Catan faces an existential threat, and it’s not cancel culture clapping out its colonization. Boatloads of barbarians are washing ashore, looking to tear down any tasty cities they find. Catan: Cities & Knights supplies two defenses against the fast approaching horde: golden metropolis gates that make cities impenetrable, and stalwart knights who will defend Catan to its very last sheep!
NOTE: This game is an expansion. Watch my How to Play Catan video if you need an introduction, or a refresher!
Hi! It’s Ryan from Nights Around a Table, and this is Catan: Cities & Knights, an expansion for Catan, which is correctly pronounced “Catan,” but i’m on a diet. This expansion doesn’t contain everything you need to play – you MUST own a copy of the base game of Catan. This box adds extra pieces and rules to make the game deeper, more strategic, and significantly longer. Most of the base game rules still apply. If you’d like a refresher, or you’ve never played Catan, check out my How to Play Catan video. Otherwise, stick around, and let me show you how to play Cities & Knights!
You and your friends are competing to control Catan as usual, but you face the threat of an offshore boat full of barbarians bearing down on the island. If you thought your local robber was bad news, you ain’t seen nothing yet. The barbarians creep slowly towards the island, and when they reach its shores, all players must contribute to the defense of Catan using their knights, or risk getting one of their cities sacked! The cities themselves are more advanced than in the base game. You can upgrade them along three different skill trees to earn special abilities, powerful new Progress cards, and metropolis gates that protect you from the barbarians. Cities can now produce three unique commodities, and you can build walls around them to be able to carry more cards. At the end of the game, whoever has developed the most powerful and well-defended island empire wins!
Most of the components from the base game are still in play, but the development deck is replaced by these three Progress card decks. There’s no more Largest Army card, and you can chuck out the base game’s recipe cards and give everyone one of these spiral bound city improvement booklets. The recipes for building different things are written across the top of every page.
There are three new types of goodies you can collect from the map when your numbers are rolled, in addition to the five basic resources. These new cards are called commodities, and you can only earn them with your cities – paper from a city on a forest, coin from a city on a mountain, and cloth from a city on a pasture. So in the base game, if a 6 was rolled, this city would normally produce 2 wood, but in Cities & Knights, it produces 1 wood and 1 paper. A city on a pasture produces 1 sheep and 1 cloth, and a city on a mountain produces 1 ore and 1 coin. If the robber is on the tile, it blocks production of resources AND commodities. If, instead, this structure was a settlement, it would only produce 1 ore as usual. And if it was a city sitting on a brick or wheat tile, it would earn two wheat or two brick, since there aren’t any corresponding commodities cards for fields and quarries.
Commodities go into your hand just like resources. They count towards your hand limit when a 7 is rolled and the robber is on the prowl. They can be traded between you and the other players just like resources, they can be stolen by the robber, and you can discard them if you need to thin out your hand after a 7 is rolled. You can get commodities in 2:1 port trades, and both send and receive them in 3:1 port trades, or 4:1 trades with the supply. So if you had a settlement here, you could trade 3 coins to get 1 sheep, or you could trade 3 brick to get 1 cloth. You could even trade 3 cloth to get 1 paper. It’s important to know that the raw cards are called resources, and the refined cards are called commodities, because some of the Progress cards that we’ll look at later specifically refer to either resources or commodities.
Since cities are so important in this game, instead of starting off with two settlements, you start off with 1 settlement and 1 city.
On your turn, you can spend your commodities to upgrade your cities’ development in one of these three areas: trade, politics, and science. The cost to move up to the first level is 1 of a particular commodity – 1 cloth, 1 coin, or 1 paper. Note that while the picture shows a pair of coins, this still means 1 coin commodity card. When you pay the cost, you flip the page. Moving up to the next level will cost you TWO commodities of that type, and so on. You can upgrade these tracks as many times as you want and can afford to on your turn, barring a few restrictions that we’ll talk about later on.
