Catan: Playing with Pieces of History

Photograph of a Catan boardMy family and I started playing board games when I was in high school in the early to mid-2000s. Catan (formerly known as The Settlers of Catan) was the game that introduced us to this world-within-a-world. Its popularity grew during my college years, and it is considered one of the “gateway” games that led to the explosion in popularity of modern board games in the last fifteen years or so. Klaus Teuber, the German designer of the game, unfortunately passed away earlier this year on April 1st. In memory of the late Klaus Teuber, I thought it would be an interesting exercise to explore the real world historical inspirations which make up the fictional world of Catan.

Catan was originally released in 1995 to moderate success, but its popularity soared at the turn of the millennium. To date, Catan has sold over 40 million units in 50 languages across the globe. Hard-core board gamers even casually refer to 1995 as a benchmark in the history of the hobby: B.C. (before Catan) and A.C. (after Catan)—thus, we are currently in the year 28 A.C. That may sound silly to us history buffs, but the game’s popularity really was a landmark moment in the history of board games. No game like Catan had seen this much mass appeal and success before. It brought strategic and complex games to the mainstream market, and inspired a whole new genre of board games, known as Eurogames, which has been refined and expanded in the decades since.

Many modern strategy board games are considered Eurogames, or German-style games, because of the region where this genre originated. Eurogames are strategy-based and focused upon the advancement of individual end-game goals—as contrasted with popular American board games like Monopoly and The Game of Life, which are based more upon chance and direct player confrontation. This philosophy of gameplay originated in Germany during the decades after the end of WWII due to an increased cultural aversion to glorified warfare. Eurogames typically focus on themes of economics and resource acquisition centered around a geographic location, whether real or fictional.

The objective of Catan is to settle and develop a civilization on the fictional island of Catan. Game designer Klaus Teuber took his inspiration for Catan from a real civilization in history: the Viking settlers. Teuber thought that if any civilization could locate the fictional island of Catan, it would be the Vikings. He based the landscape design and resources used in the game on the real geography and ecology of Norway and Iceland. Players forage for resources and develop their civilization to gain points, learning how to trade and build settlements as a Norse civilization may have done centuries earlier.

There are now over 30 expansions and variations of Catan, adding detail to this fictional universe. In 2001, Teuber even collaborated with German author Rebecca Gable to publish a novel called The Settlers of Catan. The novel takes place in the year 850 A.D. and elaborates on the seafaring Norse community founding the island of Catan.

The theme of civilization-building has caught on in the board game world in the years since Catan was released. In the game 7 Wonders, the goal is to develop civilizations around the seven wonders of the ancient world; in Carcassonne, players vie for control of a medieval kingdom based on the famous walled city in France. Games like these allow players to interact with and explore aspects of real-world history, playing out scenarios and possibilities inspired by the real circumstances of the past.

The expansion of this hobby has shown no signs of slowing down. Board game themes are about as diverse and numerous as one could possibly imagine—if you can think of a subject or theme, chances are there’s a board game about it. There are even games about genealogy! In the family-friendly game Ancestree, players compete to link names and create the most elaborate family tree.

Despite its revolutionary impact at the time of its release, Catan has grown less popular in recent years with the advent of newer games. However, without its influence, the hobby of modern board gaming would not be the global obsession it is today. You might think it’s all just fun and games—but when you play Catan, remember that you’re playing with pieces of history.







About Christopher Lewis

Christopher Lewis joined NEHGS in 2022 and is part of the Research and Library Services team. Previously, Chris worked at the State Library of Massachusetts, Peabody Institute Library of Danvers, and MIT Lincoln Laboratory. He has his masters from Simmons College in Library and Information Science, with a concentration on Archives Management. At NEHGS, he will process archival materials and assist with digitization of family papers in his role as Research Services Archivist.

3 thoughts on “Catan: Playing with Pieces of History

  1. Christopher et al, I’d never heard of Catan, don’t really have anyone who’d enjoy Board Games! I used to play Risk & Monopoly a lot, guess those have grown passee? I love History, one of my 2 Undergrad Degrees, the Other was in Poli Sci. I’d probably tall of the new Games? Thanks for the head’s up! Jack MacDonald-Hilton, now from Worcester, MA.

  2. Thanks for the fascinating article about my family’s favorite board game! Even though we’re located across the country we play every time some or all of us get together. And, yes, we wear Catan shirts, individualized for the wearer!

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.