How Settlers Of Catan Makes Us All Massive Jerks

For six turns, I was the Sheep King of Catan. Through sheer ingenuity and perseverance, I had turned once useless beasts into the greatest force that can be contained within seven cards. Grand cities rose, built on the fluffy backs of my beasts of burden. Armies were gathered, their war-hungry bleats terrorizing the countryside. Long roads stretched out, the ground tamped by thousands of hooves headed to friendly ports where merchants traded just about anything for the warmth of a ruminant companion. My rivals I blocked at every turn, keeping them weak and feeble like lambs to the slaughter. It was only a matter of time before I would not only be the Sheep King of Catan, but simply the king of it all.

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Then, disaster. Through no fault of my own, the wombs of my flock bore me no more fluffy sons, barren as the dessert. Dark agents in the employ of my enemies turned my remaining sheep into the warmest of turncoats. I saw my great kingdom stagnate, overtaken by the Stone Shah and her high walls, and as trade after trade failed I, a wreck of regret, was left with naught but my empty hands to raise to the skies and curse the land for my downfall.

In other words, I really gotta figure out how dice work.

As the Year of Cabin Fever stretches on, many households are dusting off old board games to while away the long hours until their next Zoom meeting. But when picking your poison, best to leave that gossamer film of filth atop of your edition of The Settlers of Catan, a game uniquely capable of instilling bitter madness in a time when that is the only thing in ample supply.

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Catan is the first and biggest of the Euro board games and is often used as a gateway to induce neophytes into the hobby. But how exactly does an evening of settling play out? There are two answers. Ask the manual on how Catan plays and it will tell you that it's an intricately constructed game of skill and chance, where each turn resources are imparted to players at random who can then use them to build and trade and collect enough points to win the game. But ask any veteran settler how Catan plays and they will not answer at all. Instead, they'll stare into the middle distance with the dead eyes of a Donner Party survivor, both horrified and enticed by the sudden foul taste they feel pressing against their gums.

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It's almost pointless to explain the rules of Klaus Teuber's creation because the mechanics only become obvious when they leap off the page and into the rattled psyche of the players. It's a game that will turn a person into a raging ball of fire over something as trivial as losing a bit of ore at an inopportune moment. A game that hasn't done its job if no one tries to flip the board because how the hell can you not roll an eight in fourteen goddamn turns?

And while players and the board itself may change every time, the psychological impact does not. Are your friends nice, polite, well-behaved gentlefolk? Then you will play Catan exactly once and, like a group of teenagers who hope time will dull the pain of having buried that hitchhiker, will never speak of your actions again. Are your friends petty, competitive and quick to anger? Then Catan is the game for you, because you already don't like yourself. While some claim otherwise, games like Catan don't teach players the art of cooperation or good trade relations. Winning, after all, remains a zero-sum game, and it doesn't take long until a single struggling player will realize the remaining path to success is no longer to build bridges but to cut ties. Or until the one in front finds that competitors nip at their heels just as fiercely whether they were kind or cruel in their rise to power -- so why not crush their fingers under some timber-reinforced clogs? It's nothing personal, just business. Because you are no settler, sir, You're an entrepreneur.

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Did you know that The Settlers of Catan is very popular among the elite set of Silicon Valley? Many tech billionaires admit to not only playing it regularly but that the board game has greatly informed how they do business. LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman even called it "the board game of entrepreneurship" because it approximates the startup strategy so much so he even developed a personal Catan knockoff called The Startups of Silicon Valley that switches the island for the privileged California lowland.

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And privilege plays a large part in the game -- in that it pays to be born lucky. Just like Silicon Valley, there is no real disruption happening in Catan. No one has ever been able to dominate the game by finding an innovative new way to leverage wool. (No matter how hard I try). A tried and true strategy mixed with a ruthless approach to competitiveness will always be a winning formula, but none of that matters if you're not favored by the dice gods. Early luck can be an overwhelming key to success in dice games like Catan but, like in the actual world of robber barons, that RNG silver spoon is easy to ignore when recounting your success story. Catan's one part stock market, one part craps table and one part the 2008 housing crisis; and those are all systems designed in a way that allows these agrarian Gordon Geckos to confuse early luck with their own exceptionalism. And while this allows the frontrunners to think they've perfect the system and are more deserving of success, that same element of randomness gives the stragglers even more disdain for their superiors, as they feel they're just one lucky turn away from their deserving ascent to the mountaintop.