Cities & Knights introduces a special event die. On your turn, you’ll roll all 3 dice. If the event die shows a black ship, the barbarians move one step closer to the island. Half of the 6 faces on the die are black ships, so it’s a 50/50 chance that each roll will bring the barbarians closer. The other three faces are yellow, blue, or green city icons, which map onto those trade, politics, and science sections of your development chart. If one of those three symbols gets rolled, you look at the number on the red die. If any player’s matching development section includes the number on the red die, that player collects a progress card from the matching stack, in turn order, going clockwise from the player who rolled the dice. These cards are kept secret, unless they have victory points on them, in which case you immediately play them face up and keep them separate from your other cards. Your hand of secret Progress cards – not including the face-up victory points cards – is limited to 4. If you ever draw a fifth card, you have to play a Progress card during your turn to get back down to your limit. If you draw a fifth card and it’s not your turn, or if you fail to play a card on your turn, you have to return a progress card of your choice from your hand to the bottom of its corresponding deck.
So, these two players have both upgraded their trade section, and when the dice are rolled, they land on the yellow trade symbol with a 3 on the red die. This player doesn’t get anything, because he’s only on the first upgrade page, which doesn’t include the 3-pip die. But this player has upgraded trade to the next level, which includes the number 3, so she takes a yellow progress card from the stack. So the more you develop your cities, the more likely you are to be able to draw progress cards, because more red die numbers are included on successive pages. I’ll do a rundown of what all the different progress cards do later on.
Next, you add the numbers on the two dice together as usual, and everyone takes resources and/or commodities based on where their settlements and cities are built. Just like rolling for resources and commodities, when one player rolls the dice, all players stand to gain something, including Progress cards, if they qualify.
In the base game, there was a beginner rule that said you had to finish all of your trading on your turn before building anything, but in Cities & Knights, you can go back and forth between trading and building as much as you like.
There’s a new brick recipe available in Cities & Knights. If you pay 2 brick, you can build a city wall. City walls can only go beneath cities – duh – and each city wall you’ve built increases your hand limit by 2. That means that if you have a city wall and a 7 is rolled to trigger the robber, you’re allowed to have 9 cards in your hand without losing any. If you’ve got 2 city walls, you can hold onto 11 cards, and if you build your third city wall, you can hang onto 13 cards. You only have 3 city wall pieces to place, so you can’t build any more walls beyond that. And you can’t have a city with more than one wall.
It may not seem intuitive, but a city wall does nothing to protect you from the barbarians. You know what? These barbarians have been making me nervous this whole time… let’s look at what happens when they reach the shores of Catan.
When enough black ship symbols are rolled on the event die across different players’ turns and the ship reaches the last space on the track, the barbarians attack Catan. You count the number of cities on the island – cities, not settlements – to figure out how strong the barbarians are. So 4 cities means the barbarians have a strength of 4.
Throughout the game, you’ll be building and activating knights to protect the island. Basic knights have a strength of 1, strong knights have a strength of 2, and mighty knights have a strength of 3. You add up the strengths of all the activated knights on the island – doesn’t matter who owns them – and if that number is greater than or equal to the strength of the barbarians, you and your opponents have safely defended against the attack. If the combined strength of the activated knights is less than the strength of the barbarians, the barbarians zero in on the player whose activated knights have the lowest strength. That player gets one of his or her cities sacked, and it gets downgraded to a settlement! If the city had a wall, the wall goes back to the player’s supply. If any player has zero activated knights on the board when the barbarians win an attack, that player is automatically targeted by the barbarians. If two or more players are tied for the weakest defense, all tied players lose one of their cities.
Note that the weakest force is down to the strength of the knights, not the number of knights. So this player has 3 activated knights, while this player only has two. But the strength of these knights is 4, while the strength of these ones is 5, so this player has the weaker defense, despite having more knights on the board.
Also note that only activated knights count towards the defense of Catan. The knights are double-sided – one side is grey, while the other side is very slightly yellow. It can be tough to figure out which side is which, especially in low lighting, and i’m honestly surprised that this subtle difference made it through so many redesigns of the game. Anyway, be very careful with your knights, and make sure that the ones you think are activated are actually activated.
