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Game Design Essentials: 20 Real-World Games

August 12, 2010 Article Start Previous Page 13 of 21 Next

12. Catan: The Card Game

Published by Kosmos and Mayfair Games

Type: Two player colony building card game.

Depth: Moderate

Designed by: Klaus Teuber

Luck factor: Moderate

Description: Players build resources in order to spend them to play colony improvements from their hand, to earn victory points. Like Settlers of Catan, dice determine the resources produced, but unlike that game each side has his own land and, for the most part, only interact through competition for resources.

Play Summary

The game is surprisingly complex -- quite a bit more than just Settlers of Catan -- so this is a more cursory overview than the other write-ups.

Each player has a card layout before them that represents their kingdom. At the start of the game, it consists of two settlements and six regions, each with their own card. Each player gets these particular cards as part of the game setup; they have special backs to aid in dividing them up. While not identical between players, they are similar.

Like the board game Settlers of Catan, each region has a number on it. Two dice are rolled, but only one of them is a numbered die. The other, the event die, has special symbols on it that trigger various occurrences. Both dice are rolled at the start of a turn, so events are frequent. The number die determines which regions, on both sides, produce that turn. Each side has the same kinds of starting regions, but different production numbers, meaning players start out gaining resources at the same rate but of different types.

The regions are mostly similar to those of Settlers:

  • Forests produce lumber. This is most useful early in the game.
  • Hills produce brick. This is more generally useful than lumber, but is also emphasized early.
  • Prairies produce grain, which is useful throughout.
  • Grasslands produce sheep, which is more useful than in basic Settlers of Catan. Here trading improvements usually require sheep.
  • Mountains produce ore, most useful in the late game.
  • Mines produce gold, which is unique in that it is not used for anything except trade.

Unlike the Settlers of Catan board game, resources are not recorded by holding cards in hand. Each region card has icons along the sides indicating 0, 1, 2 or 3 resources. The region cards are rotated to indicate how many resources it holds. Some improvements specifically enhance the regions it is adjacent to in a player's layout.

The event die does various things. Describing them all would make a long write-up even longer, but two results are of particular note:

  • A question-mark result means an event is drawn from the event deck. These produce a variety of events, some bad, some good, and some favoring a player with certain developments. They are cycled through, discarded events going to the bottom of the deck. One of the cards is Year End, which shuffles the deck. This tends to even out the events that occur in the game, while still providing unpredictability.
  • The bandit result means players must count their resources, and if they have more than seven throughout their kingdom, they lose all their ore and sheep. As in the board game, this provides a strong incentive to use resources instead of saving them up. There are improvements, Garrisons, that exempt nearby regions from the count.

There are two general kinds of improvements that can be built, all of them paid for with resources. One kind is generally available, without having to have a special card. Of this type are roads (cost one wood and two brick, needed to build settlements), additional settlements (worth a victory point, each constructed can support its own stack of improvements and also adds two more producing regions to the kingdom from a region deck), and cities (played on top of settlements, covering and replacing them, worth an extra point and allows constructing city improvements, many of which worth points of their own).

All of these improvements are limited in number; if their supply runs out, neither player can build any more. There are an odd number of settlements, so one player will always end up with a production edge. The early game is often a race to acquire it.

The other kind of improvement is played from the player's hand. There are a wide variety of these, and they all have their own costs and effects which are printed on the card. The cards themselves represent the buildings themselves when played, and are placed above or below the settlement or city that hosts them.

Settlements can only host Green buildings, and only two, while Cities can support up to four of either Green or Red color. Many Red buildings are worth victory points. Balancing this, Cities are vulnerable to the Plague event unless defended with a special improvement.

Some of these cards are Actions which allow players some special one-time effect. Generally, Action cards are the only way to directly attack the other player's kingdom. One special kind of Action card is kept in hand, and can be used to counter some of these attacks reversing them against the attacker; there is always a chance of reversing them, but this makes it much more likely.

Some cards are knights, which build the military power of a kingdom. The kingdom with the highest power gets the Knight Token, worth a victory point while held and allows special privileges. Similar is the Windmill Token, also worth a point and signifies the kingdom with the best trade. Unlike the board game, ties towards earning a token result in it being owned by no-one. Noteworthy is the fact that the only way a player can lose points is by losing the bonus for having a Token, or if a Red building is attacked by a special Action card. The game is won at 12 points.

If a player doesn't get the resources he needs, he can either trade freely with his opponent (which in practice is kind of rare) or trade three of any single kind of resource for one of any other. Some improvements allow for trading at better rates.

Whenever a player ends his turn with less than his full hand, he may draw back up to his maximum hand size. If he already had a full hand, he may choose to discard one or two cards and draw. The draw mechanism is unique to this game: instead of having just one draw pile, there are five, evenly and randomly distributed at the start of play. Whenever players discard, they may choose which stack the discards go to, and whenever they draw they may choose the pile they take from.

Not only are there Actions and Events that allow for looking through stacks for specific cards, but any time a player draws he may choose to spend two resources of his choice to pick a stack and search it for the card he wants. High-level play involves memorizing the contents and order of a stack on such a draw so one can later draw what he wants.

What can we draw from this game?

A great deal! Few games play with the various physical game mechanisms for providing randomness, and for spoiling that randomness through clever player action, as Catan: The Card Game. It is a very innovative game in this respect. I could easily have written twice as much and still not covered every aspect. And yet, it's hard to point to one mechanism or another as being irrelevant. Everything fits together. Turn-based strategy designers should definitely be taking notes on it.

The play atmosphere is completely different from the Settlers of Catan board game. With three or four players in Settlers it is rare that one player becomes the exclusive target for what our play group calls the hate. This facilitates trade, and also encourages players to hold off on attacking opponents until one of them pulls into the lead, since you don't know until then which rival is the one to hit.

When you have a single opponent, like in the card game, then the mood of the game gets competitive fast. Don't let the relative lack of ways to attack the other guy fool you: when the attacks come, they hurt.

If you don't think Catan: The Card Game is complex enough, there are many expansions for it, each of which adding its own interesting complications to the mix. Visit BoardGameGeek if you want to know more.

Article Start Previous Page 13 of 21 Next

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