Settlers of Catan - Eurogames and Competition
Alongside last week’s game of Carcassonne, our Eurogames session saw us play Klaus Teuber’s The Settlers of Catan, a game that’s won numerous awards including the coveted Spiel des Jahres and the Deutscher Spiele Preis (1995), the Origins Award for Best Fantasy or Science Fiction Board Game (1996), and in 2015, the GamesCon Vegas Game of the Century.
Going into the game we’d already begun a conversation of competitive play, following a reading of Roger Caillois’ book Man, Play and Games (1958) and playing Catan was really a continuation of this ongoing discussion. To give a little context, Caillois categorizes games in terms of four fundamental characteristics:
- Agôn (competitive play/combat)
- Alea (games of chance)
- Mimicry (imagination)
- Ilinx (vertigo, games of purely playful exuberance)
Eurogames tend to downplay mimicry and ilinx and (the former being a defining feature of theme-heavy Ameritrash games such as Last Night on Earth and Talisman). Focusing instead on competition (agôn) though, as Stewart Woods puts it ‘[they] typically facilitate indirect rather than direct conflict’ (2012, p. 19). Woods also suggests that they ‘deemphasize the role of chance’ (2012, p. 79), which rings true if they’re compared with the ‘buckets of dice’ approach found in, say, tabletop wargames but shouldn’t be taken as meaning that they don’t make use of random elements in their mechanics (in Catan this is far from the case). In their clear emphasis on the role of mechanics over theme, Eurogames perhaps provide a good example of Caillois’ claims that play is,
an attempt to substitute perfect situations for the normal confusion of contemporary life. In games, the role of merit or chance is clear and indisputable. It is also implied that all must play with exactly the same possibility of proving their superiority or, on another scale, exactly the same chances of winning. (1958, p. 19)
With these thoughts framing our gameplay we began our game. For anyone unfamiliar with the game, the aim is to dominate the island of Catan by building the largest number of settlements, cities, roads, and armies. To do so players collect resources (wood, grain, brick, sheep and stone) each turn according to a roll of two dice, trade with their fellow players, and spend their resources to build up their tiny empires. The first player to reach ten victory points wins the game.
After a very enjoyable game, in which our discussion of game theory gave way to the demands of raising new towns and cities, Tom’s settlement came to dominate the hexagonal island of Catan.
Postgame, our thoughts returned to the nature of the game itself. Chris:
I'd never played Settlers of Catan before, but I had played the two-player version a lot, and I really do mean a lot! Did I mind losing? No. Going into a new game, I always feel that my desire to win is secondary to my desire to learn the game - not just the rules, but also its nature. In Cailloisian terms, this would mean identifying its implementation of the four fundamentals. In practice, this would mean trying to establish my own role as a player in the game. Am I helping myself, or helping the team? What decisions does the game present me with? Am I in conflict with other players, RNG, or the rules? I would say that one of the reasons that Settlers of Catan is such an excellent game is that after just one play-through all of those questions have been clearly answered.
My experience was that the game was one of clear and fairly direct competition. There was plenty of conflict in evidence and at the end a clear sense that the winner had outplayed the others. While the majority of the game’s actions relate to advancing your own settlement on Catan, rather than attacking those of the other players, the game certainly rewards players who effectively shut down their rivals’ options and the robber mechanism (by which players steal resources from one another) certainly felt like pretty direct competition to me. As such, in Catan, as with other games involving managing odds - a mechanism I very much enjoy - the pure equality of chance is greatly diminished by skillful play. For me this means that the experience of winning or losing becomes, for want of a better term, meaningful in a way that a game of pure chance doesn’t replicate.
Tom, the evening’s winner, confirmed this sense of the ways in which Catan rewards strategic play,
Winning in Settlers is a mixture of resource management, shrewd trading, and taking control of key building resources.Those who win at Settlers of Catan tend to maximize the opening phase of the game, identifying key resources for building and trade, e.g., brick, wood, and wheat, and monopolizing them (if possible), particularly if they have high chance rolls. I prefer to focus on brick and wood first for those who control the roads quickly manipulate the map and the resources available to other players. Watch out though, if the high numbers clump together, players may have to wait sometime before their luck rolls in… On a related note, do not underestimate the importance of Development Cards: these cards will grant victory points over time and should not be left for one player to monopolize.
Our discussion then returned to the nature of competition, with Tom offering the following summary,
Competition can bring out the best and worst in people. The same is true of playing sports as much as board games. When we treat our opponents with respect, and can detach ourselves from the outcome of the game, then competition can be challenging and fun in equal measure. The danger is always when winning becomes more important than play; control is lost, and competitors treat one another as objects to achieve an instrumental ends.
The outcome of our game was certainly meaningful - the result of good play – but also unimportant beyond the confines of the hexagonal world of Catan. Finally, it is no doubt a positive sign that on finishing the game we all discussed when we could play Catan again..
Caillois, R., 1958. Man, Play and Games. Translated from French by M. Barash, 2001. Urbana &Chicago: University of Illinois Press.
Woods, S., 2012. Eurogames: The Design, Culture and Play of Modern European Board Games. NC & London: McFarland & Co.
Paul Wake, Tom Brock, Chris Jones.