SdJ Re-Reviews #17: Die Siedler von Catan (a.k.a. The Settlers of Catan)

  • Designer:  Klaus Teuber
  • Publisher:  Multiple (Originally Kosmos)
  • Players:  3 – 4
  • Ages:  10 and Up
  • Time:  90 Minutes
  • Times Played:   > 50 (On Various Mayfair Games Editions)

Siedler Cover

Die Siedler von Catan: The game that changed everything…

The Washington Post has called it “the game of our time.”  Wired described it as a “Monopoly killer.”  The game has inspired songs and a novel, and there are dozens of references in pop culture.  With more than 22 million products sold in more than 30 different languages, there is no Eurogame with as big of a footprint as Die Siedler von Catan.  

By 1991 Klaus Teuber was Germany’s biggest game design star: he had won the Spiel des Jahres a record-settling three times and had sold at least a million games. He was publishing at a rapid pace — he had nearly a dozen titles to his credit by the time Catan was released — but he still saw game design as a hobby, albeit a well-paying one.  He continued to work at the dental laboratory he had inherited from his father, designing games in his basement on nights and weekends.

Teuber started experimenting with a game based on an uncharted island as early as 1991.  He had been fascinated by Vikings since he was a child, and he had the first sparks of inspiration for Catan after reading about them: “When I developed the game in the early nineties, at first I envisioned Iceland, which during the Early Middle Ages was warmer than today. There were birch forests on this island in the far north when the first settlers arrived; however, within a rather short period of time, the trees were lumbered for building longhouses and ships. Grain was growing only sparsely, but sheep and horses thrived on the otherwise barren volcanic island. Therefore, trade must have been the most important means for the Icelandic settlers to get the vital goods ore, grain, and lumber.”

Klaus Teuber thought the idea for this game was special from the start.  As he told Wired, “I felt like I was discovering something rather than inventing it.”  But his initial versions were complex, despite only having three terrain types.  Teuber’s playtesters — his wife and three kids — weren’t impressed by early prototypes.  One early version rewarded developing cities in clusters, permitting users to form a metropolis.  Another had a round of conflict at the end of the game.

Development lasted four years.  As Teuber slowly reduced the game to its essentials, it started to look like the game we know today.  The big breakthrough moment came in 1993 when Teuber started using hexagonal tiles instead of squares.  He also removed an element simulating discovery from the game: in early prototypes the tiles started face down.  At the urging of Reiner Müller, the man that had pressured ASS Altenburger Spielkarten into publishing Barbarossa years earlier, Teuber added player aids to make the game easy to learn.

Some of the more complex ideas from early Catan prototypes were later worked into other Teuber games, particularly Löwenherz and Entdecker.  Those games have been marketed as rounding out the “Catan Trilogy.”

As the game approached completion, Teuber started calling it “Die Siedler von Catan,” or in English, The Settlers of Catan.  That name would last for 20 years: Teuber and his publishers decided just this year to just start calling the game “Catan.”

Once he was satisfied with the game — and once his family approved — Teuber began showing the game to publishers.  Two large, well-known publishers turned him down.  Teuber considered publishing the game through a company he and three partners (including Müller) had founded in 1992 called TM-Spiele, but ultimately TM-Spiele couldn’t take on the project because the production costs were estimated to be too high.  Müller put Teuber in touch with Kosmos, who reduced the game from six players to four to save on production, promising to release the 5th and 6th player version in a later expansion.

Kosmos released the game in 1995, and it was an instant success.  According to Wired, the initial print run of 5,000 units sold out so quickly that Teuber himself doesn’t have a first edition.  The game sold 400,000 copies in its first year, and sales were solid in Germany for at least the next decade: the game had sold more than 8 million German units by its tenth anniversary.  When sales in Germany started to flatten (likely because of market saturation), the game’s international sales took off, and sales estimates today for Catan products stand at more than 22 million.  Though Teuber knew his creation was special, as he told The New Yorker, even he has been surprised by the game’s success.

