First Nations of Catan: A Revisionist History Game


 – NOTE: This post formed the basis for “The First Nations of Catan: Practices in Critical Modification,” which was published in the Analog Game Studies Journal, Vol. II, Issue VII. I’ll leave the original post here for now, though the ideas and the rules are more fleshed out in the Analog Game Studies version. –

I. Ideologically Suspect Games

Unlike my post on Monopoly, I’m not setting out to fix anything that’s wrong with Settlers of Catan, at least not from a gameplay perspective. Rather, I’m setting out to add a little more racial/historical awareness, and hopefully, a little more gameplay complexity, to Catan.

The genesis of this line of thinking came from a conversation I had with a friend about Puerto Rico (the game, of course, not the U.S. protectorate). Gameplay criticisms aside, the game is ideologically problematic. Basically, the goal of Puerto Rico is to generate the most resources to send back to your colonizing masters, exploiting the local (read “non-white”) people as effectively as possible. As progressive folks, this rubbed us the wrong way.

That conversation got me thinking about the troubling political implications of another game: Settlers of Catan. The myth of the “empty” frontier contributed to the genocide of Native Americans / First Nations through North America. Settlers of Catan, with its focus on settling the empty island, reinforces that myth. When I first thought about this, I had a hard time concentrating on my gameplay, as I was too busy trying to push aside the thought that, in playing this game, I was basically enacting genocide on the invisible native people of Catan.

I’m not saying that I’ll never play Catan or Puerto Rico again. I am saying that, as someone who is interested in games and racial/historical politics, I felt it was my duty to at least try to rectify what was making me feel weird about playing them.

I’ll probably reflect on the relationship of ideological concerns to the fictional worlds of games later, but for now, we’ve got a long post ahead, consisting of an alternative rules set for Settlers of Catan that lets one player play as the First Nations of Catan. If that interests you, read on…

II. Rules Changes to Catan

When the settlers arrive at Catan, they quickly encounter the First Nations of Catan, a semi-nomadic people who begin competing with them for the resources that, until their arrival, had been their undisputed right…

These rules are designed for the basic, 4-player Settlers of Catan, and require only a piece of paper and a pen in additional materials.

II.A. Setup

Once the island tiles are arranged and the numbers are placed, the First Nations Player (FNP from here on out) draws a map of the island, noting which tiles are which resources. This will allow her to use her primary gameplay mechanic: secretly moving her “tribe” around the board.

The FNP places the first settlement, not at the axis of three hexes, but directly on one hex. The FNP uses the center of the hexes throughout the game.

II.B. Win Condition

The FNP wins in the same way that the other players win: by accruing 10 Victory Points. She accrues Victory Points as follows:

-By playing Development Cards that have Victory Points on them

-By building settlements & cities

-By acquiring the Largest Army tile

-By defending territory (see II.F.)

The FNP may not acquire the Longest Road tile, as she does not build roads.

II.C. Movement

On her turn, the FNP may move her tribe. The tribe is not marked on the board by a token, but is marked on the FNP’s secret map with a pen or pencil. On the first turn, the tribe starts at the FNP’s settlement. The tribe moves following this formula:

Number on the dice / 4, rounded down. 

Thus, on a dice roll of 1-3, the tribe cannot move. On 4-7, they move one. On 8-11, they move two. On 12, they move three.

To mark this movement, the FNP uses turn numbers. At the game’s start, she marks a zero where she has placed the first settlement — the tribe starts from its settlement. On her first dice roll, the ending position of the tribe is marked as a 1. Thus, if her first dice roll is an 8, the FNP may move the tribe 2 hexes (remember, FNP uses the center of the hex, not its edges and corners). If she moves 2 hexes NW, then, in the landing hex on her map, she writes the number one. She should write the numbers small enough for multiple numbers to appear in one hex, since the tribe’s path may pass through the same hex at multiple points in the same game. OPTIONAL MOVEMENT RULE: The tribe moves at half speed through mountains (ore) and hills (brick), thus, it cannot move into mountain or hill hexes until 8-12 are rolled. Moving out of mountain and hill hexes costs normal movement.

