Often times, the board games we played as children are woven throughout the fabric of our memories. For me, games such as Candy Land, Stratego, Yahtzee and Chess serve as bookmarks, allowing me to revisit chapters of my life.
But, above all else, the two games that will forever define my family and summer vacations, Christmas breaks and those highly coveted snow days are Scrabble and Monopoly. When I think of board games, these two classics have always reigned supreme in their top of mind status.
That is, until now.
This summer I have become smitten with the German board game Settlers of Catan. I have only played it three times, and yet its hooks are firmly set. Staring into space, I fantasize about Settlers like an adolescent boy with a junior high crush. When my friend who introduced me to the game tells me she is getting ready to play with her family, my jealous little board-game heart turns green with envy.
Although this civilization-building game appeals to me on many levels, I had yet to put a finger on what exactly it is about Settlers that has caused my infatuation until I discovered a fascinating article in WIRED magazine. Not only did the article explain why some board game fanatics herald the game as perfect, but it plainly laid out why the game has cast such a spell over me.
Completed in 1995 by the famed German board game creator Klaus Teuber, Settlers of Catan is based on the German style of board games. German-style games opt for strategy and balance rather than conflict and domination. Winning doesn’t require one to “undercut or destroy their friends.” This is starkly different from the style of game many of us have grown up with and learned to love:
“Monopoly, in fact, is a classic example of what economists call a zero-sum game. For me to gain $100, you have to lose $100. For me to win, you have to be bankrupt,” WIRED's Andrew Curry explained.
As obvious as it seems, I found myself nodding as I continued reading the article, and the more I thought about it, I couldn’t help but laugh. Although I still love the game, I marveled at how disproportionate the level of angst to pleasure is in just one game of Monopoly — unless you're winning.
For example, take the Income Tax in Monopoly. The ability for that single space to inspire such pure contempt has got to be unhealthy. And just the thought of being assessed for street repairs makes me want to meet that top-hat-wearing geezer they call Mr. Monopoly in a dark alley — he’ll have to pay the doctor's fees for once.
Of course, the reason why these penalties are so upsetting is because they are detours from the sole path to victory: wealth, property, houses, hotels and, ultimately, supremacy (insert maniacal laugh here). Now, I am not saying that reducing friends and family members to mortgaged shells of their former selves isn’t fun, quite the contrary. The only problem is that, after a few rounds, this enjoyment is usually limited to only one or two people.
For these very reasons, we smile and jokingly rib someone who lands on Free Parking, but, in our minds, we are burning them in effigy. “That should have been me,” we think to ourselves. “How dare others gain advantage while I am continuously elected chairman of the board and stuck paying school taxes.”
In Settlers, none of this resentment exists. Although you can be singled out and even ganged up on, it feels oddly just and nowhere near malicious. If your opponents refuse to trade with you, there are other ways to achieve your goals. Compare that to the person holding your monopoly-completing Vermont Avenue hostage until you trade them Marvin Gardens, two railroads, and 40 years of manual labor, and the difference is clear.
It has taken me some time to take the plunge (Settlers can get costly if one chooses to purchase the multiple expansion sets), but I plan on picking up the basic game this week. I still love Monopoly, and I am sure the game sitting in my closet will continue to get plenty of use, but right now, I couldn’t turn down a game of Settlers if my life depended on it.
Besides, the Settlers of Catan chapter of my life has already begun, and if the few great memories it has already provided are indicative of anything, this is going to be a good one.
Andrew Del-Colle is a former Missourian reporter and a graduate student at the Missouri School of Journalism.