The game won every major German game award in 1995, including the SdJ and Deutscher Spiele Preis.  The SdJ jury citing the game’s immersive experience and harmonious combination of different game elements.  Among the games nominated for the SdJ that year was Galopp Royal, another Teuber creation.

Catan has had dozens of expansions, spinoffs, and scenarios over the past two decades.  Though the game wasn’t the first Spiel des Jahres winner to receive an expansion, it kicked off an expansion craze: about three quarters of SdJ winners since Catan have gone on to receive expansions.  Catan has, in many ways, become a franchise.  One spinoff has received significant recognition in its own right: the Catan Card Game received an SdJ nomination in 1997, and it ranked second in Deutscher Spiele Preis voting that year, losing to Teuber’s Löwenherz.

Teuber started developing games for Goldsieber in 1995, where he worked on another SdJ winner: 1997’s Mississippi Queen. Teuber got another DSP win in 1997 for Löwenherz.  He’s released a few games since, but he hasn’t won a major German game prize since 1997, likely because he’s concentrated his efforts on building his Catan empire.

He started working for Kosmos in 1998, and he left his dental laboratory to in 1999 to become a full-time game designer.  He and his sons founded Catan GmbH, which now markets Catan worldwide in coordination with several other publishers.

Coming to America: How Catan Arrived on U.S. Shores

As described in Bob Scherer-Hook’s history of German games in the United States, Catan’s arrival here aligns with the growth of the American gaming hobby.

Ray Pfeifer, a gaming enthusiast from Baltimore, started selling copies of Catan at the 1995 Gathering of Friends.  He had imported 24 copies, and they sold out in the convention’s first day.  He ordered 70 more, selling them at Avaloncon (Avalon Hill’s gaming convention) out of the back of his car.  As he told Scherer-Hook, “I remember that year the most played game at Avaloncon wasn’t an Avalon Hill game; it was Settlers.  I sold them out of the trunk of my car in the parking lot at the convention. I remember at one point Jackson Dott (Avalon Hill’s owner) came out to find out what was going on.”  Pfeifer started importing copies of the game and sold more than 500 copies.

Meanwhile, word of Catan spread on the internet.  There were messages about Die Siedler von Catan on rec.games.board within weeks of the games’s release, and the game was covered in Sumo and on The Game Cabinet.

At around the same time, Mayfair was looking into importing German games.  Jay Tummelson (who would later found Rio Grande Games) was assigned to the project, and he negotiated with Teuber personally to publish the game in the United States under the title “The Settlers of Catan.”  Tummelson pushed for the original German presentation, but Mayfair wanted new artwork for the U.S. market.  Mayfair released their version in 1996, and that company continues to publish the game even today.  Guido Tueber, son of Klaus Teuber, is currently an executive at Mayfair, and Catan GmbH is a major shareholder in the company.  Mayfair has said that Catan products make up more than half of their revenue.

Catan caught on quickly after its U.S. introduction, and the growth here has been exponential ever since.  The game had sold a total of about 100,000 units by 2004, but by 2008 that had grown to more than 600,000 copies.  The game is reportedly still selling hundreds of thousands of units per year.  It is easy to see why: it is one of the few Eurogames that can be found in big box stores, and it has benefited from numerous references in pop culture.

The game made a famous appearance on The Big Bang Theory, and even the Green Bay Packers have been caught up in the Catan obsession.  The game has spawned several internet memes… a quick search for Catan over at Imgur can entertain you for half an hour or so.  Catan inspired a novel, and rumors of a movie have surfaced.  I’ve seen Settlers of Catan themed bumper stickers and t-shirts, and not just at game conventions.  The game now has its own convention, which has been previously covered by Opinionated Gamer Mark Jackson.

The Gameplay: Modular Board, Dice Rolling, Hand Management, Network Building, Engine Building, and Trading

Catan has been published in five different editions, each with minor changes to the rules.  I’m going to focus on the rules for the Fifth Edition, which is the most recent.  A copy of the rules can be found at Catan.com.  This overview is not intended to be comprehensive: I’m going to be brief since few readers will need a thorough overview of the game.  I’m going to focus on the four-player game.

