CATAN, also known as The Settlers of Catan, is one of those transformational games. When you look at the core mechanisms, you might think I was describing Monopoly, but in reality, its play is like what Monopoly promises that makes it so appealing. For that duality and its huge popularity, Catan must be included in any gaming canon.
The aspects of Monopoly that most people enjoy are fairly straightforward. There’s negotiation in trading properties. There’s real-estate empire building and closing off avenues for your opponents to avoid paying you. And there’s also a series of random events that sway some outcomes.
However, that’s where much of the admiration ends. At times, Monopoly is very much driven by luck. It’s also a game with a cutthroat winning condition; a single player wins by defeating other players with no time limit. These two drawbacks (according to popular opinion), instill in people many unhappy memories of Monopoly.
Released in 1995 in Germany, Catan uses what makes Monopoly fun and repackages it and streamlines it. Don’t like the dependency on die rolls? Catan has a mechanism where players receive resources based on the die roll, but many different players could possibly receive resources at the same time. This doesn’t entirely cancel the effects of luck, but does keep the windfall enjoyment for multiple players in the game.
Catan also uses negotiation by allowing players to trade resources. The interesting thing here is that at times, some players in the game might be willing to give you better deals than you can get trading with the bank. This gives a chance for losing players to stay competitive until the end.
The last aspect of Monopoly that Catan “fixes” is the end game condition. Because no positions on the board are “lost” or removed, Catan ends after a player has reached a fixed number of points. It clearly understands the concept that you should continue a game only if more people are having fun than not.
Whether or not you enjoy Catan really depends on your expectations of what makes a fun game. It arrived at a time when Magic: The Gathering was starting to get really big and board gamers needed a change in direction. Based on Catan’s design style, the board gaming world started to evolve and take influence from modern European designs, trying to leave aside those things that turn off gamers and streamlining the things people enjoy.