On Tuesday, October 8, NYU Press will release Avidly Reads Board Games, the latest installment in its a series “about how culture makes us feel” spun off from the online magazine Avidly. Board Games in particular is near and dear to The A.V. Club’s heart, as it was written by AVC contributor and former intern Eric Thurm, whose byline you might recognize from his recaps of Steven Universe or his recent sprint through the first season of The Politician. In the excerpt below, Thurm discusses how a game he first played in a frat house proved to be a crucial coping mechanism at a difficult time for his family.
On a stale Florida day at the end of March, my family languished in a hospital waiting room, staring intensely at nothing in particular. We’d waited in the haze of the hospital’s lobby for several hours before being led up to the dimly lit waiting room. Eventually, we would be taken to my grandfather’s bed. He was in the late stages of pancreatic cancer, and we had come to say goodbye.
The waiting room was a grim, foreboding space, covered in old magazines and dull, browned tile. The television sandwiched into a corner of the ceiling was set to a Vanderpump Rules marathon, airing all of the drama leading up to a reality TV wedding. We could have chatted about nothing to fill the time, but a pair of women were rooted in chairs, silently perusing their copies of People; as painful as our situation was, we didn’t want to disturb other people in a similarly fragile state. And besides, there’s not much you can say, sitting around waiting for death. So my brother, sister, and I did the only thing we could think of: We took a big, red cardboard box out of a tote bag, sidled up to the table at the center of the waiting room, and started setting up a game of Catan.
The three of us had been playing the game originally known as Settlers Of Catan obsessively for over a year by this point, so we had all of the steps down cold, like a pit crew mechanically getting their car ready for a race. We fit together the skeleton of the board—six pieces of coast that create the outline of the island of Catan, filled in by hexagons representing the island’s various resources. We knew the cost of building roads, settlements, and cities—the elements of your civilization. We knew the uses and abuses of each of the game’s development cards. We even knew the particular circumstances under which it makes sense to trade resources: When one of us wanted to swap a lumber card for an ore, we would simply point or gesture without needing to speak. Save for the intermittent rolling of dice and the incidental wooden plunk of a road or settlement, there was no sound.
No games are good for waiting to say your final goodbye to a dying relative, but all things considered, Catan isn’t a bad one. You can play without talking, if you need to—in theory, a game could play out entirely in silence, letting the dice and each player’s individual choices guide the outcome. This also means Catan isn’t overly competitive, unless you want it to be. The players can largely ignore each other if they so choose, instead focusing on their own strategies, whether that’s building up cities and settlements or pursuing the floating Longest Road and Largest Army cards. More than anything, the Catan system is accommodating, which might partially explain why it’s one of the most popular board games in the world, with more than 18 million copies sold since its publication in 1995.
Catan’s flexibility is part of why it’s a sort of ambassador for Eurogames, a popular genre of board game built on the principle that, broadly speaking, games should be more about creating a shared experience of play than about the singular pursuit of vic- tory that characterizes the classics of the American dining room table. Players in Eurogames are rarely eliminated before the end of a game the way they are in Monopoly; there’s more strategy required to win than in the functionally random Candyland; and players are encouraged to focus more on trading and accumulating resources rather than crushing their opponents as in Battleship or Stratego.
Well-designed Eurogames, and Catan in particular, are perfect cushions for your time: complex enough that they can command the bulk of your attention, preventing you from thinking about other, less pleasant things, but not so complicated that they cause a mental short circuit. They’re bearable in painful situations—this particular game of Catan functioned much the same way the People magazines did for the other women in the waiting room.
This quality also means that these games are very fun to play while drunk: my first game of Catan was with a few members of my college fraternity, who insisted that I would, in fact, have a good time trying to build across this abstracted, fictional island. It helped that I was not exactly sober at the time.
In getting me to hunch over the board, laid out on a dirty glass table in front of a busted pleather couch, my friends were overcoming considerable internal resistance. My first encounter with Catan was about two years earlier, when a pair of high school students thinking of applying to my college decided to play Catan on their overnight visit to campus. For some reason, they had chosen to play this weird-sounding game instead of joining me at a party in another fraternity’s basement where everyone had to pay for drinks and put in a concerted effort to rip their shoes off the permanently sticky basement floor while weaving through an equally permanent haze of cigarette smoke. As an eighteen-year-old prospective philosophy major who had already planned out a senior thesis about the intersection of neo-Kantian and neo-Aristotelian ethics, it seems safe to say I was on pretty solid footing when I mocked the two teens for being nerds.
