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.
10 thoughts on “Is Catan still worth playing today?”
Respectfully disagree. Catan is still one of the best games. If you found it to be too luck-driven, I encourage you to try it with a different group of people. The diplomacy part of the game is an important aspect. Also, during initial settlement, try to avoid duplicate numbers (even take a lower probability sometimes to avoid duplicate “6”s or duplicate “8”s). You will find you always have something to negotiate with.
Most of my games end with all 4 players very near the required score of 10. The genius of the design is that it’s fairly easy to get to 7 or 8 points, but the last couple of points are hard fought. One last piece of advice. Don’t let any player’s “Trading” phase languish. If the person can’t get the brick they want, he/she needs to just keep moving. Build or pass the dice. Nobody is giving you the brick. A slow player will ruin the experience.
Thanks John. I appreciate the perspective of someone who’s played the game many times. The tricky thing here is trading makes it a group-think type game. Depending how different groups evaluate trades a game with similar rolls and resource distribution could play out completely differently. Of course this happens with auction games as well, or any game where players can situationally evaluate how much they think a card/resource is worth.
EIther way, In my case I likely set myself up poorly, but while I could learn to set up better in future games, I am not thrilled with a game that allows players to utterly screw themselves on turn one. Also I agree, slow players can ruin almost any game, but I don’t think any of us were particularly slow in this game.
I agree that’s the one big failing. Initial position is so important that a new player has a distinct disadvantage. But, a good teacher can take 10 extra minutes to highlight some strategy advice for this part.
After 50+ plays of original and 50+ of cities and knights I can officially say Catan is dead to our group. Sure… We can all gang up and be cut throat like the old us, but honestly it’s just a tiresome grind to see who can be the most aggressive, shitty friend(s).
If we are in competitive mode, the time commitment is just too long and usually by mid game it’s clear who the winner is:
The dev card knight mafia or the paper king in C&K.
There are few outlying games, but these are the main not needing luck strategies. The ole reliables.
I know what ur thinking: all you have to do is… and immediate response to you is “nah.”. Extending this game another 2.5 hours to have everyone miserably grinding out the longest road or playing non stop blue cards is just …. “end this fucking game I don’t care if I’m a point away.” It isn’t worth it. Too many better games out there that are fun.
I rather give the victory to some on. Best part of our games is to just troll with trades, erratic in game behaviour, winning in stupid fashions. We came up with lore for our players, reputations – but this is all extra ways to squeeze value out of the game.
If you have to go against meta in a game to have fun, sorry its not a good game anymore.
You can’t play a game 100 times and then claim it isn’t “good”. Most people stop doing something long before game 98, 99, or 100 if it’s bad. It’s fine if you outgrew it, but plenty of folks would consider 100 iterations to be a win.
The luck aspect of the game got to me, too. But once we started using the event cards from the Traders and Barbarians expansion it really gave the game new legs. Not only does it remove the luck aspect of rolling the dice ensuring that most numbers turn up as often as they should, but the events add an extra strategic element to chasing after titles like Longest Road, Largest Army and Harbor Master (also included in that expansion; you can probably guess how it works.) The Fishermen of Catan (again, in that same expansion) also helps to even out the strength and weakness of certain numbers with the lake replacing the desert and adding shoreline resource gains. This makes the board feel less uneven. The decision of where to place your opening settlements becomes less obvious but still just as important.
Good to know expansions can offset some of the luck, but unless a game of Catan with expansions appears in front of me one game night I am not sure I’ll swing back around to test out the waters. Heck, even if the right setup as you described did come out one game night, if one of my favorites was also on the table, I don’t think I would give Catan another go. I suppose half of my situation is, Catan just doesn’t come out among my friends, as many of them have moved on even if it did get them into the hobby back in the day.
A lot of people still havent been introduced to Catan! It kind of feels like a board game staple to me.
100% this. I’ve introduced Catan to dozens of new gamers. Never once did anybody say it wasn’t fun. So, that is why I am fervently defending the point that it is still worth playing. It’s fine if veterans want to try something else.
I agree it’s still a good gateway into the hobby. I don’t thing it hold up as well if you are already in the hobby and try to revisit it as I did. It’s mostly a matter of where you are coming from in terms of what a board game can be. For folks who though it was all Monopoly the game is still a revelation.