The rise of Eurogames parallels the rise of digital games, but Eurogames are insistently analog. They can be as complex as video games, but, because there’s no fixed narrative, groups of people play together over and over. Last August, nine hundred and twenty-two people played on a huge archipelago of linked Catans, setting a Guinness World Record for the most people playing the board game at one time. “Catan opened the door for consumers to reconsider board games as a social play experience,” Brian Magerko, a digital-media professor at Georgia Tech, told me.
Catanians, as they call themselves, aren’t Luddites; computers, after all, made the growth of Catan possible. It hit the market just as the gaming community was adopting the Internet, and the Internet enabled Catan to go viral. There are more than eighty thousand active members of Playcatan.com, the game’s online platform. Catan can be played on iOS, Android, and Xbox; there have been about two million downloads of Catan apps. The electronic versions aren’t likely to displace the cardboard version, though: the players I talked to stressed that the game must be played in analog to be truly enjoyed. As Magerko put it, “There is something about the co-location of physical items, sitting across from each other at a table, sharing pizza, that playing with digital board games online simply does not replace.”
In Germany, Catan sold very well in the first few years after it was released, then sales flattened. In the U.S., it started in a niche gamer crowd but gradually became more popular. College students took it up, as did their professors. It spread to Silicon Valley, where entrepreneurs like Mark Zuckerberg and John Lilly traded bricks for logs on corporate retreats. “It’s like our kind of golf game,” Mark Pincus, the C.E.O. of Zynga, told the Wall Street Journal in 2009. The Colts quarterback Andrew Luck is also a fan. Catan has appeared twice on “The Big Bang Theory.” On “Parks and Recreation,” Ben Wyatt plays it at his bachelor party and creates his own Catan spinoff called The Cones of Dunshire. Since 1995, Teuber has developed a few games outside the Catan world, including the medieval-themed Domaine, a sort of power-mad little brother to Catan (“Perhaps a little too competitive,” Teuber admitted). His latest non-Catan game, Norderwind, is slated for release in Germany in March.
Teuber likes to play Catan online, but he tries to keep his profile anonymous: “When they find out it’s me, they don’t like to trade with me as much,” he said. The social aspect of the game is what Teuber seems proudest of. He mentioned that he once received a letter from an attendant at a sanitarium for children, who said that one of the boys there had never spoken to the other children. Then, at some point, the boy happened to notice a group of kids playing Catan. “He came to the other children and started to play,” Teuber said. “Now he gets contact with other people. Catan is the medium for that.”