Catan Game Board

Catan has a modular board made up of nineteen tiles.  These tiles are placed randomly, and lettered chits are then placed on them in a circular fashion, starting with “A” and ending with “R.”  Each chit also has a number ranging from 2 to 12, indicating the die roll needed to receive resources from that hex.  The game features five terrain types:  Hills (which produce Brick), Pasture (which produce Wool), Mountains (which produce Ore), Fields (which produce Grain), and Forest (which produce Lumber).  In my experience few players actually use the terms Wool, Grain, or Lumber, instead replacing those terms with Sheep, Wheat, and Wood, respectively.  The robber starts on the desert tile, which produces nothing.  Ocean space with various ports is placed around the board.

Catan Components

The first player places one settlement and one road (which must adjoin the settlement) on the board.  The second, third, and fourth players then do this.  The fourth player then repeats the process, followed by the third, second, and first.  The game then begins.

On a player’s turn he must roll two dice.  All settlements and cities adjacent to a hex with the number rolled receive the resource of that hex (unless the robber has been placed on that tile).  Settlements receive one of the resource; cities receive two.  If a seven is rolled the player may move the robber and steal one resource card from one opponent with a settlement or city adjacent to the corresponding hex.  Additionally, when a seven is rolled any player with more than seven cards in their hand must discard half of them.

Catan Side Shot

A player may freely build and/or trade after they have rolled the dice.  Roads cost one brick and one wood.  Settlements cost one brick, sheep, wheat, and wood.  A settlement must be built at least two hex sides from any other settlement or city.  Cities replace settlements and cost three ore and two wheat.  A player may also buy a “development card” for one ore, sheep, and wheat.

Catan Resource Cards

Development cards may not be played on the turn they are bought.  Some cards are “knights,” which allow a player to move the robber without rolling a seven.  Others are either victory points or special actions, such as the “Monopoly” card, which allows a player to take all of one resource type from the other players.

The player on turn may trade with any other player.  (Trading is prohibited unless it is with the player on turn.)  If a player is unable to strike a deal with other players, he may trade the bank any four identical resource cards for any one resource card.  There are certain ports that make it a 3:1 ratio or 2:1 ratio, but the latter requires a specific type of resource.

Catan Player POV

A player’s turn ends when he passes his dice.

The game ends when a player gets ten points.  A settlement is worth one point, and a city is worth two points.  Some development cards are worth points.  The player with the longest road gets two points (if the road is at least five spaces long) and the player with the largest army (i.e. most knights) gets two points (if he has played at least three knights).

Catan Longest Road and Largest Army

Does it stand the test of time?  My thoughts on the game…

My first experience with Catan was in 2004, when a college roommate bought a copy and insisted we all give it a try.  We must have played it a couple of dozen times that year, and I’ve played it dozens more times since.  Catan was my first Eurogame.  I don’t consider it my “gateway game” (since I wouldn’t touch another Eurogame for a few years), but I do acknowledge that it awakened me to German-style games.  I still vividly remember another roommate mentioning that Catan had won an award called the “Spiel des Jahres,” which he described as a big deal in Germany.

Catan has a lot to love, and I think of the game as a timeless classic.  The game is easy to learn and features a great balance of luck and skill.  The modular game board enhances replayability, and I like the artwork and overall presentation value, particularly on recent German editions.  The theme is fun… and in fact the theme is what got me to try Catan all those years ago.

My favorite part of the game is how several different mechanics interweave seamlessly to form a great gaming experience.  This game has a lot going on — dice rolling, hand management, network building, engine building, and trading — but it manages to combine these elements without feeling complex.  There are multiple paths to victory, and trading and the robber can act as a natural “catch up” mechanism.

Catan rarely goes longer than an hour with experienced gamers.  I recently participated in a Catan tournament at Geekway to the West, and the vast majority of games were finished in less than 50 minutes (the maximum time under the tournament’s rules).  The length of the game seems to depend primarily on the amount of trading activity.

