Design lessons from (Settlers of) Catan

Image by static416 via flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

First released in Germany in 1995, Settler of Catan[1] (or Die Siedler von Catan) is responsible for launching a board game renaissance in North America. It has sold over 18 million copies world-wide, sparked a number of expansions and spin-offs, and paved the way for a host of other so-called Eurogames. When a product is so successful, it is easy to assume that the design sprang fully formed from the mind of its creator. The truth is much more complicated.

Klaus Teuber was a dental technician by day but enjoyed making games in his spare time.[2] By the early 1990s, he had already had some success. His game Barbarossa won the prestigious Spiel des Jahres (Game of the Year) award in 1988, and he won again with different games in 1990 and 1991. (He would win his fourth Spiel der Jahres in 1995 with Catan). Meanwhile, he had begun working on a new game inspired by his interest in Vikings, with its theme centred around the exploration and settlement of an island. Its development would take over four years. During this time, he used his wife and three children for play testing and feedback.[3]

There are a few interesting details about the evolution and refinement of the design during those four years.

Originally, the game was much more complex. There was an exploration component, for example, where terrain tiles were only added to the island as scouts arrived to discover them. Unfortunately, this approach could result in an island with a large number of gaps and holes. It also allowed the board to expand uncontrollably depending on the actions of the scouts. Eventually Teuber felt that there was too much going on and decided to abandon exploration to focus more on the settlement of a fully-known and fully-defined island.[4]

Prototype landscape tiles designed by Klaus Teuber. Image from the Catan website.

Another significant change was the shape of the tiles. In a blog post on the Catan website[4], you can see some of the early designs for the landscape tiles; they were square and contained up to three different terrains. The settlements were to be placed at the centre of the square tiles where the different terrains intersected. Moving to the now familiar single-terrain hexagon tiles simplified the design, still allowed settlements on the corners to access up to three resources, and resulted in consistent road lengths along the edges.

One concept that we always try to emphasize with our engineering students is that design is an iterative process. A good design is the culmination of a number of small, incremental improvements. Catan illustrates the power of iteration; it took four years of refinement to develop such a successful game. A second lesson is the importance of resisting complexity, focusing on a core idea, and executing it well. Some of the ideas Teuber cut for the initial release have since found their way into other games or into Catan expansions, but it is the simple elegance of the original that made it successful. Knowing when to cut is just as important as knowing when to add. Iteration can help find the right balance.

Notes

  1. ^ I know that Catan is now the official name, but amongst my circle of friends it will always be referred to as Settlers.
  2. ^ Adrienne Raphel. “The man who built Catan.” The New Yorker. February 12, 2014. <https://www.newyorker.com/business/currency/the-man-who-built-catan>
  3. ^ Andrew Currey. “Monopoly killer: Perfect German board game redefines genre.” Wired. March 23, 2009. <https://www.wired.com/2009/03/mf-settlers/>
  4. ^ Klaus Teuber, “Two brothers: ‘Entdecker’ and ‘The Settlers of Catan’” Catan website, April 17, 2002. <https://www.catan.com/news/2002-04-17/two-brothers-entdecker-and-settlers-catan>
  5. Photo credits for the custom Catan tiles:
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