SB Nation

Seth Rosenthal | September 24, 2015

Lords of Catan

Meet the surprising stars of the board game that's taken over the world

Lords of Catan

Meet the surprising stars of the board game that's taken over the world

By Seth Rosenthal

Here’s how Sander Stroom from Estonia won the 2014 Settlers of Catan World Championship. Sander was stuck at nine points, one short of a win. Two other players — from Latvia and Japan — grappled turn by turn for the longest road, each a lucky roll away from the 10-point victory. The fourth finalist, from Germany, trailed in points, boxed in with no room to expand.

The German also had one development card — a special card worth either a bonus or the chance to attack an opponent — face down in front of him. Because he’d neglected to play it, the others assumed that card was worth a whole victory point — the most valuable of its kind, wasted on a player who was nowhere near the necessary 10 points. Every top player knows how many of those free points exist in the deck, and the leaders reasoned that the German possessed the last one, leaving available only cards insufficient to seal a win.

Sander saw something different.

He remembered the German player remarking that his chances of rallying were practically finished. He’d noticed him looking reluctant to interfere with the battle being waged between the true contenders. Sander suspected he was holding a Knight, but didn’t want to play it and face the choice of robbing one player, swinging the fate of the championship. The German was being sportsmanlike, not logical.

So when it became Sander’s turn and he didn’t hold enough resource cards to build something for that winning point, he decided to purchase one of the last development cards. Japan and Latvia were astonished, agreeing nothing left in the deck would get Sander the win. But there it was, flipped face up instantly: the final victory point card, long available for anyone to buy cheaply, yet unclaimed until Sander grabbed it to get his 10th point and become Catan world champion.

In a game driven by memorization and statistical analysis, Sander gained the deciding edge by reading an opponent’s emotions. He won a trophy and a free cruise.

You know someone who settles. If you’ve never played Settlers of Catan yourself, then I guarantee at least one of your acquaintances, whether that person is a game enthusiast or not, sometimes sits at a table or computer to roll dice, build cities, and trade sheep for wood.

Catan is having a moment in the mainstream. The board game just passed its 20th anniversary, and yet it’s only penetrated popular culture over the last few years; it was featured on The Big Bang Theory and Parks and Recreation, and the Green Bay Packers recently confessed their addiction to it. The fifth edition of Settlers, which is only superficially distinct from its predecessors, is among the best-selling board games on Amazon, while new expansions, themed versions, and Catan-related merchandise emerge every month.

The game is German, both in origin and style. It is German in that its creator, Klaus Teuber, is a former dental technician from Darmstadt who graduated from basement hobbyist to full-time gaming mogul when Die Siedler von Catan won the coveted Spiel des Jahres award in 1995, then found immediate commercial success in both his home country and abroad. Teuber’s Catan company remains partnered with its manufacturer, Mayfair, a game industry titan.

Catan is German, too, in that it typifies a school of design that emphasizes strategy over luck and commerce over conflict. Games get fierce, and you’re still relying on dice rolls, but a winning campaign demands constant analysis and cannot be accomplished without a degree of cooperation from your eventual victims. No player is eliminated until somebody wins, no player wins by lording over opponents.

People view Catan as the first board game of its kind to achieve crossover success outside Europe, attracting hobbyists and relative non-gamers alike. It led a wave of popularity that’s still producing German-style hits today: If you’ve recently tried Carcassonne, Puerto Rico, or Ticket to Ride, you played something gamers consider finer than the simple, cutthroat games that dominated the American market’s previous century.

Catan is like Monopoly in that you build properties — settlements (worth one point) and cities (worth two) connected by roads — at the junctures of 19 hexagonal tiles associated with resources and collect an occupied tile’s resource (in the form of a card) when someone rolls its associated number. You then spend the resource cards you’ve acquired to build more properties, which bring in more resources, and so forth. You get rich and expand your civilization.

What’s different about Catan? Everything else. The tiles are shuffled into the game board and randomly assigned dice-roll numbers between 2 and 12, producing a unique map each game, with each game producing a very different economy. You roll two dice, so if a particular resource, say lumber, has all its tiles clustered into a corner of the map, or if all its tiles end up associated with low-probability dice rolls like 2 or 12 (rather than a high-probability number like, say, 8), one player might monopolize it, or it could become rare for all players.

