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5 best Catan expansions for every type of player

Freshen up the classic board game with these essential expansions.

Image credit: Catan Studio

Whether you love it or hate it, Catan is indisputably influential. You would be hard-pressed to find a board game enthusiast or even a casual gamer that hasn’t heard of it or played it. Board games have come a long way since Catan first graced the top of the table, but over the years there have been several expansions, scenarios, spin-offs and variants that have tried to mix it up and keep it relevant. Some of these have been more successful than others, but most of them add elements that are worth exploring.

Best Catan expansions

Because of the varying shapes and sizes of the expansions to this classic game, it doesn’t feel fair to compare them side by side. Instead, we present to you a list of the best Catan expansions for every type of player. Whether you’re a veteran fan looking for big changes or simply think the base game is getting a little stale and want some variation, there’s an expansion for you. In no particular order, this list lays out the reasons each expansion gives you to dust off your copy of Catan and enjoy it anew.

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Traders & Barbarians: Best Modular Expansion

For players who want a lot of options

The Traders & Barbarians expansion includes a selection of smaller Catan expansion modules you can mix-and-match as you like. | Image credit: Catan Studio

This expansion comes jam-packed with variants and scenarios making it the perfect expansion for anyone who wants options. You can mix and match the different modules in a multitude of ways, so the game can feel a bit different every time you play and you can adapt it to your taste on a whim. The rules give specific instructions for how all the modules interact, and many of them can be used with other Catan expansions as well. The amount of choices and customisations that this expansion allows for makes it a great choice if that’s what you are looking for.

There are four smaller variant rules included in the Traders & Barbarians expansion.

The Friendly Robber: This variant is designed to make the robber more forgiving so younger players can enjoy themselves or older players can remove some take-that tension if it’s not your thing.

Catan Event Cards: These cards replace the dice. They are statistically correct, which makes resource production less random but comes at the cost of random events that both help and hinder.

Harbormaster: Provides a contest similar to “Longest Road” that has players competing to build on harbors.

Catan for Two: Lays out rules so Catan be enjoyed with only two players!

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Additionally, the expansion includes five scenarios that provide new rules and things to focus on. These scenarios can be used in conjunction with the variants or on their own, and they bring larger rule changes.

Fisherman of Catan: Fish are collected like other resources in the game but can only be gained by building settlements on the edge of the board or around the new lake tile. Fish allow you to remove the robber, gain resources, steal resources and even build roads and development cards.

The Rivers of Catan: New river tiles are strewn about the island of Catan. Building along these rivers gives you coins. Coins can be cashed in for resources, but there are bonus points for the wealthiest player and negative points for the poorest, so spend wisely.

The Caravans: Attempt to have your roads and settlements become part of the caravans that slowly spread across Catan. Each time a settlement is built, players bid resources to determine where camels are placed. If you can surround your settlements with camels they are worth more points.

Barbarian Attack: Barbarians begin to attack Catan by conquering resource hexes and settlements, rendering them useless. Train knights to ward off the invaders and take them prisoner.

Traders & Barbarians: In the titular scenario you are given a wagon that you will move around the board throughout the game, picking up and delivering commodities to special locations for coins. Connect your roads to these locations to make travel quicker and easier.

Buy Catan: Traders & Barbarians expansion on Amazon US and Amazon UK.

Cities & Knights: Best Challenging Expansion

For players who want added difficulty

Cities & Knights is a Catan expansion designed for veterans players, adding new depth and complexity to the original game's rules. | Image credit: Catan Studio

Cities & Knights is for players who are familiar with Catan and want new challenges without losing too much of the original feel of the game. Where other expansions are more interested in adding entirely new mechanics, Cities & Knights functions to add more depth to mechanics that already exist in the base game. There are new mechanics as well, but most of them will feel familiar.

Using a development flipchart, players can improve their cities in trade, politics and science using commodities. Each area of improvement has five levels of increasing cost. As you reach higher levels of improvement, you will unlock special abilities and will be able to earn progress cards that give you all sorts of powerful benefits. Should you be the first to build the fourth or fifth level in any area, you construct a metropolis that provides additional resources and points.

