i was surprised, on revisiting the Catan rulebook, to find it was so… obtuse, especially for a so-called “gateway game.” If you’d like to get started a little more quickly, watch my video. And if you’re ready to tackle something bigger, check out How to Play Catan: Cities & Knights.
Hi! It’s Ryan from Nights Around a Table, and this is Catan, a dice-rolling, empire-building game for 2-4 players. Formerly “The Settlers of Catan,” the correct pronunciation is “Cat-AHN,” but i pronounce it “Cat-AN” because i’m left-handed.
Let me show you how to play!
You and your friends play settlers of the newly-discovered fictional island of Catan. You’ll use the resources from this bountiful new land to build settlements, roads, and cities, as well as different cultural institutions, and potentially a small army to protect your property from bandits. Along the way, you’ll trade resources with each other, and try to muscle one another out of the most lucrative spots on the island, even telling the bandits who they should rob! The structures, roads, institutions, and armies you build all earn you points, and the first player to reach 10 points on their turn wins the game.
Everyone starts the game with two small settlements with a single road leading away from each one. We’ll see how the settlements got there closer to the end of the video. These settlements sit on the corners of the hexagons that comprise the island. The hexagons yield one of five resources: wood, brick, ore, wheat, or sheep.
On your turn, you roll a pair of dice. The number you roll tells you which hexagon will give up its bounty. If you roll a 4, then this hex supplies a sheep card to any player who owns a settlement on one of its corners. There’s another 4 over here on this wheat hex, but since nobody has a settlement on one of its corners, nobody gets any resource cards from it.
So when you roll the dice on your turn, it’s possible that you’ll get new resource cards, but it’s not guaranteed. Your opponents may get resource cards. Or perhaps no one gets anything. It’s all down to the luck of the dice.
When you roll a pair of dice, the number you’re most likely to roll is a 7. You can make a 7 with a 1 and a 6, a 2 and a 5, a 3 and a 4, and the reverse of those combinations. Seven is a special number in Catan – we’ll see why shortly.
The next most common numbers you can roll are 8 and 6. They’re printed in red to remind you that structures built around these hexes are hot commodities; statistically, they’re more likely to generate resources. The little pips beneath the numbers on the tokens tell you which numbers are the best and which are the worst – the tiny 2 and 12 are the least likely numbers to be rolled. So when you plan your strategy to expand your empire, you’ll want to head for prime real estate. Of course, your opponents are thinking the exact same thing!
The recipe card you get at the beginning of the game lists the different things you can build. Pay 1 brick card and 1 wood card to build a road. Pay one of everything except ore to build another settlement. On your turn, you can build as much stuff as you can afford, but there are some rules as to how you place it all.
Any new settlement you build has to be connected to one of your existing settlements by roads. So you can’t just plop one down on the other side of Catan.
Furthermore, a settlement has to be two or more hexagon edges away from any other settlement. So this is okay, and this is okay, but this is too close, and this is no good because although it’s two roads away from your existing settlement, it’s still too close to your opponent’s settlement.
If you had this huge road, as long as you obeyed the two-away rule, you could plunk a settlement down in the middle of it. You can even cut in to someone else’s huge road and place a settlement there to interrupt it.
So off the top of the game, your setup probably looks something like this. You’ll have to build a at least one road branching from here or here, in either direction, before you can build a new settlement. And if you’re hopelessly blocked, you can head the other direction, but you’ll need to build TWO or more roads to get enough distance from your original settlements.
This means that the highest number of structures that can sit around a hex tile is three. But if there’s a structure on one corner, and a structure on the opposite corner, the tile can’t support any more developments, because it’s impossible to build anything two edges away from these ones.
Cities cost 3 ore and 2 wheat. You can’t place them on their own – you can only build them by upgrading one of your existing settlements. You remove the settlement from the board and replace it with a city piece. The cool thing about cities is that they double the production from a tile. So if an 8 was rolled, and you had a city here, you would get two wheat instead of only one. And if you had TWO cities here, you’d get FOUR wheat. If you had THREE cities on this hex, you would get… i dunno. Probably a gluten intolerance.
Each settlement you build is worth 1 point, while each city is worth 2. Remember, it takes 10 points to win the game.
Finally, you can pay a wheat, an ore, and a sheep to buy a development card. We’ll look at the development deck in a bit.
Before you go on a shopping spree with the resources in your hand, you can trade your resources, either with the bank, at a harbour, or with your fellow players. Trading with the bank gives you the worst ratio: trade 4 of a kind for 1 of anything else. If you’ve built a settlement or city on one of these harbour corners, you get the trade ratio printed on the boat: 2 sheep for one of anything, 2 wheat for one of anything, 3 of a kind for one of anything, and so on.
