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Building Matters

Gamers Tasked with Solving Pseudo Climate Crisis

Catan: New Energies puts renewable energy and greenhouse gas emissions within the field of play

CATAN: New-Energies puts on the table some of today's most pressing climate problems for players to solve.

In 1995, the board game The Settlers of Catan (now Catan), designed by a German dental technician named Klaus Teuber (1952-2023), was introduced to the world and changed the strategy gaming landscape forever. The rules of the game are mind-numbingly complex, but the premise is simple enough (if you’re a seasoned player you can probably skip to the next paragraph): up to four players, or settlers, arrive on an uninhabited island—a construct inspired by the Vikings’ arrival in Iceland ca. 870 CE—and proceed to build, expand, harvest, and trade. Settlers acquire quantities of five specific resources (lumber, brick, ore, grain, and wool), lay down roads, build settlements, and erect cities along the way. More land yields more resources which yields more settlements and so on. Through a combination of chance and strategy, the endgame is to dominate the board of play and earn 10 points. It’s Monopoly meets Risk, wrapped in a Tolkienesque cloak.

The game became a global phenomenon, launching not only Teuber’s career as a full-time game designer but also inspiring dozens of licensed expansions, adaptations, and standalone spinoffs, set everywhere from the 19th-century American West to the outer cosmos. Teuber’s latest spinoff (and poignantly his last), the forthcoming Catan: New Energies, brings the fictional island into present day, where players must reckon with centuries of development and wage pathways to a renewables-driven and decarbonized future.

From oil to renewables

New Energies’s co-designer and Teuber’s son, Benjamin, attributes the inspiration for this game to a 2011 expansion scenario—co-written by a sustainability researcher and an office administrator for the American Bar Association—titled Catan: Oil Springs. (The premise: oil has been discovered on the island, but the resource is scarce, and players must decide “whether the common good is worth limiting oil usage or whether the pursuit of victory is worth the risk of ruin.”) In a prepared statement, Benjamin says through a translator that upon receiving Oil Springs, “my father and I began thinking of a game about electricity—how to use it, how to produce it (renewable vs. fossil fuels), what effects each has, and more.” This line of thinking eventually led Benjamin and his father to arrive at a new resource, or commodity, that fit the context of the game. “Ore became too dominant in gameplay as it is already needed to build other objects. If there was a scarcity of ore, the game was very slow,” Benjamin says. Rather than opting for aluminum or silicon or other core elements needed to build renewable energy infrastructure, the designers went in a different direction. New Energies’s key resource is research.

In the midst of Covid, the Teubers renewed contact with the sustainability specialist who co-created Oil Springs, Erik Assadourian, now editor-in-chief at Corporate Eco Forum, to help them write New Energies.

The game’s success hinges, in part, on resource scarcity and an understanding of fair market value. As such, it costs players more to build out renewables than it does a power plant running off fossil fuels. Additionally, the simple act of off-setting greenhouse gas emissions by building a greener alternative is not a winning strategy, at least on its own. “In the game, it is necessary that you have ways to reverse the pollution that was done before,” Benjamin says. “The problem was that using solar power instead of fossil energy is actually not taking CO2 out of our atmosphere.” This represents an important confluence of the game’s fantasy elements and the realities of our world.

According to Kelli Schmitz, Catan Studio’s director of brand development, “We’re still in that same fictional world. If you imagine the island of Catan that these Vikings are on and fast forward 2000 years, that’s where you end up with this game.” That may be so, but that fact doesn’t undercut the designers’ capacity for forethought. By stressing intellectual property as a commodity in the gameplay, this reveals an appreciation for an industry (and a society) in constant flux.

A standalone but evolving game

The New Energies rulebook concedes, quite refreshingly, that while generating electricity from wind and solar doesn’t cause environmental harm, the production of renewable systems “still causes widespread pollution as sand, metals, and rare earth minerals are mined to make the panels, turbines, and batteries these systems use.”

Players’ progress is measured by their local footprint (LF), and as play commences through acts of trade, building, and even attending climate conferences and receiving government grants, resources and related assets are gained and lost based on where your LF ranks compared to fellow players. In tandem, the game features a single global footprint marker that moves forward and backward based on cumulative LFs, thus offering players mutual incentives to build with restraint, moderate energy use, invest in carbon capture and sequestration technology, and accumulate “green events” like conference attendance (i.e., education) and sustainable production (i.e., renewable power). Having a lower LF contributes to a player’s individual progress, and it does likewise for the broader landscape of the island of Catan itself. Fewer environmental hazards are better for everyone, clearly, but this is a game, and in the game someone must win.

Understandably, however granular any game of Catan is, it’s probably unreasonable to expect this fictional island to be subject to the same political and jurisdictional concerns that dictate renewable energy production, development, and emissions tracking in the real world. “It’s meant as a simplification of very big, macro problems,” Schmitz says. New Energies also endeavors, in the Catan tradition, to be “an experience, not a lecture,” something Teuber was fond of pointing out. Schmitz continues: “We’re really talking about how we as a society are making big changes, and how our leaders are setting policy, and the big impacts of [those decisions]. It’s not preaching. The game isn’t picking on people for not being able to make great choices all the time.”

Much to her point, within the game, transitioning wholesale from a dirty grid to a clean one isn’t so simple. Further, achieving the right balance of energy use moderation, nature-based solutions, and technology investments might yield a low local footprint, but such unilateral risk aversion hardly guarantees victory, and if anything, likely produces the opposite effect.

Catan: New Energies may not be an accurate microcosm of the world, but its designers should be commended for conceiving a game of this kind with such nuance. Players increase their local footprints by building out towns and cities, which makes sense, but the designers also anticipate how players might question the logic in this, given the real-world potential (and reality, in some fortuitous cases) for dense, high-functioning, and sustainable cities to act as economic engines for future sustainable development.

In a fun twist on Catan’s cyclical practice of acquiring, building, expanding, acquiring more, and so forth, New Energies evidently reinvents this cycle through the lens of research. Cities, after all, are hotbeds of research, and where there is research there is funding, which yields new technologies, leading to new development, new research, and so on. Go big or go home, I suppose.

The rulebook’s “Thematic Background” section states: “In the future, perhaps cities will be truly sustainable, powered by renewable energy, with more human-powered transportation, with buildings designed to be net zero, with green spaces replacing parking lots, and with green roofs shaping the cityscape. But there is still a long way to go to realize that vision.”


Justin R. Wolf is a Maine-based writer who covers green building trends and energy policy.


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