Custom Painted and Cut Catan Pieces

The Settlers of Catan is an awesome, as you might know from my previous posts on the modifications I’ve made to the game board (Hexels and the Pop-O-Matic). I’ve been playing the game for quite a few years, and while I still love it, frankly, I’ve gotten bored with the standard game piece colors: red, orange, blue, white, brown, and green. For the past six weeks, I’ve been working on creating my own game pieces to paint custom colors, and the project is finally complete!

Pile of Catan pieces

So many Catan pieces, 288 total (60 settlements, 48 cities, and 180 roads).

I started by cutting the pieces from basswood, purchased at your local hobby store. The wood probably cost less than $12 total. I used one board (1/4″ thick by 3″ wide by 36″ long) to craft the settlements and cities (luckily, the pieces are only 1/4″ thick), and several small sticks that were the exact width of the roads.

Using a coping saw, band saw, belt sander, and sand paper, I carefully cut out each piece. The roads were the easiest. The settlements I cut from long strips of wood, creating the angle of the roof on the belt sander.

The cities were the most difficult. I used a band saw to cut the basic outline then finished them with the belt sander. The pieces aren’t exactly the size of the originals, but they are pretty close.

My pieces compared to the original Catan pieces

Even though the cities are slightly bigger than original, casual gamers can’t tell unless they are holding both my pieces and the originals in their hands at the same time.

Truthfully, if you look closely at the original Catan pieces, you’ll find imperfections in the manufacturing process as well. I’m satisfied that the pieces turned out as well as they did!

Next, I painted the pieces with various acrylic paints. The pieces were a little rough after the paint job, so I gave them a light sanding with fine-grain sand paper. This removed the paint in some spots, giving the pieces a weathered look, which I came to like. My pieces have a matte finish post-sanding, not a nice glossy finish like the original, but they still feel good to the touch.

And that’s the most important factor I was going for: how well do the pieces feel in your hand? Catan is a tactile game, and while most people probably aren’t consciously aware of it, I think part of the appeal of the game is that there are so many things to touch.

Yellow Catan pieces.

I started with the yellow pieces. The yellow color I chose is a bit brighter than the yellow used for the arches in Cities and Knights, but I think it still looks authentic for the set.

Black Catan pieces.

Black was a color sorely missing from the original set. Of all six original colors, my friends find brown the least appealing. Black is so classic, though, that I’m surprised it’s been omitted from the game.

Pink Catan pieces.

Some of my girl friends are excited about the pink color. I think these pieces look like Double Bubble. Maybe Mayfair should release Catan bubble gum!

Purple Catan pieces.

Purple pieces round out the rainbow of colors. This purple is a little dark, but it actually fits best with the original color palette.

Electric blue Catan pieces.

I wanted to create 6 sets of pieces, and after exhausting the rainbow, I knew I’d have to double up on some colors. This electric blue color was requested by multiple friends, and is actually my favorite shade of blue.

Seafoam Catan pieces.

Seaform/mint green was also requested by several ladies.

When you compare my pieces to the original pieces, it’s clear that my palette is brighter, and in some cases, pastel compared to the original:

Palette comparison of original and custom Catan pieces.

However, my pieces now round out the rainbow very nicely, so I’m satisfied with this much-needed addition to the game!

Rainbow of Catan pieces.

While my group of friends doesn’t play Cities and Knights that often (the only expansion I have right now), it would be nice to have Cities and Knights pieces with my same colors. My only hesitancy in making the C&K pieces was that the knight pieces in the original use stickers to distinguish between active and inactive knights, and I didn’t want to come up with some symbol on my custom pieces to indicate that.

Then I learned that you can buy an unpainted set of Cities and Knights pieces for $3.50 on Mayfair’s website. So six sets would be $21: a little pricy, but it might be worth it so I don’t have to go through the hassle of cutting custom pieces again.

I also learned, after the fact, that you can buy an unpainted set of Catan pieces for $3.00 on Mayfair’s website.

Game on!


