Anatomy of a Game: Catan

Catan 5e Box CoverMayfair Games recently released their fifth edition of the Settlers of Catan (1995) — now just called “Catan”. Even if you aren’t impressed by the fact that Mayfair has produced five major iterations of the core game, you have to be impressed that Catan Gmbh reports that over 18 million units of Catan have been sold. That’s a lot of games!

To celebrate the newest edition of the game, its 20th anniversary, and perhaps most importantly its continued success, I’ve decided this week to take an extended look at what makes Catan great. I’ll be examine the game’s major systems, the rules underlying them, and the emotions they create.

The Dawn of Resource Management

Catan ResourcesAt heart, Catan is a game about resource management. Perhaps, I should say that it’s the game about resource management — because even if there were other resource-management games that preceded it, Catan is the one that’s defined the direction of the entire industry.

As the field has evolved, resource management has come to have a set of rules for how it generally works. Looking back now, it seems like many of those “rules” were probably created by Catan.

Resource Rule #1. Resources should be produced in some interesting way over the course of the game.

That interesting way could be something as simple as drawing cards, but Catan of course goes much further by letting players build resource-gatherers (settlements & cities).

 Resource Rule #2. Resources should come to players in unequal amounts. 

This is really the core of resource-management games. If everyone gets the same stuff, you just have a puzzle, but when everything gets different stuff …. you have a game.

Resource Rule #3. Resources should be spent in interesting ways over the course of the game.

Though Catan has an interesting resource-creation system, in my opinion it’s the resource-spending system that really shines. It uses what I call “formulaic resource usage”. In other words, you have formulas that describe which resources you need in order to build stuff.

The alternative to formulaic resource usage is set-collection resource usage, where you’re just building up sets of the same resource (e.g., if you were to collect three stone instead of a sheep, a wood, a brick, and a wheat). Personally, I find formulaic resource usage more interesting than set-collection because it offers more tactical options: you can suddenly move in in a different direction as your options change, as opposed to set collection where you have to continue to monotonically get the same stuff.

Catan also demonstrates that a well-designed resource-management system can serve other goals:

Resource Extra Goal #1. Resources can allow multiple paths to victory.

Not only can you build different things with your resources in Catan, but these different things can help you in different ways. Generally, there seem to be three major strategies in Catan: expand with roads and build settlements; upgrade settlements to cities; or gain points from development cards and largest army. Catan: Seafarers (1997) adds a fourth strategy: builds ships and explore. Each strategy depends on different board positions, which in turn provide different resources. Each one can win in different games.

That’s the core of Catan’s resource management: interesting & varied resource creation; interesting & varied resource usage; leading to varied resource victory. But Catan does a lot more.

The Integration of Trade Systems

Catan TradingCatan supplements its resource-management system in one other way: you can also trade your resources with other players, and that’s the other element that helps the game to excel.

Personally, my model for a trading game is Reiner Knizia’s Res Publica (1991), a game even more classic than Catan. Res Publica is a clever game because it’s very specific in its rules for how you can initiate trades. In fact, therein lies the game: can you use the limited trading language  of the game to initiate the exchanges you need without wasting turns? It’s exactly the sort of tight gameplay that you need to make an entire game out of trading.

Catan takes the opposite tack. Its goal isn’t to make a game out of trading, but instead to make trading an effortless part of a larger game. As a result, its trade is very freeform. To keep things from spinning out of control, players are limited to trading with the active player, but beyond that the sky’s the limit.

How can the systems of both Res Publica and Catan be good, despite being so different? They’re both are built using the same general rules — the first two of which tie closely to a good resource-management system.

Trading Rule #1. Trade should be built around players having different quantities of resources.

Trading Rule #2. Trade should be built around players wanting different quantities of resources.

Trading Rule #3. Trade should be controlled by some mechanical rules.

Obviously, a trading system should help players to put together the specific resources that they want or need — whether it be a formula to producing something (like in Catan) or a set to collect (like in Res Publica). That’s what naturally evolves when these elements, found in Catan, are used as a basis.

