The Settlers of Catan fast became one of the most popular board games of our time. Launching in 1995, it rose to tabletop fame and popularity and has now sold hundreds of thousands of copies.
Wil Wheaton’s TableTop and BlameSociety’s Beer and Board Games sessions had both been appealing to me, but despite its popularity, I couldn’t find a big enough group that was interested in playing the modern European classic.
Finally, last week I was invited to my first, rather serious, 6-player Catan session.
Considering I’d never played any of the Catan games, playing a doubly expanded version straight off the bat was daunting. Not only were we going to play with the Seafarers expansion, but also the additional 5-6 player expansion on top of that!
Armed with only a couple of Youtube vids worth of info, and some strong, Czech beer, I marched my settlers in, to see how I’d fare.
There’s tonnes of different versions of Catan out there now; from regional editions, to junior editions, to inter-planetary Star Trek editions, but from what I can tell, the Seafarers Edition has a lot to offer, in terms of what new things it brings to the table.
For anyone who hasn’t played Catan, there are many rules, but a single, simple goal of getting 10 Victory points (14 in this expansion, explained later). Points are typically earned by building settlements, expanding settlements and by building and owning the longest roads. All of these tasks are perfromed by reaping the land around your settlements for building materials, and trading your local wares with your opponents. In addition, you can trade materials in for “Development Cards” which can grants bonus points, bonus materials and an additional metagame of accruing the largest army, a process which grants a bonus Victory Point, and occasional control over the games common foe; the robber. The robber ceases development of the tiles around it, and steals from nearby players.
You can still play your traditional game of Catan with the Seafarers Expansion, depending on what starting scenario you pick. In our scenario, we began with a large, standard Catan board “island”, with several satellite islands surrounding it, some containing the first of Seafarers’ new features; Gold. Gold acts as a wild card, which allows you an instant draw of any raw material you want, and you could quickly see roads and shipping routes plotted in its direction.
In Seafarers, there’s also a Pirate, which, (you guessed it) acts as a robber on the seas, putting your shipping routes in equal peril.
Shipping routes are the other big addition in Seafarers Edition, represented by adorable little wooden sailboats, and grant access to the distant islands. Settling on an island grants a bonus Victory Point, and for this reason, the target score is raised from 10 to 14, to keep the game the same length as its predecessor (typically 60-90 mins per match).
I’m a big fan of other European board games, such as Carcasonne, but dynamically, Catan seems far superior. The interaction between players, making cutthroat trades and silently conspiring against each other reminded me of Munchkin, where you must maintain sound relationships with certain players, or risk being fed to the lions later in the game. There are 3 distinctive parts to a Catan game; an opening gambit, a large bout of trading and hoarding, and a political race to the finish line, as players become aware of their opponents’ scores. Each segment of the game transitions smoothly, but not without an almost audible “clunk”, as the pace of the game rapidly shifts each time.
After 2 back to back 90 minute matches, I learned a lot, but still finished near the bottom of the pile. I can see a long, treacherous future for myself in Catan, and I’m already hooked, but it’s a game, like poker, where you can only improve by playing more and more and more.
Settlers of Catan retails at £39.99 ($67), with the Seafarers expansion costing around £28.99 and the 5-6 player expansion costing a further £14.99. I was very fortunate to get to play such a big, expensive Catan build straight out the gates, but the standard game, which I’ve played since, is equally rewarding, with its own ebb and flow, and in hindsight, a much better starting point if you want to grasp the basics. They are also readily available online second hand, with a smaller, Travel Edition available for £24.99 new; if you don’t want to dump a pile of money on the game right away.
For £40, with the right company, I can see it being a worthwhile investment, and a great way to sink beers in the living room without getting a TV involved, making for memorable stories of settlement success and setbacks, for many nights to come.