Writing a review of Catan is sort of like writing a book review for George Orwell's 1984. Love it or hate it, no one can deny the tremendous impact that it's had on generations since. While Catan hasn't been around for quite as long as Orwell's novel, it's impact on gamers and the board gaming hobby has been phenomenal. It's no understatement to say that the industry would look very different today if Catan did not exist.
A brief history
This is a review not a history lesson, so I'll keep this bit brief. Catan was first published in 1995 under the name Settlers of Catan (Die Siedler Von Catan). It was designed by German dentist Klaus Teuber and began life in Germany, before spreading to the rest of Europe, the USA and the world. Since 1995, the base game has been printed in 39 languages and sold over 27 million copies, according to the official site. Now multiple expansions exist, along with a two-player variant, Rivals for Catan and a dice game.
Catan is often credited with being the forefather of the present-day Euro game, a broad gaming genre characterised by low player interaction, point-based victory conditions and a theme that is only loosely tied to the mechanics of the game. Catan bears all of these hallmarks, with 3-4 players competing to be the first to 10 victory points by building towns and cities on a randomised board made out of hex tiles.
Players assume the role of early island settlers, who start with access to a few resources that they can use to settle the island more extensively, gaining access to more resources and points as they do so. Resources are allocated each turn based on a dice roll, and players can negotiate trades with one another to supplement their income from the board. Players can also access ports, which allow them to trade in two or three resources of the same type to receive one of their choice from the supply.
Victory points are primarily gained through building towns and cities, which cost a set number of resources, but can also be obtained through achievements like 'longest road', or from point-scoring development cards. Development cards come from a face down deck and are bought like settlements or cities. One card could give you a point, or allow you to take some kind of beneficial action.
The game punishes you for hoarding too many resources. Whenever any player rolls a seven (the most common number that could come from rolling two D6s), the robber moves, covering up a space, allowing the player who rolled the seven to steal a resource from another player and punishing hoarding by forcing all players with eight or more cards in hand to discard half of them.
Rules governing where settlements and roads can be placed give players the opportunity for some passive interaction by giving you the chance to beat one another to different points on the board but, overall, interaction is limited to the resource negotiations and robber movements.
As I've already mentioned, the game ends as soon as one player reaches 10 victory points - that player is the winner.
Is Catan still worth it?
Speaking from my personal experience, Catan is a game that I think pretty much every gamer should have in their collection. That's not because it's the hands-down best game ever, but it's because it's one of the best games for introducing people to the hobby. Catan was my own stepping stone from Magic: The Gathering into board gaming, and the copy that I immediately bought after my first play through has since been played with more different people than any of my other games.
Catan is the epitome of a 'gateway game' - it's easy for new players to latch on to and introduces them to hobby games in a fun, accessible way. I find the rules very easy to teach, and have seen complete non-gamers get the hang of the whole thing within a turn or two. The theme, being fairly low-key and undeveloped, also helps with the accessibility for new gamers who aren't as bought into the full on science-fiction and fantasy themes seen in many other hobby games.
But don't think that Catan is only enjoyable for new gamers. I still really enjoy teaching and playing it, even as my knowledge and experience in the hobby has grown significantly since that first time I played it. There's a good level of adaptive strategy involved, whereby players need to plan ahead but also be prepared to change their plans on the fly if things don't go their way (especially in a four-player game). The gameplay is also very satisfying - it's a great feeling to take new resources, especially if you're picking up multiples in one turn, and building that settlement or city that you've been working towards genuinely feels like an achievement.
The length of the game is also good. While it can vary from play to play, it tends not to take longer than an hour, making it shorter than many of the newer Euro games that it has inspired. This length of time is short enough to hold the attention of non-gamers, but long enough that you have time to develop strategies and do lots of different things within the game.
Catan's replay-ability is helped by a fully randomised board. All the island tiles can be randomised, as can the numbers that are placed on them to determine what dice roll produces resources (though I find that using the recommended order of numbers leads to more balanced games). Even the location of the different ports can be randomised. While the randomisation doesn't substantially change each game (the rules, for example, remain unchanged), it does just enough to force you to change strategies by changing which resources are plentiful and which are scarce, or by placing different resources near ports that may or may not be related to them. Even after my countless plays, this keeps the game fresh and interesting.
All that said, Catan isn't a perfect game. It was a forerunner in its class, but this means that many games have since taken its ideas and improved upon them. As with any game that features unaltered dice rolls as a core mechanic, randomness can heavily influence the way it plays out. You could have placed settlements on the best spots in theory, but those numbers might never come up, while the player next to you who made terrible decisions is rewarded with unlikely rolls turn after turn. There are ways to manage that randomness - mostly by covering more numbers with your settlements - but it definitely plays its part in plenty of games.
Another downside is that it can be hard to catch up when you fall behind. If you're experienced at the game, you may be able to come up with a strategy to dig yourself out of a hole, but newer players may struggle to develop beyond four or five victory points if they find their resources drying up and other players moving out of site. Besides the robber, the game has no inherent catch-up mechanism, and the robber itself doesn't punish only the leading players - it punishes anyone with a lot of resources.
Final Thoughts on Catan
If you want a game to play with new or non-gamers, you should buy Catan without hesitation. If you enjoy Euro games and have somehow never played Catan, you should also get your hands on it. However, if you're an experienced gamer and you rarely, if ever, play with newcomers to the hobby, you might want to let this one pass you buy.
There are plenty of games out there that have taken Catan's ideas and developed them further. Though even if you fall into the more experienced category, I still think it's a game you should have a go at, even if it's just to get a feel for what it was that had the power to inspire so many other fantastic designs in the decades after its publication.