40 thoughts on “The First Nations of Catan: Practices in Critical Modification”

  1. I’m just going to comment on the variant, although I enjoyed the article as well.

    I’m concerned that the First Nations’ resources don’t scale very well in the mid-to-long term — that seems like a big disadvantage. If the First Nations build a city, it doesn’t provide as much advantage as when the others build a city, and a new First Nations settlement does not provide as much value as a regular settlement. That is mitigated by not having to build roads, and by the asymmetrical possibilities in the attack action, but I think eventually the Tribe gets ground down and out-resourced. The suggestion that comes to mind is to grant an extra Tribe move (and therefore an extra resource and more options for attack) with more settlements or cities, but that might be too powerful.

    Also I think this leads to a massive arms race in development cards. At least, that’s what I’d do if I were a colonialist — the risk getting a city destroyed would be catastrophic. (Perhaps the attack should merely degrade a city to a settlement?)

  2. Hi Frederic,

    I like your thinking — the Tribe does become less and less effectively (comparatively) as the Settler players develop more cities and settlements. While my thought here is that it motivates the First Nations player to end the game quickly (a different play-style than is usual in Catan, highlighting the asymmetry in the game), I do like your fix. Another idea: Maybe tie extra Tribe moves to the construction of Settler-player cities, so that whenever a city hits the board, the Tribe gets some free moves? Not sure, I’d have to playtest it. Thanks for thinking about the game!

    1. You could also give the first nations a resource for destroying a city, further incentivizing them to attack cities and level the playing fields. For instance, when you destroy a city, take any one resource that that city could produce. This number might need to be higher (2?) to make it balance.

  3. I’m not sure what the whole point of this exercise is.

    ‘It became clear, at least to me, a white person playing this game in the U.S. in the early 2010s, that every game of Settlers of Catan re-tells the American myth of White European settlers stumbling upon a fertile land that was theirs by right, encountering no meaningful resistance, and acting on behalf of God and Country to develop economies, settlements, and cities in this “New World.”’

    I’m a white person playing the game in the 21st C in Australia. A country which was considered to be Terra nullius. Which is a big island.

    However I don’t think of Australia’s colonial history when playing the game.

    The board looks nothing like Australia. The resource distribution don’t reflect that of the country, and the game doesn’t give any indication of an indigenous population in any way connected to the first inhabitants of my country.

    Settlers is set up with each player populating the board with two settlements. It starts with a series of potential ports with which to trade. For me these things suggest the game is understood about the internal competition of native* peoples in a land.

    Game elements like Cities, Monopolies, Armies, and so forth a much more evocative of topics like agrarian/industrial revolutions.

    If I get both the longest road and the largest army am I more like protestants moving to the east coast of the US, or Spanish conquistadors in Texas, or perhaps the Romans, expanding an empire? If I make use of trading through ports and have a few cities built up am I more like the British in Australia, setting up penal colonies, or am I more like the Phonecians or Greeks?

    And so on.

    There are many ways you can look at Settlers and try and form a thematic understanding of the game.

    I personally feel that we should try to understand the mechanics of Catan in a way that matches a view of the world that we are happy with. Rather than stretch out to find fault and thus miss out on a pleasurable game experience.

    1. Hi Pasquale, thanks for reading this piece and thinking about its implications!

      To answer your opening question (“I don’t understand what the whole point of this exercise is”), I’ll quote your own comment, with a brief clarification: “we should try to understand the mechanics of Catan in a way that matches a view of the world that we are happy with.”

      This piece is my attempt to do just that: To create a Catan where I can comfortably play. When I began to feel uncomfortable playing Catan, the game ceased to be a “pleasurable game experience” for me, and that led me to craft this re-imagining of Catan that could be a pleasurable game experience. I was never “stretch[ing] out to find fault” in this exercise.

      I’m not insinuating that every person in the world, or even every U.S. American, needs to play Catan the way that I do, so please, don’t feel that this piece is impugning the way that you play Catan.

      However, I think First Nations of Catan is a fun variant, all ideological considerations aside, and I’d love if you tried it out sometime when you’re sitting down to play Catan.


      1. Hi Greg,

        You’re not really playing Catan. You’re just playing a game you made up that is like Catan, from Catan pieces.

        And, not to be rude, but from what you’ve shared about your new game, I’m not sure why I’d want to play it when I feel like playing Catan. Its not the same game, and I want to play Catan because I want to play Catan…

        I’d suggest you might just consider accepting Catan for what it is, and considering ways you can understand it differently to your initial reaction, or just playing another game.

        Other games are great. You don’t have to play Catan if your worldview is getting in the way of enjoying it. Just play those other games instead.

        Also, I would suggest that your ire/discussion is better directed at a game like Mombasa. Catan is largely abstracted and, title aside, seems to be more problematic by projection than by its nature. If it was called ‘The Germanic Tribes’ would you even have gone down this path you went down?

        1. Hi Pasquale,

          Re: Your first sentence: fair enough. I am also somewhat of a strict constructionist when it comes to games and their rules, so I understand the important distinction being made here. Perhaps I should have said “…needs to play Catan (and/or its variants),” or “…needs to engage with Catan,” etc. I don’t appreciate your use of the word “just” in this sentence, however, as, taken to its extreme, this position minimizes all games (for what is any game but “just” a game that [someone] made up from pieces?). As someone who makes and writes about games, this is a position I fight against daily.