But your best bet, if you’re a savvy wheeler-dealer, is to trade with your opponents. You can offer any number of your resource cards for any number of their resource cards. If you wanted to, you could trade your entire hand for someone’s single brick card, as long as they agree to it. Trades can only happen with the player who’s currently taking a turn – you can’t strike a bargain with anyone who hasn’t just rolled the dice, or trade to the bank when it’s not your turn. You also can’t just give away your resource cards, and you can’t trade resources for the same resources, like 2 wood for 1 wood. You can make alliances with other players, and promise to trade certain resources on future turns, but those promises are non-binding; you can’t give me a sheep for free today for the promise of a wood later on in the game. The only thing you can physically trade are the resource cards – wood, sheep, ore, wheat, and brick. You can trade certain resources along with the promise that you’ll never, say, cut off the red player’s road, but again, a promise like that is non-binding. It has nothing to do with the cards that actually change hands, and any player can legally welch on any promise.
After you’ve finished trading, you can cash in your resources for stuff. This is the building phase of your turn. Once you start building, you can’t go back to trading, so this is the point of no return. Although, more experienced players can combine building and trading as a rules variant to speed up the game.
Pay your resource cards to the bank, and place the structures you’ve built on Catan, following all the rules we discussed. You don’t have to build anything on your turn, even if you can afford to, but hanging on to a ton of cards is very risky business.
That’s because there’s one spot on the board that’s bereft of resources. This desert tile has only one denizen: the dreaded robber, who’s out to Hamburgle all your best stuff. I told you that 7 is the most common number you can roll, but there aren’t any 7’s on the board. If any player rolls a 7, two things happen:
First, anyone with more than 7 cards loses half their hand, rounded down! You got 8 cards? Now you got 4 cards! You got 13 cards? Now you got 7 cards! Meh heh heh! You get to pick which cards in your hand you give up to the bank.
Second, the player who rolled the cursed 7 gets to pick up the robber token and place it on any other hex on the board, as long as it’s not the one the robber is already sitting on. If there are any settlements or cities bordering this hex, the player who places the robber chooses one of those bordering players and steals a card from him or her at random! Players aren’t allowed to hide their hands from you. If you pick a player who has no cards, you get nothing! Let’s hope that was deliberate. Otherwise, you’re a big nerd. You’re not allowed to steal from yourself, but you CAN place the robber on a hex with nobody bordering it.
The robber’s placement has a lasting effect on the game: it blocks the resource on that hex. So any time an 8 is rolled, this hex produces resources, but this one doesn’t. The robber must be eatin’ all those sheep. And the robber’s gonna keep eating them until a 7 gets rolled later on, and it gets displaced again. But it’s not all down to dice rolls: there’s one other method for bouncing the robber around the map.
Paying a sheep, a wheat, and an ore gets you a development card. You draw it randomly from the deck and keep it a secret. Some cards, like the University and the Library, give you 1 point towards your end-game score. The road-building card lets you build two roads for free. The year of plenty card gets you two free resources from the bank. If you play a monopoly card, you get to name a resource type, and all players have to give you every card they have of that type. So you can say “gimme all your sheep,” and every sheep hiding in your opponents’ hands is now yours. Note that it’s perfectly legal to poll your opponents with bogus trade offers to determine what sorts of cards they have in their hands before you play your devastating monopoly card. It’s not nice, but it’s legal. And it’s also why nobody asks me to play Catan with them.
But most of the cards in the development deck are knights. When you play a knight, you get to move the robber as if you’ve rolled a 7. Pick a different hex, move the robber there, and if there are any bordering players, choose one of those players and steal one of his or her cards at random. Playing a knight doesn’t trigger a hand purge if anyone has more than 7 cards, like rolling a 7 does.
You can only play 1 development card on your turn, and you can’t immediately play a development card that you just bought – you have to wait at least until your next turn. But you CAN play a card before you even roll the dice. That means that if you play a knight and roll a 7 (or vice versa), you get to move the robber twice on your turn. Points cards can’t be played – they stay secret until the end of the game. You can’t trade your development cards – resource cards are the only tradeable items in the game.
In your race to 10 points, there are two pieces of flexible scoring that may help or hinder you.
The first player to build a road of 5 or more consecutive, uninterrupted and non-forking segments without doubling back gets this Longest Road tile, which is worth 2 points. If a player interrupts a road by building a settlement into it, that shortens the road; if the road has less than 5 segments because of the interruption, the player loses the tile. If the interruption causes the leading player to tie with another player for longest road, the leading player gets to hang onto the tile for now. If the interruption causes two or more OTHER players to tie for longest road, no one gets the tile for the moment.
