Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Settlers of Catan Will Ruin Friendships

Americans don’t like losing.

Or maybe we like winning too much. Take a look at your favorite board games – in order for you to win, somebody has to lose. It makes for a tense game atmosphere, stitched with resentment and suspicion. Look at Monopoly. When’s the last time you had a cheery, good-willed game of Monopoly?

The Germans have a different perspective. In a nation where board game designers are regarded with the same esteem as film producers or hot novelists, games focus on deep mechanics, quick resolutions and a minimum of conflict. When Mattel tried to introduce Risk in Germany, the game was denounced for being too militaristic and imperialistic (it was accepted after “conquering” territories was changed to “liberating.” Foreshadowing!).

Settlers of Catan is a German board game designed by Klaus Teuber. Four players content for economic supremacy on an island composed of hexagonal squares, each representing a resource: wheat, sheep, brick, ore, and wood. No guns. No conquest. No conflict, except where lightly implied. It’s widely regarded as the best board game of all time.

Of course I turned it into a fracas of backstabbing and double-dealing.

In the videogame industry, they refer to four people playing one game in the same room as “local multiplayer.” Board games are the original local multiplayer, gathering flesh-and-blood humans – not their shabby avatars – under one roof. It feels old-fashioned playing board games today, even sportsmanlike. Breaking out Catan’s elegant, illustrated hexagons and minimalist wood pieces, I always feel like I’m doing something ineffably good.

Catan pits four players against each other without ordering them to fix bayonets and lunge across the table. Distribution of resources is more or less random, and the upper hand often goes to the skilled diplomat or trader – being nice pays, and so does being honest. The Thief, represented by a tiny gray pawn, is the game’s wildcard. Roll a seven, and you can place the Thief on any hexagon, shutting down its resources until someone else rolls a seven, and gains control over the Thief. It’s the game’s only offensive component, the only thing that can really be used against another player.

Enter Thief-Fucking.

Last night, I played with four guys of reasonable intelligence more-or-less even temperament. Burt is a minister. Mike is an amateur videographer and genial knockabout. Shawn, the game’s most seasoned player, is studying for med school. He’s one of my closest friends. And he hates losing. The night prior, he had fought a four-hour game of Risk to its bitter conclusion.

So naturally, when I rolled a seven, I firmly planted the Thief on Shawn’s most productive resource tile.

“Fuck you,” I said.

Nothing practical differentiates Thief-Fucking from regular, kosher application of the thief – except that crucial English expletive, which immediately imports buckets of bile into an otherwise happy, tranquil game.

The serenity was shattered. All bets were off. Three turns after I placed a settlement, Shawn declared that I couldn’t place my little blue house there; it was within two hex-lengths of his. He was right, of course – those are the rules of the game, clear as day – but it had been a few months since I played, and I was counting on him for the rules. No protest, no foul. The settlement stood, but as an emblem of war. It was on.

To Shawn’s credit, he tries his best to play with honesty and integrity. His word is good in a trade – if he says he doesn’t have any sheep, his fields are empty. But as the game developed, by illicit settlement grew to an illicit city, which gave me a windfall of wheat whenever an eight was rolled. As we neared the endgame, three eights were rolled consecutively, giving me a ridiculous amount of wheat – so much, in fact, that I could easily trade it at a loss for the resources I needed to secure a win. It was game over, more or less.

Shawn grew silent. He stared at his cards. Then he traded all five to Mike for one card. Just one – he would take no more. It was a sheep. As I founded my final city and won the game, Shawn had one sheep.

I flashed him my most shiteating grin. I may have winked. His mouth twitched, and with the cold rhythm as a machine gun, he told me the end of Donnie Brasco, a movie I was waiting to see.

We had fun. We laughed it off. It was a good game and everyone had fun. But the ending of Donnie Brasco is ruined for me, and I have one of my best friends and Klaus Teuber’s peaceful fucking board game to thank.

On our way out the door, Shawn lowered his voice and said: “I’m not sure why I told you that. I think there’s something wrong with me.”