Do the Settlers of Catan Dream of Sheep?

I was thirteen years old when I first almost played the board game The Settlers of CatanIt was Christmas Eve and I fit in with approximately nobody: not the adults, not the college kids, not the poodle trapped in the car outside. (Although I probably identified most with the poodle.)
But by that age, I was already pretty comfortable with adults and understood how to be charming in their presence. “What do you want to drink, Daniel?” Georgia asks me. “Just a beer,” I say. Laughter commences. “Or water, if you have it,” I add.

Mirth, merriment. What an agreeable lad.

Meanwhile I’m thinking: I wonder if somehow the oven is still on. I need to check the oven. It’s probably off. What if it’s on? I’ll just go check it out. No harm in checking. Lots of harm in not checking. Totally rational terror.

But then I get pulled away from my fearful self-questioning and invited to play a board game that was described to me as “not Monopoly.” It was Settlers of Catan.

Four of us sit down in the den: Bradley (the younger), Bradley (the older), my father, and I. Before we open the box, young Bradley gives us a speech that I now recall like this:

European-style board games… luck and skill… philosophically… Ameritrash… cooperative competitiveness…. 1995… you’ll see what I mean.

I didn’t know at that time that eight years later I’d regularly give the same enlightened account of board games mixing luck and skill, attempting to convince friends to play.

Like I said, though: we never played the game.

We set up the board, which consists of nineteen hexagonal tiles that are arranged differently every time the game is played. We learned about resources, roads, trading, armies, victory points, settlements, cities, and the robber and all these other nuances that I didn’t know were even possible in a board game.

The only board games I had experienced at that point had a track and the goal was to get to the end. Sometimes there was a cool bubble that you popped to roll and sometimes another pawn landed on your head and SORRY! you have to start over, chum. But basically they were all the same.

And then it was dinner time.

We left the game sitting there, our initial settlements built and roads leading out from those settlements to areas that would never be explored. After dinner, young Bradley needed to leave and he took the game with him.

Then several years passed, and lots of things happened to lots of people.

It was almost time for Christmas a few years ago and I had no idea what to get anyone.

I did know, however, what our dog, Bandit, should get the family. Every year Bandit buys us a board game, and I had recently read a magazine article describing these two guys playing a game called Ticket to Ride.

The article was co-written by the two players. They explained that the game is about building train lines across the United States to complete particular routes. Then they narrated each turn, discussing their strategy and their frustration with not getting the right colored cards to show up in the deck.

Skill. Luck.

I thought that combination would be good for my family. We’d always played games together, but our history was thorny. For instance:

  • Every game of Pictionary ended in a fight, probably because whoever won “had cheated.” You know, by drawing well or something.
  • We’d play Clue with my dad, who’d only get a few cards to start and would still handily beat my sister and I. We would then challenge him to another game and this time he gets one less card than last time.
  • My dad beat me in about a hundred straight games of Chess.
  • We still play Spades, same teams as always: mom and sister against dad and I. Every hand is scrutinized and debated, and comments like “A card laid is a card played” are said with equal parts playfulness and derision. As I get older, the desire to lose is almost as great as the desire to win, because then at least no one will be mad at me.

So skill and luck sounded really good: it appeals to my family’s nature to plan and analyze, but also takes the edge off our Lutheran self-scrutiny, because if the cards aren’t coming, it’s not your fault and it’s no one else’s either.

And it was great. We played Ticket to Ride a bunch over the next few days. We collected colored cards, drank our hot cocoa, and laid down our plastic trains to form an intricate train network across the great American idyll.

It was a great gift from our dog Bandit.

And then eight years after the night that I almost played Settlers of Catan, I finally got a chance to play a whole game. Two hours of harvesting and building and settling later, I was in love with a hexagonally-formed island.

Since then, I’ve developed a vast appreciation for this style of board game, usually referred to as German- or European-style board games. They vary in theme, but several design principles are fundamental:

Instead of direct conflict, German-style games tend to let players win without having to undercut or destroy their friends. This keeps the game fun, even for those who eventually fall behind… German games also tend to be fast, requiring anywhere from 15 minutes to a little more than an hour to complete. They are balanced, preventing one person from running away with the game while the others painfully play out their eventual defeat. And the best ones stay fresh and interesting game after game. Full article at

These board games are great, offering depth for strategy lovers and simplicity for people who like chat and sip on lemonade while playing. I’ve played board games with friends and professors and strangers, in airplanes and basements and on a dig in Israel.

There’s something wonderful about the structure of a small microcosm, a board game that says: “This is my world, there’s only a few components and all of the rules are self-contained and understandable. Enjoy.”

It’s a nice contrast to the mystery of our own world, but it’s also an escape from the mundane. How often do you get the opportunity to save the world from the simultaneous outbreak of four deadly diseases? Or work with a crew to complete scanning missions in dangerous parts of the galaxy?

Just a few nights ago, I met a couple other teaching assistants here in Dresden at a bar that has a collection of 400 board games.

We joked about German bureaucracy and giggled about Glühwein and then we checked out the games, finally deciding on The Settlers of Catan: Germany.

We built roads and cities and erected great monuments, making the most of our ore, wood, wool, clay, and sheep.

And I thought about that first night I played Settlers with Kevin and Amanda and Nathan, when we finally finished at two in the morning and I almost dared to ask if everyone wanted to play again, and now I wish I had because who knows when I’ll see them all again.

And I can hardly imagine a better night than my girlfriend and I grilling some fish and asparagus and pineapple slices and sitting down in front of the fireplace on some pillows and pulling out some long forgotten board game and rolling the dice, shuffling the cards, and traipsing into a world that folds up and fits neatly inside a box.

Note: Most of the links in this post are to the excellent board game website, I’m an active dork on that website, and if you have any interest in broadening your board gaming horizons, that’s the place to go.