The tribe does not move, or gather resources (see below) on other players’ turns

II.D. Resource Gathering & Exchange

The FNP’s settlement (and any future settlements) accrue one resource per roll of the number that that settlement is one. For example, the FNP’s settlement sits on a wheat hex with a number 8. Thus, every time an 8 is rolled, the FNP takes one wheat.

Additionally, the tribe gathers one resource per hex where it lands, regardless of dice roll. So, if the tribe ends its turn on a mountain hex, the FNP takes one stone.

The FNP is given another advantage to counter the low number of resources she receives: The resource type of her first settlement works as “gold” — it is a wild card resource that can count as any resource in the game. So, if she places her opening settlement on wheat, for the rest of the game, she may use wheat as any resource.

The FNP may exchange 4:1 with the bank, but she may not use ports, even if she settles in a port-accessible hex.

II.E. Building

The FNP uses the same building cost tile that the other players use. She may buy development cards and upgrade her settlements to cities (which then yield two resources per number rolled, as normal cities do). She may build new settlements when 1) she has the proper resources, and 2) when the tribe lands on a hex that can be settled.

If a settler-player occupies the edge (with a road) or corner (with a settlement/city) of a hex, the FNP may not settle on that hex, though she may move the tribe through it. The FNP may choose to defend the territory (see II.F.). If she successfully removes settler-player buildings and/or roads, she may settle the hex on the same turn.

Similarly, if the FNP occupies a hex (with the tribe or a settlement), no player may build on any of that hex’s corners or sides. If a player attempts to build on a hex where the tribe is located, the onus falls on the FNP to deny that player the chance to build by showing her/him the secret map.

If the tribe lands on a hex that is undisputed, the FNP may discard the appropriate cards and build a settlement. If the FNP successfully clears a hex using “defending territory” rules, she may discard the appropriate cards and build a settlement, remember to mark the hex with a “defended territory” marker as well (see below).

II.F. Defending Territory

The First Nations of Catan are understandably wary of the settlers swarming their island, and they may, should they choose, use violence to defend their land.

If the tribe arrives on a hex that has settler-player buildings or roads along it, the FNP may choose to defend that territory by spending the cost of a development card (wheat+sheep+ore). On her turn, after the tribe is in place, she informs the player whose item she is attacking that she is about to attack, and discards the requisite cards.

The FNP and the defending player each roll one die. A tie goes to the FNP. Should either player want to dispute the outcome, however, they may use an unplayed Knight card. Each Knight card will be counted as a 2-point increase in the die roll. Multiple Knight cards may be played in one combat.

For example, the FNP attacks Blue’s road. The FNP rolls 6. Blue rolls 3. Blue, who has been buying development cards, plays 2 Knights, bringing his total to 7, and overpowering the FNP. The FNP then has a chance to respond and play her own Knight(s). Having none, she cedes, and Blue’s road remains on the board. If Blue’s road had been removed, it would not have gone back into his stockpile, but would be removed from gameplay.

A hex with multiple items, whether belonging to one settler-player or many, must be cleared item-by-item.

The FNP’s goal in this is to clear territory: Any hexes that had settler-player items bordering them, but were cleared, are considered “defended territory.” The FNP should use her “road” items as “defended territory” markers, placing them in the center of the hex to denote one victory point. If a settler-player builds anything on the defended hex, the FNP must remove the marker, and re-fight the territory in order to reclaim the victory point.

An empty territory that never had settler-player items adjacent to it is not considered defended territory.

II.G. Robber & Other Rules 

If a rules changed is not mentioned here, assume that basic Catan rules apply to the FNP. The hand limit, the rules about playing Development cards, etc. all apply.

If the robber occupies the same hex as one of the FNP’s settlements, it takes effect as if it were a normal robber, and the FNP can use knights in the usual way to dislodge the robber. The robber does not affect the tribe.

III. What I Hope To Have Accomplished

I don’t think I’m righting any sort of big historical wrong by doing this, nor am I making any sort of statement about Native Rights — the game still features a conflict of settlers v. First Nations, and the First Nations could lose.

What I hope to have done is to create a meditation on the myth of the empty frontier — to make the playing of Settlers of Catan have a little more resonance with history, and to make it occur in a less troublingly Euro-centric alternate universe.

If you get a chance to playtest this rule set, drop me a line and let me know how it goes!