Why Christian college students love Settlers of Catan

A few weeks ago, the Gordon College Facebook network lit up with comments after Brian Buell posted a status update about the connection between young evangelicals and the game Settlers of Catan. One of the commenters, Anna Scott, took to her blog with further thoughts on the connection. We asked them to extend the conversation here.

Anna Scott: Last Saturday night my husband George and I had our friends Kirk and Rachel over for dessert and drinks (and to watch the Mad Men premiere). After looking at our bookshelves for several minutes, Rachel turned and excitedly blurted, “I love The Brothers K!”

George looked at me and smiled. Only days before, we'd had a spirited disagreement prompted by the popularity of the music of both Sufjan Stevens and Conor Oberst, and George's distaste for both. Soon, however, the argument came to include a wide range of artists, musicians, authors, activities and, of course, books. The Brothers K, the novel by David James Duncan, being one of these contentious items. George’s thesis was as follows: Christians in their 20s and 30s have predictable tastes, while at the same time believing that they alone have stumbled upon something unique in secular culture, something that is not stereotypically “Christian.”

For everything that George cited, I had a defense. For example, young women in general like Conor Oberst and his band Bright Eyes (though I do not); David James Duncan is not even a Christian; Franny and Zooey, by J.D. Salinger, has as many Buddhist references as Christian; Sufjan Stevens is a critically acclaimed outside of the Christian world, too—he was even featured on NPR!

While these things are true—Christians surely are not the only fans of Franny and Zooey, nor the only ones who buy Sufjan Stevens’ albums—it is also true that in the few days that passed since having this conversation, The Brothers K, David Bazan (of Pedro the Lion), Conor Oberst, and John Irving’s Prayer for Owen Meany have all come up organically in conversations with friends at Regent College, in Vancouver, B.C., where I'm a seminary student.

Each of these shared interests seem to fit easily into the larger category of “art,” but then came the Settlers of Catan discussion on Facebook. The very same week as our Oberst/Stevens discussion, a fellow Gordon College alumnus posted the following status update: “I think someone should write an article about Settlers of Catan and its role in Christian culture." In a matter of hours, a comment frenzy ensued, climaxing in 19 cheers and reminiscences. Scanning my news feed on an overcast Vancouver morning, this made me laugh out loud.

Brian Buell: That was my status update, this was my idea.

My friend Scott still insists that I almost made him fail out of school in the spring semester of his junior year of college. I was a year ahead of him and had that senior grade-invincibility about me. And my other two roommates and I were constantly looking for a fourth person to joins us in late night games of Settlers of Catan—usually when Scott was trying to cram for a final or go to bed early before a test. We’d call down to his room—this was post AIM-being-cool and pre-Facebook, so we actually used phones—and all three of us would just yell into the phone, “Scottie! Get up here! Settlas!"

It would usually take three calls, a threat that he was going to unplug his phone from the wall and a counter-threat that we would just come down and bang on his door. Either way, we would not let him study and we sure were not about to let him go to bed. Settlers is more fun with four.

We loved these late night Settlers sessions and we thought we were the only people in the world who understood how this game's awesomeness. We were wrong: it turns out that all across the country, at other Christian colleges and among other Christian small groups, this game was catching on like wildfire.

Anna: Let’s back up in case some of you somehow missed this phenomenon. Settlers of Catan is a board game produced by a German company, which has garnered an inexplicable popularity among young Christians. There were rumblings back in 2005, in my last year at Gordon, when friends would bring the game over to my house, hoping to hook a few new players, but by the following year it had grown into a phenomenon.

Brian: It should be noted that this game didn’t receive the illustrious “Spiel de Jahres” (German Board Game of the Year) in 1995 for nothing. It’s fun, if nerdy, and plays like a mix of Risk, Monopoly and Pit. Basically, everyone is a settler on an island (Catan), and you are trying to build roads, settlements, and cities. There is trading, monopolizing of resources, scheming, teaming up, backstabbing, strategizing and dice rolling. Like I said, pretty nerdy, but we loved it. It was our game.

Anna: A few years ago I was serving as a teacher in China with a Christian organization where we were placed in teams and sent to schools throughout the country. There was one thing every far-flung team had in common: they all got together to play Settlers. At least one teacher brought the board game to our organization’s annual conference in Thailand, and when we got together with nearby teams in Beijing, there was sure to be a game of Settlers.

Brian: To this day, I have no idea why it caught on so much among twenty-something Christian-college graduates and their like between the years 2003-2006, but it did. Ask your friend who graduated from a Christian college.

But then again, I have no idea why we also love the Princess Bride, talking about reading C.S. Lewis, The Brother’s K, A Prayer for Owen Meany; playing "Mafia"; smoking a pipe/ hookah, listening to Bright Eyes and frequenting local dive bars to drink PBR and hang out with the “locals,” but we do

Anna: The lists of “Stuff (insert distinct people group here) Like” have been done and done again. Not surprisingly, there is already a list of “Stuff Christians Like,” whose creator—also not surprisingly—already has a book deal. However, the great success, the genius of the “Stuff White People Like” website was due to the fact that it struck a resonant chord: we all thought we were the only ones who liked Mos Def, watched Arrested Development or read the The New Yorker.

The analogous list for Christians is one that, likewise, calls us out on the things in non-Christian or “secular” culture that we think are above stereotyping or pigeon-holing, because they are not overtly Christian, but, it turns out, are beloved by thousands of other young Christians. Here is our version of this list, which I predict that Patrol Readers will be able to—albeit uncomfortably—identify with:

  • Settlers of Catan
  • David James Duncan, especially, The Brothers K
  • John Irving, especially A Prayer for Owen Meany
  • Social and/or sophisticated or exotic forms of smoking: the occasional American Spirit cigarette, pipes, cloves, cigars or hookahs
  • U2/Bono
  • Franny and Zooey, by J.D. Salinger
  • Indie singer/songwriters Rosie Thomas, Damien Jurado, David Bazan (of Pedro the Lion), Sufjan Stevens, Conor Oberst
  • Catholic novelist Flannery O’Connor
  • Mafia (game)
  • (Certain) fantasy series: Narnia, Lord of the Rings, and Harry Potter
  • Web comics, especially the philosophica xkcd
  • Skilled or learned group dancing: swing (in the 1990s) and salsa (2000s)
  • Paste magazine
  • The Princess Bride

Illustration by Jonathan Fitzgerald.

About The Author

Brian Buell

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