A custom-made Catan board
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Why Do I Own This? is a column exploring the weirder pop-culture flotsam and jetsam that washes up in the lives of A.V. Club writers, the impulses that drive us to acquire such things, and the motives for clinging to them long after their ephemeral eras pass.
What is it? It’s a custom-made, die-cut game board specifically designed for use with the fiendishly strategic Cities & Knights expansion of the Settlers Of Catan board game.
How did I get it? When I lived in Chicago, most of my friends and I were addicted to Cities & Knights Of Catan, an expanded version of the German board game Settlers Of Catan. Every other weekend, we’d get together and play a couple of games—which, given the typical length of a game, could mean playing from three to 12 hours—while getting intensely drunk and/or high. The games would get pretty competitive (we even planned some elimination tournaments with a dozen or so players), and at one point, my friends bought a fancy custom-made board. It was pretty cool, but I couldn’t fully appreciate it, because, well, they bought it. My competitive nature, which only manifests itself in absurdly geeky activities like this, thus led me to purchase a similar board—hand-made by a guy in California—for a ridiculous amount of money on eBay.
What’s its cultural significance? Back in 1995, a mad German genius named Klaus Teuber designed a game called Die Siedler Von Catan. It was a brilliantly designed strategy board game in which players took the role of villagers on a remote island, competing with other settlers to build an empire. (Insert gratuitous Nazi reference here.) The game proved so well-crafted and addictive that it became a huge worldwide hit, or at least as huge a worldwide hit as the board-game universe will allow; it sold more than 15 million copies. Teuber took note of his success, and with ruthless Teutonic efficiency, thought (in German, of course), “I can do better.” Three years later, he introduced Cities & Knights Of Catan. Hitting upon the excellent idea of removing all the compelling simplicity of the original version, he crafted a game that was just as strategically and tactically challenging, but also ridiculously overcomplicated, with hundreds of rule variations. Everything fit together like clockwork, but it didn’t sell nearly as well, since it appealed only to incredibly nerdy weirdoes with shitloads of time on their hands. In other words, it was specifically designed for people like my friends and me.
We got very, very, very into this game. I had a long history of geek social pursuits, from role-playing games to chess to competitive live-band karaoke, but none of them inspired the kind of fanatical devotion or drunken mania as Settlers & Knights Of Catan. We played from sunset to sunrise some weekends; we submitted rules questions to Mayfair Games (Catan’s U.S. publisher); we even invented our own language for the game (like a “Catantrum”—someone throwing a fit because the game wasn’t going their way—or a “newspaper game,” in which you’re losing so badly that you might as well read the newspaper when it isn’t your turn). Many A.V. Club staffers would be ashamed to admit this, but I lost my sense of shame in a comic-book-related accident in 1989, and ever since then, I will cop to pretty much anything. Our game circle was genial, heavily impaired, and only occasionally murderously hateful, and game nights were the highlight of many a week. Then, one by one, we moved away from Chicago, and I found myself in possession of an expensive, elaborate board for a game no longer played by anyone I knew.
Why would I get rid of it? Since that time, I’ve moved to the Twin Cities, and from there to San Antonio, Texas. I’ve been unable to find anyone in either place who plays Cities & Knights Of Catan. Settlers players are a dime a dozen in any city with a large underground geek population, but very few have the courage to step up their game to the hardcore grind that is C&K, and I can’t go back to mere Settlers; it’s like stepping back to Tylenol P.M. after years of doing Mexicanbrown heroin. What’s more, C&K is fiendishly difficult to even teach to people; a typical game is an hour or two long, so by the time you finish explaining the rules to a new player, it’s too late to actually get a game in. The only people I know who play C&K are in Austin, and driving an hour and a half kind of takes the edge off the fun and excitement. Given that the board is very large and unwieldy, and that I haven’t actually played a game on it for over a year, and am unlikely to any time in the future, it’s basically a big, expensive thing for my cats to sit on. And I’ve already got plenty of those.
How much could I get for it? There are at least enough like-minded freaks in America to keep the guy who originally made this thing in cigarette money. I could probably unload it on one of these hapless nerds for a couple hundo.
What are the chances that I’ll keep it? About 100 percent. This is one of those things I spent so much money on, and which gave me so much enjoyment when I was actually using it, that I can’t imagine getting rid of it, even if it’s currently useless. (Insert gratuitous penis reference here.) In fact—and this, ladies and gentlemen, gets to the heart of the sickness that led me to start this column in the first place—the guy who built it sent me an e-mail a while back letting me know that a larger version of the game board with new features was available. It would facilitate new expansions of the game, and allow games featuring more players. And would I be interested? And I seriously considered buying the thing. As with the old “the food is terrible, and such small portions” gag, I already own an object I never use, and I was considering buying a bigger version of it.
Even though the odds of my ever playing Cities & Knights Of Catan again are increasingly long (there’s an online version available, but it sadly doesn’t replicate the inebriated camaraderie that makes for the best gaming sessions), I hold out an absurd hope that someday, a team of board-game-loving burglars will break into my house, and we’ll start up a league of other lowlifes around town. I’ve even considered turning my spare room into a game room with a fancy table and everything, which, from a practical standpoint, makes as much sense as putting a Pork Chop Room in a synagogue. And yet I maintain a cockeyed hope that I will play again, so I persevere. After all, if our founding fathers hadn’t had good ol’ American optimism, we’d still be speaking English.