If pressed to offer nitpicks, I’d offer two.  First, I dislike the recent name change.  Everybody I know calls the game “Settlers,” including myself, and I begrudgingly called the game Catan in this article.  Second, on some U.S. editions the component quality could be higher: it can be difficult to assemble the game board, particularly the ocean tiles.

Catan is routinely held out as a great “gateway game.”  That reputation is deserved: I suspect Catan has done more than any other game to bring new players into the U.S. hobby.  A couple of its gameplay elements — dice rolling and trading — make it a natural starting point for people who have played Monopoly all their lives.  The game is approachable for new gamers.

Nonetheless, I personally never pull out Catan for those inexperienced with Eurogames.  The game is heavier than other “gateway games” like Carcassonne or Ticket to Ride, and I’ve seen people baffled by Catan, even if that is the exception and not the rule.  More importantly, games with new players tend to take longer than they should, mostly because those players want to explore every possible trade option.  I once saw — but thankfully didn’t participate in — a game that lasted three hours.  And in the end, Catan does not, in my experience, necessarily cause players to want to try other games: I’ve had new gamers show up to game nights and want to play Catan… and only Catan.

I’ve tried many of the game’s expansion, spinoffs, and scenarios, and they’re worth trying, but for me the base game is still the best version.  Many of the expansions — both major and minor — add length and complexity to the game without adding much joy.  The beauty of Catan is in its seamless integration of various gameplay elements.  It took Teuber four years to distill the game to its core, and that core is, in my opinion, nearly flawless with great replayability.  Why add more?

Would Catan win the SdJ today?  I think so.  I think the game compares favorably to many recent nominees, and I’ve seen comments from a couple of jury members saying that the game is still one of their favorites.  More importantly, I don’t know that Catan has been done better in the 20 years since its initial release.  With a BGG weight rating of 2.4 the game is in Kennerspiel territory (7 Wonders is only a 2.3), but that rating seems a bit high to me.  In the end I think the jury would say the same thing they said 20 years ago and praise Catan’s immersive experience and harmonious combination of different game elements.

Thoughts from Other Opinionated Gamers

Lorna: I also still enjoy vanilla Settlers and I can’t get used to calling it Catan. Am I showing my gamer age? I have enjoyed many of the expansions as well. Admittedly it rarely hits the table these days but when it does I still have fun.

Larry:  I played Settlers for the first time in the late nineties.  I had heard so much about this magical design and since I was actively seeking something different than the American gaming fare available at the time, I was really looking forward to it.  The game was pretty good, but it fell considerably short of the loud praises it was receiving in other quarters.  In most of my games, there was a period of frustration when the dice weren’t going your way, since you can’t trade when you’ve got nothing to trade with.  Eventually, my group fell in love with Alan Moon’s Airlines and that, and not Settlers, became our gateway to what was then called German Games.

In the years that have followed, I’ve played very little of the game.  Almost all of my plays have been with the original Vanilla Settlers.  I’d have no problem joining in if an additional player was needed, but I wouldn’t be that enthusiastic about it.  As well crafted as the design is, it’s too light to really hit my sweet spot.  It’s also built on a high-luck base, which limits its appeal to me.

I also question the assertion that Settlers is a good gateway game.  Maybe with experienced gamers from other fields, that you’re trying to expose to Eurogames.  But I can’t agree that it’s a good introduction for a non-gamer or casual gamer.  The reason I feel this way is simple:  the most important decision you make during the entire game is your very first one (where you place your opening settlements).  That’s a tough way to start a less experienced gamer out and I’ve seen many cases where it’s led to great frustration.  I think Ticket to Ride, Carcassonne, and Blokus make much better gateway games.

None of the preceding diminishes my admiration for the game and its critical place in spreading Eurogaming to the world.  It isn’t too much of an exaggeration to say that the entire hobby that I love wouldn’t be nearly the same, or nearly as great, if Settlers had never been created.  So thank you, Herr Teuber, for making this all possible.