The danger of this sort of trade is that players can get lost in what they should do. Fortunately, Catan keeps things very constrained. There are only four things to build, and there are only five resources to trade for. Players will thus have limited options and should quickly be able to assess what they want … while still having the ability to suddenly change up their plans and build toward something different if a surprising trade falls their way.

The trading of Catan also benefits the game in another way:

Trading Extra Goal #1. Trade can help to keep all players involved all the time.

Obviously, all of the players in Catan will be interested whenever a trade occurs. However, Catan’s production systems ensures that players will frequently have a stake in trading: because players are constantly getting resources — even in between their turns — they might go from being unable to trade to being eager to trade in the roll of one dice.

Trading demonstrates the missing link in Catan’s mechanical gameplay. It’s not just resource creation, resource usage, and resource victory; resource trading falls right into the middle of that triumvirate.

The Risk of Randomness

Catan DiceOne final mechanical system in Catan deserves some comment: its randomness. You roll dice every turn to see what resources are generated. This is not only a big random element, but it’s one that’s entirely crucial to the play of the game.

So what makes a good random system? As usual, Catan is built upon a set of core rules which are great pointers for how randomness should be used in board games.

Random Rule #1. Random systems should permit players to take chances.

The randomness of Catan is part of its risk vs. reward gameplay. Though you can’t control what the dice will roll, you can choose to settle on more or less likely numbers. Choosing to build on a “5” instead of a “6”? That’s a risk. Getting a badly needed brick as a result? That’s a reward.

The development card draws of Catan are another sort of randomness, and they feature the same trade-offs. Whenever you choose to buy a card, you’re risking the resources that you spent. Whenever you get something you really need — whether it be a victory point, a soldier, or monopoly — that’s a reward.

Random Rule #2. Random systems should permit players to offset the randomness.

More serious players of eurogames don’t like randomness. They want to completely control their fate. As a result (or perhaps as a cause), the German field has evolved away from the type of randomness seen in Catan. In fact, I find it much more common in today’s French games.

That’s a bit of a shame, because there is the option for control in Catan. As already noted, players are choosing their risks. Having control over those risks is the flip side of the same equation. A player could choose to only ever build on the most likely numbers. Or, if he wanted to reduce the possibility of risk entirely, he could spread his settlements out over all the likely numbers in Catan — or at the least, consider their spread of numbers when building.

If that’s now enough, the Catan: Event Cards (2005) allow even more control, and are now easily available in Catan: Traders & Barbarians (2007). Though there’s still some randomness, because not all the cards are used, they assure players that there won’t be a long string of unlikely results.

Unsurprisingly, the randomness of Catan serves some important purposes:

Random Extra Goal #1. Randomness can increase fun.

Random Extra Goal #2. Randomness can balance a game.

Some folks might find the “fun” of Catan’s randomness to be counterintuitive. After all it can be really frustrating when your “6” doesn’t come up all game. Nonetheless, it can be really exciting when your number does come up, especially when it produces the exact resources that you need.

However, the balance that is introduced to the game by Catan’s randomness might be even more important; it helps to keep losing players in the game — or at least helps them to feel like they always have a chance. Evening out the game so that randomness balances some level of skill isn’t for everyone, but for a casual game like Catan, it’s great.

Overall, controllable randomness introduces balance, excitement, and fun to a game without necessarily degrading the game play … as long as it’s controlled in a meaningful way. And that’s the third of Catan’s three major mechanical systems, in a nut shell.

However, Catan doesn’t succeed solely on the basis of its mechanics. It also succeeds based on the emotions that those mechanics are able to evoke.

The Pleasure of Creativity

Catan CreativityMy favorite emotion that’s evinced by Catan is a joy of creativity. There should be a word for that in German. Call it kreativitätfreude.

I love games that allow the players to be creative within strategic bounds. That’s why Galaxy Trucker (2007) is one of my favorite games, and why I was disappointed that Factory Fun (2006) was badly flawed. (It lets players sit around expressing their creativity in a way that generates Analysis Paralysis, and leaves all the other players bored).

Now, Catan doesn’t have as much creativity as those games, but even after you’ve picked your starting positions, you can still decide how you’re going to expand: where your roads go, where you build settlements, and which new resource spaces you collect. Like the very, very best civilization games (and even the best deckbuilder games), it feels like your building something that’s meaningful and that’s absolutely your own.

