Originally published on Board Game Geek.

As I was thinking about Scythe, Catan kept coming to mind. Obviously both games use generic resources to build upgrades. And both are played on large hexagons. Each has a mechanic that lets other players profit from the current player's actions. And both end abruptly when one player earns the requisite stars/victory points.

It's not a perfect comparison. Scythe has mechs that fight each other and Catan has . . . a robber? But the family resemblance can't be ignored. Meanwhile, when I think of Catan my mind naturally wanders to Advanced Civilization. Since it's a game that takes an entire day and it's hard to find many people willing to do that, I've only played it twice. Catan I've only played a few times with other humans because I came to it fairly late and found other games to play that I enjoyed more. (I have played the app more than a few times but it's not exactly the same experience.)

But again, there are bits common to both games: trading with other players, disaster that strikes without warning, turns that don't advance your personal situation and, of course, a fixed goal to reach. But whereas Scythe added mechanics, Catan mercilessly cuts extraneous mechanics. The robber is a stand-in for combat and calamities. Instead of 18 trade goods, there are 5. There are also 4 possible upgrades to purchase instead of climbing a technology tree. Movement rules are solved by not allowing movement.

The result is a game that takes an hour or two, which is a huge selling point in a world of day-long marathons. In addition, abstracting so many events simplifies the rules enough for the general population to pick up easily. There's a reason it's called a gateway game. Before Catan, board games tended toward cardboard simulations. Catan's great contribution to the hobby was honing in on the aspects of gaming that most capture our attention.

Unfortunately, Catan has several obvious problems. Perhaps the biggest is that players begin with easily the most important decision in the game. Drafting starting locations with high probabilities remains the best strategy. (The dot system helps make the probabilities more clear.) But if you neglect to put a settlement next to ore, cities seem out of reach. It's a horrible realization that something you did before you really understood the game had put you out of the running an hour later. All is not lost, of course, but it's still discouraging for new players.

Almost as miserable is a run of bad luck that means you always need a resource you are in a position to collect because your number never seems to come up. Thankfully there's a trading mechanic. Sadly, trading in Catan depends on people and people don't always play nice. Assuming someone has what you need and wants what you have, people are naturally reluctant to give you a victory point. Trading with the (apparent) leader seems like a bad choice. If it's not my turn yet, there's always the chance the resource I'm looking for will fall into my lap in a future roll of the dice.

In my review of Bohnanza, I mentioned how much better trading can be when trading often is rewarded. Catan's harsh bank trading rules push players toward trading with each other. It also sets an expectation that 1 for 1 trades are bad business. Giving someone the resources they need to obtain a victory point (even if it helps you just as much) never sits well. The design depends on trading to keep players from having empty turns, but does too little to encourage trade.

Interestingly my first introduction to the Catan universe was the Catan Card Game which uses a 3:1 trading ratio. Although trading between players was allowed, it never seemed useful. Whatever the non-active player might hope to gain, it's hard to justify giving the other player what they want. Fleets, which allow 2:1 trades, further reduce the odds you won't acquire what you need next turn.

Even more generous is Catan Junior, which offers 2:1 trades and a marketplace where you can get straight up trades if the resource you want happens to be available. All this is to say the original Catan is pretty stingy and will lead to unproductive turns compared to other versions. Instead of making interesting decisions, these turns remind you of your bad luck (or inability to convince others to trade). A game can survive that occasionally, but repeated futility harms the experience.

Rolling a 7 triggers the only aggressive action available to players. It demonstrates how shockingly thin the theme is. Why does this newly settled island already have robbers? In reality, this mechanic is a stand in for a variety of calamities including, one supposes, attacks by indigenous people. The design seems to be an encouragement against hording resources, since the robber triggers loss of half a player's resources if they have more than 7. Unfortunately, it doesn't encourage trading since the players who are waiting for their turn still don't have an incentive to help the player who is active. (And the rules don't allow players to give away resource cards in any case.)

For me Catan is a classic and I'm glad to have played it. But there are just too many better games that don't get played enough for me to want to go back. Perhaps more importantly, the games I enjoy now owe a debt to Klaus Teuber for designing a game that radically reducing the economic genre to minimal complexity which laid the foundation for games like Scythe and It's a Wonderful World.