Mark Jackson: This is still one of my favorite games – and while I agree that “vanilla” is a splendid game experience, I also enjoy the wide variety of the expansions (with a couple of notable exceptions). The new edition is a step in the right direction for the U.S. market – it’s more consistent thematically and has lovely art from Michael Menzel. (I have an early German edition for two reasons: the horrible picture art of the earliest American editions and the incredibly slow process in the first 4-5 years of printing the expansions in English.)

I still don’t get to play it as often as I’d like – it’s become “cool” to hate on Settlers in some gamer circles – but it continues to be one of of my top ten board games.

Matt C:  As the most avid gamer I knew at the time, I had to stumble across “Settlers”/”Catan” myself through rec.games.board message board and picked up a copy right after Mayfair published their first edition.  Always one willing to play a boardgame, Catan had a unique style that drew me in.  I was particularly attracted by the player interaction (even when it’s not your turn), the lack of player elimination, and how anything a player creates can’t be torn down (your roads and buildings will never be killed off by another player.)  The game quickly caught on amongst my friends and became quite a hit in our grad-student crowd.  I (due to finances and general availability) went so far as to create my own 5-6 player expansion (color printing for tiles and plastic modeling clay for pieces.)  We even did an 8 player “island” game – painful, but fun for the event.  The more players in a game, the more likely someone is going to get hemmed in and have an annoyingly ineffective endgame.  Perhaps my proudest moment of Catan-mania was when I made my own travel edition (before one existed.)  Color-printed, laminated (moveable) hexagons, slipped into a plastic sleeve for documents formed the board and roads and buildings were drawn in grease pen.  Resource cards were tracked on laminated player aids the same way.  Tiny development cards (color printed and laminated again) formed the rest of the game.  It all fit in a folder and was water-proof so we could even take it to the beach and play (or on an airplane…)  Many fond memories of that time, although I now recognize my taste is for games that have a bit more of a “technology tree.”  I still count Catan as a gateway game, but I do make sure new gamers pick from one or two viable starting options so that they don’t shoot themselves in the foot and have a bad first experience.

Greg Schloesser:  This was my first real taste of the European game market and I was immediately enamored.  It is a funny story that I’ve told on various forums.  I was perusing the shelves of Hub Hobby, a local New Orleans game store that I visited and patronized frequently.  I noticed two games that weren’t part of the Avalon Hill or SPI ilk.  One was Die Hanse, which was immediately enticing due to the full cover artwork of a ship struggling mightily in a raging storm.  The other was a bland-looking game called Settlers of Catan that was packaged in a very plain brown box.  I knew nothing of either game, but took a chance on Die Hanse, mainly due to the evocative artwork.

While driving home (yes, I was being reckless!), I opened the shrink and discovered that everything was in German.  I immediately called the store and they allowed me to return it, where I exchanged it for the other game:  Settlers of Catan.  We played the game that night and I was hooked.  I later had the opportunity to play Die Hanse and was very unimpressed.  I still am thankful that my first European-style game was Settlers of Catan and not Die Hanse.  If it had been the latter, I may never have ventured further into this wonderful world of European games.

I am still a huge fan of Settlers of Catan.  It is a perfect blend of strategy, luck and interaction, all woven together in a package that never fails to entice and enthrall.  It is the poster-child for European games.

Patrick Brennan: Luck can have an impact (alleviated by the poverty variant), but it’s proven very replayable over time. I’ve played most of the expansions, but the relative simplicity of the original has provided lasting appeal. Attractions include the building theme, the sociability of the trading, and the requirement to carefully consider risk and probabilities. All of which adds up to an engaging and enjoyable experience.

Joe Huber (more than 94 plays): Actually, my total is likely around 150; I first played Die Siedler von Catan (unlike Chris, I feel no requirement to use the new name) in 1995, received a copy for my birthday thanks to my father picking one up at Just Games in London when he was there on business, and played it almost continuously for the rest of that year – the year before I started recording my plays.  It quickly became my single favorite game – and despite challenges, remains so today.  While many of the variants are popular, I still prefer the original game – though, just for the fun of it, I do have the Ritter expansion so that I can offer vanilla _or_ chocolate Settlers.  Die Siedler von Catan combines many of my favorite gaming elements – development, trading, and hand management, with a dash of exploration – so it’s no surprise that it works so well for me.

