Saturday, February 23, 2013

Why Settlers of Catan trumps Risk and Monopoly

Remember board games?  I have fond but distant memories from my younger days of Monopoly and Risk marathons with friends and cousins.   Fond because it was fun.  Distant because, who has eight hours to play a board game these days?

I spent much of a recent three-day weekend playing Settlers of Catan, a game that my household discovered at a Thanksgiving family reunion, and which quickly surged to number two (behind an iPod) on my 12-year-old’s Christmas wish list.  Now it’s my favorite as well.

Catan is often described as a cross between Risk and Monopoly, and those are understandable comparisons, although it has dawned on me that the contrasts with those two games are just what I like most about Catan.    Here’s what makes Catan superior to Risk and Monopoly:

Literally, no two games are the same -- the board is assembled in a different random order for every game.

It doesn’t take eight hours to play a game.  The games I’ve played have lasted one to two hours.

You can still play it for eight straight hours if you want to.   But that consists of five or six separate consecutive games, after each of which every player enthusiastically says, “Want to play another round?” 

Because you win by assembling natural resources from a randomly-generated landscape that can make some products ridiculously abundant or scarce, Catan teaches great economic lessons about supply and demand.  Players can’t win without mastering the concept of trade – with the mainland "bank," or even with each other. 

You get points for the largest army, but also for building a market, a library, or a university.

Yes, there is a military aspect to the game.  But it’s more like a Viking raid (or maybe modern guerilla warfare; but Catan is set in the Bronze  Age) than a war of occupation.   Playing the “knight” card involves stealing a resource from an opponent and disrupting natural resource production in the affected region for a few turns – not destroying his army, removing his cities from the map, sowing salt into the earth, or even hearing the lamentation of his women. 

But there is no conquering of someone else’s territory.  What an amazing respect for property rights!  You win this game by expanding your territory more successfully than your opponent, not by driving her from her home.  How American!  Or maybe how un-American.  I’m getting confused.   I grew up playing Monopoly and Risk, driving people from their homes and into the sea …

That’s not to say Catan is not cut-throat competitive.  There’s nothing more brutal than spending eight turns building a road to the last ore deposit, for example, and then having your opponent beat you to it on the ninth turn. 

Ultimately, the best thing about Catan is that the end of a game tends to be a race to the (arbitrary, point-based) finish between growing “empires,” rather than a two-hour Sherman’s March through Georgia.   At the end of almost every game, the “losers” are one or two acquisitions away from winning themselves, rather than having spent the last two hours downsizing or burying their dead in a lost cause.  

The difference in the definition of success is not subtle at all … you can play a game based on competition, free markets, trade, property rights, territorial expansion, and even military intervention – and not have success defined as the extermination of your opponents.   How interesting that Monopoly was developed in America in the 1930s; Risk in France in the 1950s … and Catan in Germany in 1995. 

It’s not surprising that our society’s games are based on hundred- and thousand-year-old economic and military philosophies.  But our real-life  economic and foreign policies don’t have to reflect 50- and 80-year-old games.  I think all of us need to play a whole lot of Settlers of Catan with our kids, and soon.  Fortunately, it’s a much quicker game than its predecessors. 

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