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'Tension between friends has never been higher': Students talk Settlers of Catan

Settlers of  Catan was first published in Germany in 1995 and as of 2015 has sold over 22 million copies in 30 different languages.
Settlers of Catan was first published in Germany in 1995 and as of 2015 has sold over 22 million copies in 30 different languages.

When students head home for winter break, one board game may figure prominently into their free time: Settlers of Catan. 

Created by former dental technician Klaus Teuber, Catan was first published in Germany in 1995 and as of 2015 has sold over 22 million copies in 30 different languages. 

Gameplay consists of players collecting and trading the resources brick, wood, ore, wheat and sheep. To win, a player must be the first to accrue ten victory points.

Teuber wrote in an email that every game of Catan is different, adding that the communicative nature of the game makes it more likely to appeal to both men and women.

“That is probably the secret of [Catan’s] success,” he wrote.

Senior Nathaniel Brooke pointed to the variability of the board from one game to the next as his favorite aspect of Catan.

“Unlike in other games where some spots on the board are always good, like Boardwalk in Monopoly, in Catan you have to look at the board every time you play to figure out what spots are good and bad,” he said.

For senior Caroline Wang, the lack of a universally correct strategy for winning appeals to her most. Wang explained that some players might seek to monopolize particular resources while others prefer to maximize their exposure to ports or collect as many development cards as possible. Nevertheless, sometimes factors beyond players’ control dictate how the game plays out.

“Most seasoned players have a strategy that they prefer to follow, but then there’s the element of luck based on how the dice is rolled,” Wang said. “[Catan] is unpredictable and exciting but also strategic and calculated.”

While some cherish the unpredictability and variability of Catan most of all, others gravitate toward the necessity of resource management and economic warfare as their favorite elements of the game.

For graduate student Alan Sze, the greatest aspect of playing Catan is the variety of tactics at his disposal for getting ahead of his opponents. He enjoys establishing resource production monopolies and isolating other players’ settlements by cutting off their roads.

Senior Brett Lardaro said his favorite part of gameplay is trading resource cards with other players. He added that power dynamics can quickly fluctuate between players throughout the game, making victory that much more rewarding.

“Tension between friends has never been higher than when trades go down,” he said.

He said he would not change anything about Catan, praising its ability to accommodate varying numbers of players and its easiness to learn.

Still, several others pointed to ways they might like to improve Catan moving forward.

Brooke said he would replace some of the sheep tiles on the board with more ore and brick tiles, explaining that there are always more sheep in the game than anyone ever wants since they are only useful for building settlements and buying development cards.

Wang said she would eliminate the rule about having to give up half of your hand after any player rolls a seven, explaining that this has burned her several times in the past.

“I can’t tell you how many times [that rule] has completely screwed me over,” she said. “It’s infuriating.” 

While some might change just one or two features of the game, others would modify gameplay altogether. In an effort to reduce the random-number-generating element of Catan, Sze said he would assign fixed levels of resource production per turn to particular resource tiles.

“Resource generation is somewhat random because it is dependent upon dice rolls, and sometimes you can go turn after turn without getting anything,” he said.

Even Teuber himself proposed a single change he would consider making to his beloved creation.

“Maybe I would introduce the rule variant ‘Friendly Robber’ of the extension ‘Traders & Barbarians’ into the rule of the base game or at least offer it there as a variant,” he wrote. “Otherwise, I would not change anything.”

"Friendly Robber" is a rule variation that prevents players from moving the robber to a hex adjacent to settlement(s) belonging to a player who has accrued two victory points or less.

Memories of playing Catan can bring up painful and rewarding experiences alike.

Lodaro recalled the time when his friend played his third knight card to receive “Largest Army,” giving him two points, built a road to secure “Longest Road,” earning him another two points,and revealed two victory point development cards in his hand to rise from four to ten victory points and win the game — all in one turn.

“The board and all of its pieces were soon tossed across the room by yours truly,” he joked.

Freshman Catherine McMillan fondly recounted a game in which all of her friends were “silently judging her” for amassing a tremendous stash of development cards but only a single city while all of the other players were building roads, settlements, cities, and the like. Nevertheless, she explained that those development cards went on to translate into two “Year of Plenty” cards, “Largest Army,” and four victory point cards — good enough to earn McMillan a victory.

Wang’s most memorable experience with the game came when she had to be the last one to leave a mixer for her sorority one night and locked herself in a bedroom to pass the time by playing Catan. She explained that she got three other girls to play with her after borrowing the board from a group of guys she knew who left the mixer early, adding that it was the most fun she has ever had at a mixer.

“It is the most addictive, enjoyable, infuriating, and strategic game you will ever play,” she said.

Other students offered similarly glowing reviews for the board game. 

Brooke said he would market Catan as a “more advanced Monopoly,” whereby you are still building upon properties only now there is more trading and strategy involved. He praised the accessibility of learning the ropes of Catan on a campus like Duke’s, explaining that several people come to campus already knowing about Catan, and they will surely introduce their friends to the game.

“Think Monopoly ... but it's set in the Middle Ages, ten times better, and doesn't take a million years to play,” McMillan said.

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