If the barbarians are repelled by the Catan neighbourhood watch, the player who contributed the most powerful activated knights – again, not the MOST knights, but the highest combined strength of knightness – earns a Defender of Catan card, which is worth 1 victory point. If two or more players tie for best defense, nobody gets a Defender of Catan card. Instead, each tied player going clockwise from the active player gets to grab one face-down progress card from any of the three stacks.
In either case, win or lose, all the activated knights on the board get flipped to their inactive side, and the barbarians get bounced back to the beginning of the track, where they restart their long and menacing journey towards Catan.
If this is the first time the barbarians attack, this lonely soul out in the desert starts getting some bad ideas in his head, and decides to start ripping off the residents of Catan. So it’s only after the first barbarian attack that the robber becomes active. Any time a 7 is rolled BEFORE the first barbarian attack, players still lose cards if they’re over their hand limit, but the robber stays put, and doesn’t steal anything from anyone. What’s more, players aren’t allowed to control the robber using certain Progress cards or chasing him off with their knights until the first barbarian attack happens.
The threat of losing one of your precious cities to an impending barbarian attack is enough to make you want to learn how knights work. On your development chart, there are a few different knight-related recipes.
The first one means you can pay a sheep and an ore to train a basic knight and add it to the board. You have to put your new knight at one of the unoccupied intersections along your roads, like you would with a settlement or a city… but a knight doesn’t have to obey the 2-edges-away rule, so you can put your new knight here, or here… but if it goes here, it blocks that space, so you wouldn’t be able to build a settlement there unless and until you move the knight on a later turn.
The good news is that knights also block your opponents’ constructions. So if another player had built out to here, that player can’t put a settlement or a knight there because your knight is in the way. And the opponent can’t extend this road, because your knight is blocking it.
Your knights can also disrupt your opponents’ bid for the Longest Road card. If this player had built the Longest Road, but you deploy a knight here, that’s now two different roads – a 1-segment road and a 4-segment road – so that player loses the Longest Road card, and the two points that go with it.
You can pay 1 wheat to activate any of your own knights. Flip the knight over to its slightly-yellow side to show that he’s been eatin’ his Wheaties. Only activated knights contribute to the defense of Catan when the barbarians attack. But if you feel you’ve got time to burn before their next onslaught, there are three other things you can do with an activated knight.
First, you can flip your activated knight to move him. A knight can move to any open intersection along your road – so maybe from here, all the way down to here. But it can’t skip the track and hop over to one of your separate, unconnected roads somewhere else on the island.
Second, you can flip an activated knight to displace another player’s knight. Your knight has to be stronger than the other knight – so a strong knight can displace a basic knight, but a basic knight can’t displace anyone. So if your strong knight here moves to this spot where your opponent’s basic knight is posted, that ousted knight has to find somewhere else along the road to move to. If there ISN’T anywhere the ousted knight can go, that knight gets bounced right off the board! HYUH! I tol’ you not come ‘round my corner.
The third thing you can do with an activated knight is to scare the robber away. If you flip any of your activated knights who are next to a tile where the robber is parked, you can move the robber to another tile, and potentially steal a resource from any one player who has a settlement or city bordering that tile. You can’t steal any Progress cards, but you can steal a card from that player’s hand, which means you might randomly grab one of that player’s commodity cards. Remember that the robber isn’t active until after the barbarians’ first attack, so you can’t chase him away from a tile until that happens. And unlike in the base game, you can’t use a knight to chase away the robber before you roll the dice on your turn.
Any knight you build starts on its inactive side. You can activate a knight on the same turn that you build him, but you can’t flip a knight to use his action on the same turn that you activated him with delicious wheat. An activated knight can only perform an action once per turn, but you can activate a knight, wait until a future turn, flip him to perform an action, and feed him a wheat to reactivate him on that same turn, so that he’s ready to use on a later turn.
The last knight-related recipe is knight promotion. Spend a sheep and an ore to upgrade one of the basic knights you have on the board to a strong knight. The knight stays in the same position during the promotion, and if it was already activated, it stays activated. You can promote a knight in the same turn that you built it, but you can only promote each of your knights once per turn. Keep in mind while you’re strategizing that you only have two of each type of knight. And you won’t be able to upgrade your strong knights to mighty knights until later in the game.