Every player needs every resource, but no player starts the game with reliable access to all of them so everyone must barter and steal. This is where Catan is like poker. You want players to trade you resource cards you need. You don’t want them to block your resource production or steal from you, which anyone who rolls a 7 or buys a development card called a Knight can do. Staving opponents off requires tact, fair distribution of attacks, and even bluffing — convincing your adversaries you are not a threat, or at least not the biggest threat at the table.

The game is won when a player scores 10 victory points through any combination of city settling, road building, resource card cajoling, or development card accruing.

I picked up Settlers of Catan in college when a friend brought it on a weekend vacation to Vermont. I hardly went outside that whole trip. I don’t like board games at all, but something about the chattiness of the game and the fact that I got pretty good at it pretty fast made it appealing. We played regularly throughout the rest of school, and after graduating I played online (under the name KeyshawnJohnson. Opponents sometimes didn’t steal from me because they thought I was him.) until it became too frequent a procrastination vice and I kicked the habit. I’ve gotten my girlfriend and a few friends and family members hooked on the game, and still play the tabletop version whenever three or four of us assemble.

At some point, while checking to see if people ever meet up with strangers to play Catan, I found that not only is that the case, but there exist local qualifier tournaments all over the country. Those feed into a national tournament held in August at Earth’s biggest tabletop game convention in Indianapolis, which feeds into a USA team that plays the SETTLERS OF CATAN WORLD TOURNAMENT held every two years, half the time at a fucking castle in Germany. I wanted in.

I had to know: What is a national Catan tournament like? Who are the competitors in those tournaments? How good can you really be at Catan? How good am *I* at Catan?

I wanted to compete, but there were just months until the Catan National Championship (CNC) at Indy Gen Con, and the only remaining June regional qualifier I found was in Milwaukee.

So I flew to Milwaukee.

MILWAUKEE

Ghostbusters play giant Jenga in the lobby of a Milwaukee airport hotel

Summerfest is amazing. It’s the largest music festival in the world, with huge acts playing 11 stages over 11 days in mid-summer, the absolute best time to spend beside shimmering Lake Michigan.

The Nexus Game Fair is not part of Summerfest. While the rest of the city enjoyed all-day performances and streets lined with food trucks, hundreds of people spent a long June weekend in the air conditioned conference rooms of the Crowne Plaza Milwaukee Airport hotel.

Everyone looked delighted. Rows and rows of men, children, and the occasional woman test-played unfamiliar boards and cards or played pick-up games of old classics.

Gray-haired men prodding tiny artillery around turf battlefield tables occasionally burst out in cheers.

Adults, some in costumes, circled with scripts in hand around castles made of wood and styrofoam, living out RPG scenarios.

Special guests, which is to say hobbling old guys with ponytails, commanded the magnetism of celebrities, but were kind and approachable to the quivering fans in their midst.

I pushed a closed door to peek at five people clicking at computer monitors in pitch darkness, muttering about coordinates while a sixth person paced back and forth issuing orders, studying some sort of cyber spacecraft on a projection screen at the room’s front.

Game salesmen occupied booths in one “dealer hall,” or they traveled the hotel lobbies stopping attendees to make a well-rehearsed pitch: “You like Cards Against Humanity? Well, what if it had PICTURES!?”

Outside the door of something labeled The Pathfinder Society, a teenager in costume asked a staff member to scoop popcorn for him because he couldn’t get the door of the machine to work.

In the corner of one hall, behind a table of old folks playing out a 10-hour-long Battle of Hannut, was the Catan tournament. Fifteen people at the Game Fair joined me for the final play-in day of the regional qualifier.

I arrived to find a state of minor controversy. Daniel Ashburn, the IT guy and game collector running the tournament for Nexus, was visibly chagrined to deliver the bad news that competitors who’d participated in either of the two prior play-in days were not eligible to play another, that their scores were set.

Heads hung. Chris Massey, a recent University of Oklahoma graduate who’d driven 17 hours to Milwaukee from Fort Worth, Texas (“The other qualifiers were during school.”) told me with eyes shut and face flush how he’d mailed in his performance in some previous games because he wasn’t feeling well, and was now disappointed to find that those scores were locked in.

