Settling Catan

Because it was requested… a post on leadership and Settlers of Catan.

My history with this game goes all the way back to high school, and I have distinct memories of it from then, from college (when one associate of mine set a microwave on fire), and then from graduate school, when an online version made cross-state play a possibility. Last week, I watched an episode of Big Bang Theory that included play from Settlers, primarily focusing on the “I have sheep, I need wood” joke that is ubiquitous to all players of the game.

Here’s how the game works. The board is randomized, built of octagonal tiles of resources (sheep, wood, ore, brick, wheat) with numbers corresponding to two D6s. Players place settlements and build roads and cities along the borders of these tiles. Players roll the D6s in order to determine which resources are added to their pool (players collect resources for tiles touching their settlements/cities when the number on that tile is rolled). Players compete for “longest road,” “largest army,” and so on, using resources to purchase military units, road segments, settlements, cities, and victory points (each road, settlement, etc. is also worth a number of victory points).

The game encourages a certain level of cooperative play. Trading is encouraged. Players have to share resource space, so they are often “rooting” for the same numbers on the dice. A certain level of cooperation is also needed to keep the person in the lead from pulling too far ahead and achieving too many victory points too fast.

The game also, naturally, encourages competitive – sometimes cut-throat – play. There is a single desert tile with a Robber (which can be placed on a resource tile to stop collection of that resource), and the Robber can be moved to block collection off a specific tile that has a high incidence of occurrence, or even to “screw” a particular player out of resource collection. The Robber is also sometimes used to give one player a monopoly over a certain resource. Players might “interrupt” each others’ roads, making it harder to achieve “longest road.”

So what can we say about leadership and Settlers of Catan? Like Junta, Settlers can be a game of manipulation – convincing others who are your “enemies” to give you what you want by convincing them that it is also in their best interest (whether it really is or not). This particular mechanic is not exclusive by any means to only these games. It happens in Monopoly, Risk, poker, and innumerable other games. But it also happens in leadership contexts: leaders have to convince other leaders (in international politics, say) or followers to act in a way (that at least seems to be) in their own best interest while also being in the best interest of the leader.

Settlers is also about making good, sustainable choices. Some numbers are rolled more often than others when you have two D6s (6 and 8). Some resources are more valuable early in the game, some more valuable in the late game – it takes different resources to start a settlement than it does to expand it into a city. Some things cost more than others to build, but are worth more in the long run. The players have to make good initial choices to have access to the right resources in the right amounts.

But it is almost never the case that players are able to rely only on themselves. They have to be able to get a “better deal” out of another player than they would at the “bank” in order to play sustainably. They want to be able to negotiate mutually beneficial deals – “I need wood, you need ore, let’s trade.”

But they also don’t want to “help” the other player to win: they want to keep their own rate of growth just a little bit higher than that of the other players, but they also don’t want to appear that way. A player who is recognized as being in the lead will be Robbered, not-traded-with, and generally poorly treated by the others, at least until they are no longer perceived to be in the lead. But they are also often the player who has the most resources and is willing to trade at the best rates, so the other players have to make a choice: 1) Do I keep this person from winning, even at the cost of my own chances of victory? or 2) Do I risk this person winning so that I can have a better chance of winning myself?

Such choices are perhaps more simplified in gameplay than in the real world, but when we negotiate trade deals, domestically or internationally, we’re looking at similar trade-offs. At what point does mutual cooperation cease to be beneficial enough to us because it is too unbalanced in favor of the other side? When we look at current issues of the 99%, we see something addressed by game theory that is also at work in Settlers.

Player A and Player B have the option of sharing a pile of money. We would think that the equilibrium point for sharing would be 50/50. But if Player A is wealthy and Player B is poor, Player B will be willing to take only 30% of the sum if Player A says “I refuse to take any less than 70%.” Why? Because 30% is proportionally a much greater amount to Player B than 0%, while Player A doesn’t really care either way. Player B therefore is willing to accept a much lower share because of the proportional gains, rather than an objective sum. The same thing happens in Settlers. The player in the lead is in control – they want 4 sheep for 2 wheat. If they have a lot of resources, they don’t really need the wheat, but a player with few resources besides sheep is going to be much more willing to give up the sheep for 2 wheat that are proportionally far more valuable to them than the sheep.

That’s why we see the disparity in wealth increase, rather than decrease. Because people with money have the ability to dictate the terms to those without, since any gain for those without is worth accepting, even though those who already have don’t really need any more.

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