Wired on ‘Settlers of Catan’

I have to get some friends who are into board games:

Released at the annual Essen fair in 1995, Settlers sold out its initial 5,000 copies so fast that even Teuber doesn’t have a first edition. That year, it won the Spiel des Jahres and every other major prize in German gaming. Critics called it a masterpiece. Fans couldn’t get enough, snapping up 400,000 copies in its first year. “It was a maturation of the form,” says Stewart Woods, a board game scholar at Curtin University of Technology in Perth, Australia. “It wasn’t until Settlers that the whole thing broke wide open.”

Since its introduction, The Settlers of Catan has become a worldwide phenomenon. It has been translated into 30 languages and sold a staggering 15 million copies (even the megahit videogame Halo 3 has sold only a little more than half that). It has spawned an empire of sequels, expansion packs, scenario books, card games, computer games, miniatures, and even a novel—all must-haves for legions of fans. And it has made its 56-year-old inventor a household name in every household that’s crazy about board games, and a lot that aren’t.

Most impressive of all, though, Settlers is actually inducting board-game-averse Americans into the cult of German-style gaming. Last year, Settlers doubled its sales on this side of the Atlantic, moving 200,000 copies in the US and Canada—almost unheard-of performance for a new strategy game with nothing but word-of-mouth marketing. It has become the first German-style title to make the leap from game-geek specialty stores to major retailers like Barnes & Noble and Toys “R” Us.

Settlers is now poised to become the biggest hit in the US since Risk. Along the way, it’s teaching Americans that board games don’t have to be either predictable fluff aimed at kids or competitive, hyperintellectual pastimes for eggheads. Through the complex, artful dance of algorithms and probabilities lurking at its core, Settlers manages to be effortlessly fun, intuitively enjoyable, and still intellectually rewarding, a potent combination that’s changing the American idea of what a board game can be.