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.