Settlers of Catan: Monopoly Killer?

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As a baseball writer who discusses the economic aspects of the game, I'm often pushed by the “it's just a game” portion of the audience to defend my own position that baseball is, at heart, a business like any other. Owners and the league are in it to make money, either through profit or increasing the value of their teams, and the league is subject to competition from other sports and shocks from inside and outside the industry. The same is true of board gaming, which has had to fight changing consumer tastes and deal with the effects of technology, from the Internet to home video gaming systems.

The boardgaming world was, however, been pretty stolid for the bulk of the 20th century, with very little innovation from within; the mainstream board gaming companies' idea of creativity is coming up with themed versions of existing stalwart games. But in 1995, the game Wired magazine dubbed the "Monopoly killer" (although Monopoly isn't dead … yet) entered the market, and after a long, slow incubation period, is moving into the mainstream and threatening the established order of board games.

This game was developed in Germany, the center of the boardgaming universe; Germans buy more board games per capita than any other nation, and the vast majority of what are now called “German-style” games come from the market that gave the genre its name. (A bit circular, but the center holds.)

It was developed by Klaus Teuber, a dental technician who had previously won the prestigious Spiel des Jahres (“Game of the Year”) award three times but didn't have any long-term successes. In 1991, he had the idea for a game where players competed to colonize a newly discovered island, a game that would be competitive, incorporate some element of chance, and would be fairly easy for new players to learn. It took him four years of tinkering and testing the game with his wife and two children before he released it to the public in 1995.

The game was Settlers of Catan, and while it hasn't killed off the old boardgames that still lead the market, it has led a minor revolution in the gaming world.

If you haven't been introduced to the joys of Catan, you are in a shrinking majority, as the game is now available through such mainstream vendors as Target and Barnes & Noble and ranks as the #1 selling strategy game on Amazon. As Teuber intended, the game combines skill and luck with a simple set of rules where no player is ever eliminated. It's infinitely replayable, and has even become a cult hit among Silicon Valley executives.

In the original version, which requires three or four players, the island of Catan comprises 19 hexagonal tiles, randomly arranged in a large hexagon with three tiles per side. Eighteen of those tiles are resource tiles, with one of the five resources in Catan (wool, ore, wood, brick/clay, and wheat) and a number between 2 and 12. The nineteenth tile is a desert tile with no resources.

Players begin the game by placing two settlements on the vertices of the hexagons, going for specific resource combinations and tiles with numbers closer to 7. Each player begins his/her turn by rolling the two dice, and any tile bearing a number equal to the combined total of the rolls yields one resource per adjoining settlement and two per city to the players who own them. Players use specific combinations of resources to build roads and settlements, convert settlements to cities, or buy cards that allow them to raise an army or earn points. The winner is the first player to get to 10 victory points, achieved through settlements (1 apiece), cities (2 apiece), building the longest continuous road (2 points), raising the largest army (2 points), or through special one-point cards scattered through the deck.

The game's random elements come through the dice and the deck of cards, with special value on the most likely roll of the dice. When a player rolls a 7, he may move the robber on to any tile on the board, blocking one or more opponents from earning more resources until the robber moves, stealing one resource from an opponent, and forcing any player with more than seven resources on hand to discard half of them. Players may also move the robber by playing a soldier card, regardless of the dice roll. Thus an opponent who threatens to run away with the game may find himself targeted by other players who seek to slow his progress.

The U.S. market for the game has picked up substantially over the past few years, and Mayfair, the game's publisher and manufacturer, believes they're about five years from a true breakout. They shipped their one millionth copy of the game in January of 2010, and now print the game continuously (most games are printed like books, in batches according to demand). By 2013, Mayfair hopes to ship over a million copies a year here, up tenfold over their 2004 sales figure, as the game continues to seep into the mainstream consciousness alongside such ntries as Monopoly or Risk – games that involve more luck, less strategy, and involve eliminating opponents.

The slow build of Settlers of Catan over the last 15 years has opened the door for other, smarter games by creating a niche for serious board gamers. Walk into Barnes & Noble and you'll find several shelves of German-style games, including Carcassonne, Ticket to Ride, and Dominion, all later winners of the Spiel des Jahres. In addition to smarter game mechanics, these games boast better-quality boards and pieces, and all four of these titles offer multiple expansions for players who want to add something to the core gameplay, such as The Seafarers of Catan, Carcassonne Traders & Builders, or Dominion: Alchemy.

And there's even a niche within the niche of gamers who find Settlers too simple or too luck-driven, a group that drives the top of the rankings over at BoardGameGeek, where more demanding, almost no-luck games like Puerto Rico, Agricola, and the epic Caylus (games of which can last six hours “if you're quick,” according to one industry exec with whom I spoke) dominate the site's Top 100 ranking.

Settlers was my own introduction to German-style games, and it renewed my long-dormant interest in board games. I noticed it had earned induction into the GAMES Magazine Hall of Fame in 2005, the only game in that pantheon with which I wasn't familiar, so I sought it out – first the two-player card game, then the original board game, then the Seafarers expansion. Our own collection now numbers over 25 German-style games plus a few expansions, but Settlers will always remain a favorite because of its blend of simplicity and strategy and the way that it ensures no two games are ever alike.

Keith Law of ESPN is an occasional contributor to mental_floss. Check out his blog or follow him on Twitter.

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November 18, 2010 - 9:21am
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