"Not liking Settlers is trendy. It's a way of declaring you're on the inside now, not willing to settle for a formerly-inside-but-now-outside game. I have no doubt that it's not a favorite for plenty of people, but you can say that about any game. Coming out of the closet about Settlers has a hipster quality to it. You're not merely above the rabble, you're above the rabblish part of the non-rabble."
The above is a reply to one of the many threads appearing with a particular subject matter that amuses me to no end -- "Hi, my name is John, and I hate Settlers of Catan."
"Hi John!" Recovering Settlers players naturally jump in quickly, each stepping up to testify how they've deemed a founding father of the modern gaming hobby a bad habit. Throwing Settlers under the bus isn't merely a topic, it's a vow, a public declaration that they're not merely into "great" games but that they're now into "critically acclaimed great games." There's a thousand games you can vent on, but Settlers, largely due to its pivotal position in the euro history bears special treatment. Settlers is a symbol, and hating it is more than about hating just one game. Declaring it publicly (in a general gaming forum like the one I quote above was from to ensure a wide audience) is a sort of coming out.
"I don't like Settlers."
Good for you. Enjoy your worker placement. I’m sure it’s very dependable.
But Settlers haters have opened the door so I'm walking through. With this article I will hereby declare who I am and what I stand for. There's no sense letting the self-proclaimed hipsters have all the fun.
I kind of like Settlers.
There it is. I don't want to say it too loudly; you'll all think I'm stupid. I've been called stupid before -- "Don't listen to him about Dominant Species, he rates Settlers a nine." My God. The people saying it must be smart because everyone agrees with them. But unfortunately I do really kind of like Settlers. It's a good game, and I can get away with saying it because I don't need to agree with the self-proclaimed aficionados of all things youthful and geek-trendy. At 49 years of age I'm already half in the grave for such things. Being hip with any sort of élan isn't easy when you're married with four kids and have started receiving AARP flyers in the mail. I'd likely do better to proclaim my love for shuffleboard considering the crowd I'll soon be running with. But I want to get attention so I need to write about something youthful and energetic, something that can lend me some "street cred" (and yes, I understand that using that term at my age makes me look ridiculous.)
So I'll introduce Ken to the story, a guy that as best I can tell never played any board game trendier than Skittle Pool. He did however own the thing you see in the photo below, a fifty foot Benneteau Frerer 50 racing yacht, a monster full-rig sail boat designed to run in the uglies of the north-Atlantic. I crewed on it for a decade back when I was younger, running the front half of the boat. That right there is twelve and a half tons of respect-garnering fiberglass.
The disadvantage of sailing an ocean-going racing boat on the Chesapeake Bay can be boiled down to one word -- wind. More to the point it's the lack of it. On Saturdays races would run during the morning and early afternoon and there would usually be enough wind to drive a 25,000 pound sailing vessel, especially one whose mast reaches seven stories. It could get a grip on the winds that most don't realize blow far more consistently fifty feet above our heads, and once throttled up she could continue to move for several hundred yards, letting us coast our way through dead spots that marooned smaller, lighter boats. But on Wednesday evenings, the heart of the Annapolis racing scene, wind was invariably weak and unpredictable. Being one of the biggest boats on the Bay was a distinct disadvantage, and that meant the chances of our boat crossing the finish line first was nearly zero.
So the question that naturally came up was this: why bother? Why enter competition when forces beyond your control will almost assuredly prevent your victory? Why compete? Every writer has a question, and that one is mine. I've spent the last four years asking you this question in different ways in virtually all of my articles.
Competitive sailing brings other benefits as well. Getting out on the water is a pretty solid reason all its own and my boat had some very lovely ladies. But Ken, the owner (the "FBO") and guy at the wheel most nights looked at racing differently than the rest of us did. For him competing wasn't something you did against the other boats, it was something you did within yourself. It was about excelling, about self-improvement, about achieving personal goals. And when Ken would get stuck with a bad start (a huge part of yacht racing takes place prior to the opening gun) or crappy winds he'd stop worrying about the overall win and start looking to more personal victories. He'd set a shorter goal, and we'd go after it.
"What's the pick Ken?" Once things settled in after the frenetic start cycle each of us would look across the water at the competition, trying to pick out another boat that was out of reach, but barely, an ambitious but maybe-just-attainable goal. Though there were fifty yachts on the water, racing would come down to us versus Cold Duck, us versus Aunt Jean, or us versus Keep the Faith. And in the event we managed to overtake our chosen mark we would pick another, working our way through the pack one position at a time instead of struggling pointlessly against what appeared an impossible long-term goal. It kept us motivated, it kept us honest, and it kept us finding ways to make it work. Regardless of how things played out, regardless of weather, every Wednesday was go-time. Every Wednesday we were on the hunt.
And that made a difference. One year during Annapolis Race Week we had been having a terrible set of runs largely due to weak shifty winds. We were getting chewed up, Ken recognized this, and when we looked to him for direction he smiled and said very quietly, "let's go after O'Doul."