How to Add a Pop-O-Matic Dice Roller to Settlers of Catan

The Settlers of Catan is easily my favorite board game ever. I’ve probably played the game with 50-60 different people over the years; I just introduced the game to six more people in the past month! But what would make the game ever better? Perhaps the Pop-O-Matic from Trouble!

If you don’t remember Trouble, think back to when you were 5 or 6 years old. Trouble is basically the same game as Sorry. The biggest difference? The Pop-O-Matic bubble! Hasbro is so proud of the Pop-O-Matic that they reference it 15 times on the box alone!

The Pop-O-Matic has such a great tactile feel to it: bu-BOOP! What a great way to roll dice. My task: remove the Pop-O-Matic from a Trouble game board and convert it for Catan use. In this post, I’ll show you how.

Time needed: 45 minutes
Cost: $11

Trouble board game box

Three references to the Pop-O-Matic on the cover alone: in the logo as words, in the logo as the “o” of Trouble, and in the caption under the pieces. I think Hasbro’s trying to tell us something!

Advantages of the Pop-O-Matic

Rolling dice with your hands has a few disadvantages. They roll off the table. Some joker rolls them across the board and scatters all the pieces. Or the pieces land on edge, and then the players debate whether the dice need to be rerolled. A game like Catan has lots of pieces, so the game table can get quite crowded. It never fails, every game, all of this drawbacks take place.

The Pop-O-Matic solves all of them! No longer will dice roll across the table. Rarely will the dice land on their edges. And best of all, you get to experience that sweet popping sensation over and over again.


And the best place to put the Pop-O-Matic? In the desert, where else? Catan fans know that the desert is a “wasted” space. Nobody wants to build on the edge of a desert if they can avoid it. The desert is initially the home of the robber, but he can sit off to the side.

Materials Needed

To complete this project, you’ll need the following tools:

  • Razor blade
  • Small flathead screwdriver
  • Metal file
  • Something to cut on

And you’ll need the following materials. The cost of this project will vary dramatically based on which of these materials you have already:

  • One Trouble board (the game retails for $10, though if you can find a cheaper used copy, even better)
  • Two 12mm six-sided dice
  • One extra Catan hexagon tile
  • Super glue

Depending on how authentic you want your dice to be, you may need to purchase some paint. I used the following colors to paint my dice the exact colors Catan uses. You can find them at any craft store, like Hobby Lobby or Jo-Ann’s.

  • Americana brand acrylic paint: Santa Red
  • Americana brand acrylic paint: Bright Yellow
  • Paint brush
  • Toothpick
Trouble game board

This board is one piece of plastic, including the housing around the bubble.

Trouble game board bottom

The bottom of the Pop-O-Matic is a separate piece of plastic. Fortunately, there’s a large gap between the two.

Dismantling the Pop-O-Matic

Upon examination of the Trouble board, you’ll see that it is mostly one piece of plastic, including the top of the Pop-O-Matic. To make this Pop-O-Matic usable, you first need to remove it from the rest of the board. To do this, place the board on a safe surface (I used a cutting mat), and take out your razor blade.

The Pop-O-Matic has 8 sides, four long and four short. The corners are rounded, but it’s very difficult to cut a rounded corner. So instead, cut eight lines, one along each edge. Don’t cut exactly along the shape of the Pop-O-Matic. Instead, extend your cuts about 1 inch beyond. This will make removing the Pop-O-Matic easier.

I found that it takes about 10-12 cuts with the razor to break through the plastic. Be very careful to place your cuts exactly on top of each other. Cut as close to the Pop-O-Matic as you can. After about 20-25 minutes, the Pop-O-Matic was removed.

Trouble game board sans Pop-O-Matic

Separated Pop-O-Matic

Opening the Pop-O-Matic

The Pop-O-Matic contains six parts: the top, the bottom, two sheets of metal, the plastic dome, and the die. The top and bottom are the only pieces actually attached to each other. To separate the pieces, carefully slip your flathead screwdriver between the pieces of plastic. There’s actually a sizable gap, which makes your job easier.

