Almost anyone who plays board games has had a run-in with Catan. While it’s a fantastic and simplistic gateway game, any game can get old after being played for years. Are you bored of Settlers of Catan after playing it for fifteen years? Want to mix things up, but don’t feel like migrating to a new game? Time to try one of the expansions! Fortunately, Catan has five current expansions that all add depth to the main game. Every single one has something unique to offer. Here, we rank each Settlers of Catan expansion from best to worst.
Dishonorable Mention: 5-6 Player extensions
When Catan first released, it underestimated its own appeal and came packaged with enough pieces to support four players. They quickly realized that the game could, indeed, be played with more people, and added a convenient package – a 5-6 player expansion to add some size to the game. This adds nothing in the way of mechanics (except for a build phase where players can build between turns if the group is large enough), it only adds pieces, allowing for two more players and a slightly larger board.
The bad news? They realized they could get away with this, and they’ve been doing just that ever since. For the first edition of the game, this was a reasonable mistake that justified purchasing the add-on. But, for every subsequent edition? It’s a little ridiculous that we have to buy a $20 player extension every time something new releases. Catan has been through at least four editions (the latest one released this year), and every single one makes you buy more players, instead of simply including six in the box.
The problem becomes even more egregious when you realize that they not only charge for extra players in the base game, but also for every expansion on the market. You wanna buy Cities and Knights? Better get the Cities and Knights 5-6 extension too. Seafarers? Sorry chump, only four players unless you buy the Seafarers 5-6 extension. Let’s do some math: If you were to buy the base game and all of the expansions, it would run you about $200. But, if you want pieces for five or six players? That’s $100 more to buy the extensions, literally half of what you spent to get everything else. That’s right, apparently 20 wooden pieces are worth half the value of the entire rest of the game.
I’m not against companies doing what they need to do to make money, but I’m not a fan of blatant, obvious nickel-and-diming, which this is clearly an example of. It wouldn’t have been totally unreasonable, for example, to release a package that contains the 5-6 player pieces for all of the expansions. This would mean that, even if you don’t own one, you could buy it later and have the extra pieces already. This absolutely would have been feasible with the 2015 edition, where all current expansions were already released. For the chronic pain that this causes to our wallets, this rates as a dead last dishonorable mention on our list.
#4 – Catan: Seafarers
Let’s get one thing out of the way: Seafarers is an excellent expansion. In fact, it might have been #2 on this list if it weren’t for the fact that Catan’s newest offering, Explorers and Pirates, offers just about everything that it has and more. Explorers and Pirates is, more or less, Seafarers 2.0, and one has to question how much value Seafarers offers when E&P is available for the same price.
The most notable addition that Seafarers adds is a bigger, more varied board. You’ll get a plethora of land and water tiles, which allows you to create a giant board that consists of several islands, rather than the giant hexagon continent we’re all used to. The game also adds boats, but Seafarers’ boats are a bit deceiving, since they don’t happen to function like boats at all. Mechanically, they’re identical to roads, the only difference being is that wool substitutes brick in their resource cost, and that they can travel over waters. But yes, this means that, to travel to a distant island, you’ll be building several boats that connect in a straight line, rather than one boat that actually travels, like boats tend to do.
Seafarers also add gold hexes (which are also included and implemented more elegantly in Explorers and Pirates), which produce a resource of your choice when rolled. However, the game doesn’t add much in the way of balancing these, so we’ve found that they’re a bit overpowered unless they have a really low number on them.
Overall, there’s not much that Seafarers adds in the way of gameplay. It gives you a bigger board, and that’s about it. Is that a bad thing? Not at all. We love using big, unique island boards. However, between the other expansions that add more gameplay variety, and Explorers and Pirates, which is basically a bigger, better version of Seafarers, it’s hard to put this one higher up on the list.
#3 – Catan: Traders and Barbarians
When Traders and Barbarians came out, it changed up the Catan expansion formula. Whereas Seafarers and Cities and Knights were full-fledged expansions that added a whole new layer on top of the base game, T&B opted to be a modular expansion instead, being comprised of five different variants rather than one all-inclusive scenario. This was a good idea in theory, but the problem that T&B has is that its variants aren’t very compatible with each other, meaning that the game feels more like five miniature expansions, rather than one big expansion that can add as much or as little as the player wants.