“Initially, they said basically you could sign up for as many days as you wanted. You could sign up for Thursday, Friday, or Saturday, or all three, and just try to compete a lot to get into the final.”

So he registered for every day, believing his best score would be the one to count, like taking the SAT multiple times. Then, days before the qualifier, Mayfair officials visited on behalf of the CNC and said they’d withhold their official blessing if the tournament was run that way.

“There was poor communication,” Massey told me, “and they were kinda trying to rush to make things fit the schedule and the rules they’d just gotten the week beforehand.”

This was Milwaukee’s first regional Catan qualifier — Nexus is just two years old, as Milwaukee hosted the massive Gen Con itself until 2002 — so some growing pains were expected and eventually understood. Frustration settled and the games began.

We each played two four-player games, all settling the same arrangement of resource tiles and numbers, with our scores added to form standings from which the top eight players from all three days would advance.

My first game was among kids, two of whom came from a crew of five frattily-dressed college guys who’d driven up from Kenosha and Madison. I had the win in hand when one of the Kenosha crew, a feathery-haired rising Northwestern sophomore named Nick Trimark, swooped in and bought two development cards the turn before me — both of them victory points to get him from 8 to 10 and the win. It was a Hail Mary, and it worked. Nick smirked and high-fived his bros while I seethed.

Afterward, I asked Trimark and company if they frequented such tournaments. In fact, it wasn’t just their first experience with organized board gaming, but their first ever convention, and Catan was the only present game in which they had interest. They weren’t used to this crowd, and chuckled a bit at their own affinity for settling.

“Sometimes I’m ashamed to ask people if they play Catan because I don’t wanna seem like I’m nerdy. And then if they don’t know I’m like ‘Oh it’s nothing.’ And if they do I’m like ‘YEAH!’ It’s like instant brotherhood.”

The guys agreed that they didn’t fit in at the convention, but nodded along with the assertion that everyone was “really cool and friendly.”

I felt the same. The mountain of games I’d never heard of and scores of gamers wearing costumes I didn’t recognize, excited about things I didn’t understand, were overwhelming. Still, at least in the Catan corner, people seemed friendly and, excepting the guy who flossed right at his table and another guy thumbing away at a PlayStation Vita in the middle of our game, pretty … well, normal.

My second game included two Catan veterans. Mandy Sanders, an IT project manager from Peoria, Illinois, learned the game from her husband in 2001, and went on to compete in several national tournaments at Gen Con in Indianapolis. Michael Tobin, a teacher from Grayslake, Illinois, embraced the game upon its introduction at a convention in 1995, when the rules were still written in German. He won the first official CNC out of a dozen or so people, receiving an expired $10 gift certificate as his prize.

Chris, Mandy, Nick, and a fourth player, Joe, place their initial settlements in the Milwaukee semifinal

Mandy won our game swiftly, and we talked shop around the table while the other games took longer to produce a winner on identical boards. She remarked that she didn’t recognize a single person at Nexus, but usually knew half the people in any Catan tournament.

“You eyeball the room and you know who’s been there before and who’s good. It becomes part of the meta-game, too. You’re like, ‘Oh that person is really good,’ so the first time you roll a 7, all else being equal, you’re going after that person.”

I noted that there also weren’t many women in the room. Mandy said it was the same at all tournaments, but didn’t seem to mind.

“I think the mix is probably about the same as it is here. There’s always a few women. It doesn’t bother me. I don’t really notice to tell you the truth.”

Tobin offered that the games had been nearly all men in the ’90s, and that more women were entering each year, “although I do see almost all white.”

With no wins and low points in my two games, I didn’t advance to the eight-player semifinals. Nick and Mandy, each with a win, did. Chris did, too, despite his concerns over the last-minute rule change.

Both Nick and Mandy made it to the final four-person game, a battle that lasted hours because the proctors had saved one of Mayfair’s cruelest pre-mapped board designs for last. The resources weren’t mixed at all — all the lumber spots were clustered in one corner, adjacent to a strip of wool spots, which sat next to all the ore spots, and so forth. Players open by placing two free settlements, and in this situation, no one could start the game with access to all the resources. Trades were essential from the start, but players were nervous to oblige opponents with a trip to the CNC at stake.

