Critical Play – Catan

I played Catan for the first time this past week with a group of friends. It is a multiplayer strategy board game involving resource management created by Klaus Teuber (rip 🙁). It is marketed as a game for families, friends, and strangers and recommended for individuals ages 10 and up. It is typically played with 3-4 players but 5-12 players can be accommodated with an expansion pack. 

The game begins with setting up 19 hexagonal tiles into a one large hexagon. Each hexagon depicts one of five productive terrain types – hills (produces brick), forest (produces lumber), mountains (produces ore), fields (produces grain), pasture (produces wool), and desert (produces nothing). Each player begins with 2 settlements and 2 roads and each settlement is worth 1 victory point. The first to acquire 10 victory points on their turn wins the game. Players acquire resources by rolling 2 dice to determine which terrain hexes produce resources, which are each marked with a number. These resources can only be collected if you own a settlement or city bordering these terrain hexes. On each turn, the player can roll the dice for resource production, trade with other players or with the bank, and build (roads, cities, settlements, etc.) See more detailed rules here.

My friends and I could not get together in-person since many of us – myself included – were sick, so we found a platform that allowed us to play online called The gameplay rules were the exact same as the original board game. The three of us hopped on a Discord call and set up a private lobby. One of my friends had played once before (but didn’t remember much), and me and the other friend had never played, so we were all basically new to the game.

The game started off pretty rocky because none of us really knew what we were doing nor how the rules exactly worked. We all more or less randomly placed down our first two settlements without much strategy in mind. It took around 2 rounds to understand how to play. We realized very quickly that from the board we received and the settlement locations we initially chose that it was very difficult to obtain any wheat. They all were occupied by less common dice rolls (one 3, two 4s, one 5), and there were many points in the beginning and the middle of the game where rounds were very stagnant because everyone needed grain but no one had any (thus no trading occurred either). A picture of our game board at the end of our play is included below:

I definitely chose the wrong places to put my initial settlements and struggled a lot – for most of my rounds, I could barely do anything besides roll and maybe trade before ending my turn. It was fun despite my cluelessness, and there was a lot of fun bickering and begging (e.g. “please, does anyone have a crumb of grain to offer”). I was coined the “humble sheep farmer” because of my sheep monopoly (and probably also my inability to do much else besides hoard wool resources lol). We didn’t really know what to do with the robber because we were all so resource-starved – we just ended up moving the robber back and forth between the desert and a less-coveted resource hex that had an unlikely dice roll. 

The online platform was both helpful and not helpful to the play experience. It was helpful because we were all beginners – it automated the resource distribution and handled trading logistics, which I think we all would have struggled with had we been in-person. It was less helpful because I think we were all prone to distraction since we were remote, and there were periods of times in the game when someone would send a funny meme in the Discord chat and we would devolve into a tangential conversation (which was fun, but we were all kind of constantly stepping in and out of the “magic circle” because of easy distractibility that comes with online settings).

A game that feels a little similar to Catan is the board game Risk, but I’m not too sure since I haven’t played it in about 10 years. Both are heavily strategy-based, are dictated by dice rolls, and have that same rustic aesthetic, but Risk is more about control and combat strategy while Catan focuses on resource management, investments, and diplomacy.

One thing that I might change is some way to mitigate the small possibility of having a difficult game board – in our case, the grain was gatekept from all of us because the wheat hexes were assigned very unlikely dice rolls. In summary, the game was very fun. If it were in-person and we were all more experienced Catan players, I think it definitely would have been more immersive and emotionally charged, but I had a great time regardless.

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  1. I think that’s really interesting to compare the online version to the digital version. I’ve often realized that there’s a weird feeling of playing a digital version of a game (for ex. online poker). I think something about the physicality of analog games (shuffling, rolling dice, playing pieces) makes our decisions feel more important to us and how we play because we can perceive a real-world change in the system, while in a digital version, that link is already made for us through the way the system is coded or walks us through. I wonder if having more friction in the gameplay from playing it in real life makes it more ‘fun’ than online.

  2. I also played Catan for the first time this week, so I related to a lot of what you said. I agree that the game was very enjoyable, despite the small learning curve. I would love to give online a try sometime, because it sounds pretty convenient. It’s great that the online platform helped with automating resource distribution and trading logistics, but it’s understandable that distractions can be a downside of playing remotely. I disagree with the uneven roll of the dice point, because I think the low-yield and high-yield hexes add a unique complexity to the game and causes you to really assess placement of settlements.

  3. Hi Izzy! Thanks for sharing your thoughts about the digital version of Catan.

    The frustration you experienced as a first-time player with placing your settlements in suboptimal locations has me thinking of an easy tweak that might make Catan more newbie friendly. I think the issue is that, as a new player, the game requires you to place your settlements before you really know how the game works, so you’re not likely to know what spots are “good” or “bad.” Moreover, that decision is permanent and has long-term effects on your gameplay, and for a game that requires a couple hours like Catan, that lost investment can feel really punishing for newbies.

    An easy redesign would include prescriptive starting positions for first-time players at relatively balanced locations on the map. It could be as simple as an extra section “For Your First Time” in the rulebook. In my experience working on Overgrowth for 377G, I found that systems games really benefit from a little hand-holding for newbies.

    The online version of Catan looks interesting and starts to resemble Civ a little. I’m glad you had some fun!

  4. Hey Izzy! Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I also played Catan for the first time, and related to finding out how important certain tiles were based on their dice-roll likelihood. Seeing this digital version of Catan seems to simplify a lot of the early confusion, as you mentioned, and I can also see myself having a much easier time understanding the game from the get go. I wonder if the online format might also deter from some more organic interactions during the game (aside from being distracted online), such as modified trading offers or more elaborate alliances. I found that it was nice to have a few house rules during our game, and perhaps that would not be as possible in the online version.

  5. It was really interesting to read about your struggles when learning to play for the first time through the online version. In the real-life version (and other real-life board games), players are forced to tediously read through the rule book to learn how to play when playing for the first time. Reading your post made me wonder, is there an opportunity for the online version of Catan and other online board games to introduce an interactive tutorial? This might be more engaging and help players learn more quickly than having to read a rule book.

  6. I think your insight in the digital version of the game is really interesting and how it affected the limits of the ‘magic circle’ — is it possible that maybe those tangential jokes and conversations can be considered part of the game and the experience? Also adding to your point on how your inexperience with the game made it less immersive, I personally I experienced the opposite, where my lack of knowledge made it easier to barter and beg, even when the barter was completely wack! I wonder how skill and optimization affects how the social elements of this game are carried out.

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