Over Thanksgiving, I learned how to play Settlers of Catan. I always do a mental fist pump whenever someone wants to play a board game, especially a word game like Boggle or speed Scrabble. Settlers of Catan, a strategy game from Germany comparable to Risk, left me feeling a little out of my element, but I learned the rules and buckled down for some good family competition.
I was surprised to discover that the Settlers motif runs somewhat counter to mainstream American intuition. The premise of the game is that players are moving in on Catan, a formerly uninhabited island. While there are no natives to enslave and colonize, there is unspoiled land to spoil. Players build as many settlements and cities as they can afford and may earn additional points by building the longest road or the largest army. You need an army because, while there no pesky natives to pacify, there are other colonial powers who are competing with you to snatch the territory. Perhaps the German origins of the game are a distant echo of the 1884 Conference of Berlin, where the colonial powers carved up Africa, southeast Asia, and parts of the Pacific.
Settlers of Catan, in order words, is a delightful antidote to the poisonous popularity of the “sustainability” doctrine currently raging on campus. I recommend it as a Christmas present that parents should bestow on their college-aged children, or even younger children, to get them used to thinking constructively about land use. There is not a moment to spare. The anti-development ethos is everywhere. In the Sunday New York Times Book Review this week, for example, David Gates reviewing Toni Morrison’s new novel quotes Robert Frost’s wonderful line about the European settlement of North America from “The Gift Outright”—
The land was ours before we were the land’s.
only to sanctimoniously declare it “embarrassing.” Settlers of Catan can head off misplaced sentiments like those of Gates by helping to instill the ethic of “conquest first.” Or as some might put it, “Drill baby drill.”
To expand their territories, players earn currency consisting of natural resources: wood, brick, wheat, sheep, and stone. Players can freely trade these resources with one another. We were constantly calling out, “I’ll give a sheep for a brick…anyone want to trade…anyone?” Settlers have no incentive to save the whales, preserve the forests, or reduce the human footprint on the earth. Their goal, rather, is to fill the earth and subdue it, as quickly and expansively as possible.
Settlers reminded me of another wholesome strategy game my family had when I was young, called Missionary Conquest. The name just about says it all. The object is to take the gospel to the most countries, earn the most blessing points, and avoid hypocrisy that can get you sent home. China and Russia were the most risky, but also the most lucrative in blessing points. For example, one line on the Angola card reads, “Your interpreter has the hiccups. You laugh so hard you can't continue. Lose 25 Blessings,” while one in Iran says, “You were martyred after evangelizing Tehran. Great is your heavenly reward. Gain 150 Blessings.”
No game is perfect. My brother eventually figured out how to rig the game so that he could draw the high-blessing countries. After that we kept playing but we all cheated. The rule was, “If you’re not cheating, you’re not trying.”
Missionary Conquest (“One giant game of laughter and strategy—no Bible knowledge required”) like Settlers of Catan helps to develop a healthy taste for Manifest Destiny. The West is there to be won; the player flushes with pride to answer Kipling’s injunction, “Take up the White man’s burden/ Send forth the best ye breed.” Of course, compromises must be made. Settlers of Catan looks to the future of colonialism by offering blue, red, and orange men’s burdens as well as white.
But regardless of whether you are playing for evangelism or just plain old capitalism, these are games that combat that contemporary anemia that elevates chlorophyll over corpuscles.
The race to colonize Catan stands in stark contrast to the anti-consumerism game Earthopoly that I’ve seen at the Princeton Public Library gift store. This version of Monopoly is made completely from recycled materials and uses soy-based ink. Earthopoly players embark on a quest to “Take control of the Earth - and stop global warming!” by converting carbon credits into clean air. Settlers of Catan does simulate a return to a primitive reliance on stone, wheat, wood, etc., but the idea is to expand, not conserve. Perhaps we can look forward to a more advanced edition of Settlers that offers the opportunity to develop well-paying jobs by digging open-pit bauxite mines, staffing coal-fired energy plants, and constructing networks of superhighways.
The folks in student affairs offices and residence life programs frequently remind us that “education” is more than just what happens in the classroom, and more than just “cognition.” It should happen in the dorms and in the dining halls; it should seep into student elections; it should commute to the soup kitchens (on public transit); and it should move students to action on behalf of social justice, not just abstract understanding of systems of oppression.
Clearly there is something to this. Education is where you find it. Let’s hope more and more students find it in Missionary Conquest and Settlers of Catan—games that help to restore our sense of dominion in an age of diminished expectations.