Daniel and William Cress, his good friend and a volunteer at Nexus, grinned over the players’ exasperation at the extreme board.

“It’s brutal.”

“That’s why we chose it.”

Once trades happened and the game got moving, Nick’s red pieces consumed the map. He reached a winning 10 points despite one player basically devoting her turn to building a road longer than his, aided by the players trading her the necessary resources, allied in hopes of delaying their collective demise. Roads connect settlements, and the person with the longest continuous road on the board adds two points to their score — those points change hands throughout the game, but couldn’t ultimately be kept away from Nick.

After Nick posed for photos with his trophy and filled out the information for his all-expenses-paid trip to the CNC at Gen Con in Indianapolis, I asked him to describe his first competitive board gaming experience.

Nick poses with his Nexus Game Fair Catan trophy, friends at his side

“It felt pretty professional. It was a good environment to be in, just being around people who like Catan and like playing. Everyone was pretty good.”

He wasn’t sure which of his dudes to bring along as the free plus-one at Gen Con.

I returned to New York disappointed I would have to cover the national championship as a spectator, not a participant, until I realized how completely wrong I was. Milwaukee was the last regional qualifier, but the day before the nationals in late July, the biggest and best qualifying opportunity would take place right in Indianapolis. Anyone at Gen Con could play in the Catan Open, a tournament with around 120 available seats that would fill 16 of the 48 slots in the CNC quarterfinals. Meanwhile, Nick was the only one of 20 at Nexus who qualified, and the larger regional qualifiers I saw had even harsher ratios. I shouldn’t have gone to Milwaukee at all.

So I signed up for the Open and convinced Max, one of my best and smartest friends, and the player who wins roughly half our group’s Catan games, to join me as well. I figured he was my ringer.

INDIANAPOLIS

After a night spent in Charlotte because of bad weather and flight delays, Max and I drove straight from the Indianapolis airport to the Indiana Convention Center downtown, sprinting through thousands of lolling cosplayers to one of the arena-sized halls. A Mayfair representative was already handing out table assignments for the first games of the Catan Open. If not for a brief disagreement over whether a Canadian player was allowed to qualify (he was not), we would have been too late.

Around 30 boards, some pushed onto the long “open gaming” tables outside the cordoned, carpeted section reserved for the tournament, sat ready for us, each bearing resource tiles and numbers arranged in the same positions. The people inside the pen sat at special Catan tables with felt holders for each player’s settlement pieces around a hexagonal inset for the board.

Once again, I was toppled from the precipice of victory in my first game. I had the grain and ore in hand to build a city for my winning point, just waiting my turn, when Martin Smith, a crew-cut actuary from northern Illinois, bought a development card that ended up being a full 10th victory point. His 10-year-old son approached the table moments later and squealed “WOOOO!” when he found out dad had won.

Martin, like Michael in Milwaukee, had known the game since the days of translating it from German 20 years ago. Martin told me he attends three or four conventions a year, and plays Catan at a couple of them as a break from the more serious stuff, enjoying the game’s more “slice of life” crowd.

Bob's Burgers cosplayers battle with foam swords

“I think it’s a much wider draw than almost any other game. I’m used to the war games with all the hardcore grognards. There’s stereotypes about those guys and the D&D guys have stereotypes, too. I don’t want to denigrate anybody, but: beer belly, big beard, maybe not as socially active. That’s the stereotype, not necessarily always true. It’s not at all true of Catan.”

Another player at our table exuded palpable Chill Dad vibes in his tie-dyed Moody Blues T-shirt. A retired Pepsi salesman and professional prom DJ from Chicago, Brian Cummings had picked up Catan just a few years ago when a fellow disc golf player told him about it. He now plays with some buddies and their wives, summoned weekly by a group text. He burns mix CDs and they all hang out and try new games, of which Brian seemed to prefer Catan for the “sneaky” and “evolving” nature of gameplay, and the level of emotion it stirs.

