Show me a man whose favorite game is Risk, and I’ll show you a man who’s never played Settlers.
With those words, my dear friend Colin kicked off a round of the board game, Settlers of Catan. I didn’t know this game existed until last year, when my former roommate Dan (also a geo-nerd) introduced it to me. I’m not sure how I managed to graduate with a degree in geography without ever playing this game, but somehow I did—although, I’m pretty sure my grades would have been better if the case had been otherwise.
The goal of Settlers is to be the first person to earn 10 Victory Points. Victory Points are mostly earned by building settlements and cities. To build settlements and cities, one must first build roads. To build all of these things, one must earn resources: brick, lumber, wheat, ore, and sheep.
Different combinations of resources are required to build different things, meaning that the importance of certain resources shifts throughout the game. For example, bricks and lumber are important at the beginning because they are needed to build roads. Sheep and wheat gain importance when the time comes to build settlements, followed by ore when it’s time to build cities. Acquiring these resources depends on the game board, which is (for all purposes) a map of the mythical Catan.
The map, or game board, changes every game—it’s created by arranging individual hexagons that each represent a resource.
A number piece is placed upon each resource hexagon, representing the availability of each resource.
Each player’s turn begins with a dice roll, and if the number on top of a resource piece is rolled, a player who has built on that resource piece receives that resource. For example, if I build a settlement on a lumber piece that has a two on it, and a two is rolled, I receive a lumber resource. Certain numbers have a higher probability of being rolled, meaning some resource hexagons are more productive than others. Therefore, choosing where to build settlements becomes very important and very strategic in terms of deciding which resources you need, which you want to acquire, and which you want to hoard.
The way I see it, Settlers of Catan is rich in potential connections to the National Geography Standards. Here’s a few examples:
The game board is literally a map. A map! A player must be able to visualize connections between resources in order to be successful. (You’d think I’d be better at this game than I am.)
The location of resources dictates where roads, settlements, and cities are built. Additionally, the role of coasts is very interesting. There are various ports around the game board that allow players to exchange resource cards in for different resources at the bank. This is a great metaphor for reasons behind the development of coastal cities.
It becomes very clear, very quickly (and very visually) which areas of Catan are the most productive in producing resources. Everyone chooses to build on lumber and brick, but no one chooses to build on desert.
Players may trade resource cards with one another, and tensions run high during Settlers. Friends are made and wars are waged.
“You call yourself a central banker.”
“Don’t help him, he’s winning.”
“You wood monopolist!”
The value of specific resources changes as players look to develop their settlements from roads into cities. It’s also important to use the resources that you have. If a seven is rolled and you have more than seven resource cards, you must give up half of them. Wise resource management becomes a key element to winning the game.
By now, I’d hope the connection to this standard is clear. Obtain and manage your physical resources better than your competitors—win the game. It’s that simple.
These connections just scratch the surface of the potential this game holds. Interesting opportunities could be setting up the map to reflect real-life scenarios, or playing multiple games followed by a discussion about how the different locations and relationships between resource placement on the map impacted how the games were played. The geographic thinking is limitless, along with the fun. To win Settlers is to win at geography, and to win at geography is to win at life. Happy learning.
Written by Samantha Zuhlke, National Geographic Education