We are living through a renaissance. The last one went on for four hundred years, and was only noticed after it ended, so you are forgiven for missing this one. Now you know, however, so you have no excuse whatsoever to avoid indulging in it. Take advantage of the golden age in which you exist. Go get some art in you. I am, of course, talking about board games.
Over the past decade or so, the popularity of board games has exploded. There are exponentially more players of designer board games every year, and this is evidenced in sales figures, in the sheer volume of new games that are produced each year, in the record-high convention numbers, in the board-game cafes and shops that are springing up in major cities. This is a golden age for board games. As a community of players and designers, we are innovating and reshaping the medium, combining tried and tested game design principles with newer mechanics and features to create modern masterpieces.
This is facilitated by the technologically incredible era we live in. You can design increasingly complicated ‘back-end’ systems for your games, and provide an app which will handle all of that for your players, whilst providing an immersing soundtrack. Awesome. Advancements in injection moulding and plastics means that you can mass-produce incredibly detailed miniatures to bring your board game to life, and there is a large society of miniature collectors and painters who are discovering board games as a result. Awesome. Of course, the internet is the real gamechanger and let’s call it out as such. The advent of ‘print-n-play’ games, means you can have your game playtested by thousands of people. You can source your game art from anywhere in the world which makes your potential pool of artists unlimited. You can crowdfund your board-game, meaning that companies don’t have to take a loss, or even a risk in producing a game – if the desire for this game is in the player-base, then your customers will buy it in advance and wait for delivery, fronting you your production cost! In short, our tech level and specifically the internet allows us refine and produce games in ways that would be impossible otherwise. Awesome.
But technological progression, whilst inevitable, is not problem-free. Advancements in plastic molding mean it is easier and cheaper than ever for amateurs to manufacture knock-off produce using inferior quality resin from home. Many people in China make a business from it, selling replica models for a fraction of the cost. For some people the slight loss of quality is well worth the massive savings, but then the designers and sculptors of the original figures get nothing, not to mention the loss to the producers of the game. So this practice, while economically unavoidable, makes our society poorer as a whole.
People also complain that Kickstarter is not supposed to be a store, and that by running their businesses through it, companies are ignoring several fundamental necessities of business, like thorough market research, sales targets and inventory management. I suspect that for some companies this is true, but I would also point to game publishers like CMoN who regularly hold kickstarters for games that make 3-4 million dollars. Per kickstarter. Several times a year. That’s no small bananas, and with profits like that, I can see the kickstarter model as a zeitgeist change which will reform the ways that publishers produce all designer products, with board games leading the charge. I anticipate an ever-larger shift towards this business model until it becomes the norm.
So, our hobby is burgeoning and it’s all thanks to our tech? That doesn’t seem right. Surely there are games that are just as important? Of course. Today I want to look at one of them, which once had the suffix ‘Settlers of’ but today just goes by the title of Catan.
Settlers of Catan came out in 1995, and won the Spiel des Jahres, a highly prestigious German game award. It has gone on to remarkable success, selling over 22 million copies, releasing about a trillion different expansions and being called ‘The Game of our Time’ by the Washington Post. So what exactly is it?
Catan is a luck-heavy resource-management negotiation game whereby players are attempting colonise a small island divided into hexagonal tiles with the numbers 2-12 distributed amongst them. Players construct settlements at the vertices of these hexagons and build roads along their edges. Settlements can eventually become cities and each player is trying to expand their territory, gaining access to more resources and prevent their opponents from doing the same. At the beginning of each turn, a player rolls two dice, adds them together, and if anyone has a settlement or city adjacent to a tile with that number on, then they collect a resource of that tile’s type. The game is played until one of the players mercifully reaches a points threshold and everyone is allowed to stop playing.
Now, you may have gathered that I think Catan is a bad game. It kind of is. It’s hugely luck-dependant, in that if your numbers don’t turn up on the dice there is literally nothing you can do about it, except watch someone else win. It also has terrible rubber-banding – by this I mean that the first player to pull ahead and build their third settlement gains a significant and immediate advantage (having potentially 3 more numbers that will trigger for them to gain resources) which pulls them even further ahead. This is also known as the rich-get-richer problem with games – there is no catch-up mechanism (no, the robber does NOT count), you just see your inevitable defeat/victory coming really early in the game and then play it through to see if an unlikely series of dice rolls changes an ever-more-certain outcome. That’s another thing about Catan, it’s really long. I mean, it probably only takes an hour or so to play through, but that’s too long for what this game is. You make so few meaningful decisions in this game, that if it lasted twenty minutes I could see it having some appeal, but it would then take a quarter of the total game length just setting up the board with fiddly hexagons before you start play. And don’t get me started on the robber…
Okay, okay. It’s in vogue at the moment to have a go at Catan, and I certainly don’t like the game. Will I ever play it with you? That depends. Are you a self-professed gamer with many years/weeks/hours of board gaming under your belt? Then hell no, I’ll offer you something else. I have over a hundred board games and ALL of them are better than Catan. But if you’re an initiate into the hobby and clutching your very first board game, then damn straight I’ll play Catan with you, because that’s the point: you own Catan.
Catan is the first designer game to start appearing in Waterstones and Wal-mart – it has really begun to broach the mass-market barrier that keeps our hobby in the domain of the nerds. Regular schmucks who have played maybe Monopoly, or Cluedo, and have no idea what an epic and immersive experience modern board gaming can offer them are starting to buy Catan. And whilst I think there are many, many better games than Catan out there, there is no denying that it is a designer game. There is strategy and tactical trading, there are moments of laughter and bonhomie and there are tense moments when you desperately need to roll a six because then you’ll win before your smug cousin Jean… Catan is what’s known as a Gateway game. It is simple enough that anyone can understand the concepts of it and begin to play very quickly, but is random enough that everyone can actually compete for victory in their very first game. They won’t necessarily be destroyed by the person teaching them. It introduces concepts like set-collection, resource-management, and area-denial in a simple and easy game which still offers tactical decision-making. People are beginning to treat Catan as much a part of the cultural framework of our society as they do Monopoly, and that is huge. Monopoly was created as an exercise to teach people the sorrows and futilities of capitalism. Catan was designed for people to enjoy. It is never acceptable to play Monopoly, but I encourage you to play Catan with your friends who don’t play board games, because it introduces them to the idea of board games as something they might enjoy, rather than something that your family makes you endure.
In that way, Catan may have done more for the hobby than anything else. Say thank you.