“Wheat Economy!” We celebrated loudly as the dice rolled on nine for the third time in the past five minutes. With a full hand of wheat, we boast proudly as we are unable to expand any further. Catan with a group of newbies is quite the adventure, and to make it even more interesting, my game group is playing the Games of Thrones Expansion. According to author Eric Thurm in “Avidly Reads Board Games,” Catan is one of the most popular games in the world, selling over “eighteen million copies.” (Thurm 2). However, growing up in a low-income, Asian immigrant family, we never had many board games on the shelf. I’ve always heard of Catan and its popularity, but turned a side-eye, thinking it was too late to learn it past childhood. However, a few days ago, I was proven very much wrong when a group of six newbies gathered together to learn how to play for the first time. Kyle, the seventh player, was the only one familiar with the original version of Catan, and with a read over the guidebook, he was able to fill us in on how to play, as well as GoT’s unique twists.
Due to the size of the group, we split into groups of two, leaving Kyle to be the only singleton. The game first began with a long set up process as Kyle unraveled the guidebook’s lengthy instructions. Unlike normal Catan, this version had three walls labeled 1-5 on top, four different kinds of mobs (wildlings), and hero cards. The wildlings would spawn in one of three camps as players began to expand, and would move towards the walls every round. However, players can block the wildlings from breaching the wall if they build guards. Additionally, hero cards, with unique abilities, could be strategically deployed to add an extra twist to the game. As we played, we began to notice a few quirky mechanics to the expansion that just… made sense. I’ll note down a few: (1) high-yield resources were closer to the wall, which made them more susceptible to being blocked by the wildlings, (2) low-yield resource locations were balanced out with trading posts, (3) wildlings created an incentive to build guards collaboratively to prolong the game and protect resources. The addition of these quirks made the game more complex, but not too complicated for a newbie to learn.
[picture of board mid-game]
As tensions arose during the game, we were most definitely roped into this “magic circle” phenomenon as Thurm writes about (Thurm 13). We began to shift into the roles of diplomats and traders as we formed alliances and rivalries. The game became an intense battle of strategy as groups began to expand and wildlings started nearing the walls. Through this experience, I began to understand why Thurm has centered an integral part of his life around Catan. It’s fun. Possibly addictive.
The only downfall of the game I suppose is its lengthy process to reach 10 victory points as a fully stacked party. Each turn can take a couple minutes and with the addition of having to move the wildlings and keep track of hero cards, the GoT expansion can stretch on for hours. I believe our group played for around 2-3 hours, though most of that was getting adjusted to the flow of the game. I would definitely give it another try in the future! All in all, I would highly recommend the GoT expansion pack to Catan fans or even newbies like me. It comes with many twists and turns, and adds a lot of depth to the original game that so many have come to love. While Phuc and I may not have won, we proudly held the title of the longest connected road, earning us one solid victory point to get us to a total of 8 points by the end of the game. Next time, we’ll get 10.
Thurm, Eric. Avidly Reads Board Games. NYU Press, 2019. pp. 1-26
Hi Ngoc, thank you for sharing! Playing with you and the group this week was a lot of fun, and I want to thank you for bringing yourself to that space and making it so engaging.
Your intuitions for which mechanics “just made sense” are spot-on. I think what you’re feeling is a sense of a well-balanced game, which you might want to read more about here: https://gamedesignconcepts.wordpress.com/2009/08/20/level-16-game-balance/
I’m curious how you’d redesign Catan to get rid of your biggest friction point with it, namely the length. The original version of Catan is faster than the GoT one, I will say.
It was a lot of fun playing Catan with you and the group! Following up with you and Kyle’s point, Catan is truly a well balanced game. There are complex elements, but the overall premise of the game is quite simple.
I wonder how different the game would feel if we all played solo. I feel like having multiple representatives for each team made the game a lot more social and fun!
Thanks for your thoughtful response! I as a newbie myself can definitely relate to the magic circle effect feeling very real once we got things going in the game that I played. It’s interesting to see that there are added mechanics in this GoT themed expansion and that even though they add complexity to the game (which I already thought was complex enough as a newbie), they seem relatively intuitive to pick up. And I had similar thoughts regarding the win condition as well — our game didn’t last until 10 points either. Anyways, really enjoyed reading about your experience!