You settle into your sofa one evening, with a bowl of popcorn nearby and your TV remote handy. (Don't get too comfy… we aren't staying.)
At the top of the hour, Sheldon, Raj, and Howard light up your screen in "Big Bang Theory. " Hey, what's that big hexagonal board on the low table in their living room? What are they doing?
Another night finds you hanging out with Ben Wyatt and the crew from "Parks and Recreation." And there's that hexagonal board again! What's going on here? Is it some kind of invasion?
No, you just witnessed Hollywood catching up with the European board game culture. It's time to meet Settlers of Catan, from Mayfair Games, another evergreen Eurogame that every family game shelf should include.
Settlers of what?
Settlers of Catan was published in1995, and won the prestigious German Game of the Year award the same year.
It's also one of the first German board games to make it in the United States, arriving in 1996 and almost immediately picked up an American Game of the Year award. Since then, Settlers sold millions of copies in America and around the world. And its popularity keeps growing every year.
You may have even heard your friends talk about the game, although they probably called either “Settlers” or “Catan” since its whole name is a bit of a mouthful.
There's even a Guinness World Record for “the most people playing Settlers of Catan simultaneously,” which was set in August, 2013, at the Gen Con game fair in Indianapolis. In case you wondered, yes, I was one of the 922 people playing that night. (And it was awesome!)
An ever-changing board
A couple of key things set Settlers apart from other games.
First, although Settlers resembles a typical board game at first glance, it doesn't have a traditional board. Instead, the players start each game by building the board out of a set of hexagons which show the resources available in the game.
Once the board is built, you and the other players find yourselves looking at a map of a hexagonal island surrounded by ocean and dotted with woods, fields, mountains, and more.
In the game, the players are all trying to settle the island by vying for access to the right combination of resources.
But the task is daunting, so nobody has access to all of the resources they need. That sets the stage for the most interesting part of the game: trading with other players.
The interactions that develop as you trade in the game are what make memories of playing Settlers so much fun.
In order to get what you need, you literally have to give other people what they need. In the process, you're constantly trying to work out deals that help both of you - well, and maybe help you a little more.
And don't start thinking that hoarding resources might make a good strategy, because about the time you start building up a useful pile of goodies, the robber will visit and swipe it all in the night.
It just keeps growing
The basic game supports either three or four players, but if you want to add more people, you can get a five six player expansion.
From there, you can also expand the game by adding new types of map pieces and strategic challenges.
The Seafarers of Catan expansion brings ships into the mix. Cities and Knights of Catan lets you pour resources into your cities to develop buildings, earn victory points, and gain strategic advantages.
The two other expansions, Traders and Barbarians, and Explorers and Pirates, focus more on scenarios, bringing together a number of smaller expansions into a pair of nicely packaged presentations.
Settlers also spawned a number of stand-alone spin-off games, including two family editions and a number of historical versions.
The best way to start with Settlers is by picking up the base game and playing. Don't worry about any expansions until you and your family have a good understanding of what's going on and how the game works.
Although kids in the 10- to 12-year-old range catch onto the concepts in the game pretty quickly, be ready to go slow and give them advice if need be. There's a lot going on in Settlers, so kids on the younger end of the scale may find the game overwhelming at first.
Some of the local game stores have regularly-scheduled Settlers of Catan nights where you can learn the game and meet new players. Call the store near you to check their schedule.
Depending on when and where you go, you might even meet my 9 year-old and me around the table!