Settlers of Catan — Life Expansion Pack

Over the past 4 months, I’ve played a LOT of Settlers of Catan. After watching my friends play it so strategically and intensely, I felt that I had to get into it. I was HOOKED.

What is Catan?

According to Wikipedia, Catan is a multiplayer board game where “Players assume the roles of settlers, each attempting to build and develop holdings while trading and acquiring resources.”


The Setup

Every resource has 4 hexagonal tiles, except for ore and brick which only have 3 (this is significantly important in the game, but not so much in this post). Every tile is assigned a dice roll number (2 through 12) and there are 2 of each number except only 1 of 2 and 12. Therefore, tiles with more probable numbers (such as 5, 6, 8, and 9) are highly coveted positions. Every player has a limited amount of roads, cities (4), and settlements (5).


The Gameplay

2 starting spots are initially chosen by all four players by placing a settlement and road there. Players pick up resources on their second settlement. Then each player continues to roll the dice. If any number other than 7 is rolled, the players who have a settlement on a resource with the assigned dice roll number will receive the corresponding resources. When a 7 is rolled, the robber is moved to any particular position, which prevents players from picking up resources corresponding to that particular tile, and all players with more than 7 cards have to discard half their hand. The goal of the game is to then build roads, settlements, and development cards using those resources (each has a particular price) to acquire 10 victory points.

Because of these rules, there is an immense amount of strategy and decision making based on expected value, cost, and the actions of other players. In the beginning of the game, it is advantageous to be able to place your settlements near highly probable numbers and valuable resources (ore and brick). Usually, this means that going first or second will give you the best spot possible on the map. Given that the selection placement goes 1, 2, 3, 4, 4, 3, 2, 1, the overall initial spots can be more equitable but this does not erase the typical advantage of going first.

During the beginning of the game, the focus is usually on expansion since other players will be competing for those same spots and it’ll help you gain more resources per roll. To have the resources to do so, it usually requires very probable initial settlements, and so on. Therefore, there is a bit of a snowball effect. The better your initial spots, the more likely you can acquire more spots that would be advantageous.


Why This Matters

Catan has a remarkable parallel to the idea of privilege because of the presence of the idea of “snowballing”. With spots with really great probability and high resource value, the dice rolls will generate more valuable resources, which will allow you to expand into new territories and double down on the great spots you currently already have. Therefore, each dice roll potentially produces even more resources to be used in expansion and building to gain even more resources. There are ways to combat this via blocking (using a robber) and funneling efforts into stymying the player’s expansion by enveloping their settlements or focusing on settlements that if obtained would further increase the snowball effect.

If we make the simple analogy that in your birth, you’re randomly assigned initial settlements on the board, it is clearly advantageous for those individuals who were assigned great spots to begin with to participate in this snowball effect. These “resources” to be gained include money, personal connections, and educational opportunities; and these “resources” would be used to expand into new methods of gaining money, connections, and educational opportunities.

Most importantly, at the end of the game, there is a large sense of “success” because of the moves that the winner made, and although that there is certainly a proponent of self-determination in this game, the ability to even make those decisions or expansions was highly dependent on the privilege of having those two initial settlements. Nevertheless, there are individuals that may not always make the best decisions with these great initial positions, but overwhelmingly, great initial spots lead to exponential growth and eventually “victory”.


Other analogies that could be drawn (that I am too lazy to talk about haha):

  • Rolling a seven is equivalent to a progressive income tax (more resources => more potential for having to pay back to the bank)
  • Any move in Catan is essentially an investment, every cost has a potential return and returns should match up with eventual goals (acquiring largest army, longest road, playing a city game, etc.)
  • Competitors will be looking to stymie your growth and an awareness of their positions and their potential desired positions is valuable
  • Trading should always be done in a manner that produces more benefit to you than to the other individual in the trade (think paying for a service or product)
  • Revealing your hand prematurely may hint to others what other spots may be valuable to you and it may lead them to take it
  • Competitions for longest roads or largest armies can destroy the individual’s opportunity to win the game by forcing them to sink even more resources into the competition than seeking a victory another way.

I hope that this provides some insights into why the game of Catan is interesting. I have much more to say about it, but I think it’s best for everyone to find out about it on their own (and for me to write about something else).

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