Silicon Valley Watcher - Former FT journalist Tom Foremski reporting from the intersection of technology and media

Culture Watch: Board Game 'Settlers of Catan' Has A Cult Following In Silicon Valley

Posted by Tom Foremski - August 11, 2016

2016 08 11 11 38 52

Photo from Catan.com 

Guest Post: By Janet Miller — a board game addict, habit scientist, former Silicon Valley executive and cofounder of Jen Reviews.

Settlers of Catan Settlers of Catan was one of the first European games to gain popularity in the U.S., and has been called “the board game of our time" by the Washington Post

Settlers has gone from being a Monopoly style game set in an island valley to a social, cult-attracting capitalist paradise. If you don't play, you're not going to fit in with the crowd of entrepreneurs and venture capitalists.

The game is very popular in Silicon Valley — here’s some suggestions why:

1. The game mirrors Silicon Valley culture. Playing Settlers, each team has to create a dominant community on Catan and outwit each other while competing for extremely rare resources. Does this sound like Silicon Valley itself? 

The fact that the games pieces are made through distribution all over the world is another part of Silicon Valley culture that mirrors itself in the game. Dice are made in Denmark, the pieces in Germany, the cards from Dallas, and the plastic from Wisconsin. It is truly an international game, with components coming from everywhere -- much like tech in Silicon Valley being outsourced all over the globe.

2. Settlers allows employers to meet new employees. Mark Pincus, CEO of Zynga Game Network Inc., plays Settlers of Catan with potential employees as a networking tool

"It's kind of like our golf game," says Mr. Pincus. It usually lasts about an hour, making it a great choice for busy tech executives.

"We don't have time to play 18 holes, but we can handle pizza and a board game." 

Because of the richly interactive playstyle there is much more to the game than just rolling the dice and going around the board over and over. Some CEOs will play with potential employees to test their ability to think fast on their feet and manage limited resources. They can get a feel for how well new employees would mesh with company culture. 

3. Settlers isn't hard to learn. Players create their own community within the Island of Catan. The game has rich mythology and narrative structure. The art is vivid and exciting, providing an immersive world — and what's best is that it doesn't take a lot of skill to learn. 

There’s a website with an interactive tutorial for Catan that tells you exactly how to play  and a Catan Game Assistant for mobile devices. 

4. Settlers appeals to smart bookworm types. There is no shortage of brilliant minds in Silicon Valley, and Settlers of Catan appeals to this crowd. Bookworms and intelligentsia rejoice in the game because they can become absorbed in it while strategizing for hours on end. 

The rich lore and history have spurred an outpouring of books written about the vast world of Catan, and a wiki dedicated to Catan. This means it’s just the right kind of game for someone who wants to get lost in a world that isn’t our own.[Editor: Who needs VR headsets when we can get lost inside a board game?!]

5. The game has built a "cult" following similar to companies in the valley. Settlers of Catan is going to be turned into a movie. According to Deadline, Gail Katz bought the film and TV rights to the game, and plans to produce it in the coming years. 

 6. Catan involves a sweeping storyline, which Silicon Valley executives love. Have you noticed how much drama there is around the tech narrative in Silicon Valley? The sweeping tale of Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg taking the world by storm, the rise of the nerds and their overtaking of the globe overnight? 

Settlers of Catan has a sweeping storyline much like this, making it immensely appealing to Silicon Valley execs. The rich storyline involves history, lore, and imagination much like our own real world narrative. There are pirate raids, settlements, and gold rushes, jungle valleys, and thriving cities. 

7. It's competitive and fun at the same time. The competitive balance with fun and engagement is something that truly appeals to techies about this game. Settlers requires that you be careful with resource distribution, competing carefully, but also -- it's just plain fun. 

It is well-designed, lacks any kind of geekiness or obscurity, and has been adopted by nerds and mainstream culture alike. Now, people play tournaments -- more than 100 entrants qualified in the Catan US Championship.

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Janet Miller is a board game addict, habit scientist, former Silicon Valley executive and cofounder of Jen Reviews. She writes regularly and has been featured on MindBodyGreen, Tiny Buddha, The Muse, The Huffington Post and Fast Company.

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