WHALE goes in depth to discuss the now-classic board game, Settlers of Catan, with its inventor. 

By Corissa Poley

One day, many men in gray cloaks come to visit in the night, and steal all of your grain. Bit by bit, they snatch up your most valuable resource. You are broke. For years you don’t have any more grain. What could you have to done deserve this? Was it because you built the longest road across the island?

This is the game of Catan. A game that changes every time you play it anew; it is a game that challenges your ideals about economic structure and brings your attention to the roll of the die. You gather what you settle on truly reap ing what you have sown in the most essential moments.

Though it seems to be a simple board game, Settlers of Catan defies conventional methods and is instead a community oriented structure, calling all players to the island. It is something that shifts between politics and economics within the story; enemies become friends when a favorable number is rolled. The robber does not visit frequently because everything is congenial. But in one more turn, the game can become more competitive. Someone broke an alliance, or a seven was rolled and the richest player gave up half his hand.

Catan is far more interactive than many popular games in recent years. One Thanksgiving when I was a child, my father brought Settlers of Catan home to my siblings and me. As teenagers, we constantly played the game. Nearly every night, we yelled over a rolled seven or someone stealing the Longest Road. It was a game that created conflict, but ultimately drew us closer to one another. We learned economics and politics, playing coy with one sibling and catty with the next for the sake of the game. My father generally won for the first year or so, until my younger brother began catching up. My uncle played with us often and taught that placing on the 11 hexes could still win the game.

The board shifted with every turn. We swapped tiles at the end of one game only to set the board up again for a second round. We shared it with best friends and acquaintances. More and more people around us came to love Settlers of Catan. Though passions would be high during some games the moments of laughter would redeem everyone instantly. Settlers of Catan brought us together. Everyone would come to the table for the game.

An intelligent game such as Settlers is obviously brought to life by a brilliant man himself a German gentleman by the name of Klaus Teuber. Teuber imagined Settlers out of his love of board games, which he says has no real explanation, other than that it has its roots in his sense of creativity. “I really can’t put my finger on why I like to play board games, just as I can’t explain why I don’t like capers and love spaghetti,” says Teuber in an online interview with Whale. “My love for game design seems to have its roots in the fact that I like to be creative. In my youth, I wrote stories, painted and also made models. I have a little talent for all these things, and in game design they could coalesce.”

Though he did not play many board games, Teuber was creative from an early age: “I did not play a lot of games, because it was not common in my family. When I was 12 years old, I bought small figures representing Roman, Hunnic, Norman, and Teutonic soldiers and horsemen. With these figures, my friends and I played on the floor of my room. We used wool strings to create rivers and mountains and let our soldiers fight. I remember that I had a lot of fun creating rules for movement and fighting, which were comparable to the rules of table tops. Perhaps this was the origin for my passion to design games 20 years later.” Whale had the opportunity to investigate in depth Teuber’s reasoning behind many elements of the game in a recent interview with this German game genius.

Whale: What are the most important elements of the game to you?

Tueber: The game is very interactive; by means of trade and resource income, all players are always actively involved in the events. It is a strategy game where things are built and developed nothing is being destroyed. And it is variable no two games are alike. These are probably the most important elements that made Catan a success.

How did you choose the natural resources you incorporated?

I asked myself which resources people would need to survive in a new land, and right from the start the resources brick, lumber, wool, grain, and ore quite naturally emerged. Brick represents all building materials made from minerals, grain represents food, wool represents clothing, lumber represents construction, and ore represents tools.

Why did you choose to create a game with a four player format?

We mostly played and play in a group of four. Therefore, this was my target group when developing the game. I have never tried to play the game with more than 6 players, but I suppose it would become too confusing and less dynamic.

How did you choose the colors you did for the game?

My prototype included white, yellow, red, and blue game pieces. Those are simply the colors I find most appealing in a game. Then the publishing house made the yellow game pieces orange. I have no idea why.

Why did you choose the name “Catan” for the island?

Originally, the game was supposed to receive the title “The Settlers.” I also like to play at the computer, so I heard of a computer game called “The Settlers.” Somehow I had a queasy feeling about the two games having the same name. I then convinced the editor that, for the sake of distinction, we needed to add some other words to “Settlers.” I wrote a list of about 10 fancy names that sounded good, among them Catan, and asked my friends and family. Most of them were in favor of “Catan.” At the time, I didn’t attach importance to the list and threw it away which was unfortunate, because now I’d really like to know which names competed with “Catan.”

When you created the game, were you striving to make it as educational as it is?

No, I didn’t have that in mind. But every board game has an educational value. Children learn that they can’t always win, they become more tolerant and, by playing, also learn to better assess their fellow men. For a person who played a lot as a child, as an adult it will be easier to accept a defeat, to backtrack without fearing to lose face.

Do you consider Settlers of Catan primarily based on politics between players or based on economic strategy?

Both. At first, economic considerations have priority. Where do I found my settlements? Towards which inter section do I build the next road, and which settlement do I upgrade to a city? In other words, what do I have to do to optimize my income? Then I have to think about politics. What’s the best way to weaken the leading player? Who do I trade with and who not? How do I distract attention away from me?

How often do you play the game yourself?

I never counted how many games I have played. But together with the many online games and test games for the electronic platforms, I surely played way over 1,000 games.

When Settlers of Catan became so popular, were you surprised?

Yes, I thought that the game would be too complex to reach a large target group. I was actually quite surprised that the game became so successful after a few years.

If Nicholas Sarkozy, Angela Merkel, and Silvio Berlusconi were to play Settlers of Catan, who do you think might win?

To play Catan successfully, you have to bring your entire personality to the game. It is not only about strategic considerations and tactical refinement, which Mrs. Merkel and Mr. Sarkozy doubtlessly would have a good grasp of in the game. A bit of people skills and knowledge of human nature is also helpful: every so often complain a little, point the finger to a player who supposedly is in the lead, at the right moment schmooze a bit or use an unplayed development card or a face down knight to threaten an opponent with a punitive action or even black mail him. I think that Mr. Berlusconi would win. Why else was he able to remain in office for so long? 

If you could give a player any advice on winning Settlers of Catan, what would it be?

I could give many strategic and tactical hints. That, however, would almost fill an entire volume and would go beyond the scope of this interview. I’d like to give one advice though: while the players should always be anxious to increase their resource production probability, they shouldn’t boast the most victory points too early, especially not at the beginning of the game. Investing in the Longest Road already at the beginning of the game is a typical rookie mistake. It provides 2 victory points but no income. Quite the contrary it will frequently happen that the opponents place the robber next to an eager road builder, thus reducing his resource income.

As Teuber said in the beginning of the interview, Settlers of Catan is about the interactivity between the players. The game’s dynamic ebb and flow relies on the cooperation and real time investment of those on the board. It is about player fraternity and active strategy. To this day, Settlers remains a staple of my life and the lives of many friends and acquaintances. It has become a tradition to share with house guests and friends who have never played and almost always been a hit. As a powerful tool for bringing people together, Settlers of Catan is proving itself timeless in its community focused essence, in its unique structure, and in its constantly unpredictable vitality.