Why is Catan so Popular?
If you haven’t heard of Catan, then you need to hear of Catan. Catan, also known as Settlers of Catan, is arguably one of the quintessential board games of all time, and a game that helped kickstart the board game renaissance. Before Catan, Monopoly ruled the board game scene, and now we have this wide and wonderful world of games before us.
Designed by Klaus Teuber, and released in 1995, Catan really is the game that helped launch a thousand games, and has sold hundreds of thousands of copies world wide. Almost every gaming household has a copy of Catan on their shelves, and it helped develop gaming into something that relies on more than luck. Instead, it helped turn gaming into something bigger and beautiful.
As a board game blogger, Catan was one of the first games I was ever introduced to. We have it on our shelves, currently sat between Tash Kalar: Arena of Legends and Sagrada – two wildly different games, where the odds are they would not be around if not for Klaus Teuber and his island based negotiation game.
Catan has spawned a thousand questions over the past 24 years, and today I thought we would look at one in particular – namely, Catan has been around for over twenty years now, and it is still as popular as ever. Why is Catan so popular and why does it continue to reign supreme as an incredible Eurogame?
Of course, as a bit of a disclaimer, this is just my opinion on why Catan is so popular – please feel free to disagree and discuss in the comments below.
Why is Catan so Popular?
To answer the question as to why Catan is so popular we are going to need to break it down into core components. We are going to need to look at the theme, when it came out, the mechanics, and the accessibility of the game. All of those aspects together, along with a few others, play a part in creating the cultural phenomenon that is Catan.
The Birth of Catan
There are, when we look back through gaming history (starting at 1995 and moving backwards) a few predominant themes in the gaming world. We have economics with games such as Mayday, and Monopoly. There were word based games – the Scrabble and Boggle style games of this world. We had games of conquest such as the 4X games (which weren’t hugely played in the mainstream market), and games like Diplomacy or Risk. There were murder mystery games, mainly designed for dinner parties, and including games like Clue or Cluedo. Finally, we had abstract games – Ludo, Chequers, and the likes.
There were random themes, of course there were; however, there is one thing that a lot of those game have in common – the themes were sort of…well…shallow.
Before we continue, let’s put the abstract games aside – along with games like Chess, and word games like Scrabble. Let’s instead focus on the actively themed area of the market.
Now, there may be a few people looking at this confused, and tutting for either my grand over-arching statement or saying that Catan does not have a deep theme – however, please bear with me. If you take those games, the ones mentioned above, the theme could easily change and completely tweak the game, or the theme is non-existent. For instance, take Operation. Operation has a fairly solid theme; however, what you are trying to do is not intrinsic to the game. Trying not to touch a metal edge of a space and thus complete a connection with a buzzer is a neat feat of gamifying electronics; however, it could be turned into a game about breaking a code or dismantling something fragile with ease.
Even with themed games such as Cluedo (or Clue) have themes that are interchangeable. Cluedo isn’t so much about finding a murderer as it is about set collection and guessing based on what you have seen.
Catan, however, Catan is different.
“Now, hold on a minute,” I hear you protest, “Catan has various iterations such as Star Trek Catan proving the theme is transient.”
Yes, you are right, dear protesting reader; however, I would like to put forward a concept. What is medieval village building wasn’t the real theme of Catan but rather a secondary theme? What if the primary theme is trading?
If we look at Catan as a medieval game then yes, the theme can easily be changed – it can be turned to Star Trek or Game of Thrones or whatever you want it to be. If; however, you look at Catan and see it as a trading game, then suddenly the game has much more depth. Changing the aesthetic of a game is one thing – Monopoly does it all-the-freaking-time adding and removing mechanics like it is going out of fashion – however, with Catan the theme is so ingrained with that trading concept, the fact that you have to negotiate with your fellow players to get the resources you need, it is impossible to do change that aspect of the game and for it to still be Catan.
So, in 1995, Catan offered something new. This wasn’t a rehash. This wasn’t Monopoly Cheater’s Edition, or Monopoly: Speed Dice, or Monopoly with the little credit cards, or any other variation where they changed a mechanic or two and released it as a different game under the same name. This wasn’t Cluedo or Clue FX or Clue Express. This was something different, where the game was built around the mechanics and not the mechanics built around the concept of the game.
This is where Catan is really, seriously, clever, and something it deserves to be heralded for. In regards to mechanics, Catan actually took several different mechanics and aspects of gameplay, and merged them together to create something fabulous and new. Each aspect of Catan is both brand new and completely recognisable at the same time.
As gamers it is possible to pull Catan apart mechanic by mechanic. The dice, for instance, are not something new; however, how they are implemented is. Rather than being a simple roll-to-check, Catan doesn’t use dice for the instant roll-and-resolve mechanic so often seen before. Instead, what Catan sees is dice being used as a method of enabling the gameplay, being a part of a larger resource management mechanic than simply “you rolled a 4, now you can move 4”.
What this does, and how Catan uses dice is actually really clever. Rather than having your whole turn consistently reliant on the dice, you instead have a series of turns wherein the dice obviously help, but they are not the be-all and end-all of the turn. One bad roll won’t throw off your game as you can’t move to where you need to be, but instead a bad roll simply means you need to rely on the other aspects of the game to have a turn.
What this means is that each turn is actually more complex than other contemporary games of the time.
This isn’t the only mechanic that Catan uses in an interesting way. There is, for instance, a type of set collection so you can trade cards with the bank, or the twist on the robber being an interesting take on 7 being the most likely number to come up on two D6.
Where Catan really shines though, isn’t with the mechanics we have mentioned thus far in this article, but rather with the core mechanic of the game – negotiation.
Catan was not only one of the first games to use negotiation in an innovative way, centring it around trading good for use in building things, but it is still one of the quintessential negotiation games of all time. There are, to this day (at time of writing) around 3,400 negotiation games (or games that contain negotiation) of which Catan is still within the top 20 on BGG. That’s pretty remarkable, when you think about it, since it has had almost 25 years to be dethroned.
Negotiation is a difficult aspect to get right withing a board game, and this is where the mechanical genius of Klaus Teuber and Catan comes in. In Catan, all resources are balanced and equal, all are equally valid to the game. What this means it is impossible for a player to never have anything worth trading. They may go a few turns, and the dice may have other ideas for a while, but you can never go a full game doing nothing.
Looking at the history, the longevity of Catan can be put down to several reasons, some of which we have mentioned here and some of which we are yet to talk about. What does need to be mentioned however, when talking about the mechanics in particular, is how Catan offers so many different routes to victory. There are over 140 different ways to win in Catan, allowing for different strategies to be in play. Those strategies are alluring in their own right, meaning every single game is different. You can’t simply buy Mayfair and win in the world of Catan, but instead have to adapt each and every time the game is played.
Why is Catan so popular? Well…it’s a game for everyone…
So, in may ways, Catan is a beautiful game. One last point needs to be mentioned though before we crack on with talking about other things – and that is how accessible Catan is as a game, and how welcoming it is to everyone who wants to play.
Catan is one of those games that is open to all – it is easy to learn and easy to play. It has unique and interesting mechanics, and it keeps all the players engaged at all times due to the way the dice and negotiation work. All in all, Catan is a game anyone can play, and that is fantastic to know.
So, there we have it – a view, a single view (my view) on why Catan is so popular. I am really interested to know your thoughts – why do you think it has survived the way it has over the past 24 years, and what do you attribute its popularity to? Let me know in the comments below.