O'Doul wasn't a boat, O'Doul was a guy, the Skipper of Donnybrook, the biggest slickest boat on the Bay and he was notorious. The technical term sailors use for Skippers such as O'Doul is "asshole". He had the dubious distinction of being the only Captain to have one of his crew jump overboard and swim to shore rather than continue to deal with his vitriolic anger. Nobody liked O'Doul, and when Ken called his name everyone looked to see where he was, and if there was any way that we could pull it off. Donnybrook was a big boat like ours and it reacted to tepid weather largely the same way ours did, so it was tough for us to gain or lose much ground on her. This was going to require some very creative sailing, but it would be one hell of an achievement if we pulled it off.
And pull it off we did. Our bowman had a knack for calling the weather better than most, and she guessed wind bending right as the race progressed. We took the chance that would happen and it did, letting us sail more off the wind (i.e., faster) and have the change in direction pull us back on course late in the leg. Playing the odds had paid off, and now we had options. Though smaller and less responsive than Donnybrook, our boat had an oversized spinnaker for light days and a blooper, a sort of wrong-side sail that puts extra surface up when you're on a downwind leg. Bloopers aren't seen very often and most sailors have never flown one. But Ken was a blooper guy as much for the bragging rights as anything else -- he enjoyed doing the uncommon. He enjoyed making it work. He enjoyed being a complete sailor as much as being a winner. So up it went, and a staysail added in the middle of the foredeck to grind out just a few more pounds of pressure let us walk up the back of Donnybrook, eat a pile of her wind as we closed in behind, and then pass on by as her crew tried to figure out which bag held their blooper and how to rig it. She was the better boat, but we were the better sailors. For good reason -- we sailed hard even when we were losing. We struggled to make shit wind pay every Wednesday evening and we were better for the experience.
And that's where Settlers of Catan comes into the picture. I'll be honest, the complaints the game gets are real. A bad start through little or no fault of your own can put you at a measurable disadvantage. Odd rolls of the dice during gameplay can knock you back too. That's Settlers. You need to work with what you're dealt and hope for a couple of breaks to go your way to win the game. But for me personally those aren't flaws, they're merely facets of a game that throws adversity before you. They're the nature of Settlers, and I find the game rewarding because of them. As often as not three or four turns into a game I'll look at the board and (as I do in other games) I'll make an assessment of how things are going. Where do I stand? Am I in control where I need to be? Do I have options? Do I play a conservative game and close the deal or do I need to get creative and hope for the wind to change? Sometimes the assessment is pretty grim, and my goals in the game change from "go for the win" to "let's try to get seven points" or "let's see if I can steal second place." I'll still play to win, but I'm not a fool. I can judge my chances as well as anyone else and sometimes the win is out of reach. But with personal goals I keep my head in the game; I keep playing hard; I figure out how to make tough things work. I learn. The game never becomes a wash-out for me personally, because I value the win less than I value the learn.
To Settler's credit it's one of the most versatile games in its weight class. The ability to adjust risk for reward is very high compared to its more modern brethren and those same twists of fate that knock you in one game lift you in the next. You emotionally throw in the towel at significant risk -- three rolls of the dice can put you in a commanding position every bit as quickly as a hopeless one. Fate is occasionally your best friend. But more than that, Settlers seems to have the ability to throw odd nuggets onto the table that can catch you off guard, often by where the tiles and the numbers land at the beginning of the game. Getting locked into a small corner of the board may not be so bad if you own all of the Ore vertices. Two cities and a matching port can turn your two-town layout into a powerhouse. Settlers presents a lot of odd circumstances and curious twists of fate in a simple little package.
A favorite game of mine? Yes and no. It's not really in my wheelhouse, but I can't help but admire its design and its ability to serve the mainstream of the gaming market so well. Though a little counterintuitive to new players (since none of your pieces on the board ever move) it is really quite straightforward to learn yet manages to present a broad face each time you play. Were I to win a raffle and get to pick a game to take credit for designing I think Settlers of Catan would be it because it’s so comfortable in its own skin. It's an engineer's game, where a simple solution providing a big result is the sacred goal.
And it's a game that teaches. You can learn something new each time you play, but only if you don't give up. Keep your head in the game. Learn. Make it work.
That’s why I like Settlers, and that's why I play.
A quick follow-on to the article. Years back it was not uncommon to find photos of Wednesday night races on the Internet and it was my intention to put recent images of the exact boat that I sailed on into this article. To my surprise I could find no recent ones, and a bit of research showed me why. The boat was sold to a new owner in the Netherlands, renamed Morning Star and now sails on the far side of the Atlantic from me. I stumbled across the photo below, which much to my surprise shows its old owner Ken aboard it in European waters, and by dumb luck shows it fully rigged for downhill racing with Main (upper left corner), Spinnaker (blue red and yellow on the right), Blooper (blue at bottom left) and Staysail (dead center) all deployed to grab onto every ounce of wind available. The numbers on the Spinnaker tell the tale, US 32200 which stay with a vessel regardless of its changes in name, owner or country of registry. I've sailed on many but this boat is the one I'd most love to get one more ride on. Alas, Jur has a better chance of that than I do.
Ken and his wife on Morning Star.