The Fierceness of Competition

Catan ConflictCatan also creates a fierce joy of competition that’s quite rare in German games. Call it antago̱niphilia.

Most German games either have positive interactions (like trading) or they’re mostly multi-player solitaire, but Catan changes up that formula (or, rather, it adopted a different formula before the style of German games really solidified). It lets players get up in each others’ faces.

Most obviously, this occurs through the use of the robber, who you gleefully drop on another player’s space, spoiling his production and stealing a card. Even though it’s constrained nastiness (meaning that it only occurs when the dice decree it), it’s enough that I know multiple people who refuse to play Catan due to the robber’s appearance.

However, the way that players fight for territory is much more meaningful. The map is constrained and there can be only one road on each hex side and only one settlement on every-other hex corner. Thus, players are forced to contend for the same expansions — trading for resources in the hope of making the quick expansion that will leave their opponent in the dust.

Though it’s crucial to the game, the antago̱niphilia of Catan is nonetheless somewhat controlled. It’s not about destroying resources, it’s not about killing troops, it’s just about limiting expansions — or if you prefer, about getting to expansions before your opponent does.

The Triumph of Component Design

Catan ComponentsThus far I’ve talked about the mechanical design of Catan: the rules that those mechanics follow, the goals that they achieve, and the emotions that they evoke. Put all that together, and I think that you have a very good casual game. However it’s always been Catan’s component design that makes it great.

That starts with its wooden markers, which are all simple and abstract shapes — the exact sort of thing that’s gone out of vogue in the German design community. The roads, the settlements, and the cities are simplistic molds; they’re less evocative as a result, but they’re easier to represent iconically.

That becomes important when the simple shapes of the wooden markers are linked up to the color-coordinated resources to make it easy to show what’s needed to create what. You put that all on player reference cards, and you have a complex game that’s very easy to play: something that hadn’t been true for the games of the ’70s, ’80s, or early ’90s.

Catan was a revolution.

The components of Catan are deserve kudos for the variability of the board. You put it together differently every game, and this creates a game that plays differently every game. It’s what makes Catan such a repeatable delight.

The Evolution of Resource Games

Twenty years on, it’s almost impossible to tease out the effects of Catan on the eurogame community, because they’re so pervasive. Sure, some elements like its conflict and its randomness have faded out of the eurogestalt, but its ideas of resource management and component design reinvented the industry.

You can see some games that were closely influenced by the Catan resource-management system like Boomtown (2004) and Machi Koro (2012) and you can see some games that were probably developed using Catan components like Roads & Boats (1999), Morisi (2000), and Cannes (2002). However, I think you can trace much of the evolutionary tree of resource-management design back to Catan, not just these few, specific examples.

There are certainly plenty of other games where you collect resources to build things. Some of them do it with cards, like Catan, but cardboard tokens and wooden markers have become more popular. There’s also a lot of room for different sorts of resource-management games that don’t follow Catan’s creation/trading/usage/victory cycle. Keythedral (2002) is a fine example of a very Catan-like resource-management game that focuses on resource-contention, while Mesopotomia (2005) is all about resource-movement.

In many ways, the worker-placement genre is an evolution of resource-management, because games like Caylus (2005), Agricola (2007), and Stone Age (2008) are mostly about placing workers on spaces to get resources for your usage. That in turn means that scarcity games are an expansion of resource-management too.

However, the supply-chain board game might be the most interesting variant of resource-management. It’s not very common, probably because of the mechanic’s complexity, but Neuland (2004) offers a fine example of having to use resources before they spoil.

Conclusion

Catan offered tons of innovation when it was released twenty years ago, and today it still offers great play for casual and light players. Some of its design elements have been left behind by the rest of the German field, but if anything that makes it a more interesting game for its modern unusualness.

And that’s the Anatomy of Catan!


Twelve years ago, I wrote a much more analytical article that breaks down how to categorize the design of Catan. It’s Trials, Triumphs & Trivialities #103: Anatomy of a Game — The Settlers of Catan. If you want to read even more, I’m hoping to write up a Gamopedia in the next couple of months talking about every major release for Catan in the US (and a few of the German releases as well).

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