Settlers of Catan is one of the most popular board games of all time, spurring what some have called a "board game revolution." We talked to the creator of Catan, Klaus Teuber, about his fascination with history and the Viking tales that inspired him to create "the game of our generation."
HistoryBuff: You’ve noted that Settlers Of Catan was inspired by the Viking exploration and settlement of Iceland. Is Catan a mythical version of Iceland?
Klaus Teuber: Yes, I think so. When I started to develop the game, I looked for an island that wasn’t populated. What I’d heard was that in Iceland before 800 A.D. there were some monks, but no people living and settling there. I didn’t want to have colonization or fighting on this island. That shouldn’t be the first object of game development. Iceland was wonderful because the only thing they had to do was look for lumber, look for what they had to do when they got to Iceland. They have to build houses; they need wood and such things. And nobody has everything, so they have to trade. There’s more cooperation between the settlers than fighting.
With the expansion kits we have a lot more stories told of the former history of Catan. With the Cities and Knights expansion come the barbarians. The barbarians, in my imagination, were people in the Age of Discovery coming from Spain and England who wanted to have the gold of the new world. Catan in the 15th century has to defend their independence from barbarians. I say barbarians because all people coming from outside are, to people on the inside, barbarians who want to come in and destroy their culture.
HB: Was trading a vital part of Viking society at that time?
KT: The Vikings replaced The Romans in the aspect of trading. They fulfilled these tasks to bring goods to the North, and goods from the North to the South. Trading was a very big ambition of the Vikings, and very important for the world.
HB: How did you come up with the five resource cards in the game (brick, wheat, ore, sheep, and lumber)?
KT: I think they’re the most important resource that people needed to build up their existence. You could imagine there would be more resources, but it would have been too complicated to have all the goods possible in the game. In Citizens and Knights, the expansion of Settlers of Catan, we have goods like books, coins, and such.
HB: How did you first get interested in Viking and Nordic culture?
KT: In my youth, all my life really, I’ve been really interested in history. And when I read stories of discovery, I was fascinated with the Vikings because they were the first people sailing into the open sea. I found that very interesting. In my imagination, [Catan] was Iceland, but later it was the area around Azores. If you imagine a circle around the Azores islands, that would be Catan. So it was partly imagination, but a little bit was reality. Also, the climate [of Azores] would fit [Catan], which is rich with everything. A paradise.
HB: Rebecca Gable’s novel The Settlers of Catan, based on your game, deals with some historically relevant aspects of the Viking Age, such as slavery and the proliferation of Christianity. Do you think her story is a realistic depiction of what Viking exploration and settlement could have looked like?
KT: I think so. She researched the Vikings a lot. I gave her ideas for the story, and when I read her first draft I felt that it wasn’t so Viking like. So we collaborated from the start, it was very good working together. She was very interested in researching the original history to write the book.
HB: How did the two of you get connected in the first place?
KT: I read her first book, and I was fascinated with her style, how she told history, and how she made history come alive. One year later I was at a book fair in Frankfurt where I met her and asked her ‘would you like to write a novel about Catan; about Vikings who have to flee from their home because of war and hunger?’ She thought a little bit about it but two weeks later she said ‘OK, I’m very interested in doing that.” I would have never asked some other author. Because I was so excited about her first two novels, she was the only author for me.
HB: What are some common misconceptions about Vikings?
KT: I think most people have a picture of cruel people, always fighting and always raiding. But, in history, we know that they had a bigger part in peaceful things than in war. When they went to another country, the first thing they wanted was to trade. But when they saw they were weak, they didn’t need to trade, they could get what they wanted without trading. Vikings have both sides.
HB: Since the original Settlers of Catan, you have released expansion packs and new versions of the game based on Alexander the Great’s conquest, the Great Wall of China, the pyramids in Egypt, the Trojan war, and the expansion of the Roman Empire. How do you choose what parts of history to use for the game?
KT: The mechanics of Catan are very fundamental, because what you do is what people did all the time in the past. They earn something, they trade, and they build. And you can transform that to fit the Egyptian or Chinese world; it is always the same. But the history changes, because they have different problems. It was fun for me because I am interested in history. It was a wonderful tool to tell history’s stories with the game. Vikings were the first step to making the original Catan. But this principle of earning, trading, and building can be applied to everything in history.
We are working on a new historical scenario, which is placed in South America with the Incas. I researched the theme and it’s very interesting because the Incas are only the last culture of a lot of cultures building and growing. So this theme will be changing all the tribes until the Incas are the last one. This story will work wonderfully with Catan.
The normal Catan game is timeless, with no special theme. When people want to inform themselves about how the game came about, then they will learn about Vikings. When you play the game you feel that it’s a time of knights, of the Middle Ages, but not with the fighting that people normally expect when they play a medieval game. It’s another type of game. Perhaps they will get interested in the history.
HB: With Catan, you’ve made some history of your own by creating one of the most popular board games of all time. How does it feel to have such a huge impact on the world of gaming?
KT: Normal. I don’t think a lot about that. I like to sit here with [my son] to develop new games and I’m happy when people tell me they had a wonderful evening playing Catan. But I don’t let my imagination think about all that.