Climate Change in Catan

Ethan Bardoe 2023

During a recent board game meet-up, friends set up the board for Stoneage, a traditional worker-placement-house-building-resource-collect’em-up. After the first round of distributing our cave people, we noticed that the vast majority of tokens were in the food-producing space. Someone joked, “Looks like the mammoths are about to go extinct.” To which our designated rules player replied, “We won’t run out of food tokens, and if we do, we’ll just use paper chips.” That statement was a call to reflect on the underlying assumptions that most board games are built on: that resources are unlimited, and their harvesting is a net positive, meaning that the benefits of extracting resources will always outweigh the impacts of doing so. 

Stone Age By Z-Man Games, one of my favorite worker placement games.

As climate change and its consequences poke holes in this premise, we can see that such beliefs result in rampant environmental degradation. Board games have always tried to depict humans' relationship with the world around them. Living in a world with anthropogenic climate change, we should reconsider how we portray the environment in media, including board games. While a change in perspective has begun, we need board games to go further in reflecting a more complicated relationship between humans and the environment. 

A quick look at the history of Eurogames, such as Settlers of Catan, reveals how most board games have conceptualized the environment. Many such games originated in Germany during the 1980s as an alternative to wargames. In the wake of World War II, German officials were conscious of what culture its citizens consumed and worried that board games such as Risk and other wargames were too imperialistic and militaristic for the public. In response to these games being banned, a new style of game was created. Instead of direct conflict between players, Eurogames focused on competing for resources to outbuild, outproduce, and outmaneuver--crushing opponents under a prodigious pile of victory points. Eurogames quickly gained popularity and inspired creators worldwide, with classic examples being Settlers of Catan, Puerto Rico, and Castles of Burgundy. While these games were not militaristic, they were designed in nations that benefited from the natural resources of colonies. In these games, land’s purpose is to be controlled and cultivated, with as many resources harvested as possible, with no end in sight. These games envision worlds where all resources are entirely renewable and sustainability is not a concern. 

Thomas Cole's Oxbow shows a clear divide of biomes like in Settlers of Catan

Starting in the last decade, a new trend of games has begun to celebrate nature’s intrinsic value instead of viewing it as a wealth of resources. Notable examples are 2018’s smash hit Wingspan and 2022 Spiel winner Cascadia. These games use similar resource-accruing mechanics but do not focus on human control of the environment. While older Eurogames cast players as workers building castles, colonies, or civilizations, these newer games are about uncovering aspects of natural beauty and recasting the themes of resource-gathering and building. In Cascadia, Instead of playing Castle Architect #5, players embody nature to build healthy and beautiful habitats. Beautiful artwork (shout out to artist Beth Sobel) soothingly immerses players in wild landscapes and ties the experience of game-playing biophilia, which is the baked-in human tendency to feel emotion in response to the natural world.

These games also minimize aggression through their mechanics and thus tend to be more relaxing while remaining competitive. For example, claiming a train route in Ticket to Ride may force competitors to shift their entire strategy for connecting destinations, making some of the resources they have already gathered obsolete and setting them back several turns. In Wingspan, however, players are building habitats on individual mats rather than competing for space on one central board. If someone takes a bird card from the draw pile that would benefit another player, there is a reasonable possibility that another equivalent bird will appear. The positive feelings associated with the beautiful art styles and relaxing mechanics of these game worlds can carry over to strengthen people's connection to the real-world environment.

Some of my favorite environmentally-focused games, Cascadia, Wingspan, and Photosynthesis.

This nature-appreciation genre of board games focuses on the world of nature itself, without any interaction with humans. A few games go so far as to explore the impacts of humans overworking land and harming the planet. Spirit Island casts players as ancient gods repelling an invasion of colonizers, in which one of the biggest threats is blight tokens made by  settlers spreading and overusing land. One of 2022 Gencon’s brightest stars was The Spill, a cooperative board game where players scramble to clean up a massive oil leak. This game is even accompanied by a lesson that can be taught in science classes to explain the importance of healthy environments.

Spirit Island and the Spill, are board games putting forward newer stories for this medium. 

When older games ignore the environmental ramifications of resource extraction, this causes their economic impacts to be brushed off. Few people, for example, have considered the habitats trampled by trains in Ticket to Ride or the carbon emission from the electrical plants in Powergrid. Many board games pride themselves on offering “authentic” simulations. Without accounting for the economic and social impacts of environmental destruction, however, these games provide an incomplete depiction of the world. Imagine how these games would change if environmental consequences were baked into their rules. Perhaps a game of Catan where the hexagons' number changes depending on how many times the number is rolled in a round or a game of Powergrid where players deal with cap and trade policies for emissions. Changes like these would impact the strategies people make and force them to see a bigger picture of how to address environmental issues. Plus, they offer a new twist for playing a favorite classic game. Players should feel empowered to make such tweaks to existing games and see how it changes the game. And, going forward, hopefully, more game designers will offer a more nuanced presentation of the relationship between humans and the environment.

Not every game needs to be about dealing with the effects of environmental destruction. Meadow’s lovely forest critters would seem less darling if its habitat could be bulldozed. And sometimes we should continue to enjoy Carcassone exactly as it was designed to be. Meanwhile, it is exciting to see how environmentalism is starting to reach board games and look forward to seeing more creators respond to the challenge. Every piece of media helps us make decisions in the real world, so it is important to reflect reality about our relationship with the environment in the media we consume.