It is with profound sadness that we at CATAN Studio acknowledge the passing of Klaus Teuber, legendary game designer and creator of the beloved board game CATAN. Our hearts go out to Klaus' family during this incredibly difficult time. pic.twitter.com/gPPIVtleHJ
— CATAN – Official (@settlersofcatan) April 4, 2023
Dan Zak, at the Washington Post — “In a world of Monopoly and Risk, the maker of Catan settled for more” (unpaywalled gift link):
At some point early in the pandemic, I began to dream in hexagons. The hexagons were talismans of order and plenty. One depicted golden sheaves of wheat, another quarried gray ore, another the tufted wool of sheep. The outside world was chaos, collapse and deprivation, but the hexagonal pieces of a board game called Catan imposed a geometric peace on a doomy evening, if only for an hour at a time, with a glass of cab sauv and three covid-bubbled friends.
“I developed games to escape,” Catan’s creator, Klaus Teuber, told the New Yorker in 2014. “This was my own world I created.”…
I grew up in the 1990s, in a house without Nintendo, playing antique products of the Great Depression and the Cold War: Monopoly and Risk, with their 20th-century mandates of greed and confrontation. The exorbitance of Park Place, the alien sound of Kamchatka and Irkutsk — these were backward-feeling games that urged ravenous competition. The board game of my eventual adulthood, my pandemic, was being born around that time, but it would not become globally popular for several years.
In the ’90s, as I was fiendishly fortifying the Americas on a 1959 board of Risk, Teuber, a dental technician from a small village in central Germany, was descending into his basement to escape the doldrums of dentures and to craft a sort of utopia in the form of a board game. It would be a game of graceful simplicity, requiring both competition and cooperation, that would invalidate the zero-sum, total-war ethos of prior parlor pursuits. His invention was born of a childhood rapt by the beauty of an atlas.
“I loved the old, musty-smelling, ragged maps that were rolled out as lessons,” Teuber wrote in his 2021 memoir. “I loved travelling in them in my imagination. Over mountain ranges in brown hues, the green valleys, blue rivers and lakes.” In elementary school, he began making maps of his own. He was fascinated by the Vikings, pictured their arrival in Iceland, envisioned the materials they would’ve needed to build a settlement. Teuber loved geography, then history, then chemistry. You need the essence of all three things, he would say later, to create a good board game.
In his basement he made hexagons of wool, ore, wood, brick and wheat that would make up an otherwise characterless, mystical island (“Catan” had no special meaning, he said). Players would stake out initial territory and use those natural resources to build roads, then settlements, then cities. Catan’s genius is its intrinsic leveling dynamics. On a board of finite resources, it was impossible to succeed without working with your opponents; academics made it a metaphor for nuclear proliferation and then climate change. Dice added luck and chance to a game of strategy and bartering, which kept all players involved even when it wasn’t their turn to roll…
The Settlers of Catan, as it was first called, debuted in Germany in 1995 and the United States in 1996. In Europe it won prizes and filled convention halls. Its success allowed Teuber to quit the dental field in 1998, though he never lost the qualities of a man whose initial tradecraft was small, precise implements for delicate parts of the body. Among hobbyists and gamers he was revered like a rock star, but he looked and acted and sounded like a man who tinkered with stuff in his basement. He didn’t have the swagger (or the command of English) to fully engage with American praise or interrogation. He was, at heart, a hobbyist.
Teuber credited a 2009 story in Wired magazine — headlined “Monopoly Killer: Perfect German Board Game Redefines Genre” — for helping to mainstream Catan in the United States. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg is reportedly a fan. At one point the Green Bay Packers had a Catan obsession. During the first five months of 2020, as covid colonized Earth, sales of Catan climbed 144 percent, according to NPR.
