Sunday, July 21, 2013

The Mechanics of Catan

by David Kempe

My name is David Kempe, and I am a staff member at Labyrinth. Between all of us, the staff has played more than 90% of the games in the store. In an attempt to keep a knowledgeable staff, each of the employees here tends to specialize in a specific game area based on their tastes. A coworker recently said that I like my games like she likes her wine: “drier than the Sahara.” A game is “dry” if there is very little theme or if the theme of the game is much less important to the game play than the base mechanics. Lords of Waterdeep, Power Grid, Copycat, and Race for the Galaxy are some of my favorite games, and they are all quite “dry.” These games rely heavily on their mechanics.

People often compare a new game to one they’re more familiar with in order to better understand how it 
works, and a useful game to compare against is The Settlers of Catan. This is because Catan is so widely-known, and also because it contains many gameplay elements which are frequently seen in other games. Whenever I compare a game to Catan, I break down both games to their basic mechanics. At its core, Catan uses area control, negotiation/ trading, and resource management.

A game employs area control if there are different parts or sections of the board that players are trying to gain control over. More specifically, these games have areas that are in contention between the players. There may be areas that can be taken from other players, as in Risk or Discworld: Ankh-Morpork, where locations may change ownership many times during one game. Areas may also belong to a player permanently once they’re claimed, as happens in Power Grid and The Settlers of Catan. These varying forms of area control highlight the main difference between Euro-style games and American games. In Catan, a Euro game, the direction in which players expand is heavily influenced by where the other players choose to play. Once a player chooses an area to settle, no player can move that settlement or take over that area. While players may expand strategically to stifle their opponents’ movement, there is no direct confrontation. In contrast, players directly attack each other in American games, like the classic Risk. Area control as a mechanic made its debut through war games, which remain the most common place to find this style of play.

Resource management simply means a game has a limiting factor, usually money, which players need in order
to progress in the game. In Catan, players use wood, brick, wheat, sheep, and ore to buy cards as well as space on the board. Power Grid and Monopoly have money as their major limiting factor, but Power Grid also allows players to buy from a limited supply of coal and oil. In order for something to be considered a resource, players must work to get access to it. Troops in Risk, for example, are not considered a resource; while they do limit players’ movement and options, players always get more troops at the beginning of their turn regardless of whether they are progressing well or not.

A game has a negotiation mechanic whenever there is interaction in a game where players can color opponents’ decisions by convincing them to act a certain way. In Catan, players must convince each other to trade resources, hoping to gain an advantage. In war games like Diplomacy, players can negotiate to influence or figure out who the other players will attack. Negotiation can even occur in games where it does not factor as a core mechanic: A player could be convinced to buy a building in Puerto Rico or take a space in Lords of Waterdeep, but negotiation is not strictly required in these games. Of these mechanics, negotiation is my favorite. Negotiation is what makes most games interactive and social. In fact, many games that don’t involve some kind of negotiation can be described as “multiplayer solitaire”. I am a huge fan of Race for the Galaxy, but it lacks the player interaction that I look for in most games.

The Settlers of Catan is an amazing game to attract new players to board gaming by introducing many of the core mechanisms common in Euro board games. I hope this rundown of the mechanics in Catan can be helpful to finding your next game.

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