Cultures Collide on a Rainy Day
It's hard to know what do with ourselves as the rainy season stretches into June. My daughter has a summer job as the nanny for two young girls — bright and energetic creatures — and her chief professional challenge so far has been finding ways to keep them away from the television.
Our family is big on board games. And of course a rainy summer afternoon, with the whole gang cooped up indoors, is exactly what board games were made for. If, like me, you're less than enchanted with the time-honored favorites — Monopoly, Clue, Risk, et alia — you might like to check out some of the modern crop of board games that have appeared, mostly in Europe, in the past couple of decades. (You could start with a visit to All About Games in Belfast, about which I've previously blogged.)
These games are really quite different from the domestic variety. Among serious gamers (if that's not too oxymoronic for you), they're sometimes called "German-style" games, though the term currently in favor is "family strategy," which is accurate if uninspiring.
If Monopoly is the Great American Board Game, then its Euro-zone counterpart is The Settlers of Catan, the brainchild of a German designer named Klaus Tauber, introduced in 1995. You should really try this — if only as a matter of cross-cultural exploration. It's easy to pick up and accessible to fairly young children, though with enough strategic interest to hold the attention of the grown-ups. A game lasts about 45 minutes, and the winner is often in doubt right up to the very end.
The contrast between Settlers and Monopoly is instructive. It might even offer some modest insight into questions like, Why do they drive small cars and have single-payer health care over there? Or, Why can't we seem to evolve beyond the mindset of "Drill, baby, drill"?
If you will, then, a brief review: Monopoly, as you know, is a game of single-minded, often ruthless real-estate acquisition. Your goal is to bankrupt your opponents. Your quest is fueled by a "bank" that -- ha ha -- never goes broke. What keeps the play competitive, for a while at least, is that everything hangs on the roll of the dice. In that respect, it's a game of equal opportunity though far-from-equal outcome.
In Settlers, players are not investors but colonists, competing to build the most productive network of towns and cities on the hitherto pristine island of Catan. The game board consists of 19 hexagonal cardboard tiles that are laid out randomly to represent various types of terrain: plains, pastures, hills, mountains, water and forest. Different terrains yield different natural resources (lumber from the forest, ore from the mountains, and so forth). These in turn are used to build roads, cities, and the other trappings of civilization. As they progress, players earn not money but victory points, and the game ends when one player's point total reaches 15. Simple as that.
What makes Settlers distinctive — and popular — is that, compared to Monopoly, it bears a suspicious resemblance to the world we actually inhabit. Just to tick off a few points:
- The board layout is different every time. (Life is nothing if not unpredictable.)
- Resources are limited. The island isn't getting any larger, and there's only so much ore to be gotten from those mines.
- Free trade is more or less unavoidable (and a trading phase is built into every game turn). No player is likely to produce every needed resource, and the obvious solution is lively cross-border commerce.
- No one is ever eliminated from play. Every player participates in every turn, right up to the end. (This is especially nice for children, and others, who do not take kindly to sitting helplessly on the sidelines.)
- There are multiple routes to success — or, to put it another way, "success" can mean different things to different players.
You don't need a graduate degree in macroeconomics — or in cultural anthropology — to see here a considerable evolution from the mindset of the 1930s, when Monopoly was introduced. Obviously a get-rich-quick fantasy had great appeal in Depression-era America. But in today's economic and psychological climate, when the world seems curiously smaller and our options more constrained, hoping for a lucky die-roll does not seem like such a winning strategy anymore. Clever negotiation, prudent resource management, and thoughtful long-term development — all of which are needed in Settlers — feel right on the mark.
But maybe I'm over-thinking this. The Settlers of Catan is worth playing not because it's good for your children, or for the planet, but because it's a lot of fun. And even when you lose, you never feel like throwing the game pieces across the room.