October 13, 2014
Welcome to the modern king of family gaming. Since its release way back in 1995, Settlers of Catan has managed to punch through the “Monopoly-monopoly” of the gaming market and sell over 18 million copies worldwide – no small feat by any stretch of the imagination. But what exactly is Setters of Catan and what makes it tick?
The Settlers of Catan (SoC for short) is a European-style board game for three or four people (expandable to five or six) about the colonization of an untouched and oddly geometric island, and the indirect territorial and economic conflicts that immediately ensue from that colonization. The island of Catan is comprised of diverse, hexagonal landscapes that are randomized at the beginning of the game and make up the board that is played upon. Players then take turns claiming their starting territory by placing farms at the intersections of these land hexes, claiming the sovereign right to collect resources from the adjacent three lands.
Each land tile is also given a random number before play begins, which correspond to the roll of two six-sided dice added together. At the beginning of each player’s turn, that player will roll, generating resources for all players with a farm adjacent to the rolled value. The likelihood of a particular land hex to pay out resources makes it more or less valuable, and that makes territory control one of the primary factors guiding the ongoing conflicts of interest as players seek to monopolize on the most desired commodities and prevent other players from joining them in reaping those rewards.
Each different kind of land provides its own unique resource. Grassy fields will generate sheep, forests grant wood, quarries bring in stone, and so on. Players will need these resources to build new farms and roads, and also to purchase military power to grow and protect their empires. Each farm or city that is built generates victory points at the end of the game, and players compete to win victory-point rewards for completing various achievements, such as having the longest road or the most military support. The winner is whomever ends the game with ten victory points.
But here’s the key that takes all of these little mechanics and brings them to life: during a turn, each player may negotiate with her opponents and (hopefully!) come to an agreement for trading their commodities. This one rule single-handedly transforms Catan from a game of production and managing resources into a competitive arena of shrewd negotiations.
Allow me to offer an example of how this might play out: let’s say that I’m making it rain sheep, but really need some additional stone to build a new farm and increase my ability to bring in resources. I can ask a player who has access to a quarry if he’d like to trade two stone for two sheep. This player happens to be the leading supplier of stone this game, and knows that I desperately need it to grow and prosper. Rather than accept my offer of equivalent exchange, he chooses to counter my request by offering me one stone for four of my sheep. In response, I ask the other players at the table to join me in boycotting the shrewd stone monopolizer, effectively denying him the other resources he desperately needs and thought he had reliable access to. A third player agrees to the boycott, but on her turn she uses the boycott to strike a deal with the stone monopolist that he normally would not have agreed to, thus forming a mutually beneficial partnership that still cuts me out of the stone I desperately need. (Your results may be better – or worse!)
Settlers of Catan is, at its heart, a game of negotiation and deal-making as much as luck and resource-management. No one player can dominate enough of the map to generate all the resources they will need to win the game. It’s only by cooperating with each other and scratching each other’s backs through trade that you’ll be able to progress. But at the end of the day, there can only be one winner, and you’ve got to make sure you haven’t been helping someone else more than they’ve been helping you. Perhaps not the best model for real life, but brilliant for a game of strategy. It’s not difficult to see how Catan has transformed our understanding of what’s possible in a board game, and why it’s our go-to entry point as a solid introduction to Eurogaming.