Lessons of Catan

What things cost in Settlers of Catan.

Dim yellow propane lamps bounce 19th century rays of soft light around wooden logs of the little cabin I’m sharing with four other large dudes.  The antiquated atmosphere seems to accentuate how dark and cold it is outside.  We’ve just finished a giant, thoroughly scrumptious pot of chicken chili.  A crackling wood fire sends essential heat to the occupants of this cabin, but also dries multitudes of paraphernalia hanging from well-placed nails in the rafters. Each nail holds the damp detritus of gear towed by sled over nine miles, up a thousand feet, by cross-country skis into the back country near the North Fork of the Flathead River.  The cabin is small, cozy, luxuriant.  

I’m sitting at a wooden picnic table in front of a travel-sized version of Settlers of Catan waiting patiently as our fearless leader, who brought the game – generously packed those nine miles into the wilderness – explains the rules and offers advice to the uninitiated.   The rules of Catan are multitude, but I’ve played a million, million times, and I think I probably have a good shot at taking the game.  I break into his explanatory exposition, exhorting to the noobs how critically important initial settlement selection is.  Our leader nods sagely.  He is a patient man.  He continues his diatribe on the finer points of trading sheep for wood, and etc.  The game is about to begin.  

I would take a moment to briefly, and vaguely, so as not to incriminate anyone other than perhaps myself, mention the existence of grown-up imbibements at this juncture.  This is not an aspect of the game I have ever navigated when playing with my children, but that’s the thing about grown-up imbibements, they often convince us in the moment we’re something we may not be.  Never-the-less, I feel ready.  The amber glow of everything acts like a sedative, but I’m pretty sure, given a decent set of starting conditions, I can win Catan in my sleep, so we’re good, I convince myself.

I get the roll to start the settlement selection process.  Going first isn’t great, because it also means I have to go last for the second pick.  Pros and cons flit in and out of my mind.  To this point, my own personal beliefs about Catan have been that the initial starting locations of your settlements pretty much determines the outcome of the game.  It’s generally a resources game.  More resources equals winning.

Then, just as I’m about to place my first settlement, our leader, and Catan host, says something that I will not be able to shake.  ‘Here’s another piece of advice,’ he says.  ‘Don’t fight what the game is giving you.’

He means, if the resources you’re accumulating suggest a certain course of action, follow it, don’t fight it, holding out for some resource you think you need but aren’t getting.  Don’t hold out for something you’re not getting.  Holy crap.  If I had a nickel . . .

I’m thrown back to a different time, bending low over a row of cruciferous vegetables searching for big answers and also a podcast to pass the time, and landing on an amazing episode of Freakonomics where the hosts of that show discuss the concept of the Fallacy of Sunk Costs.  Essentially, this idea says you shouldn’t evaluate your future decisions based on how much time/effort/money/etc you’ve sunk into whatever it is you’re deciding about.  Be future looking.  Be honest.  I take a good hard look at the broccoli.  

I realize that not fighting what the game is giving you is a version of this – though much more compact, more relatable as advice.  It means that if you are getting a bunch of sheep, wheat, and ore, even if you’ve invested several turns in the attempt, stop trying to build settlements (which need wood and brick) and start buying development cards (which need exactly one sheep, one wheat, and one ore).  Before this game, I would have given this line of action very short shrift.  Almost no one wins by buying a bunch of development cards.  

I slowly build my empire.  Six points, then seven, then eight.  I can get to nine on the next turn.  Meanwhile, our leader is following his own advice.  He buys development card after development card.  I think this is imprudent, but I try not to be a dick about it.  Now he has the largest army (2 points) while the thief is in almost permanent residence on my properties, cutting off my resource flow.  

I’m taken back again to a different time, when I was on the high school policy debate squad.  A few years before my time, an extraordinary duo from my high school went all the way to final rounds at nationals.  There is a legendary (apocryphal?) story of a round of debate in which this duo, arguing on the negative side, ran into an affirmative case that was so incredibly esoteric and just out there, that they had almost nothing in their toolbox with which to fight it.  Their ultimate triumph came from following this very rule – don’t fight what the game is giving you.  They ditched everything except ‘topicality’ which is an argument that the other team loses because they aren’t debating the prescribed topic.  A brilliant, if risky, move.  Also an ultimately a successful one.

All of which is much like the outcome of our game of Catan.  Whether it’s the soporifics of substance or ambiance, or whether it is simply pride, it comes as a surprise to me when our leader, who had “squandered” his precious resources repeatedly buying development cards, claims victory at 10 points.  What a great lesson.  Don’t fight what the game is giving you.

I roll over and over this now as I think about the business I’m starting – what are the skills and talents I have that I love to use?  I mull what the game is giving me as I think about my dad going into a care facility and what that means for me and my family.  I think about the relationships in my life that have come and gone – what was I holding onto that the game was telling me to let go of?   And I look at my beautiful children and wonder what I might have to offer as a parent that I can lean into instead of trying to make up for the mistakes I’ve made.  

Ultimately, I think not fighting what the game gives is about grace and bravery.  It’s about having grace for yourself and others when things don’t go how you planned/expected/hoped, and having the bravery to move into the space you do occupy. Read what the game has handed you, and fully own it – be brave enough to redefine what success actually means and to redefine the paths to that success. Then put your shoulder into that path.   In my life I’ve always subscribed to the kind of paths to success Olympic swimmers embody.  Push with relentless persistence and hope for the best.  A better way, perhaps, is to learn to pivot to something that fits better.  I’m not a great pivoter, I have always resisted change, but I’m not that old a dog – there’s always time to grow and improve.  

All of which isn’t to say that unbounded persistence is necessarily bad.  Brute force resource accumulation did get me to that ninth point, which isn’t a slack game of Catan, but not before the player who leaned into what the game was giving them got to ten.        

Receiving a fifth place medal in the 100 yd backstroke from an actual Olympic gold medalist swimmer in 1996. About the highest I ever achieved as a competitive swimmer.

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