Fraser: One of my early memories of Settlers of Catan is a group of us putting an English and German set together for large number of players.  Fun to do once or twice, but these days I prefer to play it three players.  Apart from being a good interesting game, we used to play this with Daughter the Elder when she was quite young and record the dice results to demonstrate aspects of probability and the bell curve to her.

Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers

  • My single favorite game.  Joe H.
  • I love it!  Chris W., Lorna, Mark Jackson, Erik Arneson, Patrick B., Fraser
  • I like it.   Matt C.
  • Neutral.  Larry
  • Not for me…
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5 Responses to SdJ Re-Reviews #17: Die Siedler von Catan (a.k.a. The Settlers of Catan)

  1. huzonfirst says:

    One further comment. I don’t think current gamers appreciate how complex Settlers was considered at the time of its appearance. That’s one of the reasons Teuber had so much trouble getting it published; even after it had been pruned down, it was considerably more involved than the family fare of the day. It’s a testament to the game, but also to the capabilities of the gaming public, that what was a rules-heavy game for its time was such a smash hit.

    I’ve read that, even though the game’s popularity was unprecedented, there was still some second thoughts about awarding it the SdJ. It was just so much more involved than the earlier winners. I’m certain that the only reason it did win was that the Jury didn’t have to speculate if such a game could appeal to families; the sales figures showed that it could, and in record numbers. Even if Settlers didn’t fit the usual SdJ mold, it was such a phenomenon that it would have been a travesty if any other game had been chosen instead.

    The game’s complexity is the reason why, even though I suspect Settlers would win the SdJ if it appeared today, I’m not 100% certain of it. The main award is out of the question–the game is way too involved for that. That leaves the Kennerspiel and while it may be a touch light for that, it does fit the concept of that award pretty well. But would the game itself, divorced from any sales figures, be a sure thing to win? I don’t think it would be a slam dunk. It’s not obvious that Settlers is an all-time great game by reading the rules. There was just something there that struck a chord. Maybe it was a product of its time, that there was a pent-up desire for something better in the gaming world, and that momentum continues to this day. So perhaps it wouldn’t be chosen. But I suspect it would; as Chris mentions, the sales remain fantastic, so there’s no reason to think the game isn’t just as appealing today as it was 20 years ago, and there’s a good chance the Jury would respond to that.

    • Right after Settler they awarded El Grande, which was even heavier and thats what probably causes Mississippi Queen to win in 96 – everyone wanted Löwenherz to win, but that would have been the 3rd heavy game in a row and the jury avoided that.

      • huzonfirst says:

        Everyone may have wanted Lowenherz to win in ’97, Peer, but it’s hard for me to believe it was ever a serious contender for the award. I adore Lowenherz, which is in my personal top 10 and is easily my favorite Teuber design. But it’s such a contentious and *nasty* game! That’s great for experienced gamers, but I have to assume it’s way too much for families. Instead, my guess is the big debate among the jury members that year was between Mississippi Queen and Bohnanza.

        • Im not sure.Of course I dont have inside in the jury, but I remember that Bohnanza was flying quite under the radar in gaming circles. Plus it was a cardgame and nobody saw those as serious contenders back then… With hindsight Bohnanza might have been the best choice though, but I cant remember anyone speaking in favour of it back then (here in germany)

  2. Settlers wasnt the first one to offer expansions, but Chris is right – it certainly help starting the expansion craze.
    What I want to add however is that Settlers still has some of the best expansions of all SdJs out there. Many games offered expansions to milk the money cow, which is fine of course, but the Settlers expansions all add something good and dont just offer “more of the same”. This is all the more reason to praise Teuber, because a good expansion is very difficult to design.

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