of Catan, a hyper-social strategy board game, has become the new “in” thing
in Silicon Valley. My guess is that more
Silicon Valley elites play Settlers than play golf.
Playable by people of any age, golf was once the king of all
social games. Although viewed by Venezuelan
President Hugo Chavez as a “bourgeois” form of entertainment that should be
eliminated, the sport has traditionally been the go-to game for people –
especially those in the business world – who enjoy socializing through recreational
But in Silicon Valley, golf is mostly dead. It is a game
that a few people enjoy and the rest of us have heard of but probably haven’t
played. Sure, some venture capitalists play
golf, but mostly with each other. While there are some entrepreneurs enjoy playing
golf, just as many enjoy kite-surfing, snowboarding, road biking, running, and
I recently attended a high-level technology conference that
was held right next to a beautiful golf course. In my unscientific poll of about 30 attendees,
only one actually went golfing, and over half had never golfed in their life.
In contrast, Settlers of Catan (or “Settlers,” as it’s often
called) is booming and is quickly becoming the activity of choice for entrepreneurs
here in the Valley. I got into Settlers because Reid Hoffman, the founder of
LinkedIn, had been telling me about what a great game it is for over a year. Then one day, some of the engineers at Rapleaf
(most of whom had been playing Settlers since college) challenged me to play
with them, and I’ve been hooked ever since.
It wasn’t long after my Settlers initiation before I began
to discover Silicon Valley technologists meeting and huddling over the board
game. In fact, there might even be a high correlation between technology
innovation and Settlers play – some of Silicon Valley’s most talented players
include Mark Pincus, Zynga CEO; Marissa Mayer, Google’s VP of Search; Randi
Zuckerberg, Facebook executive; Barney Pell, Powerset founder; Tod Sacerdoti, BrightRoll
CEO; Saar Gur, Charles River Ventures partner; Scott Faber, Ingenio founder; Erin
Turner, Level Up founder; Ellen Levy, LinkedIn VP; super-angel Aydin Senkut; Ken
Sawyer, Saints Ventures CEO; John Lilly, Mozilla CEO; Matt Sanchez, Videoegg
CEO; Dave Wehner, Allen & Company managing director; Kavin Stewart, LOLapps
CEO; and many others.
But it is not just Silicon Valley stars who are contributing
to Settler’s growing adoption – many engineers and young founders play too. In the
Valley, where geeky is “in,” Settlers is going mainstream.
Reasons for Settlers’ success include its variety for winning
tactics, easy-to-understand rules, and its relatively quick and balanced game
play. For a more comprehensive overview of the game and its inventor Klaus
Teuber, please read the wonderful
piece that Andrew Curry wrote in Wired earlier this year (a must read).
At Rapleaf, Settlers has – along with karaoke and our yearly
camping trip – become something of a company activity, with people here creating
late-night Settlers pick-up games. And
last month, Rapleaf and StumbleUpon (another “Settlers company”) got together
for a night of Settlers.
While Settlers’ game play is already pretty sophisticated,
Rapleaf players have embraced Silicon Valley’s innovative culture and started
adding in their own rules to make the board game even more complex, yet more
balanced, often forcing people to be even more creative in their tactics. You
can try for yourself by adding futures and other instruments into your next
In the high-stech world of Silicon Valley, there is
something wonderful about an enjoyable low-tech game made from cardboard, dice,
and wooden pieces. It reminds me of my youth,
a period in which many of us started with Monopoly/Clue, moved to Dungeons and Dragons,
and ended with Risk and poker.
“Geeky” games have traditionally been male dominated and have
only appealed to the most dedicated players. Thanks to its game play, however, not only
does Settlers have tons of female supporters, but it also appeals to people of
all ages. Many people claim other games
like Ticket to Ride and Puerto Rico are much better, and they may be. But part
of a good recreational activity is having a lot of people to play with and, in
that regard, Settlers has certainly crossed the chasm in Silicon Valley.
Wow I had no idea that this game has gotten so big around these parts. I thought WoW was the new golf 🙂 My girlfriend a few years ago actually got way into it and started buying the various “Settlers-like” games. Puerto Rico is a good one too. I think of Settlers as a kinder/friendlier Monopoly.
Great game Auren! Did you know Germany, where the game was invented, is the board game capital of the world? They even have a highly coveted award for game of the year. Settlers has won this a number of times.
I have to say it is pretty fun. Go Catan!Helps to city build and negotiate.
It is indeed a great game Vivek 🙂
Count me in as a Settlers player, too. I heard about it from Bill Woodcock a couple years ago.
Auren, I’m flatted you mentioned me as one of the “talented” players. I’m looking forward to joining you guys for a game or three!