I was one of the buyers. This sounds insane, but it was true in the darker months of 2020 and 2021: A game of Catan was a Brigadoon of cheer in an America gone rotten. Even now, a game of Catan at the end of a workweek — with all its slights, disappointments, imperfections and imbalances — settles a bit of the chaos. Or at least brings a gathering of friends together for more than repetitive gossip. It doesn’t require a cosplay fetish or a familiarity with specific lore. It takes skill, but not mastery; rookie players can win. It urges exuberant competition, not destruction. Players are in a race to accumulate points, and territorial disputes occur, but they are not truly at war…
Neil Genzlinger, for the NYTimes (also a gift link):
… “In the beginning, these games were just for me,” he told Forbes in 2016. “I always have stories in my head — I would read a book, and if I liked it, I wanted to experience it as a game.”
That was the origin of his first big success, a game called Barbarossa, which grew out of his admiration for the “Riddle-Master” trilogy, fantasy books written in the 1970s by Patricia A. McKillip.
“I was sorry to see it come to an end,” he told The New Yorker in 2014, “so I tried to experience this novel in a game.”
In 1988 that game won the Spiel des Jahres (Game of the Year) award in Germany, considered the most prestigious award in the board game world, Germany being particularly enthusiastic about board games. He won that award twice more, in 1990 (for Hoity Toity) and in 1991 (for Wacky Wacky West), before scoring his biggest success with what was known in German as Die Siedler von Catan…
Mr. Teuber told Wired in 2009 that creating Catan felt different than his other efforts.
“I felt like I was discovering something rather than inventing it,” he said.
The initial run of 5,000 sold out so quickly, according to Wired, that Mr. Teuber didn’t even have a first-edition version. Within a few years he was able to give up that stressful day job and devote himself to games full time.
Catan has been widely hailed as being challenging yet intuitive — children play it — and has been credited with jump-starting a new era of board games, which moved beyond the staid confines of Scrabble and Monopoly. Instead of sitting idly while other players take their turns, as in Monopoly, Catan invites constant wheeling and dealing.
“The secret of Catan,” Mr. Teuber told Wired, “is that you have to bargain and sometimes whine.”
For Mr. Freeman, that is what elevates it above older games.
“I truly believe Klaus created the greatest board game of all time,” he said. “Both complicated and approachable, it combines skill, luck, strategy and my favorite aspect: the power of persuasion. You can’t talk your way into winning a game of chess, but you certainly can in Catan.”…
Last year, in an interview with Nikkei Asia, Mr. Teuber was asked why he thought Catan was so popular.
“There may have been a good balance between strategy and luck,” he said. “For example, roulette is only about luck, and chess is all about strategies. However, if you win in Catan, you think, ‘My strategy was good,’ and when you lose, you might think, ‘I was just out of luck.’ This is the same as life.”
Ian Bogost, at the Atlantic, grudgingly admits that it wasn’t bad when “We Settled for Catan”:
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…
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…
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.
I was never interested in board games, card game or any other sort of game all that much. I would play them and if I somehow won was pleased. If I lost I didn’t care. I found when I did win the some of the other people would get angry. I would sit there and think, it’s only a game.
@Jeffg166: In part that’s why I’ve come to prefer the cooperative games, where the players combine their efforts to destroy the One Ring, escape from the zombies, put out the house fire, or whatever, and either the whole group wins, or they all lose.
One other aspect of Catan that is awesome are the “homemade” versions. I bought Mr. Suzanne a gorgeous laser-cut version on Etsy some years back.
I think this is the game the Big Bang boys were playing, and sniggering at Sheldon needing wood for his erection. notthati’veseenit
@oatler: Usually the jokes are about the sheep…
Goku (aka Amerikan Baka)
Settlers of Catan is the game that showed me I could do so much better than Sorry and Monopoly. Up until then, I thought board games were all the typical Milton Bradley and Parker Bros games: unbalanced, almost totally dependent on dice rolls instead of actual strategy and planning, and with bad artwork to boot. From Catan I discovered Puerto Rico, Carcassonne, and much more. I’ve never looked back.
Playing Risk in high school (mid-1970s) we added nukes. But they cost a LOT of soldiers to build one, and they poisoned the land where you used them for several turns.
If you’ve tried Catan but think it too luck-dependant, you might want to try the ‘foodstamp variant’. It works like this.
