Board games

The new thing in boardgaming

Wired is that prestigious magazine of the technological elites, its finger firmly on the cutting edge of all things geeky and zeitgeisty, right?

Apparently there’s a new boardgame called Settlers of Catan, which is “poised” to become popular in the US. “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.”

Who’d have thought it? Why have none of us ever heard of this game before — why have the Germans been keeping it secret for the fourteen years since its launch? What will those fiendish foreigners come up with next?

38 replies on “The new thing in boardgaming”

From the article:

Spiel des Jahres prize—German board gaming’s highest honor.
Winning some obscure German award may not sound impressive,

Obscure? Gosh, we are elitist, aren’t we?

First time I’ve heard reference to “German-style”, rather than Eurogames, as well. Ouch, out of a four page article, it feels like there’s the equivalent of an entire page explaining the mechanics (“The robber appears on a 7, the likeliest outcome of two dice as any craps player can tell you”).

And, after all the Monopoly bashing, they finally mention the important fact that… nobody plays it right! (I saw this explanation on Boardgame Geek):
Putting fines in the middle, and getting them back from Free Parking keeps money in the game, which makes it longer to play. If you use that unofficial variant, don’t complain about the game length. And worse, it redistributes it randomly, which means an almost bankrupt player can be given an undeserved stay of execution.

I’m surprised that they’re programming the AI for Settlers from a spreadsheet though. I’d have thought a self-teaching neural net was far easier to set up, and then the results could be extracted (if not understood!) to the final game. (See Tony Mitton’s devilish Puerto Rico in Excel model.)

Mm, I was thinking that (your last point) myself.

Although as I’m too lazy to ever undertake any game-related programming project about which I might idly wonder, I’m in no position to point the finger 😉

I’d have thought a self-teaching neural net was far easier to set up


Neural nets! Why do people love their neural nets so much? Is it just the name?!

(Neural nets suck at learning most things. Don’t use them unless you’re really sure they’re suitable. Any halfway decent genetic algorithm is almost always better.)

You’re right, Tony’s version is actually a genetic algorithm. It’s my bad: I learned “Neural net” as meaning “an evolving system” way back when, and I’ve never really unlearned it.

It’s a playable game:

It comes loaded with an experience base of playing 5 player games. You can wipe that, and tell it to play a few thousand 4 player games, if you like.

It’s big drawback is that it’s heavily into group thinking. So player 1 learns to expect certain responses from player 2, and player 2 in turn has expectations over player 3. If you play outside those expectations, the other players don’t adapt well. So you either get utterly thrashed (which is what happens to me, and I may well deserve), or you throw them into total confusion, and they have to wander off into untested techniques in an attempt to recover.

Do most people play Monopoly that way? I think we played it occasionally but knew it was a variant. I dimly recall that by combining variants (I think the 500 pounds for landing on go AND the fines go in the centre and are got by landing on Free Parking) we managed to get hyperinflation.

I don’t know about “most”, but I am aware that there’s a relatively large contingent (probably of casual players) who use the logic:
a) The game is long
b) I run out of money
c) Running out of money, for a long time, is boring.
(I’m with them up to this point).
So they add:
d) We’ll reintroduce the fine money via free parking.
While this fixes b, and therefore c, it exacerbates a.

What they really want to do is make people run out of money faster, so that the game is shorter 🙂

And, it seems, from casual conversation, that very few people are even aware that “unowned properties upon which a player lands, if not bought by the player, are immediately put up for auction”. Which (as the article notes) gets the properties into circulation faster and removes the tedium of the first few turns around the board where people buy whatever properties they land on, without worrying about what future properties they’ll land on, but be unable to buy. Now they have to worry (which means that they might be able to buy the current property for less than face value, depending on other people’s desire to keep cash in reserve). And, of course, the auctions are a good interactive part of the game.

Of course, you might still not have a good game. But the point is that the bits people change because they don’t like it usually make it worse, not better.

I never used that variant, and was aware of that rule. But I still came to the conclusion pretty early in my childhood that it was a deeply tedious game of following a simple strategy and grinding away until it worked / the youngest player started crying.

Did you ever play 4000AD from Waddingtons? That was a fine example of a strategy game with no strategy to speak of (build up resources, hope your opponent makes a mistake so you have enough points to blast them into oblivion, the end).

pretty early in my childhood that it was a deeply tedious game of following a simple strategy and grinding away until it worked

Compare with other “classic” games. Snakes and ladders, for example, is a game of grinding away in the absence of strategy!

Mm, I think the window during which a child will actually enjoy that must be pretty small. A child like I was, at least.

We mostly played card games rather than board games when I was little — they have the great quality that the adult can introduce a new game with a bit more strategy, a new mechanic, etc, as the child seems ready for it, without having to buy another big box.

Mm, January 1997 I got my copy, and I don’t think it had been out more than a few months.

(Not that all my board game purchases are burned into my memory ;-), but I remember showed me how to play, and he was only working with me quite briefly.)

Siedler was launched at the Nurenbur Toy Fair in 1995 and published that summer. I am not sure when Mayfair first published the English language edition. It must have been before Janet Bromley pulled the plug on the company in January 1997. I remember that we found that the German edition outsold the English edition in the UK for the first few years.

Wired, the magazine about what would have been new and cool if we had written about it 10 years ago. This is much the point Andrew Orlowski makes about the new British edition of Why-Read in The Register.

They’re over-egging the pudding as well. Perfect game my arse! It’s a good game, but as with most games, it gets boring after a while, even with added variants.

And Monopoly generally gets slated far more than it deserves. As well as the basic strategy and 2d6 statistics (plus the fact already pointed out that very few people play it according to the vanilla rules) there is a lot of negotiation that goes on in Monopoly. Where it falls down ultimately is when all players except the one(s) perceived as dominant come to the conclusion that they should never trade with anyone else under any circumstances.

Also, it’s not always the youngest player that throws the game-ending tantrum!


I suspect Wired doesn’t realise how big the German (and generally European) game market actually is… okay there’s a niche market, but games like Settlers have easily sold more copies than many hit movies and albums ever do.

I can mention Settlers as the sort of game I like and get recognition from at least 1/3rd of people.

Now professing a love for 1825…

Yep, updated and split into 3 Units. I play it online, and would play it more often if I could find opponents. Here. I don’t have the southern Unit (Unit 1) and am on the look out for a copy to complete my set.

Luckily I do have friends who are really into economic games, so we play 1856 (Upper Canada) relatively often.

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