So how do you get mighty knights? Well, it goes back to those city improvement charts. If you upgrade to the third page in the trade, politics, or science tracks, you earn a special ability. In the trade track, you get to trade commodities – paper, coins, or cloth – at a 2:1 ratio. So on your turn, you can trade in 2 coins for a brick, or 2 cloth for a paper. This ability doesn’t let you trade in resources – it only counts when you pay out two of the same type of commodity.
In the politics track, upgrading to level 3 grants you the ability to promote your strong knights to mighty knights. You can’t access your mighty knights until you gain this ability.
And in the science track, reaching level 3 means that any time the dice are rolled and your structures don’t produce any resources or commodities, you get 1 of any resource you like… unless a 7 is rolled. Then you’re just boned like everybody else.
These privileges persist if you upgrade past level 3, by the way, even though the abilities aren’t written on the next two pages.
If you’re the first player to upgrade to level 4 of any given track, you get this special golden gate, which you can fit over any of your cities. Put a matching token on your chart to mark which branch the gate came from. A gate sweetens a city by 2 points – so the city is already worth 2 points, and the gate is worth 2, so a city with a gate becomes a 4-point metropolis!
A metropolis counts as a city when determining the strength of the barbarians during an attack, but the gate makes your city immune from the barbarians! If you’re the player with the weakest defense force, the barbarians can’t sack your metropolis. They CAN still sack one of your other, non-metropolis cities though. And a metropolis owner can still be robbed by the robber.
There are three gate pieces in the game, one for each of the three tracks. And just like the longest road card, another player could potentially overtake you and steal your metropolis away. If someone reaches the fourth level of the track where you have the metropolis gate, nothing happens. But if that player surpasses you to reach the FIFTH level of a given track, that player claims the metropolis gate for that track. There go those two extra points. So if you want to secure your metropolis, YOU have to be the first to upgrade to the fifth and final page of your chart, so that no one can steal the gate from you.
You can own more than one metropolis, but it’s one gate per city. And you’re only allowed to upgrade a track past level 3 if you have a city for that track. So if you only have 1 city on the board, you can only upgrade one of these tracks past level 3. If you build up to a second city, you can upgrade past level 3 in another track. And if you have 3 or more cities, you can go past level 3 in all tracks.
So how does losing a city affect your chart? Nothing changes, even if the barbarians sack your last remaining city – you don’t lose any of your level 3 abilities, if you’ve got ‘em, and you don’t start turning pages backwards. But if the barbarians bounce you back to the stone age and all you’ve got left are settlements, you can no longer advance your chart. You have to have at least one city on the board in order to pay commodities and flip those pages. A word to the wise: you do not want to lose your last city in this game. It can be incredibly hard to bounce back from that.
On your turn, you can play as many progress cards as you want after you roll the dice. Spent progress cards get sunk to the bottom of their matching deck. You can’t trade Progress cards between players, and they can’t be stolen by the robber. Only one card in the game – the green alchemist – can be played before you roll the dice. That card lets you choose the numbers on both dice before you roll the event die.
One of the card types in the trade stack is the merchant. Playing this card allows you to place the purple merchant cone on a hex bordering one of your structures. Now you control the merchant, which means that you – and only you – can trade that resource at a 2:1 ratio. So the merchant is like a land-locked 2:1 trade port. The merchant is also worth 1 point as long as you control him. If another player plays a merchant card, that player gets to move the merchant to another hex, which means you lose the point and the 2:1 trade bonus.
Here’s a quick survey of the rest of the Progress cards in the game:
In the Trade stack, there’s a commercial harbour card that forces other players to trade you one of their commodity cards for whatever crummy card you offer them. The Master merchant card lets you look at another player’s hand of resource and commodity cards, and steal 2 of them. The merchant fleet lets you pick one resource or commodity, and use it to conduct as many 2:1 trades with the supply as you want to, on this turn only, which is great if you have too many flippin’ sheep. The resource monopoly card is a nerfed version of the monopoly card from the base game: name a resource (not a commodity) and everyone has to give you 2 of those, if they’ve got em. The trade monopoly card does the same thing, except it applies to commodities instead of resources.
