Each week, the residents of my apartment and I partake in a thrilling evening of board games. But don’t yawn yet. Settlers of Catan serves as our game of choice and — no offense to loyal Scrabble fanatics — it is certainly more riveting than your grandmother’s Scrabble match.
Like its title suggests, a round of Settlers involves settling the island of Catan, an imaginary land composed of hexagonal cardboard tiles. The island boasts five essential resources needed to construct roads, settlements and cities: wool (sheep), brick, ore, wheat and wood (forests). The players compete to exploit the resources while utilizing seaport advantages and conducting shrewd trades. Every game board is randomized — sometimes resources may be clustered in one corner of the island or distributed evenly.
The uniqueness of each playing board and the luck of the dice truly mimics the geopolitics of the modern world. The Empire of Japan, for example, pursued a “Settlers” strategy during World War II. After the U.S. embargoed Japan’s oil supply in 1941, Japan sought to expand the tentacles of its domain to the oil-rich Dutch East Indies. In order to reach Southeast Asia, the Japanese essentially built figurative roads, settlements and cities by island hopping on the Pacific Rim. The result ensured Japan a plentiful supply of oil to aggressively wage war against the U.S.
In our contemporary era, the critical importance of crude oil to the global economy also demonstrates the relevance of Settlers to the global economy. The world’s crude oil fields lie in precarious and peripheral destinations including the Persian Gulf, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the Brazilian coastline, Angola and Siberian Russia. Despite the physiological and logistical challenges, modern technology and the global market recover vast quantities of oil from remote parts of the world. Similarly, a Settlers player desperate for ore may build a road across Catan — cutting off opponents — to fulfill developmental needs.
Perhaps Settlers of Catan knows no better follower than China. In just the past 10 years, China’s influence in Africa and obtaining its limitless raw materials grew exponentially. “China’s trade with Africa has risen sharply, from $10 billion in 2003 to $20 billion in 2004 and another 50 percent increase is expected in 2005,” reports the Council of Foreign Relations.
In Zambia, for example, China invested hundreds of millions of dollars in the critical copper mining industry. If the Settlers game board were shaped like Africa, China’s long roads would link to the Democratic Republic of the Congo where robust development of the cobalt and copper extraction sector continues despite a grave civil war that has already left millions dead. In just a third illustration of China’s grand strategy, the road continues to Nigeria. In July 2005, China entered into an agreement to purchase 30,000 barrels of crude oil from Nigeria every day for the next five years.
Settlers of Catan also accurately simulates the complexities European powers faced at the dawn of the West’s rise to global hegemony in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Any high school student knows that Britain, Spain and France dominated the Americas during the age of exploration and imperialism. While each colonial power controlled vast and lucrative portions of the hemisphere, resource allocation never approached equality. Like Settlers of Catan, Spain scored big on precious metals worth a fortune in Europe. Many British possessions — such as Jamestown and Roanoke — initially floundered due to bad luck and ill-equipped settlers.
Popular among Silicon Valley techies, Settlers of Catan “pushes players to collaborate and swap resources to get points, while the random rolls of the dice force people to constantly revamp their strategies for winning,” according to the Wall Street Journal. Facebook, Inc., even hosts tournaments in its cafeteria. Executives from LinkedIn, Mozilla Corp., and Google also play.
Designed by the German Klaus Teuber, Settlers of Catan has sold more than 15 million copies worldwide since 1995.
Despite the game’s trendy appeal and the mental workout, Settlers of Catan omits important components of colonialism. No mention is made of the native inhabitants of Catan or the labor needed to harvest the island’s resources.
Additionally, the principles of sustainability and conservation do not factor into game strategy. Settlers of Catan encourages domination through exploitation — the supply of resources is endless and environmental degradation does not impede human settlement.
The game also avoids the negative impacts of colonialism and competition. Even though up to four players conquer the island and vie for resources, violent conflict does not erupt when players encroach on each other’s turf. In essence, Settlers of Catan exists as a mystical fantasy land where players craft overarching strategies to expand their footprint.
Unfortunately, the resources of our planet are limited. Our small blue planet supports more than 6 billion humans, but most cannot dream of enjoying a quality of living like our own. Since we cannot live on Catan, the results of unrestricted development, resource extraction and insufficient cooperation make themselves known today.
In the game, one desert hexagon tile lies dormant on the board — a dead zone where no resources reside. In reality, the deserts and toxic regions of the world expand when resources dry up. Settlers of Catan offers hours of entertainment but stirs up a shocking nightmare as global policy.
The standard edition accommodates four players and games can last between one and two hours. Enjoy the nostalgia of Spanish conquistadors while conducting Chinese foreign policy — all without the pitfalls of reality.
Stanton Abramson is a College senior from Raleigh, N.C. He is president of the Young Democrats of Emory.