The Largest Army works the same way, but it’s awarded to the player who has played the most knight cards, minimum three. It can be lost if another player plays more knight cards.
The resources in Catan are limited. If you find yourself owed a resource card or a development card, and they’re all gone, you don’t get one, and you don’t get a raincheck for later. The thing has to be in supply at the moment you’re entitled to it. Likewise your game pieces; if you foolishly scrimp and save to afford a new settlement, but realize too late that you’ve built all your settlements, you’re up Catan creek without a paddle. You need to start upgrading some of those settlements to cities to reclaim those pieces.
If you reach 10 points on your turn, you win the game! Remember that any secret points you’ve bought from the development deck count towards your score. If it all adds up to 10 on your turn, flip them over and scream “victory” at the top of your lungs so that they never invite you over again. If you reach 10 points and it’s NOT your turn, you have to wait til it IS your turn to declare victory. But if someone else declares victory on their turn before it comes around to you, that player wins! There are no ties in Catan, and that person is officially no longer your friend. Or family member.
Setting up Catan is one of the most important parts of the game, because that’s when you get to place your first two settlements. As we’ve seen, it’s all about location, location, location. If you build in a bad spot, you’re liable to have a lousy time for the next couple of hours. Let’s get the board on the table, and then we’ll talk about that crucial placement step.
Assemble the border of the island by connecting the puzzle piece edges together, matching the little numbers at the junctions. If you want a little variety, you can randomly assemble the border to get the harbours in different places.
If you’re new to the game, set up the board the according to the picture on the back of the instruction manual. One of the best features of Catan is its modular board. If this ain’t your first rodeo, you can randomize the tiles, and even the harbours, randomly covering up the printed harbours with the little harbour chits. To lay out the number tokens, start at one corner of the island and deal them out in alphabetical order in a spiral, skipping over the desert. If you’re truly Catan pros and you want it wild and woolly, you can even toss these tokens out randomly, as long as the desert doesn’t get a token, and as long as two red numbers aren’t adjacent to each other.
Shuffle the development deck and put it here, and put the resource cards face up on both sides of the table so they’re within reach of everyone. Put the robber on the desert. Keep the Longest Road and Largest Army tiles handy.
Everyone picks a colour and takes their recipe tile and all their wooden pieces, and immediately begins building forts and structures with them the moment they get bored. Everyone rolls both dice, and the highest-rolling player goes first.
Now for placement. If you’re using an advanced setup, each player in turn order places one settlement and one connecting road anywhere on the island, following the two-away rule. Then, the last player places his or her second settlement and road. The other players follow suit in reverse turn order. The second settlement doesn’t need to connect to the first settlement and road, but it can. By using this forking structure, you can build a settlement very early in the game without having to build a road, but it’s easy to get blocked in with this strategy. You can place your first settlements on the two, on the twelve, on a lonely harbour, or on the desert, but unless you really know what you’re doing, it’s probably a bad idea. Most often, you’ll want at least one of your buildings to border a high-probability red number.
The second settlement you place determines your starting hand of resource cards; you draw one resource card for each tile your second settlement touches. So if you placed your second settlement here, you get a wheat, a wood, and an ore as your starting hand. If you placed your second settlement HERE, you’re… gonna have a bad game.
Since brick and wood tend to be more important early in the game, one common strategy is to place your second settlement such that you get one of each in your hand. Don’t discount the value of, for example, having great expectations for wheat, and being close enough to build out to a wheat harbour. Another strategy that beginning players may not consider is the wheat/sheep/ore trifecta, which allows you to buy those powerful development cards, or the wheat/ore strategy, because nothing’s stopping you from upgrading your settlements to cities early in the game.
Some players like to ensure that they have a settlement on every type of resource, so that it’s at least possible they’ll gain those resources, however remote the chance. That’s because certain other players like to make trade embargoes, where they’ll refuse to trade a resource to a player if that player has no hope of ever rolling for it. Lots of different strategies emerge, and as a new player, it’s a joy to discover them.
And now you’re ready to play the game that got me and millions of other players hopelessly hooked on modern board games to the point where there really oughta be a law: Catan!
Note that a longstanding rule held that you had to finish trading before you could build. In later editions, that rule was recommended for beginners only. Experienced players are free to build and trade in any order, as much as they like!
Get Your Own Copy of Catan
Catan is like the tipping point for board game collecting. Even if you only stick with this one series, buying Catan is the first step towards buying the 5-6 player expansion, and then Cities & Knights of Catan, and then Traders & Barbarians of Catan, and then Jugglers & Veteranarians of Catan and whatever other nonsense they’ve got cooking over there. So! Because a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, take that single step by clicking the Amazon link below, and i’ll receive a small commission!
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