We Settled for Catan

Klaus Teuber’s creation captured hearts, and wallets, because everyone could tolerate it.

Photo of a Catan board, seen from above

Board games are hostage situations. “C’mon, it’s fun!” your brother or so-called friend says, and then for the next two or eight hours you’re stuck. Rules are read, cardboard chits are distributed, and rounds of wit or chance (or both) transpire. But it is fun, because the joy of gaming first involves accepting arbitrary rules just to feel the sensation of having embraced them.

And yet, board games are terrible. Candy Land is stupid, Scrabble takes too long, Risk is how you learn your dad is an asshole, and Monopoly—let us not speak of Monopoly. Better, nerdier options have long existed (Diplomacy, Vector, Gettysburg—not to mention chess, go, backgammon), but the same few products dominated American rugs and tabletops for much of the 20th century, and thus defined board-gaming as a mainstream activity.

Until Settlers of Catan. In 1995, the German designer Klaus Teuber released the civilization-building strategy game in which players capture land to generate resources to build settlements to capture more land to generate more resources. It hit the United States and beyond soon after. All told, 40 million copies of Catan (as it was later known) have been sold worldwide, and the game has spawned dozens of spin-offs and expansion sets. Teuber, who died this week at age 70, created a global phenomenon.

Why did Catan become so popular? Not because the game is good. Look, Catan is fine, but both connoisseurs and amateurs tend to tolerate it more than love it. That’s the game’s secret: Teuber fell upon a design that every kind of player—geeks, kids, your mother—could stomach playing.

Reading about how a game plays is almost as awful as listening to someone explain how to play it, but here we go: Catan’s board is made up of hex tiles representing different land types (forest, field, pasture, etc.). Each bears a number, and the tiles are laid out differently for each game. On every turn, a player rolls two six-sided dice, and the corresponding land tile gives resources to the players with settlements surrounding it. (Unless a robber token has been placed there; rolling a seven allows the player to move the robber.) The player can then trade resources and build roads, settlements, or cities to expand.

That wasn’t too bad, actually! And it’s one reason Catan took off: It is not horrifyingly oppressive to teach or learn. A round can be played in an hour or two, which helps Catan avoid the common board-game fate of interruption and abandonment. If board games are prisons, then the best ones offer mild sentences.

Board-game aficionados—the kind who would insist I call their passion “tabletop gaming”—tend to find Catan insufficiently strategic. The use of dice gives luck a strong role in victory, and purists prefer to win by reason. But luck also prevents an experienced player from dominating novices, and the dice provide a familiar board-game ritual of rolling to start your turn. Their six-sidedness also distanced Catan from subcultural artifacts, such as Dungeons & Dragons: These are normal dice, the sort used for respectable activities such as Yahtzee and craps.

Catan is a social game, too. Trading resources with other players can mean the difference between winning and losing. It gives players something to do when they’re waiting for their turn, and encourages them to pay attention to what’s happening rather than zone out because, ugh, board game. But unlike, say, Cards Against Humanity or Pictionary, the game’s social dimension is constrained: You’re not expected to be creative or performative, merely to persuade others to swap bricks or wool. That makes Catan less embarrassing for misanthropes like me, and also saves it from the isolation of a game like Scrabble, which is played mostly in your head.

The game’s innocuous theme neither inspires nor offends. Forests and pastures host trees and sheep. Despite the presence of the colonialist term settlers in its original title, Catan was never really a game about conquest. It featured no caricatures of natives or claims of newcomer superiority. Its box and tiles are bright and colorful, making it intriguing to kids and palatable to grandparents. Neither mechs nor monsters infect the game with sci-fi or fantasy particularities. Instead: sheep.

Atop its design, Catan enjoyed the accident of good timing. It arrived on the scene after computer strategy games had whetted hobbyists’ appetites for hex grids and resource management, making one subset of American players receptive to the Eurogame style, in which strategy and resource management are emphasized. But Catan also surfaced before computer and console gaming overtook multiplayer diversion. Later, after the internet had eroded brick-and-mortar retail, businesses such as Barnes & Noble looked to new revenue streams, and the sort of toys that might be worthy of shelf space in a former bookstore—Catan included—lured back customers and sales. Catan became more popular because it was already popular. You could find it in Target and Walmart. Eventually, you’d buy a set, or someone would buy one for you. And then the coronavirus pandemic amplified the cooped-up, what-the-heck-should-we-do moments previously limited to holidays, giving Catan another surge in sales.

But however instrumental all of these factors were to its success, Catan’s secret weapon has always been its middling nature. Catan is nearly perfect in its aspiration to be good enough. It’s neither too sophisticated for a child nor too boring for a snob. Some people truly love Catan, but everyone likes the game—or maybe no one hates it. That is pretty much as good as it gets for board games.

This is Klaus Teuber’s great accomplishment, and I mean that earnestly. One needs a deep supply of both skill and luck to make a game that lots of people love. But creating a game that will be universally indulged is much harder still. Producing something that brings so much modest pleasure is a worthy goal. Too many people want to change the world; too few yearn to roam its pastures.