August 01, 2006


I have been operating for quite some time under the assumption that I am bad at strategy games. It's gotten so bad at points that I've started assuming I'm bad at board games in general, but usually I manage to confine my self-recrimination to the field of those games which require great skill, issue from Germany in inexplicably large numbers, and are played by intense people around tables in serious game stores. Like Settlers of Catan, the shining star among strategy board games which is adored by 3 out of every 5 geeks on the planet. I'm terrible at it.

But the strange fact that I've come to realize recently is that I'm not bad at strategy games at all. I play a respectable game of chess. I'm tied 1-1 in two games of Yinsh with Zach, an intense person who plays serious board games. I'm a goddamn Carcassonne demon.

But I am irremediably bad at Settlers of Catan.

I played it again tonight -- twice! -- at a drop-in Euro Game night at Games of Berkeley, and discovered that it's not the group. It's not the setting. It wasn't my tender age when first roped into playing. I don't know what it is, except that I can't think along the right lines to ever play decently at the damned thing. I'm not talking about losing games here and there, either. I've never won a game. I've probably played 20 times and never won a game. I've probably played 20 times and I don't think I've ever gotten more than 5 points (the game is won and ended by one player getting 10). I lose consistently to beginners. I may very well have come in dead last in every game I've played.

It's also not that I don't understand the rules. They're slightly more complicated than chess, but only just. You can learn them in five minutes and remember them after one game. Somehow, though, winning that game (and, if you count its sequels, only that game) requires a particular strategic approach that I haven't mastered and can't even identify. I'm always collecting a confused mess of resources because I can't decide what to build, putting down roads when my hopes of getting anywhere are already cut off, and accidentally handing people the cards they need to bury me. My best guess so far is that there are just too many pieces and too many players to keep track of; I have an easier time planning ahead with fewer principals than focusing on the present with four people acting.

I'm not sure whether to feel better about myself knowing that I'm not a complete strategic lost cause, or worse knowing that I have a highly specific Settlers-shaped hole in my cognitive ability. But you can take this and keep it in mind: if you ever need to make a quick buck off of me, bet me money on a game of Settlers. You can even make your trained monkey stand in for you and she'll come out the top primate of the game.

Posted by dianna at August 1, 2006 10:38 PM

Lest you get too cocky about your YINSHing, I should point out that, while I do play serious board games and have been described as intense, I'm not actually necessarily very good at them. Being the amiable loser is probably what endeared me enough to my board gaming club to get me elected president.

I seem to recall, from my various trawlings through the Cementhorizon archives while bored at work (which is to say, while at work) that some time ago Christine posted a "Killer App" for winning at Settlers. Ah, here it is. Though I tend to find that reading strategies that other people have developed for a game is somewhat akin to reading the last chapter of a mystery novel before you read the first; it's taking the fun out of figuring it out for yourself.

Was Settlers the only game on offer for the evening? And how were the folks at the Euro Games meeting?

Posted by: Zach S. at August 2, 2006 07:23 AM