Everyone from The Wall Street Journal to The Atlantic is claiming the game is about to hit the big time. But will it ever really arrive?
The German board game Settlers of Catan has been trending toward mainstream status for years. A 2008 Wired Magazine article dubbed it the "Monopoly Killer." The next year, the Wall Street Journal noted how the game is a favorite among techie crowds. The year after that, the Washington Post called it "board game of our time." Then, just this week, fellow Atlantic contributor Scott Keyes declared that the board game has arrived: "Over the past few years, Settlers of Catan has transformed from an activity enjoyed by a small niche of gamers into a mainstream hit." But, has the up-and-coming board game really transformed into a "mainstream hit," or will it be relegated to up-and-coming status—like soccer, or Vespas—forever?
Full disclosure: I am a regular Settlers player. At least twice a month I get together with two to five of my friends to "Settle," as the lingo goes. I first learned how to play in 2007, which I guess makes me part of the enclave that popularized the obscure German game with a less-than-marketable name. Since then I've been hooked. My college friends played when we were too lazy to go out. And when I first moved to D.C. I used it as a way to make friends in a city where I knew few people. I get the appeal. I'm just not so quick to call it the next Monopoly or Risk.
As previous articles have noted, both the time it takes to complete a game and the way in which the game involves players during each turn makes it fun and addictive. But, there are also social factors that make it appealing, such as the acceptance of nerd culture, as Keyes notes:
Another way to view the mainstreaming of Settlers is part of the larger trend of "nerd culture" slowly infusing into "popular culture." For example, while X-Men and Green Lantern were once idolized by just a sliver of society, now millions go watch them at movie theaters in a seemingly endless parade of superhero movies.
But the popularization of geek-porn only partially explains gamers' obsession. Obscurity also helps.
Even after arguing that Catan has gone mainstream, Keyes admits that it still hasn't quite reached Monopoly status: "Name-dropping Settlers at random may still leave you with blank faces today." You'd never get a blank face with classics like Risk and Monopoly. The fact that Settlers isn't as ubiquitous as its fellow board games adds to its appeal. When someone learns that you're part of their gaming club, they're intrigued that you're in on their little secret. The game isn't mainstream—it's more like a cult.
Keyes cites the numbers to prove popularization, which he believes indicates the trajectory to mainstreamification. A Settlers spokesman told Keyes that sales have risen 35 percent this year. The game is also a number one seller on Amazon (outselling Risk and Monopoly) and is sold out at Walmart.com.
But these numbers don't prove widespread acceptance. In fact, they indicate the opposite: People are buying the game because it has not yet reached mainstream status. It's outselling the classics because that market is already saturated—families already own Monopoly sets. Certainly these numbers mean that the game is popular at the moment, but after only 15 years of existence it's shortsighted to declare it an institution.
Perhaps, after a generation of Settlers lovers grows up, passing on the glories of trading resources to building cities, roads, and settlements to their off-spring, maybe then we can call it mainstream. For now, hold your knights: This up-and-coming game's popularity might stop with this generation, relegating it to cult status forever. And, let's be honest, that's probably how Catan players would like to keep it.