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How to Play – Catan

How to Play Catan

Klaus Teuber’s Catan is, for many, the ‘gateway game’ that introduced them into the wonderful world of modern board games. Previously known as The Settlers of Catan, this is the title that won the coveted Spiel des Jahres (Family Board Game of the Year Award) back in 1995. That’s right: Catan is closing in on its 25th anniversary!

It’s predicted that tens of millions of Catan products have been sold. There are a whole heap of products within the Catan family, including expansion titles like:

There is even a Game of Thrones Catan, Brotherhood of the Watch, based on the wildly popular HBO TV series.

Here we’ll be focusing on how to teach and play the base game that started it all. All of those aforementioned spin-off products and expansions work around the core mechanisms based in Catan, where you’re racing to build towns and networks on an island, all the while trading resources with your rivals. This tutorial will help you to introduce it to the next generation!

Set-Up & Components

Thematically, Catan is an island, surrounded by sea. There are six sea tiles that fit together like a jigsaw, making a large hexagonal frame. Inside, you’ll need to place the 19 smaller hex tiles, which comprise of the five different terrains: Hills, forests, mountains, fields and pastures. (There’s also a sixth terrain type – the desert – but we’ll talk more about that, later).

Ordinarily, Catan has a modular set-up, but it’s recommended that for your first few games you align these terrain tiles in a suggested, specific format, shown in the rulebook and demonstrated in our photos. (We’ll talk about modular set-ups later on in this tutorial, once you have a greater grasp of what things mean!)

For this beginner setting, next take the 18 small circular number tokens (ranging 2-12) and place specific numbers on each terrain hex – again, mimicking the set-up in the rulebook. No number token sits in the desert. Instead, place the grey Robber figure in here.

Separate and stack the five different types of Resource cards (brick, lumber, ore, grain and wool) and place them into decks, within arm’s reach of all the players. Shuffle and place the Development cards deck next to them. Also place out the two special cards: Longest Road, and Largest Army.

Allocate colours to the players (Catan is a three or four-player game). Give each player settlements, cities, roads and a Building Card costs reference card in their corresponding colour. Each player then places two of their settlements on intersections where three hexes meet (again, according to the suggested starting positions).

Also, every player starts with three resource cards depending on their start positions. This differs for a modular set-up, of course. Give the two D6 dice to the start player and you’re all ready to start settling the island of Catan!

So... How Do You Win?

The aim of Catan is to acquire (or trade) resources that can be obtained across the island’s five different terrains, and then to spend those resources to build settlements, cities or to buy Development cards, all of which can/will score you victory points. The winner is the first to get 10VP on their turn. Easy!

(Every player starts on Two VP, because you all begin with two settlements on the island as part of set-up and each settlement you have present on the island is worth One VP each. So, just eight more to earn, then… Even easier, right?)

Rules & Turn Structure - Earning Resources

On your turn in Catan, you start by rolling the two D6 dice. The minimum you’ll roll is a total of two, the maximum is 12. Whatever you roll, you then consult where those corresponding circular number tokens are on the island. Note which terrain they are on, and which players have settlements on intersections that sit on the border of that terrain tile. Those players receive a resource card of that terrain type. These being:

  • Hills produce bricks.
  • Forest produces lumber (often called ‘wood’).
  • Mountains produce ore.
  • Fields produce grain.
  • Pastures produce wool (often called ‘sheep’).

If a player has two (or even three) settlements around the same hex, they earn one resource card per settlement.

Introducing..... The Robber

There are no sevens among the 18 circular number tokens. This is deliberate, because odds-wise, rolling a seven is the most common result when two D6 dice are thrown (a 17% chance, for the math stats fans). Therefore, if a seven is rolled, it’s bad news for everyone because nobody earns any resources.

In fact, if any players hold more than seven cards in their hand at this point, they must pick half of them (rounded down) and return them to the supply! Then, the active player has a decision to make, involving the Robber.

The Robber in Catan is a scumbag. It starts in the desert, where nothing grows, but every time a seven is rolled, the active player moves the Robber to one of the other 18 tiles. This does two things. This tile is controlled by the Robber now (meaning that if that tile’s number is rolled, players with adjacent settlements do not receive any resources for it). The active player then takes one resource card (blind) from a player whose settlement sits on an adjacent intersection to the Robber’s new tile.


After you roll, can do a spot of trading. You (as the active player) can trade with anyone on your turn, while other players cannot trade with each other. Trading is vocal, and is where the fun back-and-forth enters the fray (and where the inevitable “Wood for sheep?” phrase will be uttered at least once).

Players can interject and make counter-proposals, so the active player usually has a good chance of getting what they want… But sometimes at a price. Trading does not have to a one-for-one deal. If you really need that sheep, maybe you’ll offer two bricks for it. Maybe a brick and a grain. Or, if you’re really desperate, maybe even three cards for one…

This leads us neatly to Maritime trading. If your opponents are all being super-tight with their resources, you can always trade with the game, itself. By default, you can trade 4:1 (four identical resources for any one of your choice).