Each variant adds something interesting. I particularly liked the fisherman of Catan, which replaced the desert hex with a “lake” hex that produces fish on certain rolls. These fish can be redeemed for certain bonuses, such as roads, resources, or even development cards. Another scenario adds rivers, which rewards settlements adjacent to them, and penalizes players who don’t take advantage of their bounty. This also introduces gold into the game, a non-resource currency. The next variant adds nomads to the game, little camels that can be moved around the board that players can profit from. Another one is the Barbarian Attack, where players must unite to fight against a barbarian hoard that attacks the coast. The last variant, Traders and Barbarians, has players ferrying resources across the points to various delivery points, which are susceptible to robber attacks.
While these are all fun scenarios, they are not very compatible with each other, or even with previous expansions. This means that, for the most part, you’re choosing one or the other. Usually, if presented with the choice to play a T&B variant or another expansion that’s more all-inclusive, our group would choose the latter.
T&B does add a couple of universal elements, which can be applied to any game or variant. One of these is the dice deck, or the “event cards.” This is a deck you can use in place of dice. The deck is designed so that the numbers come out according to their actual odds; this can be nice because we’ve all had that game where 43 elevens roll and that player runs away with the win because of it. Also included is the Harbormaster card, a point bonus similar to longest road or largest army that rewards the player with the most coast settlements. Finally, the game adds an official two player variant, which is welcome, given that Catan in its base form isn’t ideal for two players. These additions are nice to have and can be included at your leisure.
In the end of the day, Traders and Barbarians adds a lot. It serves to add variety to the game, rather than depth. It comes with tons of content, and is a great package in of itself. Though we’d recommend T&B to any diehard Settlers fan, we still believe that the other expansions offer more bang for your buck.
#2 – Catan: Explorers and Pirates
Released in 2013, Explorers and Pirates is the newest offering to the Catan expansion family, and overall, it’s a pretty meaty addition. The game adds five different variants, just like T&B before it, but this time they are all compatible with each other. In fact, the game advocates that you play them in order, each one introducing you to a new mechanic until they all culminate together in the final scenario, called Explorers and Pirates, from which the expansion itself is named.
As mentioned before, E&P at once bares many similarities to Seafarers. It includes plenty of sea tiles, boats, and gold hexes. However, each of these mechanics is added onto or refined in this version. Land tiles in this game can be explored, flipping over as players discover them, unveiling the board one hex at a time. Boats function like boats – instead of being glorified roads, they can move around every turn, and carry cargo around. Gold hexes effectively give you a resource of your choice (two gold pieces actually, which I’ll get to in a moment), but now must be “won” from pirates inhabiting them. If the player goes through the work to win the gold hex, they are rewarded with its rich bounty. E&P also overhauls the gold system, and this new mechanic is one of the best things that’s ever happened to Catan. Two gold pieces can now be used to purchase a resource of your choice on your turn, and every time a number rolls that you’re not on, you collect one gold piece. This goes a long way to fix some of Catan’s luck based problems, such as getting screwed by dice rolls even if you chose good numbers. With this new mechanic, everyone’s always collecting something. Even if we’re not playing Explorers and Pirates, we’ve included this new mechanic in every Settlers game since.
As far as my earlier comparison with Seafarers goes, the game doesn’t have an explicit ruleset that makes the game like traditional seafarers, but all of the pieces are there to make it happen. Do you want Seafarers, but don’t want to buy both? You can simply use the extra pieces in this to make a bigger board and then play regular Settlers without adding in all of the E&P rules. You could make boats like roads, or you could opt to use them as E&P suggests. While this game isn’t supposed to replace Seafarers, if you’re on a budget, you can make it work.
There are also other elements in the game that extend beyond Seafarers, most of which that involve moving goods around on your boats for certain rewards. When all of the variants are combined together, you’re settling islands, but also managing your own seafaring enterprise on the side. The end result ends up feeling like quite a different game from vanilla settlers. Explorers and Pirates certainly deviates from the norm, but it’s confident in its design and goes all the way. If you’re comfortable with a little bit of change, it makes for a pretty fun time.
#1 – Catan: Cities and Knights
I mentioned earlier what my idea of a good expansion is: something that adds depth and variation, while still preserving the fundamental design theory of the game. Cities and Knights is just that. I love Cities and Knights, because it takes everything that I liked about the base game, and made it better. Cities and Knights is an improvement in just about every single way, and at the end of every game, it still feels like Catan. There are no complicated scenarios in C&K, no resource ferrying across the board, no oceans, no gold, just straight up building, settling, and trading.