“I’ve seen a guy lose 50 bucks in a poker game but when he loses this board game he gets more pissed off.”

I didn’t come close to winning my other two play-in games. My final table was a bit of a joke. Three of us mentioned we’d lost all hope of qualifying, and the fourth, a young and disarmingly polite Seattle software developer named Justin Woo, mopped us to get a crucial second win. Looking at the standings later, I realized an older Australian man at my table had been fibbing; he had a win under his belt and would have advanced to the semifinal with another.

Another failure was disappointing, because I was surprised at how casual the competition seemed — players joked and gossiped so much that I wondered if they weren’t taking the tournament seriously. I’d come into each game on edge, but relaxed into the patter of the table, only to find an opponent placing her 10th point before I’d even started keeping count.

Max had won one of his three games, but didn’t amass enough points in the other two to rank among the top 16 advancing to the quarterfinal. When we reunited after our defeats, Max was most excited to have lost to the 2014 national champion, a shaggy, smiley 2015 DePaul graduate wearing the frayed garb of a skateboarder who, Max heard, was attending Gen Con with his identical twin. He’d only revealed his prior year’s glory after winning the present game. His name was Chris Broderick, and I had to meet him.

Meeting him was very easy, because Chris and his stockier, mustached duplicate, Tim, loitered among the tables well after they’d finished dominating the Open — Chris third and Tim eighth among the advancing 16 — hugging and chatting up other players like old pals.

Max and the Broderick twins survey a board

Chris told me that hobnobbing was part of every Catan event, not just because tournament veterans become acquainted, but because it’s beneficial at least in the early stages to gather some bright minds and survey the best settling spots on the board as a small group.

“I’m friends with a bunch of quote unquote ‘top players’ — really good players — so we all just sit around and talk and we argue about what we think is best. And usually there’s a logical decision for each position and we can plan it out and once you play it out before the game the settling process is really simple.”

He recalled fondly his first overseas journey, traveling to Berlin for the World Championships — winning at Gen Con is how you get on the USA team — and didn’t hesitate to explain the circumstances of his “meteoric rise” from neighborhood player and “lucky” regional tournament winner to national champ.

“I didn’t expect to do anything, which I think helps with this game because if you go into a game and you’re super arrogant and think you’re great, people aren’t going to like you, and that’s a huge part of the game.”

So that explained why Max had no idea he was sitting with a Catan great until after the game. It was a calculated decision. Chris kept his history to himself and, he said, made sure to be really sweet with everyone at the table. This helps when a 7 gets rolled, or a Knight card gets played, and it’s time for your opponent to pick someone to rob.

“Even if you’re ahead, they don’t want to ruin your day because they like you! So they’ll steal from you but block a lesser spot of yours because they actually like you and they don’t want you to not like them after the game.”

The niceness seemed to come naturally to Chris, who’s just a gregarious sort, but that couldn’t be his whole game, right? He must count cards — that is, memorize every resource card every player picks up — or be able to calculate complex odds on the fly or practice constantly or … something.

Chris assured me he knew the basic probabilities and favored certain strategies, but no, he utilized neither special mathematic brilliance nor much training beyond his regular games with friends.

“I think it’s just about relaxing. You have to be confident. It’s better when you’re having fun, and it’s much more convincing to the other players when you’re actually having fun that you’re not pulling a fast one on them — even if you are pulling a fast one on them, it’s much more convincing. You’ve got to have that balance.”

Max and I paced the room as games wound down. Maybe a quarter of the participants were women. At one table, a player who insisted on being called Mongo was about to win, playing with special black building pieces he’d brought himself. Fans sidled up to greet Eric Millegan, erstwhile series regular on Bones and beloved Catan community member, a patriarch of what Columbus, Ohio’s Emily Brodbeck described to me as “kind of a weird family network” who meet a few times a year to catch up and settle.

Once the Open wrapped, everyone left to drink.

Saturday, Max and I arrived early and finally enjoyed the opportunity to explore Gen Con a bit. The convention’s reported attendance was a record 61,423, just a hair under the capacity of the Colts stadium the convention center adjoins. Where the Milwaukee crowd and its playground stuffed into a few hotel ballrooms overwhelmed me, the vastness of Gen Con felt like a universe beyond my comprehension.

