Catan: What is it about? Where do I even begin? – Ask the Bellhop

Lots of Catan boxes.

Aeryn Lynne asks,

I’ve heard that Catan is awesome to play (though I couldn’t even tell you the basic premise of the game).

Every time I happen to check it out at our local shop there are new editions popping up. Most recent one I’ve seen is for Game of Thrones.

What is this game about that there can be so many iterations of it, and where do I even begin if I want to learn how to play?

Thanks for your help! 🙂

Excellent question. Catan, or as it was originally called: The Settlers of Catan, started off as one game that has branched off into an entire franchise of games and licenses. I fully get that it can be overwhelming and confusing to see so many games with the same title on them.

EDIT: We also covered this topic on the Tabletop Bellhop Live Podcast, Ep 1.

Disclosure: Some links in this post are Amazon Affiliate links. As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases.

The short answer:

Lots of Catan boxesAll Catan games stem from a set of simple mechanics found in each game. You place stuff on a map, you roll dice, you get resources based on the die roll and where your stuff is placed, you use those resources to build more stuff, you get points for building stuff, and the first person to build enough stuff wins. Every Catan game does this, but each individual game adds something more to it. I personally recommend starting with the base game and learning that first, but that’s not the right answer for everyone.

The long answer:

All of the Catan games share some basic mechanics and themes. In every version of the game, players roll dice, use the number rolled to collect resources then use those resources to build settlements and routes between those settlements. More settlements mean more ways to collect resources and more resources means you can build more things. It’s a race to a set victory point total with points being awarded for the things you have built. The other element that is common to all Catan games is trading. During the game, the players can freely trade resources with each other and this barter based negotiation is part of the allure of the game series.

In the core game, just called Catan now, you start the game with two settlements and two roads running away from them. These are placed on a randomized hexagonal tile map where each hex tile represents one of five different resources (except the desert which is barren). On each of these tiles, a numbered chit is placed. When the dice are rolled you find those numbered chits and then those tiles produce resources which are given to players who have settlements (or cities) on those hexes. You use these resources to build more roads and more settlements. You can also upgrade your settlements to cities and you can buy cards called Development Cards. These cards break the standard rules in some way. They let you build something for free, or collect victory points, or take resources from other players. Then there’s the robber. Any time a 7 comes up on the dice you move a special pawn called The Robber. When you do this you can steal resources from other players and then the tile the robber is on no longer produces resources. Victory points come from building settlements and cities as well as having “the longest road” and “the largest army” (a special type of development card that lets you move the robber). There are also four development cards that are worth points. The game is played to 10 points.

Every other Catan game uses these same basic elements. You have a hex map that you put out starting pieces on. Then each turn players roll dice, get resources and use those to build more things on the map or get cards. They do this to get victory points and it’s a race to a set score.


The Catan Expansions:

Settlers of Catan and ExpansionsAs noted above, the base game is just called Catan. Some of the first things to come out after the base game were expansions for Catan. The most basic is the Catan: 5-6 Player Extension. This does exactly what it says on the box. It lets you play Catan with up to two more people. Up next is Catan: Seafarers Expansion. This adds a couple new things to the game. A new map, where instead of one island you can have a bunch of separate islands, and now players have one more thing they can build: boats. Seafarers plays identical to base Catan but adds in just 2-3 new rules. Longest Road is now Longest Route and includes boats, and there are some very interesting new set up rules. It doesn’t make the game feel any different, it just gives players more options.

Now, Catan: Cities & Knights Expansion is a different style of expansion. It changes the basic feel of the game. Cities & Knights adds a lot of new stuff to Catan. Barbarians are attacking the island. You can build knights, and palaces and walls. You get points for helping defeat the barbarians. There’s a technology tree added where you can upgrade your cities by using the new commodities of coins, cloth, and books. It’s much bigger expansion with a lot more to learn that actually changes how the game feels.

