Settlers of Catan And Its Growing Popularity

Perhaps it’s just me, but it seems as though the board game Settlers of Catan has reached new heights of popularity with the masses in the last couple years. I certainly agree that Settlers has merit and is worthy of its status as an increasingly popular and well known family game. However, I can’t help but wonder why it has won out over many other similar European-style games to become the american household favorite.

Before I go any further, let me clarify what I mean by a “European-style” boardgame. For some reason, the boardgaming tradition seems to be much more alive in Europe than in America. In fact, Germany (where Settlers was designed and initially produced) produces more boardgames per capita than any other country. Typically these games adhere to some fundamentally different design choices than the common American-style boardgame (such as Risk or Monopoly). European-style boardgames normally do not eliminate players mid-game, they usually incorporate some form of negative feedback, and it usually very difficult to predict exactly who will win, whereas American-style games often lack these traits. (I will cut this discussion short for now as it probably merits its own post)

In college I was exposed to many of these European-style boardgames in addition to Settlers, including Imperial, Power Grid, and Puerto Rico (I guarantee the average American has not heard of these games). Out of these four, Settlers is certainly the worst in my humble opinion. So why has it become the “popular” European game here in the states? I suppose marketing could be at least partially to blame, but if we consider only the game design in our argument what can we come up with?

Randomness. If you’ve played Settlers you are definitely guilty of praying for that 4 to come up just when you need it. And if it does, then awesome! you just garnered yourself 3 more victory points for the win. Settlers is by far the most chance oriented game on our sample list of European boardgames (in fact you might be able to argue that the other 3 have no chance elements at all). Consider our sample hit American Boardgames: Risk and Monopoly. These games are almost all chance. Do Americans gravitate toward games that are more random? I suppose it’s possible. American culture is much less steeped in boardgaming and it’s much more likely that you’re opponents will range greatly in skill from the completely hapless to the uber-leet. This large chance element is the great equalizer in any game. Perhaps our culture puts some special value in allowing anyone to conceivably win.

Simple rules. This is probably the real kicker. I must be a real exception to the population in that I actually enjoy learning new games. Most people seem to think of it as a chore. Consequently, simple games get a much better reception. “It’s easy grandma, you just roll the dice and then you collect your cards. Oh, and you can trade cards too.” Not that I’m an advocate for needlessly complicated mechanics, I’m a firm believer in the KISS principle, but sometimes a little complexity can be a good thing.

These two aspects of Settlers make it ideal for the newbie boardgame enthusiast to break into European-style boardgaming, but it causes the game to seriously lack in content. When I win this game, I don’t feel like it was because I made great decisions, but rather because we rolled 9 threes in a row.

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2 Responses

  1. I don’t think luck plays as much of a role in this game as you state. Yes, there is chance in the dice rolling, but it is chance based upon theoretical probability, and therefore still plays into strategy.

    As for the simplicity of the rules, sometimes simplicity is simply better. And if you always want a little more complexity to your Settlers game, there are the expansions, especially Cities and Knights which takes it to the next level.

  2. My love of Settlers is based on being able to build up and “conquer” as much of the board as I can. When I play Civ, I don’t care about being diplomatic and reaching those weird victory conditions – I surround enemy nations one at a time and take them out until the map is all one color. I guess I could just go play an RTS, but that would be too easy.

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