          Re: Your comments on what I play and do not play: This seems a bit off topic. My understanding of your comments was that you were concerned about why this piece was written, which I believe I answered in my previous comment.

          Thanks for the advice to look at Mombasa. As a quick perusal of this journal shows, there are plenty of problematic games with plenty of good people investigating them. I’m glad you consider me up to the task.


          1. My response was a little inconsistent. Generally speaking I feel that your reading of Catan is a stretch; that you’re doing a colonial analysis that engages with the game superficially – using the ability of any abstracted game elements to support whatever you want to load on to them, rather than a deeper breakdown of the unique elements of Catan.

            I feel that you’re stepping off to your varient before you really break down you relationship with the game in detail and assess where it might fit and were it might be laboured, and as a result don’t offer much insight.

            In this regard I suggested you look at other games like Mombasa, as I feel that they are much more interesting when it comes to looking at colonial attitudes and responses in games. And would give you greater scope to explore these issues that seem important to you.

            In the end I didn’t learn much about Catan in this article, just about you and your varient design. That has value on its own, but Catan is not really a character of significance in your piece.

    1. Thanks for sharing this, Bruno! I particularly enjoyed the French-language pun on “Colon.” Speaking English, I never realized this overlap. Perhaps part of why the game was rebranded as “Catan”? I also like your application of concerns over exoticism to the past. Not something I’d thought a whole lot about, but something that board games as a whole are guilty of. Maybe there’s a game-design fix: Some sort of time-travel game like you suggest, buy I imagine it as a module that can latch onto other games, allowing the time-travelers to visit many different game-versions of the same exoticized locale!

            1. I don’t say it’s not problematic – the very fact that there is discussion shows that there is a problem. After some discussions, I didn’t object it. I even find it quite good.

              My two main points are
              • as I explain in of the post scriptums to my original article, I don’t think we should abandon exoticism in games, but I think it’s important analyze it.
              • The american indian imagery has a very different meaning in the US and in Europe, specifically in France, Belgium and Germany, where, for historical reasons, it has a very positive meaning.

              From the discussions I’ve had with some american friends, it seems that it is mostly the covert art which is problematic in the US, while the cards are not. May be we should have changed the cover art for the US.

            2. I would suggest that if the cover art is problematic it is problematic. I’m not sure how some European noble savage myth somehow grants it a free pass? Not knowing something is offensive doesn’t make it less offensive.

            3. I’d say it’s an interesting problem that mostly shows the differences in appreciating these depiction between US and Europe. The art cannot be offensive or not per se – it is offensive or not depending on how you perceive the different elements of the caricature in it. I must say that I still don’t really understand why for the American eye the cover is offensive and the cards not.
              It reminds me of another story, a few years ago, about an illustration for another one of my games, Isla Dorada. The US publisher asked the French artist to redraw part of it because it would be seens as racist in the US, but the French publisher had to ask the US one what part of the picture was racist. It happened that big lips in a caricature was a racist stereotypes in the US, while frizzy hair or excessively dark skin was not. Such codes are arbitrary, and we didn’t know about this one before, and had no way to guess it. Actually, the artist first thought that the racist stereotype was the bone in the nose, which is indeed borderline in Europe, but we were told this was not an issue in the US ;-), or far less than big lips.

              That’s why I say that may be we should have changed the cover for the US, but that the art for this game is not offensive per se.

            4. No. They not arbitrary. They’re based on a history of racist stereotyping.

              Is Tintin not offensive in regard to Japanese people, just because it was published for a European audience? If I make racist jokes to my friends who aren’t of that race, do they jokes cease to be racist?

              That Europe doesn’t have a significant enough population of Native Americas to cause this cover to be an issue there doesn’t mean it doesn’t perpetuate racist stereotypes. The world is a single place, everything is connected.

            5. What shows it’s arbitray is the strong lips example – no black in Europe will find this more racist than fizzy hair. Cartoons are caricatures, and therefore simplistic, but bot necessary racist. They often are, but which stereotype becomes racist and which doesn’t is arbitrary.

              I agree with you on the fact that we tend in Europe to forget that American indians are still a living culture, mostly because none of us has ever met a single one. I admit that this might be a problem with my game’s theme, and that for this reason old greeks might have been a wiser choice. But the problem seems to be the art more than the theme, and I don’t find the art disparaging. What surprises me is that I had another game with an american-indian theme a few years ago, Tomahawk, with the same kind of graphic treatment, which didn’t seem to raise any problem.

              BTW, what makes Tintin offensive for Japanese people is less the racist stereotypes, even though they are undoubtedly there but not taken very seriously, than its pro-chinese political stance.

            6. What I want to say is that
              • yes it’s exoticism
              • as I stated in my article, I don’t think we should give up exoticism, because the very simplistic nature of boardgames need it.
              • the only problem is to avoid what is clearly offensive
              • from Europe, it’s almost impossible to guess what will or will not be deemed offensive in the US

            7. 2. I don’t think you’ve made a strong argument for this.
              3. It’s not hard, consult the minority groups whose cultures you’re appropriating and get some feedback.

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