You can get 5-6 player extensions for both Cities & Knights and Seafarers, and similar to the other 5-6 player expansion, they just add more players. There are a couple more of expansions for the base game of Catan: Traders & Barbarians and Catan: Explorers & Pirates. These all do the same thing: they add on to the base game of Catan and follow all the original rules but add some new rules and new ways to play. One of the awesome things about Catan and the expansions is that you can mix and match them. You can play a 5 player game of Catan with Seafarers and Cities & Knights. You can play Catan with just Cities & Knights and Traders & Barbarians. What this does is add a ton of replayability to the core Catan experience.

German Catan ExpansionsAs the game was originally released in Germany there are even expansions that never came out in North America. One of these is a huge hardcover book with a variety of new ways to play and new maps to try out. It’s called Das Buch zum Spielen and is highly collectible. There were also two boxes of historical scenarios that included things like building the pyramid at Cheops or following Alexander The Great and helping build Alexandria. There are also promo expansions that are usually given out with magazines or at gaming conventions. Most of these are new maps to play on but some add new tiles and rules to the game like The Fishermen of Catan.

The important part to note is that the Catan Expansions require you to own the base game and use the original rules but add something new to them.


Stand-Alone Games:

In addition to the base games and expansions for it, there are a number of stand along Catan games. These include the A Game of Thrones Catan: Brotherhood of the Watch edition mentioned in Aeryn’s question.  What Stand-Alone means is that you don’t need to own Catan to play these. These are their own complete games. They do not require nor do they work with Catan or any of its expansions.

What these games do is something different. They change something or add in something significant enough that they become a game of their own.  For example in the Game of Thrones version, you are still collecting five resources, building settlements and cities (called Keeps in this version), building roads and collecting development cards. But, you are also working to recruit seven guards in seven different colors to guard The Wall. Every time a player earns victory points Wildings start showing up and on the roll of a 12 they will attempt to breach the wall. Game of Thrones Catan also adds in hero cards for many of the major characters from the popular series. What I found really interesting is that with this set you can actually just play basic Catan with it, though it’s on a slightly smaller map than the core game.

Starfarers of CatanThere are a wide variety of these Stand-Alone Catan games and each takes the basic game and does something unique to it. Star Trek Catan not only changes up the map and the names of things but also adds in character cards for the crew that let you do a special action by trading them in. Catan Histories: Settlers of America – Trails to Rails turns Catan into more of a train game, where your settlements are replaced by wagon trains that actually move around on the map and instead of roads you are building railroad routes. The scoring in Settlers of America is completely different than any other version and is more about route buildings. Starfarers of Catan (sadly long out of print) puts the game in space and changes up the game so much that the only thing that it shares with the original is building settlements, rolling dice to collect resources, and trading those in to build things. Everything else is different, no roads, no routes, no development cards, a plastic ship you can upgrade with new bits, trading posts you can set up with aliens and more.

The important part to note is that stand-alone games are just that. They stand alone. They do not require and are not compatible with the original Catan game or its expansions. While sharing similar mechanics they aren’t just more Catan.


The Funky Stuff:

To make things even more confusing there are also a few games that are Catan in name alone. These change up the gameplay so much that they aren’t really Catan anymore. The usually still have the theme of collecting resources and using them to build things but that’s it.

There’s Rival’s For Catan a two-player card game.  There’s a Catan Dice Game. There is Struggle for Catan, which is another two-player card game that’s actually different from Rivals. There’s even Catan: Chocolate Edition where at the end of the game you get to eat the resources you’ve collected.

The important part to note about these games is that, while they share a name with Catan and may have similar themes, they are nothing like and not compatible with the other Catan games.


How To Tell Them Appart:

My best suggestion is to ask someone who knows, like Aeryn did by contacting me. That’s not always an option, and when that’s true, the back of the box is your friend. All of these games very clearly state if they are an expansion and if they require Catan or some other version to be able to use the contents of the box. They will tell you if they are based on Catan and usually how they differ from the core game. There are also awesome online resources like Board Game Geek and in the case of Catan even Wikipedia can help you out.