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Not that Catan is by any means the only grand old game that elicits such psychological competitiveness from players -- it's kind of their thing. Everyone over the age of thirty has a story of generations-long family feuds having emerged over a steep Monopoly hotel bill or an agonizingly vague Pictionary clue. The simple truth of games is that they are so effective because our brains cannot distinguish between reality and simulation. Being cheated out of the ore you need to complete the next step of your grand Catan plan triggers the exact same bitter neurochemicals in your brain when you get passed over for a promotion. But no simulation works better than those who trick its participants into entering it willingly. And therein lies the true venomous nature of Catan, which can make players forget that, like real frontiers, it's a savage land that rewards savage actions.

In the game of Catan, you either win or you sulk into your beer because you were one brick away from getting that 10th point.Wikimedia Commons/Alan De SmetIn the game of Catan, you either win or you sulk into your beer because you were one brick away from getting that 10th point.

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The Settlers of Catan was perhaps the first board game to actively use its ludonarrative dissonance to catch its victims off guard. From the box down to the tokens, the game promises pastoral peacefulness and plentitude, its endless amber waves of grain (if you roll a 2, 8, 9 or 11) just there for the taking. That benevolent living-off-the-land vibe also translates to the basic rules. There is no hunger in Catan, or disease. There is also no war -- those armies you gather are only there for shooing off thieves or the occasional laurel-leaved parade. Even building towering cities or paving great roads will not interfere with the endless bounty of the land.

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Except that they very much do interfere -- interfere with my road that was going to worth two goddamn victory points, Dave. Interfere with that new timber settlement I was going to use to block your port construction, Sarah. Like those Silicon Valley startups, Catan's utopia-building intentions quickly devolve into greedy one-upmanship and betrayal of trust exactly because of its human element. It may not feature any gold, or taxes, or beauty competitions so lucrative they're obvious money laundering fronts, but the game couldn't be more of a capitalist power fantasy if you'd get a free city just for proving your ancestors arrived on the Catan equivalent of the Mayflower. It's a game of contradictory layers, like the original version of Monopoly. But while that game tried to impart socialist ideals while disguised as a hardcore capitalist simulator, Catan is a ruthless free-market simulator disguised as an agrarian utopia.

Grain greed is good.Catan StudioGrain greed is good.

Like a Grimms' fairy tale, this German board game especially excels at lulling unwitting players in a false sense of security by camouflaging its human cannibal parts until there is no going back. And like those old moralist tales, it doesn't have to work hard to make it feel like everything's your fault. Nowhere in the
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Catan rules does it say you can't peacefully cooperate with the other players in a gentlemanly game of having the best settler win. Except that, when the bricks are down, it's so easy to road-block someone else's project, and monopolies and robbers start sounding like the lesser evils to keep your glorious empire intact. And before you know it, that quiet night in with the people you care most about turns into an embittered episode of Dynasty, where emotions can turn on a dime and darling loved ones are disinherited by the simple reveal of a knight card and a broken promise of embargo.
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Most people don't start a game of Catan thinking they're going to be utter a-holes in forty-five minutes (most). But when the lows start feeling real and the highs are fleeting, it's only a matter of time before you can't see the sun-drenched shores of this island paradise through the seething red of rage, before you can no longer escape that feeling that you've somehow been tricked into playing this when you swore last Christmas Day you'd never do it again. But like a countrified casino, Catan always appears generous enough, innocent enough, even-handed enough to allow you to shift those frustrations on something more tangible: the dice, bad planning, those damn robbers coming over here and taking all the lumber. All the while, its Invisible Hand keeps pushing everyone to that board game breaking point. Because the true Sheep King of Catan is Catan itself. We're just the sheep.

For more weird tangents and all-wool Catan strategies, do follow Cedric on Twitter.

Top Image: Flickr via Japanexperterna

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