Geekdad Book Review: Settlers of Catan in a Novel New Form

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This post originally appeared on Wired.com’s GeekDad blog on November3, 2011.

Settlers of Catan by Rebecca Gable

I promise: I tried to hate this book, I really did! Up front, I beg all of my fellow members of the cult of Catan to forgive me if you can. I mean, I pretty much despise the idea of a product tie-in with any board game, but I have come to expect such shenanigans from the corporate game companies in the United States. Battleship: The Movie, anyone? But now the Europeans are selling out too? And not just any European but the icon of European board games, Klaus Teuber. The world is truly doomed!

To make a novel from my beloved Settlers of Catan is beyond the pale! It is a sacrilege! After all it was Catan that re-ignited my interest in board games and taught me that not all of them had to be three hours of wasted life like Axis and Allies. (I mean, after the giant tank vs. infantry battle in Russia, which happens in the first hour of the game, you still have two more boring hours to play and the game is already over. I say if the Russians win call it for the Allies, and if by miracle Germany wins then call if for the Axis, end of game. Better yet, why don’t you take three red dice and I will take three white dice and we will roll them for three hours, add up who won the most rolls and call it good.) Catan was and is so much better. Settlers of Catan single-handedly made board games cool again. It is one of the few board games which can entertain both my 64-year-old Mother and nine-year-old daughter. It is simple enough that my nine-year-old can win, and yet it gives me enough of an illusion of control and choice that I don’t lose interest. It really is a genius game.

For almost a decade it was the password to a secret cult of European board games. At the beginning no one had heard of it, and it felt like a kind of alternative board game. Something far better than the standard party games which were still stuck on Pictionary and Taboo. Catan was like my own version of the ’90s rave. You had to know someone to find out about it.

People would ask me, “What do you do for fun?” and I would say, “Well, we host a game night at our home once a month” and they would say incredulously, “What like, Monopoly?” I would simply reply, “Well, sort of.” One month later I would sit them down at the table, hand them 15 wooden roads, plus houses and cities and create another Catan cult member. “Where can I buy this?” they would say, already jonesing for another hit. I would reply, “Well, you know that run down comic book store called Dragons ‘R’ Us in the seedy part of town? Just walk past the sweaty boys painting their goblin figurines and look on the back wall in the corner.” Next thing you know I would be at their home looking at a cupboard full of games like Carcassonne, Bang, Ticket to Ride, and Puerto Rico. I would smile, secure in the knowledge I had made another convert.

The game itself spawned numerous spinoff games, the best of which was Candamir. There were also expansions and even Das Buch, a weighty tome which gave the reader numerous new games which could be played with the original pieces. All the while I helped make converts. And then one day it happened. I was walking through Target (Target, of all places!) and there it was, in the game section, my beloved Catan. I nearly shouted for joy in the aisle! All my life I wanted to be part of something important and I had done it. Catan was now mainstream. I had been cool before cool was cool! I was proud. My baby was all grown up. (But that wasn’t enough for you was it, Klaus? All the accolades, spin offs and fame! No, you had to go all George Lucas on me! A book — are you kidding me?)

So when my friend Jonathan Liu handed me an advance readers copy of the English translation of The Settlers of Catan novel, which arrives in book stores on November 15th, and said, “I don’t have time to read this just yet,” I groaned and shook my head. He smiled and said, “I know.”

“So what is this going to be about?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” he replied, “but I bet that when it starts they don’t have enough sheep, and by the end they have too many.”

I laughed, “Yes, and if it were a book about an American game it would end with everyone dead and only one person standing, like Hunger Games. But it’s about a European game, so no one will fight, they will all cooperate and trade until the island gets really crowded. Then someone will be declared king.” Now I was armed and ready to read. If Klaus Teuber has decided give up his genius and become just another has-been with a really good marketing plan, then I was ready to bring him down a notch or two.

But Klaus turned out to be smarter than me! (Shocking, I know.) He sought out the services of not just any hack writer, but one of the better writers in German Historical fiction. Rebecca Gable didn’t disappoint. Her characters are both heroic and realistically flawed. Her plot, while serviceable, is slightly stilted due to the constraints of trying to tie in the game. Her writing style is quick and action filled. Rarely did I find myself waiting for something to happen. Over all, it is a good barbarian adventure story.

The basic premise follows a tribe of northern European barbarians as they tire of attacks from their neighbors. They decide to sail into the wide ocean in order to search for a mystical land called Catan. After an adventure or two, they reach their destination and set about building a new life for themselves. Along the way there are conflicts of romance and religion, as well as inter-tribal squabbles and grudges.

The plot was decently engrossing, and I found myself forgetting to look for the obvious tie-ins to the game. I am sure that I missed many of them, but I did notice that certain characters dominated certain resources and traded them with other settlers. Wood, sheep, ore and grain play important roles in the book; brick even gets a mention. Without giving too much away, I can say there is a thief. He plays an important role in the plot, and he lives… you guessed it, in the desert. The desert has a volcano, which is a tie in to Das Buch and there is some mention of the importance of parchment, which is also a tie in to an expansion of the original game. Finally, the terrain of the island matches those of the tiles of the game with various regions providing various resources.

A couple of things surprised me about the book. First of all, and I want to emphasize this, this isn’t a family book by any means. As the book progresses, the sexuality becomes more pervasive and important to the story. It isn’t overly explicit, but it is persistent. Some of the sexuality is also violent. There are at least two scenes of violent sexual assault. This isn’t American YA fiction. It is an adult read, which might catch some unwary parents off guard since the game is such a family pastime. Don’t plan on buying this for a 10-year-old reader for Christmas unless you want to do some fast educating about things that might make you squirm.

Next, a major plot line involves religious conflict. Since religion has so little to do with the original game, this plot seemed a little out of place. However, even this plot is handled reasonably well and the strong and realistic characters help the reader maintain their suspension of disbelief.

I hate to say it, but I enjoyed the book. I know! I know! It isn’t right, and I am sure that some of you will never invite me to game night again, but I can live with that. I just wish Klaus Teuber would quit milking his biggest seller and get out there and write another great game. It’s not like he can’t do it. Domaine, anyone?

Settlers of Catan will be available on November 15 in paperback and Kindle, and then on November 22 as a deluxe hardcover “Collector’s Edition.”

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On September 27, 2012
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