1 – If, when a player rolls the dice, any of the players gets no resources at all, that player gets a ‘foodstamp’ (Pennies work well for these)
2 – Foodstamps, as well as resources, can be traded between players.
3 – At any time, a player can trade a number of foodstamps, equal to his or her current ‘victory point’ total, for a resource card.
(thus being more valuable to players behind in the game, and damping the ‘runaway leader’ problem.)
Hope you find this interesting and/or useful.
I’ve grown to really dislike Bogost’s writing. He is such an effing solipsist.
That’s all I got. I’m not a board gamer.
Anonymous at Work
Condolences to his family and his friends, but no on giving them any bricks for sheep.
It’s only been within the past year that I became aware that Settlers of Catan was a board game, rather than something you played on a computer or online. But I still haven’t played it; I’m not sure I even know anyone who has.
OTOH, I first played Diplomacy back in the fall of 1970. One difficulty of Diplomacy is that it requires exactly 7 players (technically you can play with fewer but it doesn’t really work that well), with each player representing one of the seven Great Powers of Europe. Another difficulty is that some countries are harder than others to play.
But it’s got lots of strengths. One is that no one player can conquer Europe by themselves; the game involves forming (and often breaking) alliances to advance one’s position and strength, which involves a lot of negotiation. Another strength is that it’s never anyone else’s turn; there are diplomacy periods in between turns where all the negotiations happen, and then everyone submits their move orders at once. I’ve had a lot of fun playing Dip, both over the board and by email.
So it shares some qualities with Settlers of Catan, but obviously the latter involves a lot more cooperation than Dip does, and very unlike Catan, the object of Dip is to conquer everyone else’s countries.
That sounds like a really fun game! Interesting articles, AL, thanks!
@Tom Levenson: Bogost did convey in those few paragraphs why I wouldn’t want to know him far more effectively than any information about Settlers of Catan.
I am a big board game fan and SoC has a huge place in history as a good, easy to play game from a period when there were few out there. There has been an explosion of great games in the last 2 decades and it has been forever since I played it.
@lowtechcyclist: Diplomacy is subjectively a better game, but SoC is easier to play. Give it a try. You most likely will enjoy it, and if you don’t you will know after a game or two.
RIP Klaus Teuber
15 Best Planet Colonization Games To Play Right Now
@Tom Levenson: +1
Why did he waste the calories to write that?
Had to have been ’66 or ’67 when a group of us would get together for mammoth sessions of Diplomacy, the same game sometimes lasting through both Saturday and Sunday afternoons on weekends. Seem to remember we once made it through to the mid 1930s before victory took place. (For those unfamiliar with it, turns are identified by seasons of the year, beginning IIRC in Spring of 1914.)
As for Settlers of Catan, have to question the timeline of its reach and impact in the U.S. as anything more than the interest of a tiny (coastal?) clique. My own modest little shop here stocked a selection of RPGs and board games ancillary to the main inventory before I wound it down after nearly 30 years to retire in the late noughts and stopped paying attention to the marketplace. Today’s posting is the first time I’ve ever heard of it.
@NotMax: That you never heard of it despite running a game store for that long over that window boggles my mind. It seemed like one of the standards – like a copy of at least the Player’s Handbook and DMG for D&D 3.5 – I’d find in pretty much every independent games/comics store I entered in the 90s and naughts. Certainly it was a standard entry for gaming tables at most of the cons I went to.
Not my favorite game, but one for which I could always find people interested if I was looking for something to fill a couple of hours.
@NotMax: I bought a copy in 1998 when i first saw it in an independent bookstore. I have no idea when it first took off, but it was already considered a classic in 2008 when i really started collecting boardgames I liked through the boardgamegeek website.
Well, gaming was a sideline, albeit an intermittently lucrative one. From the info above one would think at least one customer might have inquired about it. Never happened.
@NotMax: ’tis peculiar, I agree.
“Sheldon wants wood.”
If anyone wants to try playing Catan online, you can do it for free on Board Game Arena. They have a whole bunch of other games there as well.