The two biggest changes that Cities and Knights introduces are commodities and barbarians. Commodities are what I love most about the game. They are essentially special versions of certain resources (wood, wool, and rock each have their own corresponding commodity) that can be used to build certain “city developments” that are represented by a flipboard in your play area. There are three categories, and if you collect a certain type of commodity abundantly, you’ll progress in its respective category. The higher up you advance with your flipboard, the greater your odds are of getting special development cards, which are distributed through dice rolls. These replace the development cards in base Catan, and add a variety of depth and strategy to the game. Green cards will help your development, yellow cards will enhance trading power, and blue cards add an offensive edge to the game, allowing you to affect what other players are doing on the board. I love what this adds to the game – it preserves the basic strategy of Catan, but allows you to hone your strategy into something more specific, depending on what kind of commodities you aim for. This opens up a myriad of ways to gain more points, which ends up making the game more unpredictable, and ultimately much more replayable.
The barbarians are the other significant change, and they are represented by a boat on a special hex outside of Catan’s shores. The boat will move forward with certain dice rolls, and when the boat reaches Catan, Catan’s in trouble. Players have to build knights to fend off the barbarians, and repelling the barbarians yields rewards, while failing to do so may cause you to lose your city. Fortunately, fending off the barbarians is a simple numbers game – if there is an equal amount or more of knights on the board to cities, Catan is protected. While it doesn’t sound very Catan at all, the concept is implemented cleanly and it’s very easy to understand. It adds enough of an edge to keep the game competitive, but doesn’t go overboard as to make it stressful. Furthermore, it’s another layer of strategy, as it rewards players who pull the most weight in defending. The best defenders will receive victory points (which is the game’s replacement for the Largest Army in base Catan), which opens it up as another path to victory. This also introduces an element of cooperation to the game; it’s usually better for everyone when Catan is protected.
Cities and Knights improves the game in such a way to where I never want to go back. Truth be told, base Catan is an absolute bore to me these days, after having been enlightened by Cities and Knights. It feels like more of the same, but a little bigger, a little better, a little deeper in all of the places that matter. While each expansion adds something special and will undoubtedly appeal to different people, Cities and Knights will always have our hearts here at BGR.
Honorable Mention: Game of Thrones Catan
Since the publication of this article, I’ve gotten several messages asking about Catan: A Game of Thrones. It is unclear to a lot of people whether Catan: GoT is its own game or an expansion, similar to the others on this list. Well, there’s good news and bad news.
The bad news is that Game of Thrones Catan is not an expansion, but rather its own standalone game, and is thus not meant to be mixed with the other versions in this article. The good news is that Game of Thrones Catan is an excellent game nonetheless, and it has quickly become one of our favorites, even contending with Cities and Knights.
What’s Different About Game of Thrones Catan?
For the most part, Game of Thrones Catan plays similarly to the base game, but there a few key differences. The biggest, and most impactful, is the addition of the Wall and Wildlings. Catan: GoT doesn’t unfold over all of Westeros. Instead it focuses on the northern conflict between the Wildlings and the Wall. Throughout the game, wildlings will constantly attempt to breach the wall, and if they do, they will invade certain spaces on the board and function like a robber.
Players can collectively build soldiers to send to the wall, and wildlings won’t make it through if there are enough. As an added bonus, players who are vigilant about sending soldiers to the Wall will be rewarded with extra points. But beware — the more production there is in the game, the more aggressive the wildlings will become in trying to cross over.
Helpers of Catan – A Must-Have Addition
The other big change in Catan: GoT is the helper cards. You have a small deck of cards which represent iconic characters from Game of Thrones, and each one gives you a special ability that you can use up to two times. Once you’ve exhausted the ability, you must switch it with another character. This effectively means that you always have a special “power” in play, but you’ll be cycling through different ones the whole game.
But, did you know that this aspect of the game isn’t native to Game of Thrones Catan? In fact, this exact power swapping system originated in a standalone variant called Helpers of Catan, which used to be available for $5, but has now become hard to find. It became such a fan-favorite that they implemented the same system into Catan: GoT. Between the two, the available powers are nearly identical, with only one or two cards in the GoT version that can’t be used in normal Catan games.
Which Is Better – Game of Thrones Catan, or Catan + Expansions?
For budget-minded people, you’ll have to choose between Catan: GoT or Catan and expansions, as it’s tremendously expensive to go all-in with everything. And to be honest, it’s a hard choice.
I personally love Game of Thrones Catan, and it competes with Cities and Knights for table time. I would say it’s not quite as complex as Cities and Knights, but it still adds a healthy dose of variability without ever feeling overly convoluted. The biggest thing Catan: GoT has going for it is that it adds a unique sense of cooperation to the game — if too many Wildlings make it across the wall, everyone loses.
Between Cities and Knights and Catan: GoT, I think they’re both fantastic, and worth your time. If you’re a Game of Thrones fan, you won’t regret springing for that version. If the books and show do nothing for you, you’ll probably be better off with the base sets.