Eleven Game Changers: The Settlers of Catan

Time for the sixth in this series of games that came out and changed the hobby as we know it. So far, we’ve covered Acquire from 1964; Dungeons & Dragons from 1974; Cosmic Encounter from 1977; Civilization from 1980; and Magic: The Gathering from 1993. The next game is revolutionary, not because of any mechanical or thematic innovations, but for its impact on the hobby at large. It is…

image by BGG user bauhaushali

Die Siedler von Catan was published by KOSMOS in Germany in 1995. It was designed by renowned game designer Klaus Teuber, who had already won three Spiel des Jahres awards by that time – one for Barbarossa in 1988, one for Adel Verpflichtet (aka Hoity Toity) in 1990, and one for Drunter & Drüber (aka Wacky Wacky West) in 1991. Die Siedler von Catan was a success in Germany, and eventually won Teuber another SdJ award. Originally, Catan was part of a much larger game that got split into three parts – Entdecker came out in 1996, and Löwenherz came out in 1997 (it was later rereleased as Domaine in 1999). Those two were not nearly as successful as Catan would prove to be.

Back in the United States, a guy named Jay Tummelson was working for Mayfair Games. He heard about Catan, and convinced the company to license it and publish it in the US. At that time, it was rare for foreign games to get a domestic release, and the game didn’t really cause much of a uproar when it first hit. However, among hobby circles, people were grateful to be able to buy this game (now called The Settlers of Catan) without paying the ridiculous import prices. The game grew steadily in popularity in the United States, and opened the door for more Euro-style games to make their way to American shores. When Jay Tummelson founded Rio Grande Games in 1998, it became the premier domestic publisher for European games for the next decade.

The world of Catan was flourishing. The first expansion, Seafarers, appeared in 1997, with Cities & Knights released in 1998. Traders & Barbarians was released in 2007, with Explorers & Pirates coming out in 2013. And of course, the base game and all the expansions also got 5-6 player expansions of their own.

If that doesn’t seem like many expansions, it’s not (especially if compared to another perennial favorite like Carcassonne). But a lot of other content in the universe exists. There are a number of scenarios that have been published, as well as small expansions, promotional materials, and at least 19 different geographically themed maps. The Catan Card Game came out in 1996 (which was turned into Rivals for Catan in 2010). Other games in the universe include Starfarers of Catan (1999), Starship Catan (2001), Settlers of the Stone Age (2002), Candamir: The First Settlers (2004), Elasund: The First City (2005), Struggle for Rome (2006), Catan Dice Game (2007), Settlers of America (2010), Merchants of Europe (2010), Struggle for Catan (2011), Catan: Ancient Egypt (2014), and Rise of the Inkas (2018).

In the United States, a first and second edition of the game were both published in 1996. In 1998, the third edition was printed, followed by a fourth with updated components in 2007. In 2015, the game was rebranded as simply Catan. In 2016, Mayfair sold Catan to Asmodée, and in 2018, they closed down for good. But Catan lives on.

English first edition – image by BGG user Thommy8
English third edition – image by BGG user BoardGameGeek
English fourth edition – image by BGG user Aingeru
English fifth edition – image by BGG user W Eric Martin

The board in Catan consists of 19 modular hexes, each showing a different type of terrain. Each hex (except for one) has a number in it. Players start the game by placing settlements at the intersections of some of these hexes, and roads between two.

On your turn, you will roll two dice. The resulting number will trigger production for any settlements or cities adjacent to a hex with that number. Unless it’s a seven – no hex has a seven in it. If you roll that, you get to move the robber, which deactivates the hex it lands on and allows you to steal a card from a player adjacent to it.

After everyone has received their resources from production (wool, lumber, ore, wheat, or brick), you can then trade for resources with other places and/or turn resources in for different benefits in the game. A brick and a lumber allows you to build a road. A brick, a lumber, a wheat, and a wool allows you to build a settlement. Two wheat and three ore allow you to upgrade a settlement to a city (and thus doubling its production). A wool, a wheat, and an ore allow you to buy a development card that will allow you to take resources, score points, or add to your army. The player with the longest road and/or army will get extra points.

The game continues until someone gets their tenth point. When they do, the game is over and they win.

image by BGG user agkrishnendu

Like many people in the hobby, Catan (or Settlers, as people tended to refer to it back then) was my gateway game. My wife and I had some friends who owned it, and I vividly remember the first time they asked if we wanted to play it. I thought it looked boring and/or complicated, so I declined and went to play Mexican Train dominoes with someone else (last time I would make THAT mistake). When I wandered back to see how Settlers was going, the game in progress looked more interesting than I thought it would. The next time I had a chance to play, I did, and never looked back. Never mind that they had several of the rules wrong – trading resources wasn’t something they knew they could do, and rolling a seven simply meant everyone could take a resource of their choice (a variant my wife STILL insists on playing with to this day). Settlers grabbed a hold of me and shoved me into the world of hobby board games.

That was in 2007. In the years that followed, I grew past Catan. I still have great respect for it, but it’s not something I’ve played in probably seven years (my last logged play with it was in 2010, but I know I’ve played since then). The rolling for resources never seems to play out the way it should, and trading gets more and more difficult if people perceive you as the leader. My dislike for the game really has nothing to do with its mainstream popularity (as I’ve heard some media people suggest as the reason for hobbyists putting it down), it’s just not a game I enjoy anymore.

Even so, it cannot be denied that Catan was a Game Changer. It opened up the American market to European games due to its simple rules, and even use of dice (a practice that was frowned upon in Eurogames until around a decade after Catan was released). Not only that, it opened up the board game hobby to people like me who had no idea that games could have more to them than rolling-and-moving and trying not to be eliminated.

So that will do it for another edition of Eleven Game Changers. We’ll be leaving the 90s and entering the 20th century for the next edition, so be sure to check that out in July. Thanks for reading!

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