Tag Archives: Settlers of Catan

Tasty Words

If you’ve ever played the Pokémon Trading Card Game or Magic: The Gathering or really any trading card game, you’ll have read the little bit of text on the bottom. Not the copyright information, but rather the flavor text that tells you a little about what the card is and how it fits into the bigger world. Stuff about where that character might come from or what the geopolitical situation in the world’s like. These are usually really small blurbs, probably not more than a sentence or two at most, but they’re usually enough to conjure up images of entire worlds.

Flavor text adds depth to a world. It turns Charmander from some fire lizard thing to a creature who would die if the fire on its tail is extinguished. It’s a small thing, but it’s enough to create some kindling for your imagination. What do Charmander do when it rains? Since their life can be a little fragile, it stands to reason that these Pokémon would be defensive and non-trusting, right? It doesn’t really matter what’s actually canon or not, what is important that it’s enough for you, the reader — or player, in this case — to have an insight into this world and, by crafting a narrative around it, to make a connection.

What’s really interesting about flavor text is that it really only shows up in games. Sure, books will offer little tidbits about characters and places, but those are usually fleshed out by the rest of the book. Scripts typically have a short blurb about characters and places when introduced, but, like books, there’s a lot more going on than just that. The flavor text offered through the images on the cards in Settlers of Catan (and really, flavor text can be pictures too) offer us the only glimpse into what Catan is ‘really’ like beyond the little wood abstractions with which the game is played.

XCOM 2 has you as the Commander leading a resistance against an occupying extraterrestrial force. Your team is comprised of my Mostest Favoritest Trope (a ragtag multinational team) that you recruit from around the world and who can, if you turn on the option, speak their native language. Now, XCOM is infamous for its brutal difficulty, and if a soldier gets killed in a battle, they’re dead for real. They don’t respawn, they’re not just injured (that’s a whole ‘nother thing where it can take weeks of in-game time for them to recover); they’re dead. Gone. You can’t use them anymore. Even if they’ve survived a dozen combat missions and been promoted equivalent times. Dead. Gone.

On the one hand, you’re already invested in these characters/soldiers by virtue of them being of strategic importance. But XCOM 2 has ways of making you more attached to them. You can give your soldiers nicknames and customize their appearances (why yes, I think the Archangel the Ranger needs a pair of aviators) and, when recruited, soldiers have a little bit of flavor text in their bio saying where they’re from, why they joined the resistance, stuff like that. It’s small stuff, generated from a preset bunch and nowhere near as wonderful as what you see in some other games, but it does add an additional measure of personality to the game.

Look, games are just rule systems dressed up in some theming or some other. It’s how you have Star Trek Catan and Game of Thrones Catan and a friggin’ Mega Man themed Catan that all have the same ruleset and all arguably work equally well. Theming is what makes Mario whimsical and makes Pokémon child-friendly and not a game about dogfights. Flavor text is part and parcel to theming. Think of it like a flash fiction on steroids: it’s a sentence or two that can somehow suggest a bigger, complete world. And you get to play in it.

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Of Board Games

Board games are still a thing. And card games and other such games that don’t require a TV, computer, or phone. Fascinating, isn’t it?

Now, I love video games. The Last of Us is a work of art and there are feel things in life that can compete with mixing alcohol and Super Smash Brothers. That’s just how things are and it’d be blind to ignore it. Video games are excellent, and are here to stay. So how long is it till digital gaming eclipses old fashioned Monopoly and Risk?

Let’s get this said first: Monopoly is a terrible game: usually. It’s almost entirely based on luck, has what’s usually an arbitrary end time, and, most frustratingly, can get boring. It’s easy for your attention to wane as the game slogs on and nothing seems to come of it. Sure, you can talk to each other, but, well, why bother? Just let the game end already so we can do something else.

But that’s Monopoly. Some games are more entertaining, like Munchkins. It’s all the fun of a tabletop rpg, only without, well, the role-playing. It’s backstabbing, looting, monster killing, and very funny cards. Unlike Monopoly, it encourages much more player interaction (much of which is conniving against each other). There’s also a measure of fudging the rules a little, something you can’t do in a digital game. Of course, sometime the pacing can go south and you tire, but it’s usually a fun game; especially if the cards are right and group’s up for it.

Which brings me to Settlers of Catan, the veritable epitome of board games. If you’ve never played it go buy a copy, make friends, and play it. It’s a game that revolves around interaction. If you’re playing and you haven’t cut alliances, ganged up on someone, or manipulated the crap out of the person next to you, you’re playing it wrong. Essentially, it’s Game of Thrones.

But it’s not just the game that facilitates it, it’s the nature of being around a table. You can watch the despair in your opponents eyes as you cut off her burgeoning road or sit helplessly as the guy next to you laughs maniacally as he and someone you thought would be your ally corner you in your section of the map. More than that, it’s the fun of trying to talk your way out of someone choosing to take one of your cards (as opposed to the other guy who’s definitely winning I mean c’mon man look at that city he just built). The fun of being around a table together is when two of you are each trying to talk a third into making a decision that will supposedly be fore his benefit but’s really for one of yours. This interaction is the soul of the game, as vital to play as rolling the dice. Board games are inherently social games, and the best ones make full use of it.

Playing a game like Settlers digitally against an AI or with opponents miles away causes it to lose much of its human aspect. Furthermore, when rules are enforced by emotionless lines of code, concessions like undoing a move, trading on the sly, or showing your buddy your hand for a laugh are no longer possible. It’s just more fun around a table.

There’s that moment in a good board game where everyone is talking over each other. Maybe two people are each trying to convince a third to enter into a deal that will definitely benefit the player (but really the two are trying to screw each other over by proxy), another player’s laughing and the other two are trying to be advisers to the player being offered the deal. All this is happening at once, of course. Board games aren’t going anywhere.

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