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A Paean to Catan

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A Paean to Catan

Don’t call it an addiction.  Don’t dismiss it as a childish hobby.  Board gaming is the noblest of pastimes, a passion shared by all who are true of heart. 

So when was my revelation of this truth?  Where was my Damascus road?  The seeds were there in my youth.  I spent hours with my brother playing campaigns of Heroquest.  I branched out to D&D briefly.  I dabbled in chess.  I lorded over the battlefields of Axis and Allies. 

But these seeds didn’t find soil to root themselves in until I stumbled upon Settlers of Catan (Klaus Teuber’s 1995 Spiel des Jahres Winner).  This game exposed me to the wider world of hobby games and set me on a path I’m still running down.  This is your quintessential gateway game, and if you haven’t discovered it yet it’s time you were introduced. 

The very box itself screams excitement: “A game of settlement, discovery, and trade!”  But don’t let that deter you; it really is a blast.  The game is equal parts resource management, area control, and chicanery.  Your goal is to build the most thriving network of settlements, cities, and roads, which then will grant you access to more and more resources, all in pursuit of being the first to amass ten victory points (primarily granted through those settlements (one point each) and cities (two points each)).

So why does this game stand out among all the other games that are out there?  The engine that makes this game hum is its simplicity—and its capacity for ruthless play.  After the initial set up, where players take turns placing their initial settlements (I recommend using the tournament quick-start rules: one settlement and road, then a city and road, and then a final road), the gameplay is quite straightforward.  You roll the dice at the start of your turn; gather resources if the number rolled is on a land tile on which you have a settlement or city; then spend your resources if you can, trade if you need, or pass the dice.  This simplicity makes the game very accessible to the gamer and non-gamer alike. 

But beneath the surface lies a satisfying amount of depth, which is what draws me back to the island of Catan even after hundreds of plays.  As you journey here again and again, you learn to assess the best initial placements in the beginning, anticipating what spots will be left to you for your second placement.  You begin to predict where players are heading and cut them off.  You gauge how badly players wants a resource, and to exact as much from them as possible when they want to trade.  You endure the couch the night after playing, knowing that your spouse’s ire is no match for the thrill of victory.

This is the only game I’ve rated a 10.  It nearly always leaves both the novice and the experienced gamer craving for more.  It has enough luck to allow newcomers a chance, yet it rewards quality play enough that certain players reach victory more often than not.  It scales well, from two to four (for two players, increase the goal to twelve victory points), and even does well with the 5-6 Player Expansion.  It has high replayability; its modular board ensures that each game is its own puzzle.  Once you want more variety, Seafarers is available to keep the game’s feel with an added wrinkle of sea tiles and boats.  Want more depth?  Cities and Knights is available too. 

Mostly, though, I love this game because it was my gateway—as it was for so many of us—into the hobby gaming world.  This changed the nature of our family interactions.  We’ve sat around the table more, laughed and squabbled (“Trade me your sheep, or you'll never see your grandson again!”) more, and found more opportunities to gather under the same roof.  And while I tend to put more tactical strategy games on the table during my weekly game nights, this game will always be held in special reverence for how it has been interwoven into the texture of our lives. 

Happy gaming!

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