There’s no question that I’m way too old for this, but since my wife Renee and I have no children (just a talking cat named Mr. Boot), we do have a little extra time on our hands–time to read thick novels, work in the garden, write fiction, finish a project around the house, travel, take cooking classes, and pursue about a hundred other interests that most people would kill to have the time for. So how can I explain that at least once a week– and it COULD be every night– we squander anywhere from three to eight hours playing a board game clearly designed by a perfectionist German masochist to bring down Western civilization through this new opiate of the people? The game is called Cities and Knights of Catan and it is the crack cocaine of board games. Almost everyone we’ve taught the game to has dreamed about it that same night. But, having been introduced to it by our artist friends Jack and Lizzie, whom we’ve been seeing twice weekly since then though previously months would go by without us even speaking to each other, we recently made the mistake of introducing several other friends to Catan, and now find ourselves in a terrible dilemma, with the phone ringing off the hook. Everyone wants to play. All the time.
I cannot even explain the attraction of Catan except to say that playing it is like finding yourself in one of those game show booths where hundred dollar bills are being blown around you by a giant fan and you grasp and flail beyond any measure of modesty or restraint or cultured elegance because you just can’t help yourself. If you are even vaguely creative or entrepreneurial, or are excited by building things; if you are a fan of psychology and enjoy watching how other people react in stressful situations (like when you steal all their bricks); if you love culture, have a fondness for sheep, and/or take pleasure in reeking havoc upon your neighbors, er, I mean enemies, you will love Catan. I’d describe it as a cross between Risk and Monopoly– two games I grew up on– set in the Middle Ages, but with a hook that is as inexplicable as it is all-powerful, and opportunities to screw your opponents in ways that even Attila the Hun would admire. Our only friend who declined to learn the game when offered the chance said that her brothers had tried to teach it to her years ago and she was still suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome.
Like starting a new Internet company meant to take over the world, Catan offers delicious complexity and almost unlimited means to the end of global domination. Players must decide several times throughout a game which of many widely varying strategies to pursue; should you build knights, and win victory points when they defend the cities of Catan from the barbarian? Should you labor to construct the longest road, which earns two victory points, but which can be stolen when someone else builds a longer road? Should you erect settlements, or upgrade current settlements into cities? Should you transform precious resources such as sheep, ore, and wood into the commodities of cloth, coin and books and trade them for city improvements such as libraries and markets, which provide access to volatile progress cards that allow you to wipe those silly smiles off the faces of innocent rookies like our friends Matt and Robyn and Wes and Fe, whom we taught the game to last week? Whatever strategy you choose is sure to be adversely affected by the strategy choices of other players (especially Jack), or by the circumstance of having one of those players lay down a card that chases your knights from the board (usually Lizzie), steals your hard-earned commodities, or otherwise unleashes bedlam on your careful, conservative plan. And then, of course, there are the dice, which can never be counted on to deliver their definitive mathematical reliability (unless Doug is rolling them), but are almost guaranteed to reveal seven twos in a row and not a single eight if that’s what you need to earn enough ore to upgrade your settlement if, in fact, nobody rolls a seven first (but Michelle probably will) which means you have to get rid of half your cards, or nobody places the roaming robber on your best-producing number, or somebody else doesn’t steal the ore you’ve mined before you have a chance to trade it through the hard-won port you’ve developed on the edge of the board.
If your head is spinning and a sharp ache is developing in the anterior scalene muscles of your neck and your eyes are glazing over, then you probably look much like our friend Leslie, who was learning the game several weeks ago with her husband Dave, who right out of the starting gate refused to listen to our earnest strategy advice, adapting the “I’ll fuck you before you fuck me” approach (that’s an actual quote), and who subsequently went on to self-destruct through bad plays while cheerful, sleepy Leslie, who barely snorted any derision at all when we stole her resources or knocked down one of her cities, and who seemed content to have us make certain decisions for her because it was too painful to spend a Saturday evening thinking so hard, breezed on to victory. Leslie, an art therapist, preferred to use her roads and city walls and other playing pieces to construct a modernist sculpture that Dave and I tried to knock over by “inadvertently” bumping the table legs. Dave will eventually evolve into a formidable player (if Leslie allows him to keep playing) not only because he demonstrated an amazing grasp of strategy (and managed to reveal a few complexities we hadn’t even comprehended yet, part of the deep beauty of the game) but because he is dangerously unpredictable, to the point of being willing to act in a self-destructive manner as long as it hurts him less than it hurts you. Not surprisingly, Dave works for a non-profit environmental group. He likely sees Catan as a chance to express the deep-seated capitalistic animal lurking deep within his soft, hippie exterior. He is brutal and unforgiving and so competitive way down deep that we could only look on in awe and great, rollicking amusement.
Like so many games– golf, for example– Catan reveals what lurks within, and often it is not pretty. Each time we play my wife accuses me of losing it, of snarling at one of our friends, or shooting a glance so cutting and snarky that she knows it’s about more than a game (frankly, I think this is simply a ploy to get me to think twice before stealing her progress cards). She says I have hissy fits. That I am ungracious. That she will crush me like a bug for stealing her cards (okay, I made this part up). Renee has taken to referring to herself as “the organic farmer,” or “Renee the Number Killer” when things don’t go her way and she has a measly couple of settlements on the board while the rest of us are erecting metropoli. It’s worth mentioning, though, that my demure wife holds a record three consecutive victories (though two of them were obtained catting around with other players while I was out of town, not that I’m bitter or resentful or consider these victories not quite fully legitimate).
Another problem of the game is that much like difficult jobs and dysfunctional relationships, it encourages drinking. Hence, some Saturday mornings, I wake up with what I refer to as a Catangover. A recent game saw us drink seven bottles of wine at Jack and Lizzie’s (where the wine is always carefully chosen and delicious and the food always sublime)– though this isn’t as much wine as it seems, since when our game was over at 11 p.m. (we’d started with a marinated hangar steak at 5, followed later by a home-baked apple crumble that I would have traded all my books for), we cleared the board and began another round without even considering just calling it a night. I can honestly say it didn’t really occur to any of us to go to bed. We also always snack when playing– often on the Catan crackers that Renee discovered at Whole Foods– salty, Gorgonzola infused bites of deliciousness shaped like the hexagons that are the main components of the Catan board.
Which is simply further evidence that life imitates not art, but Catan.