Yeah

Adrift in a sea of geeks, and at one point literally barricaded by a costume parade, we visited only one other hall. It contained an acre — really, an acre — of paired-off men flipping Magic: The Gathering cards in advance of a high-stakes tournament in which professional players would participate. Several Catan players had told me Magic tournaments are far tenser and more serious than their own competition because of the money involved. When I saw a booth selling a $1,200 card — a piece of cardboard bearing a picture of a tree — I believed them.

Nearing 10 a.m., we returned to the tiny Catan district of this airy indoor city. Winners from all the regional qualifiers were rolling in, along with the 16 best players from the previous day. Nick from the Milwaukee tournament arrived without any of his college crew, but with his grandfather, Jim. I wondered if Jim, a pharmacist (and of the dozens of people I interviewed, the only person who told me he reads SB Nation regularly), knew about the game. He said he’d only heard of it two weeks prior, when Nick, whose parents insisted he not make the drive from Kenosha alone, found all other family members busy and figured grandpa would enjoy the trip.

“He said ‘Catan’ and I said ‘what the blue blazes is that!?”

They’d listened to “Nick’s music” on the way to Gen Con — classical, because the 19-year-old is a double major in engineering and concert piano and making me feel inadequate. Grandpa Jim vowed they’d listen to Frank Sinatra the whole way back.

Nick rolls dice while Grandpa Jim looks on

Nick and Grandpa were in for a long day — the top 15 out of 48 would advance, their scores from four straight games determining rank. Games can last as short as half an hour, but with so much at stake, and not enough Mayfair reps around to institute a three-minute turn clock, trade negotiations and calculations ran unchecked. Four games with breaks in between to pee, eat, and study the next board added up to an eight-hour Catan session.

It was exhausting just to watch, but it gave Max and I time to appreciate the wonder of 48 players — 38 men, 10 women — settling identical boards in foursomes, a dozen parallel universes unfolding at once. The same map that one player conquered in 30 minutes took other tables over two hours. Slight variety in initial settlement positions, plus the whims of the almighty dice, were enough to produce such divergence. It was like watching the same Super Bowl played 12 times in the same conditions, but with one substitution or tweaked play call spiraling each into a wildly disparate result.

After one of the more protracted games ended in his shocking defeat, Justin from Seattle seemed almost giddy with despair. Someone lucked into three victory point development cards in a row. Just like my very first loss, but even more improbable.

“It’s literally like a hail mary in football. You throw the ball and you pray for God. That’s what he did and he got it.”

I mentioned to Justin that the previous day at our table, he’d been almost outlandishly nice, congratulating each of us every time we built anything on the board, and that I’d noticed the same behavior in this quarterfinal. He may have been emulating other top players he observed.

“You need to be nice or they’re gonna screw you over. People are gonna get you. You see all the good players, they’ll go up like ‘Hey how’s it going?’ They don’t give a shit! They don’t care, but the good players will be like ‘Yeah man, how you doing? Oh, so nice to meet you.’”

Justin waved his arms and pitched his voice to mock the top players.

“You switch on the social stuff. You’ll be like ‘Yeah, hey, how’s it going? What’s up? What’s up?’ and then after that, like ‘Fuck you, man.”

Justin unwinds after a surprise defeat

Like Chris Broderick, Justin is outgoing, and must come by some of his table presence honestly. He wasn’t so sure about some of the charmers he met in other games.

“I’m not saying all board game guys are introverts, but we’re not like MC Hammer or something. We’re not like those type of people. We’re board game people. We stay home and play board games.”

Justin falling short of that win proved fatal, as it was his only shot of grabbing enough points to reach Sunday morning’s CNC semifinal.

Nick, too, was toast. With his grandfather observing from outside the pen — except for one of the middle contests, which he skipped to nap back at the hotel — Nick found himself in consecutive three-player games, a situation of questionable fairness that everyone hates, but one that couldn’t be avoided when tired competitors dropped from the tournament without notice. On both those wide-open and easily unbalanced boards — one player always seems to end up with all the space to expand — Nick faltered. He called the whole experience “fun” but “pretty bogus.”

