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I had never played Catan - one year later, I was a national champion

Canadian Catan pro and World Champion hopeful Sarvat Tahir on her journey from first discovering the board game to competing on the global stage.

Image credit: Image courtesy of Sarvat Tahir

I first started playing Catan in early 2018. A friend of mine knew I loved board games and thought I would like Catan and so brought it over to show me and play. We ended up playing a few games that night and I instantly got hooked - one game is just never enough.

The biggest thing that I absolutely love about Catan is that it’s a different game every time you play. Even if the board is the same, you have different dice rolls, different starting positions and therefore different needs for trades. The people you play with also change how the game goes, so your strategy is constantly evolving.

I just kind of fell into playing Catan at a tournament level. I was invited to my first tournament in the spring of 2018, by a client who was putting one on for a children’s charity.

I had only been playing Catan for a few months and didn’t know the strategy for tournaments at that point, so I blew all of my prelims out of the water, winning three of three of the preliminary games, only to be ganged up on in the semi-finals. I lost pretty badly with only four victory points.

Learn how to play Catan - who knows, you could be a champion next year!Watch on YouTube

The experience was frustrating, but also exhilarated me seeing how well I had done - and so I wanted to try my hand at another one. That led me to play in another tournament, which led me to eventually winning the 2019 Canadian Nationals. That was just over a year after I first learnt how to play Catan.

I just kind of fell into playing Catan at a tournament level.

It was a challenge being a brand new player going up against other players who had been playing since they were kids. The experience was very intimidating because it felt like they knew something I didn’t. But I was open with everyone that I was a new player, and most people were really nice and helpful and would share tips about the tournament scene. I met some great friends along the way through those tournaments. Ultimately, you overcome those hurdles by just continuing to be confident in what you do know and not focusing on what you don’t. Clearly something I was doing was right as it was propelling me to the forefront very quickly.

Since I qualified for the World Championship in 2019, I was supposed to play at the 2020 World Championship - which obviously didn’t end up happening as with the pandemic it was postponed until now. So I’m finally getting my chance this year!

Settlers of Catan board game gameplay
You can only prepare for Catan so much - victory often comes down to interacting with your fellow players around the table.

In general I don’t prepare for tournaments - or, at least, I haven’t yet. I find preparing extremely difficult as the game is so fluid and changes as the rounds progress. The elements that are the most difficult to control, or at least predict, are those which only you can face when sitting down with your other opponents.

As much as Catan is a board strategy, you need to have a player strategy.

Catan is an interesting game where as much as it is a board strategy, you need to have a player strategy. That is where your table talking and trading ability will come into play - and those are difficult to prepare for as it’s all opponent dependent. I try to go into each game and just enjoy the game for what it is and control what I can when I can, but maybe the best preparation here is essentially learning to be good on the fly.

At home in casual games the strategies tend to be more simple and ultimately you're trying for everyone to have fun and enjoy the game (depending on your friends and family of course). Even at the tournament level it is still fun because you meet a lot of new people, and most people are really chill and nice. Ultimately, I just try to have fun and not take things super seriously.

Sarvat Tahir discusses her journey to the Catan World ChampionshipWatch on YouTube

It’s truly been an unreal and exhilarating roller coaster so far. Every step of the way I was proud of myself for how far I was getting amongst others who had been playing in the competitive Catan circuit for years. I remember sitting at the finals table thinking to myself “OMG, this is happening”, and then winning and feeling like, “Holy crap, is this really happening?!” It was a completely surreal moment, even after calling my wife and family, because it felt like such a quick journey.

Becoming National Champion was a completely surreal moment because it felt like such a quick journey.

Of course, I hope to do well at this year’s World Championships. I am super excited and pumped to be able to finally celebrate my achievements as the first female Canadian National Champ (at least on record since Catan's tournament programme was taken over from Mayfair in 2016), but also fairly anxious and eager to meet everyone and get the tournament started.

Ultimately I have told myself that the number one priority is to have fun and make sure I make the most out of this moment. I don’t try to anticipate strategies since the game changes every time you play. There are a few players that I am familiar with so I am excited to play with them - but ultimately this is a world tournament and I am excited to play at this level, challenge myself and see where it takes me!

As told to Matt Jarvis. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

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