Boxed Worlds: The Obligatory Catan Column

Settlers(Originally published at ffwdweekly.com)

So. For the sake of avoiding a clichéd introduction about how board games are back and better than ever, and those crazy kids and their vinyl records and suspenders, let’s assume you’re already curious about board games. Maybe you wanted to like them when you were a kid, but you got turned off when you realized that, even though they looked like games, Candyland and Snakes & Ladders were about as strategically complex as falling out of a chair. Maybe you have a recurring feeling that Monopoly can’t possibly be as dull as you remember, if you only gave it another shot. (It is that dull, though, but only because you’ve been playing it wrong your whole life. It’s ok. We all have.)

Or maybe you’re beyond that. You’re sold on the idea of sitting around a table with some friends, some drinks and a handful of dice. It’s more a matter of finding the right way in. With even cheap games running $50 a pop, and heavyweights costing upwards of $100 before anyone even brings up the three expansions you’ll need to experience the real game, a little skepticism isn’t such a bad thing. What you need is a gateway.

There is one game that constantly gets brought up at this point, and for good reason. When people get excited about learning that there are good board games out there, it’s usually because they’ve played a game of Settlers of Catan. And that reaction makes sense, because if all you’ve played are the usual suspects, Settlers is a whole different world. You aren’t moving a piece in endless circles around a board. You aren’t at the whim of an endless string of dice rolls — well, you are, but everyone else is dealing with the exact same rolls, and the odds are written right there in front of you on the board, so complaining about it seems like bad form. What you’re doing seems humble: you harvest resources from a board that’s different every time you play, then trade them with your opponents so you can build a few settlements and some dirt roads. Compared to Risk’s global conquest, say, it should be nothing, but the stakes still feel high, and rivalries can run deep. It is, without question, an eye-opener.

Once you start digging deeper, those elements pop up again and again in Euro games — for whatever reason, the Germans have board-game design down to a science. The hallmarks of a Euro are an effort to keep luck out of the mix, an emphasis on game mechanics over atmosphere, and a bizarre love for small wooden cubes to represent pretty much anything. Contrast that with “Ameri-trash,” a term of scorn or affection depending on who you talk to — games that are all about the story and the aesthetics, which are much more content to let everything ride on one last roll of the dice if it’ll heighten the tension. Both have their quirks, and there are classics in both camps.

So, what’s your next step after Settlers? That’s what this column will look at every month. There’s whole worlds in those cardboard boxes. Space exploration and global conquest, sure, but also co-operative disease-battling, single-player farming sims, rail traffic control and other things that sound equally dry until you give them a proper chance. Trust me — they’re worth digging into.

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