I stumbled upon this article from BoardGameGeek.com – while I don’t know how the valley “elite” socialize, it’s safe to say that golf is A) less accessible, and B) more well-known than Settlers to the other 1.5 million of us who aren’t tech execs. When some of my teammates busted out Settlers on an away trip last month, I was shocked – but this is one of the handful of times that it’s come up outside of my group of friends.
I think that you make some good points, but I’d agree with you a whole lot more if you changed “Golf” to “Poker.”
My group of friends in Orange County started playing Settlers earlier this year. Fast forward a few months and we now have a pile of German board games: Dominion, Power Grid, Ticket to Ride, Samll World, Endeavor…
Ever run across this essay? I think every military officer reads it during their training phase. It captures initiative in an A-Player. A-Players attack, B-Players ask questions and worry about failure.
Settlers: Yup, it’s in my game closet.
Golf: Nope, not even once. Unless you count mini-golf.
I score this as a win for the world: Settlers has to have an enormously lower carbon footprint than golf, when you consider what it takes to build and maintain a golf course against the native landscapes that golf courses are generally carved out of.
Auren, you should check out Race for the Galaxy at some point as well. I find many metaphors in the game for running a startup.
Settlers and its expansions are awesome and few people can deny it except for those who have already walked through its fire. I feel so strongly about this that around three months ago I created a website, Wikia site, and forum for everything Catan-related. My website is called The World of Catan. I encourage everyone, especially the writer of this article, to come and contribute to the site. We are very happy to discuss and try out fan variants, scenarios and expansions including all those that add or remove elements or rules from the game. The site is fairly new so anyone interested in this game are very welcome to join the site’s forum and join in the discussion. Thanks for a fun article and I am glad that Catan is becoming so popular in the Silicon Valley.
apples vs watermelons comparison, if anyone put the time in learning and playing golf they would find it just a good or better than a board game. But they just don’t match up, I have never tried this board game, but I will now. Will you try golf?
Thanks much for such invaluable insight. I printed the message out and put it in my top drawer to reference every once in awhile and especially before hiring. It provoked a great deal of thoughts in my head, compelling me to want to ponder the points you made and remember them.
I just wanted to let you know that I really enjoyed your article on “A-Players.” They were all on the mark and not the typical “run-of-the-mill” observations. Keep up the great work!
You should try Revolution! by Steve Jackson Games . . . Great article!
Ah… it’s nice to finally know where my brilliance comes from. Thanks Catan!
In Seattle we have a (for lack of better term) Steampunk club, and at our Monday-night meetups at a Greenwood coffee shop, Catan and other boardgames are a staple. It warms my heart to see that in this age of computer games and such, people can come together and socialize over laughter, coffee, and meeple.
[geek cred if you know what a “meeple” is]
I think it depends somewhat on the technology sector and corporate culture. I can see Catan being popular at the cool Web 2.0 companies, but at the semiconductor company I work at (lots of older folks with families), everyone plays golf and games like Catan are for their kids.
Have you ever seen http://www.facebook.com/settlersofcatan ? This group grows by a three digit number every day.
Auren, you’re kind of late to the party, you know. The game is 15 years old.
That’s awesome–it’s really cool to see Settlers Silicon Valley (SSV) getting mainstream attention!
It’s great for people in the games industry for other reasons too. There are some really cool behavioral dynamics in Settlers, although most of them are created inter-personally rather than between the player and the game itself, which is part of the game’s genius.
The virtual economy is perfectly honed to keep the game interesting and create rich but light-hearted player interaction (“You’re a sheep-monopolist!” is one of my favorite quotes, from a recent game I played). And for some of those reasons, it’s actually much easier to build a relationship with a game like Settlers than with golf, where there is a lot more “pride” on the table due to direct measurement of one’s abilities and results.
I call it the head fake (borrowed from the man from “The Last Lecture” series: http://www.associatedcontent.com/article/604505/life_lessons_and_the_randy_pausch_head.html?cat=25), and it’s an incredibly powerful team- and relationship-building technique.
It works with people who are at similar levels of skill and passion for certain activities (sports, typically, such as golf, tennis, and mountain-climbing). For Settlers, I would argue that all you need to be at a similar level of skill is to be smart, which everyone we deal with in silicon valley is (arguably). Then, the more you play, the better you can apply your smarts, but you can compete immediately in the contest, which you certainly cannot do with golf or tennis. Interesting stuff–thanks for sharing!
Uh, golf is a SPORT. Catan is a GAME. Not sure that you can compare the two really. I love Catan but I also like to go outside once in a while.
I don’t know what kind of Settlers you’ve been playing but in my experience Settlers has been anything but kind/friendly. My buddies and I play cutthroat. Feelings will be hurt and friendships will be maimed in my apartment.