A decade ago, you'd only find it in obscure game stores hidden in the corner of shopping malls or along low-rent streets. Settlers of Catan had a niche market. You had to hunt for it.
These days, much has changed. The German board game has become a bona fide social phenomenon. More than 18-million copies have been sold at roughly $50 a pop, making it the most popular new board game in a generation and pushing it to the verge of mainstream. This month, with a version for Android phones set to be released, The Atlantic magazine predicted Settlers would soon become "as American as apple pie."
Settlers is the face of a board-game renaissance - a return to slow, measured pastimes in a smart-phone and video-game era.
"It poses a strong alternative to electronic media. It is actually an unplugged experience," says Guido Teuber, 37, whose father, Klaus, invented the game. "All of a sudden it seems novel, having gotten used to being part of a computer screen. There is something to be said for having this very tactile, social and immediate experience."
Settlers has a simple premise: Players collect and trade resources to develop an island. It's interactive, there's no war and no player loses or wins until the final turn. It's the foremost example of an entire genre of "German-style" games.
Such games largely reject the confrontational mantras of traditional board games, such as Risk and Monopoly. Instead, they tend to be more constructive - settling an island, building a network of power plants (Power Grid), a train system (Ticket to Ride) a kingdom (Carcassonne) or farm (Agricola). The elder Mr. Teuber has spent 30 years developing board games, winning Germany's prestigious Spiel des Jahres (game of the year) award four times, most recently for Settlers.
"All of those games are using ways to solve conflict in a non-violent way," says his son, who lives in California and oversees the game's North American expansion. "After two world wars, [and German]people realizing it's time to do things dramatically differently, there's definitely a wave of pacifism that's reflected in the game culture."
First invented in 1995, Settlers took hold among young professionals, students and what Mr. Teuber calls "techies" - the game is a favourite throughout Silicon Valley, where plugged-in employees of the world's cutting-edge technology firms routinely break for a definitively low-tech game of Settlers.
It became popular because it had a unique design, was easy to learn and quick to play, said Ontario player Robin Baksh, who started playing a decade ago in university and was among three Canadians to earn a spot in last year's Settlers world championship in Germany.
"A lot of people will win or do very well at their first game," says Mr. Baksh, now 30. "Because of that, there's the incentive to keep going."
About five years ago, the game's sales began to soar as it made its way to the kitchen tables of families.
"It's huge. It's absolutely huge," says Cheryl Cameron, 52, owner of Edmonton's River City Games. Once mostly a pool table vendor, her small chain has reinvented itself on the back of board games and Settlers. In two of her stores, board game sales now make up 70 per cent of revenue. Settlers has been the top seller for six years.
"One of the contributing factors has certainly been a great deal of concern with our children today, in that a lot of them lack social skills. I attribute a lot of that to [the fact]they're plugged in and not interacting," says Ms. Cameron, who plays the game with her own eight-year-old granddaughter.
The game has some high profile fans, including Black Swan actress Mila Kunis and entrepreneur Reid Hoffman, the low-key founder of LinkedIn, a online networking site that netted him $1.7-billion when it went public last month. "It's a game that most approximates entrepreneurship," Mr. Hoffman has said.
The game holds a special appeal in Canada and the United States, Mr. Teuber believes. "In North Americans, there's this pioneer spirit. Building things, the idea of domesticating the wilderness. ... In a certain way, you almost play it out on that [Catan]island."
The Settlers boon hasn't been without its awkward moments, however. The game has a "robber," or character that blocks squares from use. Initially, it was painted black, raising eyebrows, drawing complaints and surprising the Teuber family.
"People e-mailed us and said, 'Hey, why does the robber have to be black? That's not cool,'" Mr. Teuber explains, saying his family was caught off-guard. "Nobody [initially]thought about the connotation a black robber would have." The robber is now grey.
Though it grew in part as a rebuke of the plugged-in world, Settlers can't escape it. You can play it on your BlackBerry, iPhone, iPad and, soon, Android phone. Mr. Teuber discusses these almost reluctantly. The game's foremost appeals - tactile, unplugged, interactive - aren't reflected in phone or computer versions.
"We do really see the board game as the meat and potatoes," he says.
The future of Settlers rests in whether it can crack the mainstream. There is optimism: The Atlantic, for instance, wrote that sales are "nearing 25 million copies," though Mr. Teuber says they sit a touch above 18 million. Either way, it pales to the 275-million copies of Monopoly sold worldwide. (The Atlantic also published a rebuttal to its own piece, arguing that Settlers wasn't, in fact, mainstream. Players here agree.)
The game may have a shot at everyday status if shops like Toronto's Snakes and Lattes are any indication. The café, which opened last year, has 2,000 board games in stock which clients pay a $5 cover charge to use. Settlers is the most widely known, owner Ben Castanie says.
"It became the standard," of customers, he says. "They do consider Settlers of Catan as the new Monopoly."
What is Settlers of Catan?
The concept is of the board game is simple. In each game, 19 hexagonal tiles are arranged randomly to form an island. Each tile represents a resource, and has a die roll number between two and 12 assigned to it. Three or four players (or up to six, with an expansion) build cities and roads along the sides and intersections of the tiles. When a tile's number is rolled, any player who has an adjacent city or settlement collects at least one resource, of which there are five - wheat, sheep, ore, brick and wood.
Settlements are worth a point, larger cities are worth two and earn you more resources. Players gather - and, most importantly, trade - resource cards to build roads, new cities and to buy cards. With other bonus points, the first player to 10 points wins.
"What sets Catan apart is it's a very interactive experience," says Guido Teuber, the game developer's son. "Even if you're in the last place, you still have the feeling you can affect game play, make a difference, even catch up. That stands in contrast to other games."
Tips from an expert
Diversify, diversify, diversify.
Try to access all five resources if you can - but always get wheat.
"If you don't take wheat, you'll never win, because it's the most important commodity," says Ed Zurawell, 54, a Sherwood Park, Alta., resident who won the North American Settlers championship in 2009.
Crunch the numbers to build on the most common rolls, but don't be afraid to talk, negotiate and trade with other players.
There are regional qualifying matches for a world championship tournament held biannually in Germany. Three Canadians earned spots at last year's tournament, with Robin Baksh, 30, of Waterloo, Ont., placing highest of the three, ranking 23rd of 52 players. The competitions are intense. Most players are from Europe, where the style of play is slightly different - "Europeans buy more development cards [in the game]than North Americans do," explains Mr. Baksh.
Since the initial game's release in 1995, other board game versions and expansions have followed: Seafarers of Catan, Cities and Knights, Traders and Barbarians, and Settlers of America among them, as well as a card-based travel game. There are all kinds of versions for phones and computers, including one for Android phones being released this month. However, trading and interaction are the key elements of the game, and are better suited to live play.