Start by wedging the screwdriver in between the pieces on the long lines. Once wedged in, pry it just a bit, but not too much. You don’t want to crack the top piece. After prying the long lines, pry along the short lines. This is the tough part. Basically there are four main attaching points between the top and bottom pieces, one in each corner. Very carefully, pry around all edges of the corners until you hear something break: this is the part where the plastics connect. You have to break four attachment points, and the pieces will come right apart.

Now you’ll see everything inside. The popping mechanism is two pieces of bent metal placed on top of each other. The plastic dome sits right on top: it’s held in place by the top piece of plastic.

Pop-O-Matic contents

Pop-O-Matic separated

You can see on the right piece (the bottom) where I had to break the four connections in the corners.

Cleaning Up the Plastic

Even with careful cutting, all your work so far has probably roughed up the edges of the Pop-O-Matic. I used a small metal file and spent about ten minutes sanding all the edges. Be careful not to sand along the surface of the top piece of plastic: you don’t want scratches to show. Just file wherever you cut the plastic, file those corners so they are rounded, and then file the bottom piece at any place your prying may have dented the plastic.

Separated Pop-O-Matic edges

The edges are a bit rough, but a little filing will fix that.

Adding the Dice

Here’s where you have to make some decisions. The Pop-O-Matic works great for one die, but add the two red and yellow Catan dice, not so much. I conducted about 50 popping tests and found that the rolling isn’t always fair. Often one will just pop up and straight down, unchanged. This clearly won’t work. Try adding a third die (the Event die from Cities and Knights) and the Pop-O-Matic definitely won’t work as intended.

Pop-O-Matic with two Catan dice

Pop-O-Matic with three Catan dice

So instead, you’ll have to add two smaller dice. The Catan dice are 16mm; but you can find 12mm dice if you look. 12mm dice aren’t as satisfying to roll in your hand, but the Pop-O-Matic takes care of that. Two 12mm dice work quite well in the Pop-O-Matic. Depending on your gaming store, you might be able to find 12mm dice sold individually. I had to buy them in a pack of 36 from Chessex. $9.53 is a bit much to spend for 2 dice, but I’m sure I’ll use the rest elsewhere. The price averages to $0.25 a die, so that’s how I arrive at the $11 price tag of this project ($10 plus tax for the board game, $0.50 for the dice).

Unfortunately, you won’t find a 12mm version of the Event die from Cities and Knights. If you don’t use that expansion, don’t worry about it. If you do, well, maybe just roll the Event die on the side.

The Dice Colors

Switching the 16mm dice with 12mm is mandatory. The next decision you’ll need to make is: what colors will the dice be? The normal Catan game uses a red die and a yellow die: wonder why? In Cities and Knights, acquisition of cards is determined by the face value on the red die and the event die. So, that’s why the yellow and red need to be differentiated.

If you play with Cities and Knights, if you can, find a yellow and red 12mm die. I wasn’t able to (I mean, I could’ve bought a 36 pack of red 12mm and a 36 pack of yellow 12mm, but I wasn’t ready to spend the money). Instead, I took two 12mm die and painted them.

This is the most tedious and time-consuming part of the project. The dice require many coats of paint to look decent. I used acrylic paint, which doesn’t feel very glossy, but again, nobody’s going to touch these dices. They look pretty good from a distance. Time will tell if the paint actually holds up after years of popping.

Now if you don’t care about authenticity, don’t worry about the colors. Just use two of the same color, or use two different colors and just decide when you play Cities and Knights which die will count for the cards.

Some notes about painting: If you go the painting route, add 2 hours to the project time and $4 for paint. I used acrylic paint because it dries fast and is cheap, but it doesn’t stick very well. Sand the dice first with your metal file and that will help some. If somebody knows a better paint, feel free to experiment.

Second, paint the faces first. It took me about 6-7 coats. The pips will get filled in, so before you paint the pips, use a round file to get some of the excess paint out. Using a toothpick, carefully drop a dab of paint into the pips.