Even the defending champ fell just short of the top 15. Chris told me afterward he’d been targeted for theft by other players even when he wasn’t in the lead, probably because his cover as reigning champion had been blown.

His twin brother, though, gutted out a couple wins at tables full of older guys with decades of experience (One of them described to Max and me his game at the 2012 World Championships in photographic detail. It took 20 minutes). Tim ranked third, earning the right to pick a seat in his semifinal — a crucial choice of position in the snake-style draft for the initial settlement placements. Chris, meanwhile, fell to 18th, just short of the cut.

I told Tim I’d been hoping he and Chris would face each other in the final, the only possible way they’d meet, since Mayfair officials avoid putting family at the same tables to avoid collusion. Tim sounded disappointed, too, because as close and supportive as the brothers are — they live together and spent the Indianapolis weekend sleeping together in the family van to save money (“Terrible, but doable.”) — they are also each other’s fiercest competition. He fancies himself a better settler than Chris, “but statistics prove me wrong over time, obviously.”

Tim looked forward to his vanquished twin’s presence on the final day, not just for the company, but because they play similar styles — lots of development cards left face-down longer than necessary to keep a low profile and sneak up on opposition in what Catan vets call the “stealth strategy” —  and could appraise the board together before the game.

He echoed Chris on the value of understanding people over constant statistical analysis, though he professed more skill for reading faces than fooling others with his own.

“People count the [resource] cards. They know what everyone has all the time. They count the dice rolls. They know the probabilities in the back of their head. But I think that’s kind of distracting. I like to look more at what — like, if people draw a [development] card — what they look like, kind of like reading people in poker.”

For Sunday’s semifinal, the carpeted pen was cleared but for four tables, each playing a game producing one winner to reach the final later that day. Max and I arrived early and immediately noticed an unfamiliar face: a tall, goateed, Kangol-wearing man wheeling a suitcase, like he’d come directly from the airport. At once, it struck us that 15 people advancing yesterday constituted an odd number — one short, and our confusion was soon answered by the other semifinalists grumbling about the new guy in their midst.

Conventions are big money. It’s the ideal setting to pander to gamers, and companies plot carefully to determine which “cons” are worth staging their biggest releases, best sales, and official tournaments. Such presences dictate the success of each convention. For instance, the Origins Game Fair, now located in Columbus, Ohio, used to be the supreme of its kind, but now everyone agrees it’s well below Gen Con on the gaming totem pole, probably because of diminishing participance from Wizards of the Coast — makers of Magic: The Gathering and Pokémon — after the mega toy corporation Hasbro purchased them.

Mayfair still casts a big footprint at Gen Con, Origins and the like, but they just started their own convention, too. CatanCon 1 was held over a weekend in late April at a resort in Nashville, Tennessee, and it included a regional qualifier tournament notable for a major distinction: Unlike other qualifiers, the winner of that tournament advanced straight to the semis, bypassing Saturday’s grueling, four-game, 48-player quarterfinal. One way to get people to show up.

So yeah, the guy who came from Nashville had a target on his back Sunday morning. He proved a worthy competitor, but didn’t advance.

Tim and Chris Broderick chat after Tim went down in the semifinals

Tim, meanwhile, went down fast in his semifinal game. Bafflingly fast. Chris looked on with mouth agape and shoulders fixed in a disbelieving shrug as Scott Scribner — an Ohio State University grant manager and previous national champ who’d qualified at CharCon in West Virginia — turned apt starting positions, a carefully timed road-building development card, and some devastatingly lucky dice rolls into a sudden longest road, then plopped a settlement right where Tim was about to build for his 10th point. It was the quickest victory I saw all weekend, a peaceful act of municipal construction that stung like an ambush.

For several minutes after the game’s conclusion, the Broderick twins bowed over the board, staring down Scott’s surprise build that dashed their dreams of a zygotic dynasty. The freshly defeated Tim looked in much better spirits than his spectating brother. Chris still held his face in his hands when I left to watch another table.

