How Settlers of Catan Works

By: Robert Lamb  | 
Catan box art
Cover art indicates that Catan settlers are rather grubby.
Image courtesy

Settlers of Catan addicts are an increasingly common sight. They typically haunt the hallways of workplaces and the tables of coffee shops, nervously pawing pocketfuls of hexagonal terrain cards while trying to talk their friends and co-workers into a quick game or two. You'll even find them in schools, feverishly pushing their favorite board game on their classmates.

What's this Catan craziness all about? It all comes down to trade and economics. Really. Trade and economics.


At first glance, Settlers of Catan (for ages 10 and up) may not seem very exhilarating. Three to four players assume the role of settlers seeking to dominate the fictional island of Catan. There are no battles. There are no elaborate props, and the goal isn't to ruthlessly annihilate your opponents. Instead, players spend the game exploiting the island's natural resources, building cities and diplomatically trading with one another. It's just like the real world, except without all the endangered animals and vanishing natural habitats.

Competition, however, does indeed lurk in Catan. At the end of play, only one person will generate enough points to emerge victorious. Yet the game design makes it impossible for anyone to win without some degree of cooperation. Players deal in five separate natural resources, and no one has reliable access to all of them.

Settlers of Catan is what board game enthusiasts call a German-style game. In fact, given its worldwide popularity, Catan has become the epitome of German game mechanics that favor nonviolence, cooperation and invigorative thinking. As of 2011, its worldwide sales have exceeded 25 million copies [source: Keyes].

The time-sucking diversion is the brainchild of Klaus Teuber, who back in 1991 was a German dental technician with a passion for teeth and game design. He'd already conceived of one successful board game called Barbarossa, but it was the idea for an island adventure title that would rocket Klaus to international success. A jury of German game critics named Settlers of Catan German Family Game of the Year in 1995, and its popularity soon spread to the United States. Today, the game is available in more than 30 different languages, as well in several computer, video game console, smartphone and tablet formats.

So how do you play this trend-setting past-time? Read the next page to find out.

How to Play Settlers of Catan: Board Setup

welcome to Catan
The island of Catan takes shape.
Matthew Batchelder/Creative Commons

It's time to crack open the box, set up the board and discuss the rules. Multiple expansion packs and special editions increase the game's complexity, but for the purposes of this article, we'll look at the rules for the original game.

The first thing you'll notice upon opening the box is that there's no traditional, folding game board. Instead, you build the island of Catan out of 19 hexagonal terrain tiles and surround it with a ring of 18 ocean pieces. Players can construct this island randomly or according to a predetermined layout. Either way, the island -- and the course of the game -- changes every time people sit down to play it.


Six terrain types make up Catan: forest, pasture, fields, hills, mountains and desert. Except for desert, each one produces a natural resource. Forests yield lumber, pastures generate wool, fields give up grain, hills produce bricks and mountains supply ore. The players scoop them up to build roads, settlements and ultimately cities.

You'll also spy a small, circular number token with a number, a letter and a series of pips (dots) sitting atop each nondesert terrain tile. The letter pertains to game setup, but the number relates to the number rolled. If a player gets a 4, only terrains with a 4 token yield anything to the people with settlements or cities bordering them. The series of pips merely refer to the probability of that number coming up. A 4 tile, for instance, bears three out of a possible six pips because there's an overall 8 percent chance of rolling that number on two dice. This way, players can judge by the pips which terrains are most likely to give up the goods.

Ready to build some settlements? We'll explore game play on the next page.

How to Play Settlers of Catan: Game Play

Everyone begins with two settlements and two roads. Settlements occupy the center point where three tiles converge and roads branch off from the settlements. In time, players can use resources to upgrade settlements into cities. Each player's turn goes as follows:

Step 1: The player rolls the dice to determine resource production for the turn. Each player with a settlement bordering a resource-producing terrain tile receives one resource card for the given resource. Cities that border a resource-producing tile snag two.


