Help your settlers thrive by stealing from your neighbors. AKA – The History of Civilization
Players: 3 – 4 Best with: 3 – 4
Age: 10+ GN Age: Pre-teen
Game Type: Board Time: 60 – 90 minutes
Publisher/Year: Catan Studio – 1995
Game Play: Resources, Negotiation, Territories
Score: out of 12
This has been a difficult review for me to write. First off, this game has many rabid fans who will defy anyone who doesn’t immediately love this game. Now I really like this game… but, I don’t love it. I’m sorry, don’t hit me.
To ease the blow to the Cult of Catan, I’m going to employ the Sandwich Feedback Technique. That’s where you start with positive praise, followed by me complaining, and then finish with more praise. Put the pitchforks down, it will be mostly good.
First off, this game is gorgeous and elegant and evocative. Once the board is set up, you have a beautiful tableau of the Isle of Catan, full of promise and potential. Yes, Catan is the name of the island the game is played on, and not some foreign language reference to settlements or civilization or anything.
This map/board is divided up into five main crops/materials which produce the resources you need to further develop your settlements. Your settlements are built so that they are connected with up to three of these resources. Your settlers harvest these areas, provided that you are lucky with random dice rolls and not based on any sound farming strategies or proper mining techniques. I know, I’m sorry, this is supposed to be the “good” part of the sandwich.
I was instantly invested with the game, and the well-being and success of my settlers. I wanted them to thrive. I envisioned a small tribe of families, banding together, seeking new land to settle.
“Ooh, this land seems quite fertile, with vast fields of wheat, rolling grassland to raise sheep, and deep forests to harvest lumber. We shall stake our claim here and raise our flag. We shall build a village and name her, New Richinium. Huzzah!”
“But wait, who is that tribe over yonder trying to mooch off our wheat and steal our sheep?!” I’ll not let our New World be sullied by their presence. Down with the Vandals! But wait… they do have brick that we need. Let us conduct trade negotiations instead.” Immediately, I was hooked with this concept.
Okay, enough praise, onto the griping. My first issue is with the rules. This is a complex name, not ridiculously so, but complex none the less. Yet the box and the rules brag about how simple they are, and how they have an “award-winning rules system”. Really? What award? What game-rules-governing-body gave you this “award”? The photocopier down the hall?
The game is difficult, which is okay, but don’t pretend that it isn’t. If your game needs a 16-page almanac to explain it, then you do not have a “simple” game.
Plus, the “rules” are all over the place. You start on page 1, jump to the back page, go back to page 3. Set up the board exactly like we tell you. Do not deviate. Take these cards for this settlement but not the other one. Why? Don’t ask questions. Play the game. Don’t think, just play. And every single sentence in the rules has several notational asterisks that are cross-referenced to even more rules starting after page 6. Exhausting.
This leads into my next gripe. We are primarily focused on playing games with our children. This game has no age recommendation on it anywhere. One source said the game was for ages 10+, another said age 8. The game is sold on the same shelf as Candyland and Chutes and Ladders. These are all lies. In my opinion, this game is not intended for kids under 12.
My oldest, age 12, who loves this game, understood it completely. But my 10-year-old did not. Now, he knows how to play. Roll dice, get crops, trade them in to build things. But he had no clue about how to win the game. Instead he made up his own game: Collect all the sheep, name the sheep, feed them wheat, and most importantly, NEVER TRADE YOUR SHEEP!
Another issue is the Robber, and subsequently, the Knight. Both allow you to change the game board slightly, but more importantly, steal a resource from another player. Stealing is so common in the game that it should be in its tagline alongside Trade, Build, Settle.
Sometimes this is funny, such as when I traded two resources for one sheep, and in the very next turn, the same player stole the sheep back. That was funny; devastating to my game, but funny. But it’s not funny when it is a constant event. Then it is a nuisance. Unfortunately, the Robber and the Knight have a higher percentage to occur over any other element in the game. Maybe we just had an unlucky game.
Which bring me to my next point, luck. Luck is a great equalizer. It puts an element of the unknown into the game and gives all players, regardless of skill, a fair chance to succeed. My wife loves the element of chance in Catan. I think Catan relies too heavily on chance.
When the Mad Shepard, who isn’t even playing the game, suddenly gets four statistically impossible dice rolls that allow him enough resources to win the game, then the game feels unbalanced. In this same game, my wife, who by all rights should have won, instead drew seven unneeded Knight cards in a row. She loved this random turn of events. I saw it as a frustrating flaw.
Okay, no more complaining. Here is the bottom line. This game is a ton of fun. We all love playing the game. Even if we weren’t all playing the same game.
Plus, all of my gripes become irrelevant the more you play. Once you get past the high learning curve, the almanac becomes a useful tool to look up a forgotten rule. Once you move past the “beginner” board the game opens up to an infinite variety of play. And once I loosen up, I’m sure the Robber and stupid, blind luck will become less annoying.
Bear in mind that this base game is playable with just 3 or 4 players, no more, no less. If you have more players, you have to buy an expansion pack. And then there are a half dozen “extension” packs that add more gameplay and complexity to the game.
As it is, this is one of our favorite games. It is in our family’s Top Ten. Every family with older children should play this game. With a group of teenagers or adults, this game is great and I would give it a score of 11. But due to its high learning curve and its possible unsuitability for pre-teens (child depending), we give it a score of 10. Which is still awesome, you fanatics! Stop calling my house to yell at me!
As always, no one wants your stinking sheep and Game On!
Our greatest natural resource is in the minds of our children – Walt Disney