Few things are as iconic in modern board gaming as the perennial classic Catan. This juggernaut has been an entry point into modern board games for over twenty years, and is still one of most powerful board gaming brands to arrive since the advent of Monopoly. However, my deep dark secret is that despite being passionate about board games, I never played a single game of Catan. That finally changed last Thursday, but the results were a bit… mixed.
But let me back up a moment and cover Catan itself. It’s not going to win any awards for a riveting premise, as the game is about resource gathering and building settlements and roads on an island in pseudo-europe. However, the game was a revolution compared to many of the popular games of the time. For one thing, it is not a roll and move game like Sorry, Monopoly and their ilk. It also has the concept of trading with other players, which acts as a natural catch up mechanism. That player in the lead? Don’t trade with them, but amongst players further behind some mutual cooperation can go a long way. Catan also has a hexagonal board that can be set up differently every time you play, for infinitely more variety than a lot of games at the time. It also has some lovely “take that” player interaction with the robber, an action which allows you to steal cards from other players and shut down their resource production.
Catan was not the first game to do a lot of these things, but it broke through and became one of the first so called “Euro” style board games to be a hit in the US. For the twenty plus years since it first came out and to this day Catan has been a gateway for thousands of people into board games beyond Monopoly. Since then it has seen many expansions, different versions including a Star Trek edition, and even a novelization. Not sure how they accomplished that last one, but they made a movie out of Battleship, so I guess anything is possible!
However, by the time I joined the hobby some years ago, there were literally thousands of games to choose from. The group I joined thought Catan was old news, and so the opportunity to play it never really up. In the meantime I played hundreds of other games that followed in Catan’s footsteps, and truly fell in love with the hobby.
So sitting down to Catan last week was almost like a sort of time travel. I pulled up a chair with none of the nostalgia or reverence folks have for this game, and ultimately came away pretty disappointed. There just didn’t seem to be a whole lot of decisions on a given turn, and for a game that looked to refine on the luck fests of the era, there was still plenty of luck at play here. For example, every turn players roll two dice to determine which corresponding tiles pay out resources to all players. If you have set yourself up poorly, or your luck on the other players’ rolls has been poor it could come to be your turn, and another poor roll just leaves you without much to do but pass the dice to the next player. The trading mentioned before is intended to mitigate this but there is a lot of reliance on dice rolls in general.
Catan still has a place on a lot of people’s shelves, and fans will play it purely out of nostalgia as the game that introduced them to a newer style of board games. But in my experience, you can’t go back to a game like this if you have already found more modern board games that have evolved beyond it. There ARE some games from back then that do hold up, even under modern scrutiny, and I hope to cover two of those here in the coming weeks. But for Catan, it’s one I am glad I have checked of the list, but not one I need to return to.