What Can We Learn from The Settlers of Catan?

I’ve been catching up with my paper copy of the April issue of Wired, and came across a great article by Andrew Curry on what is widely considered the world’s greatest board game: Die Siedler von Catan, or in English, The Settlers of Catan.

The story Curry weaves is fascinating. Germany is the world’s epicenter for boardgames, selling hundreds of thousands every year and drawing fierce competition for the annual Spiel des Jahres (Game of the Year), the Pulitzer Prize of German boardgaming.

Master gamesmith Klaus Teuber spent four years perfecting Settlers, running beta versions past his family and tweaking the competitive elements. Released at the Essen Game Convention in 1995, it was an instant hit, and has gone on to sell over 15 million copies in 30 languages.

Derk Solko of Boardgamegeek.com and Jesper Juul both have nice quotes. Pete Fenlon of Mayfair Games, the company distributing English versions of Settlers, helps to fill in details regarding its popularity:

“When a lot of us saw it, we thought this was the definition of a great game … In every turn you’re engaged, and even better, you’re engaged in other people’s turns. There are lots of little victories—as opposed to defeats—and perpetual hope. Settlers is one of those perfect storms.”

A hint at the educational potential of the game could be found in a comment by Russ Roberts, an economist over at George Mason, who indicated Settlers was perfect for teaching the free market system to his children. Settling the game’s island requires the administration and trading of resources. Different resources become scarce or plentiful and require skills to manage and barter.

The next frontier the game has to conquer is the American marketplace, where traditional titles hold sway. Herr Tauber indicates the plan is to introduce video game versions for the Xbox and PC. The hope is this will provide the boardgame version of The Settlers of Catan a stronger foothold in the American marketplace (nearly a quarter million copies have sold in North America since last January).

German boardgames in general are showing impressive gains in popularity over here. Jay Tummelson of Rio Grande Games estimated his company sold a half million licensed copies of German games for American markets last year. Meanwhile, Herr Tauber has launched PlayCatan.com to introduce the game to audiences online.

Curry, A. (2009, April). Monopoly killer: Perfect German board game redefines genre. Wired, 17(4). 60-72.


  • By Julia, April 16, 2009 @ 7:47 am

    If your player style matches the type of play in Settlers of Catan you will be likely to play it more than once. Some other folks don’t enjoy it much. I played it several times and I really like it. I support the idea of using Settlers of Catan as an example of free trade market – when the game play is followed, guided or paralleled by an expert in this matter. But game plays are personal experiences/I’d advocate that learning only from playing is less likely to happen. Just a thought…

  • By Regan Ross, April 16, 2009 @ 11:18 am

    Hi John,

    I’ve been hoping games like Settlers would catch on in North America for a long, long time … and I think your post is timely. I stumbled upon Settlers when I was looking for games that used different shapes/tiles to represent things (was struggling with the mechanics for a citizenship simulation I was developing)… and Settlers, Carcassonne, and “Rommel in the Desert” really helped me see new lights as far as gaming goes. The roll and move mindset, I suppose, is proving tough for our gaming culture to work through.

    Great post, and your blog is outstanding!


  • By John Rice, April 16, 2009 @ 5:38 pm

    Julia – Agreed, like most games it’s not designed with a purely educational goal in mind. I wasn’t really trying to resurrect the whole “adopt everything for education” argument that goes around periodically. But, I do think board games in general offer some great vehicles for education. I’m thinking of Kiyosaki’s Cashflow in particular …

    Regan – thanks for the kind words. I’ve been playing a variety of board games with the kids, and I agree they are way underrated on this side of the Pond.

  • By Khairil Rizadh, July 19, 2009 @ 4:21 am

    Great post-I love it. =) The idea of integrating educational elements in the form of clever entertainment for various ages were never reach this far as The Settlers of Catan. In fact, this magnificent board game can be one of the alternative way to teach entrepreneurial concepts to younger generation as an introduction of the basics of doing business. (Demands an supply) Haha~~ ;-D Kudos to the Father of the Catan hex, we love your game so much!

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