Representation is a quality many designers consider as a holy grail, particularly the ones who like to think of their game as more of an experiential process than anything else. Evoking a feeling through its theme is an aspect that Settlers of Catan showcases through its simple design, which communicates large parts of its core mechanic through the Euro-centric ideal of settlers living within a mutually coexisting ecosystem with elegance.
Settlers of Catan is characteristic of a common feature in the Euro board games genre and it is reminiscent of that continent’s history and consequent culture of settling, expansion and competition. Despite, the numerous wars in Europe over centuries, it’s has never been militaristic by and large and the expansion of land has always been borne from a desire for greater access to resources. This can largely be seen by the non-conflicting nature of Settlers and many other Euro board games that followed its success. This aspect of colonial imperialism is also reflected in the colorful, almost idyllic way through Settlers’ rich board aesthetic. The mechanic of arranging hexes in a random order when setting up the game can be seen as an explicit representation of the feeling of exploration of the “Orient” and “New World” many European explorers felt.
As a continent that founded many underlying principles of modern day economic systems, the ideal of a fair economy is also prevalent in Settlers with every player getting a fair chance to trade with everyone else on their turn. The concept of a shared space and resources in Settlers also derives its prevalence from European nations’ historic co-dependence on one another despite their mutual animosity.
Even the idea of imaginary borders is represented on the physical space of the Settlers board by having to keep a distance of a town of another player before building your own. While it may be a design choice to prevent players from blocking someone’s access entirely, it also comes across as a design decision meant to communicate a feeling of respect for another player’s territory, something which Europe has by and large stood for, atleast among themselves.
Perhaps the lone and the most obvious outlier among all these elements is the “Thief” which is randomly assigned by a player who rolls 7 on the dice. While many interpret this as a move of indirect conflict based on chance, I like to think of this as the player simply carrying out the cogs of a system. What the Thief actually represents to me is a calamity – a drought, a plague or a flood which in essence ties perfectly with its in-game effect of drying up all produce that comes of that hex tile. While it is one of the few negative elements in the game, it is also one I believe is more enacted by the system than a player directly – a calamity from Nature, rather than a covert war, if we’re talking about what it is representing.
Ultimately, Settlers of Catan does an amazing job creating a warm feeling of communion among its settlers who despite their competition almost feel like they actually codependent on one another (and on the Nature, and thus the board itself) to survive and prosper. Few things can sum up centuries of European colonialism as beautifully and innocently as Settlers does through its representation.