Settlers of Critical Thinking

So today my class actually sat down and played Settlers of Catan to explore issues of resource management and game theory. At the end of class, one student actually borrowed the game from me to play with his roommates. They had a great time. They got into it. They worked in teams. They competed. They did all the things that they were supposed to do in terms of theory – sometimes they made the irrational choice to “robber” someone who had stolen from them rather than use strategy. Sometimes they made “nicer” trades to get on a team’s good side.

The down side? They didn’t seem to recognize that they were actually doing this. From time to time I would point it out to the table as I watched and helped, but for the most part, this exercise was largely for my – rather than their – benefit. I was the one who really had the distance from the intensity of the game to notice the significant differences in teams who had to carefully manage resources and those who had a shortage and did a lot more verbal manipulation.

I got to see the teams who had a clear leader, the teams that worked out strategy together, and the fact that the only solo player (in either class) won… certainly, one instance isn’t nearly enough to know that solo play is an advantage, but it was interesting to note. He didn’t have to fight with anyone, or compromise his strategy to make room for someone else’s suggestions.

The most predominant element of theory I saw at work, though, was definitely the competitive drive acting as a rational-behavior-reducing utility. Once the robber got used the first time (by rolling a seven, rather than drawing a soldier), then it became a weapon. When I play, my friends and I try to avoid penalizing each other most of the time (by putting the robber on an empty tile). That was definitely not the case in my classes. Once that first seven was rolled, they went out of their way to buy soldiers to get “back” at each other, or – in some cases – to steal particular resources. Without more specific research, it’s hard to say whether the teams more prone to using the robber were actually hurting themselves, but my guess would be that they spent far more resources on development cards than they needed to for revenge, instead of building up cities or settlements for the victory points. That said, my solo player won by buying a development card that gave him a victory point.

But for me the most interesting part was seeing how the layout of the board impacted the strategies of the teams. One table had a huge shortage of wood (and a plenitude of sheep to the point where they ran out of sheep cards), so they didn’t expand outward, but built cities and development cards almost from the start. Another table had so much hostility that they rarely traded with each other. And another had mostly wood and brick, so they spent most of the game on roads and settlements because they didn’t have as much ore or sheep.

And the dice – the randomness – also had a huge impact on these numbers. Random chance, as we know from game theory, helps to mitigate strategy and equalize the players, but it also emulates the seeming randomness of resource management in the environment. If there’s a drought, you won’t have as much wheat. Foot and mouth disease can cause a dearth of sheep. And when you need those resources, you face Tragedy of the Commons. These are real-world issues that manifest in the distribution of tiles and numbers, and in the rolls of the dice. In this idea, the robber acts as a Free Rider whose theft of the blocked resource keeps that resource out of the hands of those who have legitimately paid for it.

The biggest issue was time – we didn’t have the time to get all the way to 10 victory points, and we didn’t have the time to really sit down and talk about what the game was teaching us about game theory, cooperation and competition, or resource management. It’s something I want to come back to with them, to work on in relation to the larger problems of systems theory and leadership… to talk about the ways in which their decisions as individuals interacted with the elements of the game beyond their control as a team and as a whole.

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