Finally Settling

“Really? How have you never played Settlers of Catan?”

Despite playing many board games now, I didn’t play Settlers until just last week, which led to the reaction above from various friends. Many people are first introduced to more serious, strategy board games shortly after college, and Settlers of Catan tends to be where it starts and ends. I myself was introduced to board games by two other common gateway games: Arkham Horror during the summer after my freshmen year and Munchkin during my sophomore year. It’s a shame I missed out on Settlers because I don’t know if I’ll ever get really into it.

If you’re unfamiliar with it, Settlers mixes the trading of Monopoly with the set building of Gin Rummy. Several hexagon tiles are laid out as an island where each tile produces some resource. By building settlements on the vertices of the hexagons and between your roads, you get a chance (based on a dice roll every turn) to gain resources, which you can then use to build more roads, settlements, and several other developments. Throughout the game, resources are traded amongst the 4 players, Mostly by counting settlements, players gain points, and the first player to reach 10 points wins the game.

Although Settlers was designed as a physical board game, I actually played it using the web version with 3 of my high school friends. Willie was the only one who had played before, but we all picked it up relatively quickly. Unfortunately, I picked my initial road placement poorly and didn’t manage to develop much until far too late. Unlike the recent games of StarCraft we played together, we weren’t so intensely focused on the game that we couldn’t talk. Despite playing in a virtual space, we taught, negotiated, and trash-talked through the game over voice chat.

For most of my game-playing career, the exciting advances in gaming technology have been slicker graphics, innovative gameplay, and better network performance for smoother gameplay. What we’ve seen recently, however, is a return to social. Co-op play is a major part of many console games because players want to share games with friends on their couch. Mobile games are so dependent on social mechanics that I recently heard a friend lament how difficult it was to play these games without mobilizing and cajoling friends into joining in as well.

For myself, however, I have found the games become less and less important than simply as a context for us to use technology to hang out. An interesting consequence of technology discussed in “Alone Together” is that we can hide ourselves more easily from social circumstances. We text to avoid the complications of actually talking to someone, and yet we still somehow rationalize it by saying that we don’t want to impinge on others immediate attention with a phone call. Although I do cold call occasionally, I too shy away from bugging friends in the evenings.

Given my own availability in the evenings, I shouldn’t be as surprised as I usually am when my friends are available. Still, it’s much easier to reach out to play a game rather than just talk, though I hope to mostly just talk anyways. And thanks to technology, we can do it, especially over board games and other computationally simple tasks. At least in this domain, it seems that the gift of technology isn’t the amazing machinery of modern games but just some common ground to focus a phone call around.

So Settlers was good, and I’m glad I played, but I don’t think I missed much by having initially skipped it. I don’t have any criticisms right now, but there are many games (check out my board game chooser!) I would rather play. Still, I no longer have to justify having never played it and can lure friends into other games by honestly explaining how “it’s just like Settlers, except…”

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