5 Lessons from Catan for Aspiring Board Game Designers

Posted on Posted in Behind the Scenes

In 1995, the game formerly known as Settlers of Catan was nothing more than the obscure creation of designer Klaus Teuber. The board game market as we know it today did not exist yet. Catan was the first major hobby board game to come into existence. Even 24 years later, we can still look back at this game and learn lessons from it.

Catan board game

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Catan is pretty straightforward. You create an island of hexagonal tiles, each of which represents a different type of terrain. From this terrain, you gather wood, grain, brick, sheep, and stone. Over time, you build up settlements and roads. The ultimate goal, as with many board games, is to score the most points, which you do by building settlements and cities, having the longest road, and a couple of ancillary functions related to development cards.

From these easy-to-understand game, I can think of five lessons that are incredibly important for any aspiring designers to internalize.

1. Make your game easy to learn so it appeals to a wider audience like Catan.

The most popular modern board games, such as Risk and Monopoly, suffer from many of the same flaws. Chief among these flaws is having a disproportionately high amount of rules overhead. Before 1995, board games typically went one of two ways. They were very simple and didn’t have the level of strategic play which we are used to as modern gamers. Alternatively, they were Byzantine in their complexity and much of this came from the rules. Catan creates complexity from interactions between players and game elements, but not the actual rule set.

The importance of this cannot be understated. Much of what made people roll their eyes at board games made in the twentieth century disappeared when playing Catan. You never felt like you had to study a rulebook to play. The game can be adequately explained in 10 minutes. So many people who were on the fence about board gaming as a whole could play Catan and enjoy it.

2. Make elegant rules so no one has to be a rules lawyer.

Building upon the prior point, because Catan has a simple rule set, nobody had to play the unenviable role of “rules lawyer.” Nobody had to say “um, there’s actually no money on free parking” or “you get to move twice when you roll doubles.” You didn’t have to remember exceptions and oddities. The least intuitive mechanic is probably the robber who steals resource cards from other players when you roll a 7, and to be honest, you remember it when the number is rolled simply because 7 does not appear anywhere on the board.

This is a hallmark of well-made games. Less time spent memorizing and arguing about the rules allows for more time for strategizing. By keeping the rules simple, Catan removed one of the most common flaws from board games and set the bar higher.

3. Resist simple zero-sum mechanics to create a more interesting game.

In general, zero-sum is the default state of competitive board games. Among the many things about Catan that I find fascinating is the existence of trading. In board games, trading is not uncommon. Perhaps it is because trading was a mechanic long before Catan or perhaps it because everybody wanted their own version of “wood for sheep” in the years to come.

No matter what, trading in Catan is interesting because while the game as a whole is competitive, it creates an incentive within the rules of the game itself to cooperate. Anyone who’s taken an economics class knows that trade hinges upon both parties gaining something valuable from the transaction. In Catan, the lumber you provide me may help finish my road and the grain I send to you may complete your settlement. Catan creates situations where coordinating with others is more sensible than acting in pure self-interest.

For modern game designers, my recommendation is that even in competitive games, you find opportunities to encourage players to form alliances. This isn’t always doable, but when it is, it creates a whole new layer to the game.

4. Don’t overstay your welcome.

Catan is not a long game. It seldom exceeds 90 minutes and is usually closer to an hour once you know what you’re doing. While this isn’t a snappy game by modern standards – that would be 30 to 60 minutes – it is a good deal quicker than a lot of its predecessors. Many people hated the idea of two or three hours games like Risk or Monopoly, which made Catan a breath of fresh air.

The takeaway for you as a designer is to keep your games as short as possible for their weight. Obviously, extremely complex games should run for longer periods of time and extremely simple ones should be over in half an hour or less. The point is: cut the fluff.

5. Create reasons for players to interact with one another.

Circling back to trading for a moment, the magic of that mechanic is not simply in its subversion of zero-sum competition. That alone is substantial but equally important is the social interactions encouraged by trading. You may be trading in a friendly, genuine manner or you may be trading in a desperate, scattered, thirsty manner. Either way, you have to talk to your fellow gamers. You have to acknowledge them, their wants and needs, and try to either meet them or conceal the fact that you can’t meet them.

Social dynamics add so much to a game. This is why games like Cards Against Humanity – as much as gamers love to hate it – have the enduring power that they do. Games are nothing more than a front for spending time with other people. That’s the ultimate need that games meet for most gamers, more so than escapism or intellectual challenge. Catan acknowledges and encourages interaction. If you, as a designer, do this too, you will have greatly extended the life of your board game.

Catan was a trendsetting game for a lot of reasons. A lot of games have come and gone and Catan endures. Let’s learn from what it has done right so we can be better designers 🙂

10 thoughts on “5 Lessons from Catan for Aspiring Board Game Designers

  1. I absolutely agree with these points, Brandon. If you don’t mind, could I add 2 more?

    The first ties with your last point: Great things happen for you in Catan when it’s not your turn (e.g., gaining resources from other players’ dice rolls and trading with other players). This is surprisingly rare, even among modern board games, but it feels really good to benefit when it’s not even your turn, especially since those benefits are tied to decisions you made earlier in the game.

    The other is that Catan, like other mass-market hits like Dominion and Ticket to Ride, doesn’t have rounds or phases. You simply start playing, taking turns one after another, until the game ends. I think this flow is incredibly important for keeping players immersed and engaged in the game–there’s no artificial construct that creates a break in the action. (I’m not saying that rounds and phases are always a bad thing, but I think it’s notable that some of the most successful games of all time don’t have them.)

    1. Hi Jamey! Thanks for leaving a comment – you can add 100 points if you want. Goodness knows I picked up a ton from your blog 🙂

      I agree that gaining resources and trading on other people’s turns helped Catan a lot. Downtime – especially lengthy downtime – between turns hurts overall engagement. Catan sidesteps this, which like you pointed out, is still ahead of the curve 24 years later.

      On a related note, I’ve observed that phases/rounds tends to make people read right off the reference card. If you play a ton of board games, it’s business as usual. For a lot of inexperienced gamers, that’s a strange experience. Usability and simplicity become really, really important in the mass market.

    1. Hi Jim!

      That’s a good addition. Different starting positions, as well as Catan’s modular map, have helped give it a lot of longevity. It’s a nice way of including chance from the get-go without making a game feel deterministic!

  2. One more element that made/makes Catan so special was the variable board. I grew up on games with fixed boards like Monopoly and Risk where a great part of the strategy was knowing the quirks of the board itself. This gave me an immediate advantage over newer players such as knowing to start off at Risk with Australia rather than Europe. Or buying the orange series not the green one in Monopoly.

    Catan blew my mind the first time I played it because the board was never the same from one game to another since the tiles are laid out randomly each time. This idea alone is part of the reason the game has remained so popular years later, it feels like a brand new game each time you play it.

    Imagine if we had a version of Monopoly with variable placement of series and trains from one game to the next, it would certainly put a new twist on a tired old game! 😁

    1. Hi Antoine, I like your take a lot. The modular board had to have been mind-blowing in the 90s. I’m sure there’s one out there, but I can’t readily recall even a single mass market game with a mechanic like that.

  3. Huge Catan fan…we have taught so many people to play this game!

    Agree with all the comments.
    The big question: Is there another game that compares?

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