They were right to blow off the party. I don’t remember much of that night in the basement, but, faded as I was, I still remember my first game of Catan. Or, at least, I remember how it made me feel: my initial confusion, followed by the slow sensation of starting to understand how to speak a new language, followed by the sort of pleasant frustration that comes with getting your ass kicked in an exciting new game, followed by a commitment to playing again and again until I won. When I learned about the Longest Road, a mechanic in which the player with the longest contiguous set of roads nets two victory points, I seized on it as somehow crucial to success and feverishly spent my first six or seven games trying to acquire it, to the detriment of literally every other part of the game. (It took me a while to realize an important fact that might be useful for new players: Longest Road is a tactic for fools. It can easily be disrupted or stolen by someone else, while the resource production of cities can be reinvested in development cards while making it easier to do everything else. Trust me.)
I lost that first game very badly but discovered that a fire had been lit somewhere in the lower-left part of my skull, and not just by the frat house’s accordion gravity bong. I simply could not stop playing Catan, I told myself, at least not until I’d won a game. I stumbled around in the dark both literally and figuratively for several games, slowly trying to grasp how the rules fit together. Eventually everything started to snap into place—in a flash, the small wooden buildings that initially seemed like chunky versions of Monopoly houses and hotels became settlements and cities, habitation that I had carved out from the raw materials of the island and that I could then use to produce sheep, wheat, ore, lumber, and brick, which I needed to build even more settlements and cities and, after some time, to win the game. When I moved the robber piece, I wasn’t just taking a card from one of the other players; I was cutting off an entire area of the island, where their villagers would otherwise be hard at work. My goal of ten, abstracted victory points was a clear horizon, but charting a straightforward course there was anything but easy. After a few weeks of failed attempts, I finally won a game. (To the best of my recollection, by not pursuing Longest Road.) I was hooked.
In the seemingly endless stretch of Catan games I played over the next two years, I would insist on everything being just right: a dim room, lit by a lan- tern my roommates had bought online (also while drunk); music that wasn’t necessarily Howard Shore’s score for the Lord Of The Rings movies but that wasn’t not Howard Shore’s score for the Lord Of The Rings movies; a shaky, single-game story that expanded to contain all of the quirks of resource distribution and building. (Did you build a settlement in the middle of my road, cutting off my path to build more? Think of the children!) One of the people in the fraternity moved out of the house, leaving behind a copy of the official Settlers Of Catan novel, which he was then too embarrassed to claim. I promptly stole it and made a habit of reading a paragraph out loud in the middle of every game of Catan I played without knowing anything else about the plot or setting. The book, which I gathered was about a bunch of characters with names like “Candamir” and “Osmond” complaining about traveling up and down a mountain while dramatically expressing that they were also wary of witches, felt like the apotheosis of using the game to tell a story, albeit a bit too seriously.
Playing Catan in a darkened room under perfectly replicated conditions is a very silly habit, but it’s representative of a huge piece of what draws us into board games: the story. Not the story of the game itself, necessarily—Catan isn’t Dungeons & Dragons, and no one goes into a play session hoping to fall under the spell of an engrossing narrative. But you do participate in making the story every time you sit down to play the game, even if it’s just the events of that individual session. Each time you prepare a game of Monopoly, you and everyone else in the room are consciously deciding to enter into an abstracted real estate market, where only one person will emerge victorious with all of the money. Constantly negotiating what is actually happening within the game is just one part of allowing the rules of the game to fully enmesh you; even at the same time that you put a red block on a Catan board, you’re also building a settlement. It’s an engrossing experience, alluding to what the pioneering cultural historian Johan Huizinga referred to as the “magic circle,” a concept has been taken up by games designers and scholars for years and used to delineate the distinction between a game and the rest of one’s life.
Reprinted from Avidly Reads Board Games by Eric Thurm with permission from NYU Press, © 2019 by New York University.