It seems appropriate that the game that first introduced me to modern tabletop gaming should be the game to kick off this series: Settlers of Catan.
I imagine most of you are familiar with it, but for those of you who are not: Settlers of Catan is a resource management game with a heavy negotiation component. Widely considered one of the seminal games (if not the game) that kicked off the current resurgence of tabletop gaming, it was one of the first Euro-style games to gain much popularity outside of the region. Every game features a random board and tile-value configuration, and players must expand their settlements to gain resources and victory points in their effort to most successfully settle the island of Catan.
Settles of Catan holds a special place in my heart, and it was one of my favourites for a long time. In addition to being my first modern tabletop game, for years, my greatest-of-all-time housemate Marek and I hosted a monthly games night called Settlers and Pie, wherein 10-20 people invaded our house with multiple copies of the game and their own pie creations, and all we did was play Settlers and eat heaps of homemade pie. I’ve taught it to probably around 70 people over the years. And my longest relationship to date was approximately ⅓ playing Catan our favourite grocery-with-a-salad-bar-and-nice-tables. 1
But I burned out on it hard after playing in the Australian National Boardgame Championships in 2014. Apparently, I do have a hard-limit of Catan, and it is 10 straight hours, made all the more brutal by the fact that no one made a single wood-for-sheep joke (or laughed or acknowledged mine) until I was in the semi-finals. I actually hadn’t taken it out of the box since then, until the day I rummaged through my entire collection to see how grim diverse representation was in amongst the games I owned. I think it may have lost some of its magic as my gaming tastes have grown, but I do think it might be time to play again.
But first, let’s take a look at how it does on the representation front.
So. Yeah. You might imagine a game with a heavy colonial-settlers theme does not do great on racial representation. You would imagine right.
The first and most obvious question is: Why is Catan not already settled? Is there really a lush, resource-rich island easily reachable by white settlers at this period in history 2 that no other humans had ever found? Or is this part of the overwhelming (and overwhelmingly false) European narrative of Terra Nullius, that erases the existence of native people from their own lands? That likewise, erases the horrible violence, deception, and genocide perpetrated by Europeans against native people in lands they forcibly settled?
Yeah, it’s definitely the latter. As The Skeptical Gamer says:
Settlers of Catan represents a colonial ideology about an uninhabited land ripe for economic development. Players pretend to live their big fat white dreams – a command over nature, a life of fair and equal competition. Except it never really was fair, and it never really was uninhabited, was it?
For that reason alone, I’d give Catan an automatic fail in this category. But even if I didn’t, it would be zero stars anyway, as there’s not a single non-white person on any of the cards or in any of the box or rulebook art.
I’m giving it:
(However, I’d be remiss here if I didn’t mention Greg Loring-Albright’s (@Gregisonthego) excellent article and alternative Catan ruleset, The First Nations of Catan: Practices in Critical Modification. Go read it. Then go play it.)
This is the only category where Catan does even marginally well. And by marginally, I mean “women exist”. Just barely, but they exist. (Gender diverse people do not.)
There aren’t playable characters in Catan, so we’re left just looking at the game art. Even by the generous (and somewhat lazy) standard of counting ‘cards with at least one woman on them”’ against ‘cards that had no women at all’, only 14% of cards that depicted people had any women on them at all. 3 The cover art had one woman and two men.
But at least the rulebook uses gender-neutral language–it’s written in second-person and examples rotate male and female names (slightly more male names, but not significantly). So no points lost on that front.
‘Women exist, but not in significant numbers’ gets Catan:
The cover art on the current release of the main Catan set is a perfect little hetero nuclear 4 family. Definitely no queer-coded characters. Sorry, queer folk. No colonial settling for us.
Nothing less than perfect, conventionally attractive bodies for our perfect white settlers! I’ll buy that people with disabilities probably didn’t make the initial settler ships 5 and that being fat was a sign of wealth and opulence frontier settlers probably didn’t have… but then where my super thin bodies at? Or my super short or extra tall peeps? Or my broad, stocky hard-working labourer peeps? All the art depicts pretty much one male body type and one female body type, sticking pretty much exactly to modern standards of of an average, conventionally attractive body looks like.
Or post-pregnancy bodies? You can’t go forth and multiply and expect all your women will keep their perfect maiden figures.
Overall, solid game, objectively awful representation of any people that aren’t fit, white, and straight. At least women exist in some limited capacity, though. So that’s something.
- Some people are opposed to two-player Catan? Those people are wrong. I sincerely don’t get it. Two-player Catan requires different strategies than larger games, but it’s a great two-player game. ↩
- There’s not an exact time period Catan is set in, but based on the clothing, technology, and theme ‘colonial area’ is a pretty good bet. ↩
- If I were to count actual humans depicted instead of cards, that number would have been much worse, as some cards had 20 men and no women, some had 3 men and 1 woman, etc. but none had all women and no men. ↩
- Spell-check keeps trying to change this to heteronuclear, which I do not believe is the same thing at all. ↩
- Although frontier life is rough, accidents certainly happened, and amputations were about the height of medical knowledge of the time. I’m not saying it has to be a major component of game play or anything, but slipping in someone missing a limb into some card art would be a perfectly fine and historically appropriate way to include representation of someone with a disabled body in this context. ↩