Step 2: In this phase of a player's turn, he or she trades resource cards with other players, announcing what resources are needed and which ones are being traded. Everyone is free to accept or make counteroffers, but only the player whose turn it is can initiate trade. The person also can choose to make a 4:1 trade, giving up four identical resource cards for one resource card of choice from the deck. Having a settlement or city adjacent to a harbor hex ocean tile allows players to make a 2:1 trade.

Step 3: Finally, the player enters the building phase of his or her turn. At this point, he or she may start spending resource cards to build roads, settlements or cities for the costs listed on the building cost cards. A settlement will earn one victory point, and a city will earn two victory points. You can only build a road onto an existing road, settlement or city. Settlements, on the other hand, must be connected to at least one road, and you can only place one on a vacant intersection between three open adjacent intersections.

If you don't want to build anything, however, you can also purchase a random development card for one grain, one wool and one ore. They can be used at any point during your turn.

The development card deck contains three types of cards. Victory point cards score you additional victory points. Progress cards allow you to either collect resources from the resource card deck or other players or to build two additional roads for free. Finally, the solider card allows you to move the Robber to a different terrain tile and steal one resource card from a player with a city adjacent to that terrain.

The Robber is an ominous figure that begins the game on the desert tile. Whenever a player rolls a 7, a lot of bad luck swirls through the island of Catan. Why? First, no terrains produce resources that turn. Second, any player with more than seven resource cards in his or her hand must return half of them to the main deck. The player who rolled the 7 then moves the Robber to the terrain of his or her choice and takes a random resource card from any one player with a settlement adjacent to that terrain. As long as the Robber remains on a tile, that terrain produces no resources.

The fun continues until one player amasses 10 victory points during his or her turn, which generally takes around 90 minutes.

On the next page, we'll talk strategy.

Settlers of Catan Strategy

Catan cake
As this cake illustrates, Catan fans are pretty obsessive.
Naotake Murayama/Creative Commons

Like a lot of games, Settlers of Catan is relatively easy to learn, but its varied game play and dependence on trade makes it ripe for inventive strategy. Expansion sets alter the complexity of the game and what happens changes greatly depending on whom you're playing against, but here are just a few basic strategy suggestions:

Know your costs. Familiarize yourself with building costs so you'll know which resource investments benefit which building projects. For instance, lumber and brick are vital to building both roads and settlements. Cities and development cards, however, incur ore costs.


Trade smart. Trade is vital to success in Settlers of Catan, so make sure every one you make furthers your path to victory. Early in the game you can safely swap with everyone, but later on you'll want to limit those interactions. Never trade with a player who is about to win the game.

Know where to build. Location, location, location! You want to kick off the fun by starting settlements on high-pip terrains. Also try to make sure your first settlements border three different terrain types to diversify your returns. Don't settle near the ocean until later in the game.

Don't bait the robber. Like it or not, someone is going to roll a 7 so take proactive measures. Make sure you always have fewer than seven resource cards before another player rolls in order to avoid losing half your hand to the robber. Spend the resources on building early and buy up development cards later on to further your growth and protect what you've built.

Know how to win. The only way to win is to amass 10 victory points, but there are different strategies to achieve this goal. The three main ways consist of 1) building lots of settlements and the longest road 2) building lots of cities and amassing the largest army or 3) achieving a balance between the two.

Think you have what it takes to rule the island? Explore the links on the next page to learn even more about Settlers of Catan and other popular brain games.

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More Great Links

  • Board Game Geek. "Settlers of Catan." (Aug. 19, 2011)
  • Curry, Andrew. "Monopoly Killer: Perfect German Board Game Redefines Genre." Wired Magazine. March 23, 2009. (Aug. 19, 2011)
  • The Economist. "An affinity for rules?" Aug. 28, 2008. (Aug. 12, 2011)
  • Keyes, Scott. "Settlers of Catan: How a German Board Game Went Mainstream." The Atlantic. June 7, 2011. (Aug. 25, 2011)
  • Settlers of Catan Fansite. (Aug. 19, 2011)