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NogginLabs was founded on the notion that custom e-learning design and development is the ultimate horizontal industry. Time and again, each new project, client, and industry proves it. The biggest advantage of the e-learning horizontal is cross-pollinating ideas from two wildly different domains. A restaurant service simulation for iPad may influence a high-fashion online retail challenge. E-learning for financial advisors in a bank could inspire a mobile outreach program for cancer survivors. This variety also keeps the creative folks at NogginLabs fresh. Fresh learning ideas and designs come from a set of constantly changing constraints.

Gamification Lessons from Catan


Gamification Lessons from Catan

Matt Young

The Settlers of Catan (now often simplified to just Catan) is probably the most influential board game of recent history. Created in 1995, it sparked a new generation of board game culture and development that permeates further and further into popular culture every year. Go into any department store and you can now find games like Catan, Ticket to Ride, or Small World that just a few scant years ago would have only been in specialty gaming shops.


Much can be said of the game itself, and the game’s creator Klaus Teuber, that has already been enumerated elsewhere. What is relevant to our conversation, however, is the way Catan changed the way we think about games. These games are not like the boring and punishing games that used to MONOPOLIZE game and toy stores. Granted, they can seem impossibly complex and intimidating at times. However, modern game developers live to create dynamic, robust experiences. Not coincidentally, this renewed interest in gaming coincides with the first generation of video gamers growing up and looking for ways to remain social with their friends once the bar scene grew old and people began settling down and having children. People not only want robust and fulfilling experiences, they want to share those experiences with others–face-to-face and online.


The elements of Catan that make it great are many, but these are the highlights that might get you thinking differently about gamification.

  1. Randomness vs. Planning
    • Random elements add a lot of fun and value to games by making them replayable. The rolling of dice to generate your resources (represented by a hand of cards comprised of Grain, Lumber, Wool, Brick, and Ore) and the placement of the robber can waylay even the best laid plans. However, strategic thinking is still key to earn the 10 points necessary to win.
  2. Catch-up Mechanics
    • The most brilliant thing about Catan is the fact that it is designed to be fair. Either by using the robber to block an opponent or by deciding whether or not to trade for key resources, most games end with all of the players within a point or two of winning. When you sense you are falling behind, you can often throttle down your opponent's progress while you find your way back to equal footing.
  3. Multiple Ways to Win
    • There are lots of ways to win in Catan. You always have to be the first person to reach 10 points, but you may accomplish this through building settlements and cities, buying development cards, expanding your roads, or drafting the largest army. Multiple outcomes along different paths keep you engaged as a player and delighted even when you lose.
  4. Social Aspects of Card Trading/Playing Together Live
    • Personally, the mechanic that makes Catan a joy for me to play over and over is the resource card-trading mechanic. A lot of the fun comes out of taking a chance on a trade or trying to plead (subtly or audaciously) for the cards you need. It assists with catching up to a player who takes a strong lead (e.g., if I have 5 points and you have 9, I’m probably not trading with you). This mechanic keeps the game different every time that you play. Can you read the other players? Can you coax someone into trading when they probably shouldn’t? Can you play it cool or draw attention on to another player, so people don’t notice how far along you are and give you the critical card you need? There is an almost poker-like quality to trading resources.


So, what can we garner from this more egalitarian approach to game design to apply to the gamification of our e-learning endeavors?

  1. Failure is still an outcome, but it must not feel punishing. After all, learning from failure is one of the most critical aspects of learning. Incorporating new information into a similar situation allows us to take our past failures and turn them into future successes.
  2. We need to let learners catch up and not feel like they are getting left behind.  Adaptive feedback and opportunities to "even the score" make the learner feel valued. This simple courtesy earns a lot of buy-in from your learning audience, who may simply be taking your course to meet some mandate from their bosses.
  3. Incorporating multiple outcomes may be one of the harder elements to work into learning, but it is not without its place. Often, you want to be certain your learners are exposed to all of your content. If that is not the case though, why not give them multiple outcomes to explore and reinforce your content as they experience your e-learning through multiple plays?
  4. Social aspects of gaming can be great motivators. If your content lends itself to gaming and repeated sittings, you should consider elements of social gaming that work well online. Leaderboards and challenges are two great ways to get people (virtually) engaged with each other and create true competition in your organization that revolves around your learning. This can also create opportunities to roll out smaller, more focused learning experiences which keep engaging learners through your LMS or custom portal.


It’s possible that you still haven’t even heard of Catan, or the entire Eurogame movement, but now that you’ve read this post, you’ll realize it’s been all around you for a while. Catan is often the “gateway game” to diving deeper into the world of modern board gaming, so we highly recommend giving it a shot. Catan–and the great games that have followed in its wake–trade on our human desire to achieve and succeed. Why not leverage similar gamified mechanics in your learning project to ignite that innate desire in your learners?