So what should I buy?

Settlers Of Catan BoxYou honestly can’t go wrong with the base game. Especially with the number of very easy to add and understand expansions, it’s going to keep your game group happy for a long time. There’s a reason the game is as popular as it is. Now there is a Catan: Family Edition. I would skip over this. Besides costing more, you actually get less replayability in the box than the main game due to having a much less random map set up and a smaller board. I don’t think removing the random map set up really makes the game that much more accessible, and recommend just starting with the base game. Once you own the base game I suggest adding the Seafarers expansion next. It adds a significant amount of new options with only only a very few new rules. It still feels exactly like playing Catan with a little bit more.

If you are a big fan of a specific license and there’s a Catan game for that license you can go for that. You are going to get all the fun of the Catan base game plus probably a little bit more. The only problem with this approach is that the stand-alone games are just that, they don’t work with the standard expansions. That said it’s often a lot easier to sell a group on a new game if you tell them you are going to play Game Of Thrones and defend the wall from Wildlings than you are saying: So we are settlers trying to expand and colonize an island. In every case the game you can actually get your friends to play is better than one they won’t.

As for the funky games with Catan on the box but no real ties to the core game, I would skip those for now. Those need to be judged as games on their own and shouldn’t be bought just for the Catan name. I personally love Starship Catan, but it doesn’t scratch the same itch as the original and gameplay is completely different.


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4 Responses

  1. Oh wow, thanks so much for the thorough explanation, that’s fantastic!

    Now to decide on whether picking up the original Settlers of Catan version, which might be my best bet especially since the seafarer’s version sounds REALLY fun; or Game of Thrones, ’cause who wouldn’t want to defend the wall, and it looks like that one is on sale with Amazon, and YAY free shipping with prime! 😀

    Bonus question if you don’t mind… have you tried the chocolate edition of any games? I think I bought Monopoly chocolate edition as a hostess gift once, but never found out if it was at all fun, or if the chocolate was even good or simply cheap, lol.

    They intrigue me, but I don’t want to waste funds if it’s more gimmick than fun.

    Again, thanks so much for your help! 🙂

    1. Thanks for the comment Aeryn, glad the advice was helpful.

      I haven’t bothered with the Chocolate Edition. It falls under those odd games with the Catan name but little of the Catan game. It’s a quick filler game that uses a spinner. There’s no dice. There’s no board.

      You spin the spinner, get resources, trade those in to build things. Now the things you build are represented by chocolate. They just go in front of you. It’s still a race but only to 5 points. Once done you get to eat what you built. You play it once then eat the pieces.

      It’s not expensive so it may be worth it for a one shot. Actually, I may consider picking up a copy for the Tabletop Bellhop launch party 😀

  2. Quick follow up question (and feel free to let me know if there’s a separate place for these kinds of questions) – I have some friends who ONLY want to play Catan (I got invited to what I thought was a board game night but was actually just their regular Catan tournament style night), and I’m wondering what would be some good follow up games?

    They’ve been interested in Ticket to Ride and Takenoko but neither have the same feel of the trading/player interaction and the dice-rolling/chance part of the resource collecting (plus they all love the ability of the robber to screw someone over). Any help?

    1. The best place to submit a question is by email at questions@tabletopbellhop.com or filling out the form under Ask The Bellhop off the top menu. That way I get an email notification and I can add it to the master list of questions.

      As for a direct follow up to Catan. Since you enjoy the mechanics of Catan so much perhaps check out one of the variations on it. Game of Thrones Catan or Settlers of America – Trails to Rails. Of the two Trails to Rails changes things up enough that it feels like a totally new game.

      There aren’t a lot of games that combine random resources generation with trading with screw your neighbor, which is probably why Catan is so popular. I may do this up as a full follow up post but here are a few games to look at: Chinatown, Genoa, Pit and Bohnanza.

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