One of the longer semifinal games went to Shiv Chopra, an FDIC technology program manager from Silver Spring, Maryland. As a competitor in several prior national-level championships, he’d been invited to Catan Masters, a special tournament at the beginning of Gen Con to which only the very best players were admitted. He placed third in that tournament, only to learn that that whole final foursome — each of them fixtures in this community — had earned seats in Saturday’s qualifier and advanced, him now all the way to the final table.

I’d first spotted Shiv on Saturday, when he frazzled a younger player with assertions that she’d short-changed the bank while swapping cards in to purchase a city. (She hadn’t, but it took five exasperated minutes for her to prove.) Shiv later described his greatest Catan skill as “perseverance: Grinding it out in the game — seeing little opportunities and taking advantage of them,” adding that along with that grit and the necessary analytical ability, “25 percent of the game is social.”

He named Mandy Sanders — my old friend and adversary from Milwaukee — as a paragon of that 25 percent, someone who convinces the table “these are not the droids you’re looking for” no matter the situation.

“Everyone’s nice, but she just exudes this aura of niceness, and so even when she’s crushing you, there’ll be people who won’t attack her.”

The final table stood dead center in the pen, surrounded by cameras and wired with microphones. We dozen or so spectators couldn’t make out the game’s details, a deliberate set up so no one could peep cards and communicate secret signals to any finalist. We watched a “shadow table” in the corner, a matching board updated each turn by a Mayfair staffer to reflect the most recent turn. She laid development cards in front of empty chairs and placed building pieces of all 4 colors around the map. It’s like sitting so far from a basketball game that they add another court next to you, on which actors recreate each possession moments after it happens.

The final table surrounded by live-streaming equipment, with spectators surrounding the "shadow table" at right

Behind us, older guys who’d been eliminated from the tournament — “Catan legends,” whispered another spectator — recreated the final map themselves, and played it out as a pick-up game. Deeper into the “open gaming” section, a Catan Junior tournament took place alongside adults testing Star Trek Catan.

The prophylactic distance between us and the CNC final hardly mattered. Once it’s all on the line, the players don’t need help knowing their opponents’ hands. Especially later in the final, even the mellowest players track every roll and watch every resource card their rivals collect, appraising each other’s building capability turn by turn.

Under such tight mutual surveillance, that “stealth strategy” is favored — development cards are drawn blindly, inspected, then stashed face-down until use. Others are left to guess how many of your development cards are worth whole points, how many can be used to pillage, and how many will buy you resource bonuses. That’s where all that physiognomy and bluffing comes in.

Ironically, all four players — Shiv, Scott, and two other men named Robert and MJ — played that strategy, which ultimately foiled the whole thing. We at the shadow table realized, moments before the finalists did, that not only had every single development card been bought, but all of them that weren’t victory points had been revealed and played. Every player knew exactly where everyone else stood. The win came down to position and luck — hardly any more strategy, and no more of the poker that helped Sander shock the world in 2014.

With all cards quite literally on the table, Scott’s orange civilization prevailed. Unlike his sudden production in the semifinal, this was a long-dreaded feat of outlasting his adversaries once they’d exhausted nearly every piece the game box had to offer. Scott exhaled and reached for handshakes while the others dropped their resource cards. Shiv half-seriously thrust an index finger at MJ to hector him for missing an opportunity to stymie Scott a few turns ago.

Scott shakes hands (Shiv at right) after clinching the Catan National Championship

Scott, whose hometown friends introduced him to Catan as a diversion following a “negative life-changing event” in 1997, reflected that he was far less nervous than during his previous trip to the final, “loose” in the face of “some tension between players” at that high-stakes table. It was satisfying just the same.

“It is an awesome feeling to know that your kung fu is strong.”

Scott represented the USA in Germany after his first CNC win 2006. He won’t travel far this time, as the next Worlds in Fall 2016 will take place stateside — rumor has it in Colorado.

Max and I want to be there, too. When we finally departed the frigid caverns of the Convention Center, squinting under mid-summer daylight, we turned back to face the building and vowed to return next year. We want to compete again after all we’ve learned, and when I added that I’d like to see these Catan folk again, Max agreed.

“I want to be friends with these people.”

Credits

Photos & Text: Seth Rosenthal

Editor: Elena Bergeron

Gifs: Jon Bois

Design & Development: Graham MacAree

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