Finally, if you are going for authenticity, the pip colors are the opposite of the face colors. So the red die has yellow pips and the yellow die has red pips.

12mm Catan dice

I’m not exactly satisfied with the paint job, especially on the yellow one, but again, they are pretty small and people won’t be looking at them that closely.

Putting it All Together

Alright, so we cut out the Pop-O-Matic, separated the pieces, and figured out what dice to use. All that’s left is putting it together. First, place the metal pieces and dice inside the bottom piece. Then put four dabs of super glue in each of the colors, right on those connecting areas you broke earlier. Then, holding the dome inside the top piece, carefully place the top piece down. Make sure only the top and bottom pieces are glued together. The metal pieces and dome should not touch any glue. I learned this the hard way: the metal pieces need to slide around for the popping mechanism to work. If they get glued down, take it apart and start again.

Now, I used four dabs of glue in the corners and that worked well; I’d recommend against using any more glue than this. Simply: if you decide to ever open the Pop-O-Matic to swap out the dice, you don’t want to create too much work for yourself.

With the Pop-O-Matic constructed, wait for it to dry then test it out. I was surprised to find how hard the Pop-O-Matic is to push, a lot harder than I remember as a kid. Time will tell if the Pop-O-Matic holds up after thousands of pops: does anybody know if the metal pieces ever wear out and get bent?

The last thing to do is put the Pop-O-Matic on a hexagon tile. Fortunately, I didn’t have to sacrifice my desert piece (in case I ever want to play without the Pop-O-Matic). My Catan games have always come with a few extra pieces, like one extra hexagon tile that’s tan on one side and water on the other. What’s the purpose of this hexagon? It’s sat in my box for years, but I’m so glad I didn’t throw it away!

Catan extra hexigon tile

The tile on the right is the extra one. It contains a water background, as seen in the left tile (just a normal resource tile).

With a little super glue, attach the Pop-O-Matic to the hexagon (I glued it to the tan side). Just use a dab of glue: again, if you ever need to take apart the Pop-O-Matic, you don’t want to destroy the tile too much when you pull it apart.

Now, the Pop-O-Matic is square and the hexagon is obviously not, so the pieces don’t fit together perfectly. A little bit of the Pop-O-Matic will extend beyond the tile. However, because it is raised above the tile, it should fit perfectly next to your other hexagons. The only slight drawback is that if roads are built directly on the PopO-Matic piece, they won’t fit right on the edge: you’ll have to nudge them inward a bit. It’s not the best solution aesthetically, but then on the other hand, people don’t often build on the desert piece, so you might not encounter this problem that often.

Pop-O-Matic in place of desert in Catan

The Pop-O-Matic in place. As you can see, the corners overlap the tiles slightly. I don’t think it’s a huge issue.

I play Catan using these magnetic plastic hexagon holders called Hexels. The Pop-O-Matic fits perfectly on top, and actually gives me a bit more space between the hexagons, mostly eliminating that road problem I just mentioned. The plastic hexels appear sturdy enough. Like I said, pressing the Pop-O-Matic is a bit hard, so I’m worried that if I press on the hexel too much with the Pop-O-Matic will break or crack it (and it sounds like they might not be making any more!). So I’ll be watching the health of my hexel closely. Perhaps in the future I’ll find a way to reinforce it so that it can take the abuse of the Pop-O-Matic.

Pop-O-Matic in the Catan hexels

The Pop-O-Matic inside a hexel. As you can see, no overlap with the resource tiles!

Now Your Turn!

And that’s it! If you don’t paint your dice, this project should only take about 45 minutes and cost $11. Give it a try and let me know how it works and if your players enjoy it! I’m excited to debut it with my friends! And more importantly, if you find a way to improve my design, let me know in the comments! If you have pictures of your completed Catan Pop-O-Matic, send them to me and I’ll post them for everybody to see!


Game on,

My Hexels for Settlers of Catan Finally Arrived!