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In addition to opportunities for advancement and expansion, you must always keep an eye on invading barbarians. Crucial to victory is the training of knights which you can move around the board to fend off the robber and attack barbarians.

This expansion does a great job of creating new things to think about for players who are familiar with the game. There are additional avenues to explore that open up new strategies and add depth. The challenge of keeping the barbarians at bay also gives you another plate to spin which will put your tactics and resource management to the test. You must constantly balance the prosperity and protection of your cities.

Buy Catan: Cities & Knights expansion on Amazon US and Amazon UK.

Explorers & Pirates: Best Unique Expansion

For players who want a new experience and enjoy exploration

Explorers & Pirates is another expansion for Catan that reimagines the original gameplay - here, players must uncover the map rather than starting with the island revealed. | Image credit: Catan Studio

Explorers & Pirates is another modular expansion that includes three modules. The reason that it isn’t the best modular expansion and deserves its own category is because it is really at its best when all the modules are being used concurrently. Explorers & Pirates also bears some resemblance to Seafarers of Catan, but since it has increased options and dives a little deeper with some of the ideas in Seafarers it feels like an improved version.

When using all of the modules for Explorers & Pirates, players begin on a small island that is only a fraction of the whole board. Included in the now significantly larger board are two large sections of hexes that are flipped upside-down. To discover these tiles you must build and sail ships.

Each time you reach an undiscovered tile you get to flip it. It will either have a resource hex you can build settlements on, or one of several tasks that your ships can participate in including fighting pirate forts, trading spices, and catching and delivering fish. Each of these tasks provides different rewards and opportunities for scoring points - it is up to you to balance each of the tasks.

The sense of exploration and discovery in this version of Catan is completely unlike any other expansion available. It almost feels like a new game, but still leaves what makes Catan enjoyable intact.

Buy Catan: Explorers & Pirates expansion on Amazon US and Amazon UK.

Helpers of Catan: Best Mini-Expansion

For players who want a great, small addition

Helpers of Catan is a mini-expansion that introduces a new deck of characters to the game, offering players powerful abilities. | Image credit: Catan Studio

Helpers of Catan contains a variant similar to the modules in Traders & Barbarians, but it’s by itself as a mini-expansion. If you are on the hunt for a simple addition to the base game without an overwhelming amount of new rules or things to choose from, this is the one.

Helpers of Catan includes a deck of helper cards that each provide a unique power that can only be used once or twice. These helpers are placed in a display beside the board and each player starts with one. Once you use up your helper it is returned to the display and you get to choose a new one from the display.

The powers provided by the helpers are not extreme. Instead, they are minor advantages that create an interesting decision space as you try to get the perfect helper at the perfect time to execute your plans more quickly and efficiently.

Buy Catan Scenarios: Helpers of Catan on Catan Shop and Zatu.

Oil Springs: Best Competitive Expansion

For players who just want to watch the world burn

Oil Springs adds a new resource to Catan, which players can use for their own benefit - at the cost of the environment. | Image credit: Catan Studio

As the title suggests, Oil Springs adds oil as a resource. Oil can either be traded efficiently for other resources or used to turn a city into a metropolis that produces more resources and is worth an additional point. However, if too much oil is used by all the players it triggers natural disasters that can potentially wipe out every coastal city or make entire resource hexes useless. Alternatively, you can sequester oil removing it from the game. If you sequester more oil than the other players you will earn the “Champion of the Environment” token worth a point.

The expansion is a double-edged sword. The addition of oil and choosing whether to use it and risk disaster or sequester it is a neat idea. However, the effect of disasters is determined by a die roll, so it is possible for players who didn’t take the risk to end up facing the consequences. It’s a strange little expansion that was made to bring awareness to environmental issues and is thematically interesting, but the random chance will certainly be a turn-off for some.

Buy Catan Scenarios: Oil Springs on Catan Shop and Zatu.

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Reid Conley


Reid is a freelance composer of words and music. You can find his reviews and board game musings on Meeple Mountain, Zatu Games and Deep Cut Games. When he isn't puzzling over the latest Eurogame, he can be found jamming on his keytar wishing it was still cool.