Catan found me in Xi’an, China, of all places. From 2011-2013, I lived in the ancient capital, best known for its proximity to the Terracotta Warriors. I experienced it then, and remember it now, as a difficult time. One day, my German girlfriend told me our plans for that night. “We’ll have a game night at my place. My roommate has found a copy of Settlers of Catan.”
I had no idea what Settlers of Catan was. I’m sure I must have seen the box. I spent my free time in middle school playing the Pokémon TCG at a local game shop, and it seems impossible that there wasn’t a copy on one of the few shelves not dedicated to Magic or Warhammer. I never noticed the board games. They were barely present, but game stores in Central Pennsylvania circa 2000 weren’t full to the brim with games like they are now.
We gathered around the table, Nadja and Stefan and Faith and I, and I engaged for the first time in what has become one of life’s most treasured little pleasures: punching out cardboard. I had no idea what any of these pieces meant. The Development Cards and Player Aides were in Mandarin, sure, but I’m not referring to a language barrier. I had no concept of a board game with resources. It’s strange to think about now, going into a board game without any idea of how it might work.
Stefan taught us the rules, and we got started. Catan was unlike anything I’d ever played. You could plan, and make meaningful decisions, but it wasn’t as dry as chess. It could be vicious, the size of the board forcing players to cut one another off, and I didn’t handle that well. In fairness, none of us did. The habitual Catan playgroups in those early days just about always consisted of two couples, and it is a miracle that all emerged from those games intact.
There were no game stores in Xi’an. For six months or so, the world of modern board gaming consisted solely of the island of Catan. The first thing I bought when I came back to the U.S. was my own copy. In the fall of 2013, I moved to New Haven. I found a circle of friends through board games. The second modern board game I ever played was Eclipse. They introduced me to Dominion, Flash Point, SET. The rest, hundreds of games and thousands of hours later, is history.
I don’t play Catan anymore. My understanding of what I do and don’t like in a game has matured, and I bounce hard off any design that marries that level of intensive planning to that level of capricious luck. I don’t like getting upset while playing a game, so I stay away from the games that evoke those feelings.
There are, inarguably, hundreds or even thousands of better games out now. How many of them existed before, though? And how many would have ever made it to market without Catan’s success? Every week, people come into the store where I work to say “We’ve played Catan, we’re ready for something else.” Somehow, for some reason, Catan cracked the doors wide open.
When Klaus Teuber, who passed away on April 1, 2023 at the age of 70, designed Die Siedler von Catan in the early 90’s, he had no way of knowing how successful or impactful it would be. Catan has sold 40 million copies in the ensuing three decades. That defies comprehension. It also fundamentally changed the direction of my life and the lives of many others. While my own story may be extreme, it is not unique. There are hundreds of thousands of people with the same one. That is what makes it remarkable.
Ruhe in Frieden, Klaus, und vielen Dank.