Well, here’s the good news: Settlers of Catan is not, in fact, the next Monopoly. But not for the reasons you may have read.
Last week The Altantic published this article by Rebecca Greenfield: “Sorry, Settlers of Catan Is Not the New Monopoly.” It’s actually a response to a piece from the previous day about how Settlers is going mainstream — a sentiment expressed over two years ago in Wired magazine.
Greenfield argued that Settlers, despite its fans, is not poised to become the next Monopoly, but will forever be “relegated to up-and-coming status — like soccer, or Vespas.” (Soccer — or football — fans might take issue with that statement.) Her main argument seems to be that Settlers owes its popularity, paradoxically, to its obscurity. That its fans like having it be an in-joke, that the reason it’s a top seller is because it hasn’t hit mainstream status yet.
To be sure, there is something to be said that people are buying Settlers and not Monopoly because they don’t have the former yet and already own umpteen copies of the latter. But Greenfield suggests that fans of Settlers would prefer to keep it under wraps. It’s like that bit in “Portlandia” where anything that becomes mainstream is “so over,” or the overused phrase “I liked it before it was cool.”
I’ll admit: I tend to avoid a lot of the books that sit on the best-seller lists, particularly when it comes to fiction. Why? Because I’ve read some, and I’ve found that the books that wind up on the best-seller list aren’t necessarily the most-loved; it’s more that they’re likely to be least-hated. I’m not saying that all of them are bad, but that if I want something that suits my particular tastes I’m more likely to find it in the long tail. The same is true of movies, music, TV shows, and — you guessed it — board games.
There’s a reason that studios keep turning out the big summer blockbusters that are all fizz and pop with no substance — they make money; they’re crowd pleasers; they bring in the big audiences. But usually the movies that get people really worked up, the ones that really make you stop and think, aren’t the ones with the big box office numbers. It’s not that people would no longer enjoy a well-made movie if it suddenly shot to Number One — it’s that it’s nearly impossible to make a movie that everyone falls in love with. You can mildly satisfy all of the people, or really satisfy some of the people, but it’s hard to really satisfy all of the people.
Okay, so back to Settlers. I don’t like Settlers because it’s more obscure than Monopoly or Risk. I like it because it’s a better game. If it became a household name and every family in the country owned a copy, that wouldn’t change the fact that it takes less time, is more fun, and involves deeper strategy than Monopoly. Is it my favorite board game in my collection? No — but it has that more generic theme that pleases more people, whereas some of the games I like more aren’t ones that everyone will enjoy.
If you asked me for a board game (or book or movie or recipe) recommendation, I’d start by asking you what sort of things you like, and tailor my response to your preferences. If you like fantasy and deck-building, I’ll point you to Thunderstone; if you like zombies and a bit of role-playing more than deep mechanics, I’ll suggest Last Night on Earth. If you’re simply not sure and the only things you’ve played are Monopoly and Risk (and you didn’t enjoy them), then I’ll probably recommend Settlers of Catan and Carcassonne. They’re like spaghetti — not something you’d want to eat every night, but most people will agree on it.
Plus, Settlers is a fantastic intro to the world of Eurogames and the “new” board games movement. It teaches you a different sort of approach to games that you may not have encountered if you’ve stuck with the American classics. It’s a gateway game, the sort that gets you hooked and leaves you wondering what else you’ve been missing. For people who come to a game night and feel a bit overwhelmed at my collection, I’ll probably ask if they’ve tried Settlers and start with that.
But Greenfield is right: Settlers isn’t Monopoly. It won’t bore you to tears, taking hours to play out the conclusion you could see coming after the first few rounds. While there is luck involved in the game, the player negotiations and indirect competition make it a much more pleasant experience.
One other thing sets Settlers apart from Monopoly: it’s only one choice out of many. When Monopoly hit the scene, there really weren’t that many board games to choose from, just like there weren’t very many channels on TV. If you wanted to play a board game, you simply didn’t have that many options. Today, thanks in part to games like Settlers that forged a new path, there are thousands of choices, and it’s easy to find reviews and recommendations to find just the right game to suit your tastes. If anything, it’s remarkable that Settlers has done so well in such a diverse market — and that shows what a strong game it is. Can you imagine Monopoly standing up to the same competition if it were introduced today without the help of nostalgia and familiarity?
Yes, I like Settlers of Catan. No, Rebecca, I don’t hope that it remains obscure (like soccer and Vespas). I hope that it becomes the game that every family has in its games closet — but that’s just the start. What I really look forward to is the time when every family has a games closet.