the game, particularly when playing with a few of her girlfriends—not as much with her hyper-competitive brothers.
For tweens: My hyper-competitive 12-year-old, Hank, has a love-hate relationship with this game. When he’s winning, he’s a fan; if things aren’t going his way, he may storm off and need to be coaxed back to the table. Tween tantrums aside, the high-stakes emotions and intensity Catan elicits are part of its allure.
As my family learned, each loss does help you strategize for the next match. There were a few games where we each thought we were doomed, but after sticking with it for a few turns, our prospects brightened.
Educational Value: Social studies in a box
Catan doesn’t feel like school, but it definitely teaches about the importance and consequences of access to resources, odds, the snowballing effect of luck (or lack thereof) on human success, migration, bartering, and other economic issues. The game also hones decision-making and tactical thinking.
Age Range: Tweens and up
There are so many games out there, but finding options that please (and are appropriate for) each of my five kids is a major consideration for me. Catan is designed for ages 10 and up. I sometimes include my littler players (my 7- and 9-year-olds) by teaming up with them.
The strategic thinking needed to decide when and what to buy is somewhat sophisticated, giving more mature players a leg up on younger ones. Although, in my case, the benefit of my extra years of experience seems to max out once my kids pass 12. Overall, we found this game to be enjoyable for all ages and simple to understand the basics of play.
Price: Resources well spent
Catan retails for around $49. The price is somewhat steep compared to other board games, which tend to cost between $20 and $40. However, this is not your average game. The beautifully designed, intricate, adjustable board pieces and lovely cards, as well as the absorbing complexity of the game all warrant the higher price. Plus, this game can be played again and again and feel eternally new due to the interchangeable board and options for expansions, which can be purchased to create even more unique playing experiences.
Catan vs. Pandemic
Both of these games are addictive and fun and can be played again and again. Pandemic is more reasonably priced at $35 and is a collaborative game, pitting players against the game rather than each other. It would be fun if Catan could be played collaboratively as well, with players teaming up.
If I had to choose between them, I’d go with Catan, as the game’s rules are a bit more streamlined and the pace is a bit quicker. Both are great options and in heavy rotation at our house.
- Product Name Catan
- Product Brand Catan Studios
- SKU C15A-A60
- Price $49.00
- Manufacturer Recommended Age Range 10+
- What’s Included 19 hex tiles, 6 coastal frame pieces, 9 extra harbor pieces, 20 wooden settlements, 16 wooden cities, 60 wooden roads, 95 resource cards, 25 development cards, 4 building costs cards, 2 special bonus cards, 18 number tokens, 2 six-sided dice, 1 wooden robber pawn, Game Rules and Almanac booklet