Well, it took almost a year, but I finally received my hexels in the mail last week!

What are hexels, you ask? Do you play Settlers of Catan? If so, you know that the hexagonal-shaped board pieces don’t really stay together that well. The game comes with a cardboard frame, which kind of keeps the pieces together, but my frame has warped over time.

I like my tabletop play sessions neat and orderly: cards stacked, my little pieces arranged in rows, all the number tokens oriented in the same direction. No matter how much I fuss about keeping the hexagons fit together perfectly, inevitably fissures appear in the island.

Somebody rolls the dice across the board.

Somebody bumps the table.

Somebody slams a new settlement down too hard.

Somebody drops their beer bottle on the board (empty, fortunately!).

Hexels solve that problem!

Hexels for CatanHexels are black plastic frames with magnets in the sides. The board pieces fit inside perfectly, and the hexels attach themselves via the magnets. The seal is not strong, but strong enough to keep the board together. If your table is smooth, you can even slide the “board” around if needed!

Hexels for Catan

The board pieces sit casually inside. You don’t have to force them in, and they pop right out.

Hexels started as a Kickstarter project in early 2013. I was one of the backers, and for $50 I received 30 hexels: enough for the 5-6 player extension of the original Catan.

The project ran into a lot of problems on the manufacturing end. They were manufactured in China, and it took the organizers a long time to find the right kind of plastic. Late 2013, the pieces finally shipped to America. The creator, Tim Walsh, had to forgo assembly costs to keep the project on budget. That meant that backers had to insert the magnets and glue the covers in place themselves. It wasn’t too much of a bother, though: after about an hour and a half of work, my pieces were ready to go.

Hexel backs

The back of a hexel. A little magnet sits in each of those six wells. The magnet is about the size of those little ball sprinkles you put on ice cream. The covers are held in place with super glue.

How well do they work?

Nearly perfect, I’d say. The game pieces sit on top: no need to have the game pieces touching the board pieces anymore!

Hexels for Catan

An assembled 6 player Catan board using hexels.

Hexels for Catan

Any flaws with the hexels?

Only a few. First, the project didn’t raise enough money to create hexels for the harbor pieces. Thankfully your Catan game comes with harbor pieces separate from the main board frame, so these can be set every few spaces around the board. It doesn’t look as nice; maybe someday he’ll create frames for the harbor pieces.

Harbors next to HexelsSecond, the magnets hold the pieces together very well. But sometimes, the pieces get just slightly off. If you fuss with it, you can get the sides to match together perfectly. But even if you are off slightly, the board will still hold together properly.

Hexels for Catan

Notice how these edges don’t line up perfectly.

Do the hexels fit in the box?

Yes! Even with the 5-6 player extension (11 extra hexels) everything fits in my original Catan box. I had to remove the black plastic tray that comes with the box, but a minor inconvenience. The original board pieces fit in with the hexels, should I ever want to use those again. I even have extra room!

Hexels in Catan boxNow, if you are OCD about keeping things organized, I must mention that it can be difficult to get the hexels to stack perfectly on each other. This is based on the magnets wanting to attach to the hexels nearest them. You can get the stacks completely straight, but even if they are off slightly, they’ll still fit in the box (and once you transport the game, the stacks will probably get a little disordered anyway).

Hexel stacks

A full set for the 5-6 player extension contains 30 hexels. Three stacks of 10 will just fit in the box.

Okay, where do I get these?

Good question. The official website doesn’t have a lot of information, and no detail about ordering more. This is an officially licensed product of Catan and Mayfair Games, so I’m guessing they will be available commercially in the next few months once Tim fulfills all of the Kickstarter rewards.

If you want a different solution for your Catan game, there are Catan boards available from a different company (also officially licensed). You can buy plastic boards for $30 and bamboo boards for $120 (the wooden ones do look nice). These boards offer a similar solution to keeping your pieces together. They aren’t as portable as the hexels. Plus, the wooden boards are quite pricey: the board for 5-6 players is $180!

Settle on,