I’ve been waiting for a decade for someone to write this story, and finally Andrew Curry did it for Wired: how Settlers of Catan and its German brethren revived the moribund and sorry (make that Sorry!) state of board games.
Curry nails why American board games are so lame — “either predictable fluff aimed at kids or competitive, hyperintellectual pastimes for eggheads” — and why Settlers is so engaging: players are involved even when it’s not their turn; trading makes the game social, which makes it more fun; the board is always different; there are several possible routes to victory.
He also provides some tidbits that turn this into a plausible trend piece:
Last year, Settlers doubled its sales on this side of the Atlantic, moving 200,000 copies in the US and Canada—almost unheard-of performance for a new strategy game with nothing but word-of-mouth marketing. It has become the first German-style title to make the leap from game-geek specialty stores to major retailers like Barnes & Noble and Toys “R” Us.
But I’d quibble with one thing: Settlers of Catan isn’t actually perfect.
Curry’s assessment of the game’s mechanics is spot-on, but he (understandably) leaves out a couple things. First, the uselessness of sheep.
The game’s premise is that the players are settling an island, and gain points by building roads, settlements, and cities from different combinations of five resources (brick, wood, wheat, ore, and sheep) that are produced depending on the dice roll. If you have a settlement next to a resource space and the correct dice roll comes up, you get one of that resource; if you have a city next to it, you get two of that resource.
Of the five resources, sheep is by far the least important. You need one sheep (along with 3 other resources) to build a settlement, but otherwise only use it to buy a “development card” (sort of a bonus card). If you have a lot of excess sheep you can theoretically trade them, but other players don’t need tons of sheep either. It’s a pretty glaring imbalance.
It’s also a little too easy for a player to get boxed in (especially during four-player games) or to have an unlucky run of dice rolls and get few resources. In these cases, things can get hopeless for that player pretty quickly.
I’d also count development cards as an imperfection, though not as bad as the other two.
Fortunately, there is a version of Settlers that largely solves these problems: the expansion set Cities and Knights.
Cities and Knights makes sheep somewhat more useful by incorporating them into the cost of a new item: knights. More importantly, the spaces that produce sheep are one of three types that also produce a “commodity” if a player has a city next to them. (Commodities are a way of getting a much-improved set of bonus cards — the old development cards are gone from C+K.)
Commodities are one of several ways C+K makes it less likely any player will fall way behind.
In the original Settlers, each player begins the game with two settlements on the board. In C+K, each player begins with one settlement and one city. By giving each player a city at the start, C+K gives everyone a chance to build more stuff earlier. And if a player has a city next to a commodity-producing space, that player has even more ways of getting points.
Knights — and the barbarians they fight — are another way to get points (though I think knights are also the weakest/least useful part of the game), and there are several other new routes to getting points. Overall, these additional elements make the game feel much more complex (different than “difficult”) and make winning seem more plausible.
I played C+K a couple weeks ago and was completely boxed in. I built maybe four roads the entire game — and still managed to win.
The one other thing I would have added to Curry’s story is a sense of how rare Settlers’ near-perfection is.
I’m not a true board game geek, but my brother is so I’ve played a bunch of the new generation of board games (Carcassone, El Grande, Puerto Rico, Bohnanza, Ticket to Ride, Incan Gold). And while I’ve enjoyed most of them — Bohnanza and Ticket to Ride Europe are my next favorites — none has quite the mix of participation, luck, strategy, learning curve, and aesthetics that Settlers does.
Or maybe perfection isn’t the right word. Maybe what really makes Settlers and Cities and Knights special is their exceptionally broad appeal. They’re so well-balanced that almost anyone can have fun playing them.
And what makes the German-led board game renaissance special as a whole is an equally exceptional range of games for all ages and levels of skill/geekery. Whether you want a party game, a quick card game, or a serious strategy game, there are now a good half-dozen imaginative and entertaining options that won’t bore you or insult your intelligence.
So if you’ve made it this far, go read the Wired article — and then go order Settlers and another game or two. Your gaming life will be much more fun without the drudgery of Life, Guess Who, Monopoly, Risk, Trivial Pursuit, and all the rest.