If you like your board games quick and simple, then Catan is not for you. However, if you’re looking to settle in for a long session of challenging strategic play, then read on.
I was provided with a copy of this game for review purposes.
Given how much I love strategy games, it’s surprising I have managed to go so long without playing Catan. Winner of the prestigious Spiel des Jahres (Game of the Year) in 1995, it’s an established classic of the genre. Think of Risk crossed with Civilization and you’re in the ballpark. But instead of Risk’s countries on a map of the world, here you have hexagons (‘hexes’) on an island.
Catan is either a three or four-player game. The aim is to be the first to reach ten points by building a combination of settlements, cities and other point-scoring developments. To achieve this, players must acquire five different types of natural resource in varying combinations. Resources are earned either by settling adjacent to relevant hexes or by trading with others.
Victory requires planning, negotiation, tactical flexibility and a smidgen of luck. Dice rolls at the start of each turn determine resource allocation. They also introduce an element of chance to game-play, ensuring that the ‘best’ player doesn’t always win.
Catan is not the kind of game you can just pick up and start playing immediately. It requires some patience to read and understand the rules for the first time. Having said that, the instruction booklet is clear and easy to follow.
The game is intended for ages ten and up. Having said that, Toby is nearly eight and something of a strategy game whiz, and had no problem picking it up. However, I probably wouldn’t play with anyone younger or less experienced.
It takes a while to get a game going, particularly for the first time, but it is worth the effort. Once you’ve got your head around the basics of the game it’s quite straightforward to play. It quickly had both me and the boys thoroughly absorbed.
We soon discovered that the game allows for multiple different strategies to be equally effective. There is sufficient complexity to ensure that no two games are alike. And it is long enough that there is a pleasing ebb and flow to the game. We constantly found the advantage shifted constantly between different players, influenced by trades and the random nature of the dice rolls.
A three-player game typically takes up to 1½ hours. (Allow two hours for the four-player version.) But the game never feels slow. Even when it’s not your turn, you need to be attentive to your opponents’ progress and opportunities to trade. Unlike Monopoly it never feels attritional, as if you are taking forever to finish a game the result of which has long been decided.
What did we particularly like about Catan? We liked the heavy strategy element as this is the type of game we all prefer anyway. The game is both complex and long enough to require players to adopt a flexible approach. The trading aspect of the game also calls for canny negotiating skills as players exchange resources while still trying to outmanoeuvre each other.
The only real downside to the game is the cost. Catan sells at an RRP of £44.99, although you will find it cheaper if you shop around. But that high price does translate into quality materials. The playing board and other cardboard elements are pleasingly robust and should stand up well to repeated use. And small touches such as providing individual sealable bags to separate and safely store all the playing pieces are also welcome.
A range of expansion packs is available, offering an array of gameplay variations to maintain interest. These include both two-player and 5-6 player options. The original ‘classic’ version of the game is also available as both an iOS and Android app, as well as in PC format.
We enjoyed playing Catan very much, despite its length and complexity. It’s perfect for those long, cold days when you have no intention of leaving the house. Thoroughly recommended.