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Waite '11: Settling Catan, winning the future


A few days before the end of winter break, I taught my parents to play Settlers of Catan. They agreed largely out of shock that I would voluntarily want to play — even advocate playing — any board game whatsoever. I had traditionally been loath to join a board game unless coerced, and my sudden passion for Settlers constituted a break from their normal experience of their daughter.

In reality, my obsession with the game had a little more history than they knew. I was first convinced to play during the spring of 2010, when I — to my own surprise — had a fine time. Agreeing to play again in the fall with a couple of friends who had made it a habit, I began to understand the strategy better and came back again. This humble beginning grew into a tradition in which the three of us, sometimes with a fourth, would gather multiple times a week to play two or three games at a time. 

So what is this game that broke my self-declared loathing for board games? In a sense, it's like Monopoly in that the goal is to build a civilization based on resources — in this case, natural raw materials like wood, ore and wheat, rather than money — that players accumulate in the game. The first player to 10 victory points, which can be gained in various ways, wins.

The Washington Post recently declared Settlers "the board game of this era." Monopoly tends to be solely about personal gain, and the winner can dominate the game for hours, often to the annoyance of everyone else struggling to survive on their measly purple properties. Settlers, by contrast, requires the constant attention and cooperation of all players, even if they are not winning. The key of the game is trading — with five different resources required in various quantities to build the elements of your civilization, you usually aren't able to get what you require without finding areas of mutual need.

What a great lesson — as the Washington Post noted. No longer can we operate under the assumption that world powers can retain their influence without the aid and cooperation of other countries. Whether resources are plentiful or scarce, we must find ways to utilize what we have and what others have to our mutual benefit. Especially in the context of President Obama's "winning the future" rhetoric, I have to draw the comparison — yes, you can win the game, but not without that wheat-for-wood trade with the player to your right.

Settlers has also mastered a balance of chance and strategy. In Monopoly, a single roll can gain you a few hundred dollars or lose you that same amount, potentially knocking you out of the running completely. Settlers depends on dice rolls as well, but you have much more freedom to manipulate your hand of resources, regardless of whether the number you want gets rolled. Another real-world skill: managing what life throws at you with your own ability to adapt to the circumstances.

Furthermore, the game is "so Brown," as we love to say here. Determining where to build your civilization, you may choose to spread your settlements over a wide range of resources or over a select few that will follow a specific strategy. Sound familiar? With our open curriculum, we are free to take classes in as many departments as we can — or, as the case may be, we may focus our energies on an academic passion we know exists. I tend to prefer playing with a diversity of resources — which makes sense given the fact that I have taken classes in upwards of sixteen academic departments.

But back to our current world situation. Monopoly is still applicable in certain ways. Woody Allen recently wrote a spectacular column for the New Yorker in which he mixed the modern business world with the language of Monopoly. "Should he risk everything and buy Marvin Gardens, or leave his money in tax-free bonds until he passed Go?" We often cannot escape constant reports on foreclosures, executive bonuses, stock market changes and bailouts. To some extent, the real stories get lost among financial terminology and governmental policy.

The beauty of Settlers is in its simplicity and the simultaneous complexity of thought that comes with it. I understood the primary rules of the game by the middle of my first try, and succeeded in building various elements of my civilization. Now, dozens of games later, I still make minor discoveries in strategy and slight adjustments in my building priorities and trading practices. Friends who have played for years tell me the same thing.

My mother called me a week after I returned to Brown following break. She told me that she and my dad had invited two of their friends over for dinner. They had begun explaining and setting up the game — their first without me — at 10:30 at night. Triumphantly, their friend Rick won at one in the morning. She told me they "had a blast." For all the high-brow arguments the Washington Post and I can make, the fact remains that the game has an excellent design. 




Chelsea Waite '11 loves beginning a game with a road.


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