Settlers of Catan

Pros: Strategic game-play; conceptually fascinating; replay value (variable board!); great for adults
Cons: Lack of frame for board pieces; lack of card variety
Rating: 5 out of 5

First published 2/5/2003

“The Settlers of Catan,” from Mayfair Games, is a very impressive game. It was the Spiel des Jahres German Game of the Year for 1995, and it won the Origins Award for US Board Game of the Year in 1996. In fact, in 2001 it was inducted into the Hall of Fame of the Academy of Adventure Gaming Arts & Design. It is extremely well-known among game-players, and has a host of expansions and spin-offs.

How You Play

The game comes with a bunch of tiles that you form into a sort of “board.” Land tiles (hexagons) of various types are shuffled and placed in a certain pattern, then surrounded with ocean and ocean/harbor tiles to form a varied land mass surrounded by water. (Note: the first time you play you’re supposed to play with the tiles in a certain configuration, rather than shuffling them. It makes things simpler while you’re learning what you’re doing.) Little round chits with numbers on them are placed on all of the land tiles except for the single desert tile.

Each player takes all of the playing pieces of one color (there are four different colors). These pieces represent roads (straight pieces), settlements, and cities (which are essentially pumped-up settlements). You start off with two settlements and two road pieces on the board at the beginning of the game. (In the beginning game they’re placed in certain places; in later games everyone takes turns placing their settlements.) There are cards representing resources: wood, wool, brick, ore, and wheat. These are produced by five different types of land tile. You roll dice at the beginning of each player’s turn. The land tiles that have the number chits that correspond to the number you rolled produce the relevant resource for anyone who has a settlement or city adjacent to that tile. Unless, of course, you roll a seven, in which case you can activate the “robber” (a black piece) to steal other people’s resources and cause one of their land tiles to stop producing.

You then use resources to build roads, settlements, and cities, or to buy a card from a deck (cards can give you points, let you move the robber, help you build roads, give you extra resources, and so on). Roads are placed along the edges of the hexagons, and settlements and cities are placed at the corners. Having a settlement or a city on a harbor allows you to trade resources at favorable rates. Normally you can, on your turn, trade any four cards of one resource for one card of another. Harbors let you trade at 2-for-1 or 3-for-1. Also, you can negotiate trades with other players.

The objective is to be the first player with a certain number of points. Settlements and cities are both worth points. Some cards are worth points. If you have the longest continuous road of at least a certain length you get points, and so on.

Why Settlers Is So Popular

The game play allows for a fair amount of strategizing, but has elements of luck so that you don’t always lose to someone who’s better at strategy than you are. The game play is also remarkably balanced. We find that players usually stay within one or two points of each other until close to the end of the game. This is a desirable and difficult-to-achieve trait in a game. After all, few people enjoy games where it’s obvious within the first ten minutes that one person has won, and you all spend the next hour going through the motions.

It’s a surprisingly absorbing game. It isn’t mindless and boring, but neither is it so complex that it’s difficult to play. You can customize it to a certain extent. The basic manual gives you the easy game-play instructions using the pre-set board. Once you want more, there’s an “almanac” filled with things like the alternate set-up instructions, answers to common questions, and so on. Because the board changes with every game, no two games are alike. This gives the game wonderful replay value.

The pieces are of good quality. The “tiles” are thick cardboard that has yet to get bent or otherwise damaged in our play. The road, settlement, and city pieces are simple wood without any little frobby bits to get broken off.

Any Problems?

There’s no frame to put the land and ocean tiles into, so it’s kind of easy to bump the tiles and mis-align them. Not a big problem, but mildly annoying. This is solved with the addition of the “Seafarers of Catan” expansion (see below). There isn’t a wide variety of cards that you can draw, so they get a bit tiresome after a while. However, you can find a wider variety of cards in the “Cities & Knights of Catan” expansion. Also, you can’t really play with two people. If you try it, you end up with a much faster, much less well-balanced, much less absorbing game.

Thanks to the little number chits and such, it is possible to lose pieces. Keep track of what you’re supposed to have, and find ways to substitute if you lose something. We make sure to keep all pieces in zip-loc bags when we aren’t using them, so it’s easier to keep track of them and keep them from wandering off.

Expansions and Spin-Offs

There is a 5-6 player expansion available for the basic game.

The “Seafarers of Catan” is an expansion. It solves the lack of frame problem by providing one, as well as additional land and sea tiles so that you can create a larger and more complex game board. You need “Settlers of Catan” in order to play it. You can also purchase a 5-6 player expansion for it. The “Cities and Knights of Catan” is one that I’m afraid I haven’t played yet, but it looks like it provides a much wider variety of cards. It, too, is an expansion, and requires the original game for play. You can also purchase a 5-6 player expansion for it.

“Starfarers of Catan” is an expensive stand-alone game that lets you take your settlers to the stars. It comes with the most insane number of bits and pieces, including four big starships. “Starship of Catan” is a two-player stand-alone variant of the game.

Since 5-6 player expansions do exist for Settlers as well as several of the expansions, make sure you know what you’re buying when you buy it!

Statistics for Settlers of Catan

  • Age group: 12 and up
  • Time to play: roughly 1-2 hours
  • Number of players: 3 or 4

Two-Player Variation

Okay, I know I said you can’t play with two players. I sort of lied. My husband and I came up with a two-player variation that works well for us, so I’ll share it here. Note: This only works if you and your partner are reasonably relaxed and calm about game-play. If you’re horribly competitive, you probably just want to go ahead and find a third player.

It’s actually a very simple solution: cooperatively run a third “player.” We find that this balances things out better and leads to a more satisfying game. Of course it’s hard to be objective. For the most part we just do our best to figure out what the “third player” would really do if it were a real person. When we have a hard time making a decision, we find a way to solve it by rolling dice. (For instance, the third player gets to move the robber. If we have trouble figuring out who he’d most likely send it after, we roll the dice: even he goes after me, odd he goes after my husband.)

It is true that the third player is probably at a disadvantage, since you need to leave his cards visible and you’re always going to have an agenda, no matter how hard you try to be objective. This is okay. The point isn’t to have a third person who might win–the point is to have a more balanced, longer, more absorbing game. And creating a team-played third player does this for us.


We finally discovered “Settlers of Catan” when we were given a gift certificate to Funagain Games. We went browsing, and Settlers is listed as one of their all-time best sellers, so we decided it was worth a try. We haven’t been disappointed! In fact, we played it almost all day long on my birthday and never once got tired of it. Now go find out for yourself!

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