In the politics stack, you’ve got the bishop, who lets you move the robber and steal a card at random from not just one, but ALL of the players whose cities or settlements border that tile – but like i said earlier, you can only play the bishop after the barbarians have attacked at least once. The constitution card gets you 1 victory point. The deserter forces another player to choose one of his or her own knights to remove from the board, and then you get to put one of your own knights of equal strength on the board. If you’re out of matching knights, you can place one from a lower strength level. If your opponent turfs a mighty knight, you get to place one of your mighty knights, even if you haven’t unlocked your mighty knights by upgrading to level 3 of the politics track. The diplomat lets you remove a dangling road – yours, or someone else’s. If you remove your own dangler, you can place it somewhere else on the island. The intrigue card lets you displace an enemy knight if it’s touching one of your roads. Then you’ve got the saboteur, who makes players with more victory points than you lose half their commodity and/or resource cards. The spy lets you peek at another player’s Progress cards and steal one. You can’t steal any cards that have a victory point on them, like the constitution card or a defender of Catan card. The warlord lets you activate all of your knights for free. The wedding card forces everyone with more points than you to give you a mix of two resource or commodity cards. Well, it beats a toaster.
And finally in the science stack, there’s the crane, which gives you a 1-commodity discount when you upgrade a city improvement track. The engineer gets you a free city wall. The inventor lets you switch two number tokens on the board, as long as they’re not the low-probability 2 or 12, or the high-probability 6 or 8. The irrigation card gets you two extra wheat for each field next to a city or settlement you control, and the mining card does the same thing, but for mountains and ore. The medicine card lets you upgrade a settlement to a city at a discount. The printer is worth a victory point, the road building card gets you 2 free roads, and the smith lets you promote 2 knights for free.
The game ends when someone gets to 13 points or more on his or her turn. Here’s a rundown of everything that gets you points:
Settlements – 1 point
Cities – 2 points
Metropoles – 4 points
Controlling the merchant cone – 1 point
Constitution and Printer cards – 1 point each
Defender of Catan card – 1 point
Longest Road card – 2 points
The rulebook mentions a couple of tweaks if you want to make the game friendlier or nastier. On the friendly side, if you roll a 7 on either of your first two turns, you can ignore it and re-roll. You can also skip rolling the event die during everyone’s first two turns. This will make sure everyone gets a good head of steam before all the robbing and pillaging starts.
But if you like your Catan nasty, then when the barbarians attack, you can let everyone decide which of their activated knights they want to send into battle, going clockwise from the active player. This will potentially enable players to screw over their opponents, whose cities would otherwise be protected by Catan’s military force, so you can more deliberately cause people to lose their cities. This will definitely make the game longer, though.
Set up the game as you normally would, but replace the development cards with the three Progress stacks. Add the three commodity card types to the five resource types. Get rid of the Largest Army card and the original recipe cards. Instead, give everyone a city improvement chart and six knight tokens in their chosen colour, along with three city walls. Have the merchant cone and the metropolis gates and tokens nearby at the ready.
As with the base game, there’s a suggested setup diagram in the rulebook for your first game, to ensure there’s no weird imbalance of resources.
When you place your first two structures, instead of placing two settlements, everyone places a settlement in clockwise turn order, and then a CITY going counterclockwise. Once that’s done, you collect resources for any tile that your city touches – resources, not commodities. So this city would net the player a wood, a wheat, and an ore to start off with. You won’t earn any commodities from your city until the game begins in earnest.
And now, you’re ready to play Catan: Cities & Knights![Music – Board Game Boogie by Ryan Henson Creighton]
Get Your Own Copy of Catan: Cities & Knights
As i covered in my Catan: Cities & Knights unboxing video, you’ll need a copy of Catan before you can enjoy Cities & Knights. Use the Amazon link below to add the game to your own collection, and i’ll receive a small commission!