RWP: Catan – Amy Lo

I’ve played Catan many, many times in multiple variations through the Seafarers expansion, Game of Thrones expansion, normal Catan and 2-player Catan in a deck of cards. Catan has been famously acclaimed as a great way to teach about resource management in game design – how to balance complex systems, create a healthy balance of chance and strategy, and even coax out different play strategies as players negotiate, defend, and attack each other.

Often when I’ve lost (many times), I’ve made the joke – at least I’m not good at colonizing! Because even though many games touch upon the maximization of territory or space as a game win condition, it’s visually obvious in Catan that this is a game about expansionism. The identification of settlements and cities and the visual demarcations that the game bits create on the land not only serve as a trackable metric for winning, but the idea behind the game is that only one civilization will prevail – whether that’s by building the longest road, largest army, most advanced infrastructure, dominating a resource, or a combination of the above. 

The connections between the gameplay and the story of a civilization are further reinforced by the game mechanics. In my observations playing Catan, how we play and strategize gets translated to the stories we tell about our civilizations. 

For example: 

  • I capitalized early on wheat and sheep in the game. Thus, I’m focused on development cards to get the largest army to attack. 
  • I focused on building the longest road. This helps me cut other players off and protect my resources. 
  • I am not trading with that player since they’re winning. I’m robbing them later when I roll a 7!

On top of that, Catan is a game that lasts a long, long time. From my experiences playing it, it can go on for even hours depending on chance and the strategies that people play. The player feedback loop – trading, building, collecting resources, defending, attacking – is reinforced through multiple methods both internally and between players. The sheer time that the game takes gives you the opportunity to build a narrative and arc of players’ civilizations. 

An idea from the reading that resonated with me was the comparison between Catan and Spirit Island; both games are about land management, but the way their stories are framed change the game feel and the lessons of the game. This is why the magic circle of Catan is interesting to me. When we discuss colonial values in games, is it possible to divorce the mechanics around resource management and land domination from the idea of colonialism? If we stripped Catan to its base mechanics and created a new world around it, would that make it feel less ‘colonial’? Or are there certain gameplay mechanics that push the ideas of colonialism forward? 

I’m reflecting on the win condition of Catan – how a better resourced, better developed, better defended civilization will ultimately gain dominance over other weaker civilizations. How might we design Catan away from a single winner and create a collaborative, cooperative space? How might we reinforce skills of negotiation, trading, and bartering while minimizing the ‘colonial’ feel? Can Catan be reframed as a game that redeems itself beyond the era of domination that it perpetuates to show how different civilizations can co-exist and work together, rather than compete? Or is Catan doomed to fail as a ‘colonialist’ game (despite its mass commercialized success)? 

Redesigning Catan away from colonialism would be an interesting exercise and imaginative idea. The idea of it reminds me of how history’s interpretations of marginalized groups and native populations have been focused from the perspective of the settler and the dominant civilization that exists today. 

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  1. Hi Amy! Your response echoed a lot of ideas I have about Catan as well, and I’m particularly interested by your question, “How might we design Catan away from a single winner and create a collaborative, cooperative space?”

    There’s something about there only being a single winner that I think we overemphasize in our culture. There’s a selfishness in Catan that comes from a sense of scarcity of resources. Maybe that resource is the “winner” status, which can be only awarded to one player, but maybe it’s the land, or the resource cards, etc.

    But the reality of our world is that resources like food, energy, and healthcare are not so scarce that one person *having* doesn’t mean someone else *not* having. I like your idea of remaking Catan into a game about four co-existing civilizations, each striving for an “adequate” level of resources. I guess we’d have to teach people to value other people’s well-being as well as their own. But I think that’s the kind of society we should design towards.

  2. Hey Amy! Loved reading your thoughts on Catan, particularly about how we could re-design Catan to make the game more creative and collaborative, rather than how winner-dominant it is now. I wondered this too, as during my game, I wasn’t aware of how important it was to focus on resources early on, and felt like it was hard to come back in the face of other, more dominant players. One thought that I had was to change the win condition to perhaps include some incentive for cooperation in order to win. I agree with you that the win condition shapes a lot of how people approach playing Catan.

  3. Hey Amy, I really liked your response! Your thoughts regarding the game’s seemingly inseparable theme of colonialism and how we might design the game away from having a single winner and focus more on collaboration were particularly interesting, and I wonder if those necessarily have to go hand-in-hand. I myself happen to be a very competitive person in the context of board games, and I personally prefer games where I am the sole winner over everybody else (but maybe that just says something about me lol). At the same time, I fully recognize the negative implications of the game’s themes of colonialism and how players are rewarded for dominating the board with their single civilization over those of others. Your response makes me wonder if there is a way to separate Catan from the idea of colonialism while maintaining its one-player-wins-all form.

  4. Hi Amy, I really liked reading about your thoughts on Catan. Especially coming from a player who has only played this once, it’s nice to see a more seasoned player form more organized thoughts on the game. I also am interested in finding out where the line within the magic circle lies between immersing oneself into the colonialist themes and playing simply for the mechanics and fun. I wonder if the same mechanics can be reshaped through fantastical worlds and creatures. It would also be a more challenging exercise to reshape the game into a co-operative one with more micro-competitive aspects engrained within. What that looks like, I’m not exactly sure…

  5. I really enjoyed reading your response, especially on how we might re-design Catan to promote collaboration over competition. One thing I’ve been wondering is whether or not the game systems themselves as a pure interaction system (resource bartering, trading, resource stealing, etc.) outside of the context of their references to real life objects and situations still enforce the original ideas that they are based off of. Is there a way to place Catan in some different context without changing the game mechanics that wouldn’t enforce colonialist values?

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