You’ll notice at the edge of the island there are jetties along certain beaches. If you’ve built a settlement on one such harbour, you can trade with the game according to the accompanying, more-favourable ratio. Some of them provide a return of 3:1, while others are more specific, such as 2:1 on, say, ore (meaning you can trade two ore with the game for any resource type).


Players are trading because they’re aiming to build structures, all of which cost specific resources. And, when built, they’re worth victory points. There are four possible things you can build, and there is no limit as to how many of them you can build on your turn – providing you have the required resources for them.

Roads cost one brick and one wood. They have to be played within your network – as in, connected to one of your existing roads. It’s first-come, first-served, so if someone else has built a road there prior, you cannot pass. If you are the first player to have built five continuous roads, you’ll earn the Longest Road card (worth Two VPs). This remains yours until someone builds a longer road, in which case, they’ll take the card (and with it, the juicy Two VPs).

Settlements cost one brick, one wood, one grain and one sheep. These have to be built within your network, on an intersection between three tiles (or two – or even one – if building on the coast). Again, first-come, first-served. Vital point: Don’t forget the ‘Distance Rule’. A settlement can only be played on an intersection if it is at least two roads away from another settlement. Remember, each settlement is worth One VP each.

Cities cost two grain and three ore cards. These are upgraded settlements – when built, you remove one of your settlements from the island and replace it with a city. These provide two resource cards when the adjacent terrain’s number is rolled, doubling your efficiency. Cities are also worth Two VP each.

Development Cards cost one sheep, one grain and one ore. Upon payment, you draw the top Development card from the face-down deck. You cannot play it this turn, however. Also, you can only play one Development card per turn. There is no hand limit for them.

There are three categories of Development cards. First up are Knight cards. When you play a Knight, you get to move the Robber and steal a card (as if you’d rolled a seven). Also, if you’re the first player to have played three Knight cards, you receive the Largest Army card (which, like the Longest Road) is worth Two VP. Other players can also claim it, if they play more Knight cards.

There are also green-bordered Progress cards with various benefits. Meanwhile, there are also some orange-bordered Victory Point cards, which are worth straight-up VPs. They are revealed at the end of the game. Victory Point cards are the one exception where you can play them on the turn in which you acquire them, if in the circumstance where it’s the required 10th VP you need to win Catan.

A Few Games In? Try the Modular Set-up

As promised, the modular set-up for Catan may appeal to you after your first game or two. Place the 19 terrain hexes into the sea frame in any order of your choice. There are also nine harbour tokens that come with the game – you can place these randomly on top of all harbour spots on the frame to mix these about, too.

Flip over the 18 circular number tokens; they have letters on them, A-R. Place the A in the top-left hex, and then place B, then C, D and so on in a counter-clockwise spiral, until you reach the middle hex. Remember, the desert hex never gets a number token, so should be skipped in this order. Then flip the tokens over to reveal their numbers.

Instead of the default starting positions, determine a random start player. Have them place their first settlement on any intersection of their choice, plus a road leading out of it. Then the next player places a settlement, and so on until all players have placed one.

Then, in reverse-turn order, players get to place their second settlement (of course, obeying the Distance Rule), and a second road. They then receive resources that surround their latter-placed settlement.

Final Tips and Tricks for Catan

Remember, you have a limit of what you can only build (you only have five settlements, four cities and 15 roads). This means you cannot build, say, a sixth settlement. Once you’ve placed all five, you’ll have to upgrade on to a city (thus, getting a settlement back) before you can build another one.

On this regard, if you’re aiming for the Longest Road, you’ll want to make every road count towards it (like the Longest Route ticket in Ticket To Ride). Don’t waste any of them!

Building on a harbour is brilliant for the superior exchange rate, but remember, a settlement (or city) placed here will not benefit from sitting in a three-way intersection for potential resources.

Take into consideration of the number tokens that sit on the terrain hexes. The sixes and the eights are both red, because theoretically they are the most likely rolled combinations (all of 1+5, 2+4, 3+3, 4+2, 5+1 make six, for example) while to get a 12, only a 6+6 will do. Therefore, when placing settlements, think about the numbers, and which ones – again, in theory – will crop up more often. Dice can be cruel, at times!

In the first half of the game, everyone will be after wood and bricks, because they are needed to build roads (obeying the Distance Rule). They’re also half of what’s needed to build settlements. In the latter half of the game, players will be after ore and grain, because they want to upgrade to cities. If you feel stuck or cannot afford either, go for the Development cards.

Moving the Robber isn’t just a mean move to steal card. It also starves a particular resource out of the game, because until the Robber is moved, that particular hex won’t introduce any cards. If this occurs early on in the game, you’re essentially forcing people to go for the Maritime 4:1 trade to get that much-desired resource.

Finally, Catan doesn’t come with a sand-timer, but it might be an idea to use one during the trading phase. It will ensure gameplay doesn’t drag and also that players have to make quick, gut-reaction trade decisions!