Board Games: The Essential Question – Issue #1: Introduction and Catan

Hello. My name is James McCarthy, and I am a board game player of 20+ years history and a board game collector of about 10+ years history. My thanks to Flannel for inviting me on to Many Sided Dice to express my opinions regarding the hobby of board gaming and what I consider to be essential games for any board game collection. Flannel, my brudda, I greatly appreciate the opportunity.

I can imagine that many of you are already familiar with this topic; board games and role playing games are often shelf cousins at friendly local game stores, and in the past decade, both have undergone a renaissance in both visibility and design. Board gaming (specifically on the American side of the Atlantic) is no longer a four house town of Monopoly, Clue, Risk, and Trivial Pursuit. Rather, board gaming is now a fantastically diverse field of experiences. Board gaming simulates everything from asymmetrical warfare between various factions of woodland critters, to competing fast food outlets vying for supremacy in the world of cold French fries, to a cooperative effort by pulp era investigators to put the Cthulhu back in the bottle.

Even the old favorites have been reimagined. Remember Clue; I hope you do because I legit mentioned it two sentences into the previous paragraph, and I care for your short term memory. Ever have all but one of the clues, and all you have to do is get to the kitchen to limit it down to the final clue. But you keep rolling snake eyes, and your mom rolls only box cars, and she gets there and just guesses it anyway with nowhere near enough info.

And it’s weird because the character she’s playing is the killer, but she didn’t know that she was the killer to begin with in order to confess. Also, you’re all working against one another when you ought to be helping one another cause Mr. Boddy might have only been the first intended victim.

I mean, really, who’s gonna stop a guy that was once Lieutenant Mustard?

Plus, you got Tim Curry doing math wrong, and… I’m going far afield, my apologies.

Wouldn’t it be great if everyone was working together to find the killer? Wouldn’t it be great if gathering clues involved an active participation with everyone? Can we also get rid of silly dice-based movement? Hell, get rid of movement altogether. What if the main mechanic is that the murder victim is a player and can only communicate through the use of evocative, esoteric art cards which they give to the psychic-investigators (i.e. other players). And you have a ticking clock of rounds until the ghost disappears forever, meaning that the killer got away with it. And what if the final round is played in total silence, played with limited information for some, and the hope that everyone worked well enough together to piece together the final killer, location, and weapon?

Couldn’t that be an interesting game?

Well, they made it, and it is pretty engaging. Like super-engaging. On my top 5 board games of all time engaging.

My point is; if you hear someone say “I don’t like board games,” don’t take that on its face as incontrovertible truth. In a world of only 4 readily available experiences, it’s easy to make that statement. In an ever expanding world of constantly evolving ideas, there is a board game for everyone. In fact, there’s more than one for everyone.

And, I’d like to help point you toward some of the better ones. My goal going forward with this series is to talk about games that I’ve kept in my collection for some time, ones that usually find there way off the shelf and on to the table. These are, in my opinion, essential pieces to a well-rounded board game collection.

With that said, our first subject.

CATAN (formerly The Settlers of Catan)

Who? Designed by Klaus Teuber and published by Asmodee (present).

When? First published in 1995, still in print to this day across multiple editions.

Where? The untouched island/continent of Catan, a land of grain, sheep, wood, and two kinds of rock, soft and hard.

What? Catan places 3 to 4 players in the role of settlers of Catan. Players will gain resources randomly (through dice rolls) from their settlements and cities and will build further roads, settlements and cities to score points and expand their resource gathering. Trading of resources occurs in the active player’s turn; the active player can also trade with the game’s bank of resources. Further, players can use resources to purchase development cards that score points or provide additional benefits. Players have to be wary of the ever-present threat of the Robber, who can be moved to shut down production areas and steal resource cards for other players. The first player to score 10 points through settlement/cities, development cards, and longest road/army milestones wins the game.

Why is it essential?

Catan, at its base, is an exceptionally easy game to get on a table. The low player count is easily achievable. The rules are very simple and straightforward; roll dice, get resources, trade resources, build with resources, pass turn. If you can grasp that, you have the mechanics down. The complexity of the teach often gets in the way of getting new people to a board game. Catan does not suffer from this problem.

In addition, Catan is a fine example of rule simplicity paired with a ranging strategic depth. The depth of the game comes from the state of the board and the negotiating dynamic of the players. It’s a shifting balance of skill and luck from turn to turn, game to game. That range of thought provides amazing engagement to the more strategic minded but still allows for the casual player to stay interested as well. I feel this situation allows for any number of groups to find enjoyment with Catan, from the family game night to the committed competitive to the casual beer and pretzel crowd.

Catan also has a fine level of replayability. The board itself is modular, allowing for similar yet differing starting board states. Being a simple game, it is well positioned to take on expansions, of which it has four major expansions, taking the game in different directions. I’ve found playing Catan with different people allows for unique experiences even when those experiences are similarly dressed in the wool of Catan’s finest clay… I mean sheep. Never forget the sheep.

Finally, time. Catan, setup to break down, usually comes in around an hour. A series of games can make up an entire evening’s gaming, or a one-shot is an excellent primer/lead-in to much larger, more complex faire. This modularity allowed by Catan’s playtime allows for a number of roles at the table. Catan rarely finds itself as the square peg at a board game night.

Where do we go from here?

If you like Catan and want more of it, you have some good options. Of the expansions, I only own two. The Seafarers of Catan expands the modularity of the board by creating islands and adding gold mine hexes which function as a wild card for resource gathering. Cities and Knights of Catan adds complexity (through a new development system, knights to defend Catan and passively aggressively attack opponents, and the ticking clock of barbarian raiders), but that complexity is not so great as to make the overall play experience unapproachable, and if your play group digs more complex experiences, Cities and Knights is an excellent choice.

Base Catan (including its major expansions) has “5 to 6 players” expansion(s). While the idea of getting more people to the board gaming table is generally welcome, I do not feel the experience provided by these expansions warrants owning them. At 4 players, the rhythm of the game is almost pitch perfect; hitting 5+ players stretches that rhythm too far as many players will be sitting impatiently for their turn while others are engaging in the game. The expansions try to ameliorate this issue, but I feel the fix falls short. Unless you need to get 5 or more people sitting down to the same game of Catan, I’d avoid these.

If you like Catan, but you want different experiences. Consider the following:

For simple construction and development with dice rolls for generating resources: consider Machi Koro.

For wheeling and dealing trading with some randomness in how you get resources: consider Chinatown.

For the classic Eurogaming approach of simple rules/depth of strategy: consider Carcassonne and/or Alhambra.

Finally, for a much more complex, heavier, fantasy-genre development game using hexes as the board, consider Terra Mystica.

You’ve made it to the end of Issue #1. My thanks to you for staying with me as long as you have. My thanks again to Flannel for this time and space. If you liked what you read, have questions, or would like to express criticisms, I would love to hear from you. Next time, we’ll be exploring the party game space. Til then, au revoir and happy gaming.


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