The Glorious and Barbarous Bartering of Settlers of Catan

Ancient Egyptians had senet and Mesopotamians had the Royal Game of Ur. Chessmen have marched for hundreds of years across boards in Asia, Europe and the Middle East. People are still tangling, sometimes against computers, over the millenniums-old Chinese game of Go.

These days, a lot of us keep coming back to an imaginary island dreamed up by a German who ran a dental lab — a game that has forged friendships, strained family ties and, while selling tens of millions of copies, transformed the business of board games.

The Settlers of Catan, which was released in 1995 and is now officially known as Catan, tends to provoke strong feelings. After the death of its creator, Klaus Teuber, was announced this week, one friend texted a group chat: “When will we play in mourning?”

If this level of devotion to a board game leaves you exasperated or confused — asking why, for instance, otherwise rational adults would lose their minds over sheep, wheat and the injustice of where someone just placed a little block of wood — well, fair.

But with his creation, Teuber managed to achieve an alchemy of skill, strategy, persuasion and luck, inspiring other designers and revitalizing board games for the masses, especially those who came of age as Catan spread worldwide in the 2000s. In addition to expansions introducing seafarers, barbarians and knights, the game’s mechanics were ported to universes like “Star Trek” and “Game of Thrones.” (Those variations include slight changes to the rules, unlike themed versions of Monopoly, which are mostly the same game.)

The original Catan game is a race to 10 victory points, accumulated by building roads, settlements, cities and armies. Because the coveted resources are distributed unevenly, with dice rolls, players have the opportunity to trade with (or steal from) one another. Part of the allure is that the board, made up of hexagons, is randomly rearranged every game.

Unlike chess, where the pieces are firmly under each player’s control, the setup of the board, chance cards and the whims of the dice make luck a factor throughout. Unlike Monopoly, where the winner slowly grinds down opponents, players gain points in a variety of ways — meaning you can change strategies, bargain for trades and team up to take down the leader.

Politicking is key, making Catan more like Westeros than the game’s pastoral cover art might suggest. Every barter is loaded with questions of fairness that can also sound a little absurd: Would you trade me a brick for two sheep? An ore for a wood? What if I block our mutual enemy with roads if you just give me one wheat?

These sorts of conversations, plus the threat of a “robber” that players can use to block and steal an opponent’s resources, tend to be where arguments break out. I’ve seen people who are normally calm driven to purple-faced rage; people who are affable and generous in life transform into Machiavellian puppet-masters; couples descend into bitter, alarming spats.

The game’s elements of chance and skulduggery — not to mention its potential to devastate your personal relationships — are flaws to some. But others see the randomness and scheming as welcome counterweights to pure strategy games.

I’ve also seen people come alive with delight at a successful trade or a surprising turn of events, or at the simple joy of emerging victorious in some creative or hard-fought way. During the coronavirus pandemic, the online version of the game was a refuge for many players and a convenient excuse to spread the gospel of Catan to loved ones.

To most casual players of the game — those who don’t play in tournaments or scour forums for variants — Klaus Teuber was only a name on a box. But his legacy can be found in the countless hours spent sitting around the board: the agonizing decision over placing your initial settlements, the question of whether to expand your army or your roads, the arguments between friends (or soon-to-be-ex-friends) that always ensue.

As word of Teuber’s death spread on Wednesday, a second group chat appeared on my phone, with a completely different friend sharing the news: “RIP to a legend.”

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