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Board game lovers grow up, pass Go and collect European games

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Settlers of Catan is part of a new generation of board games. (Photo by Joyce Tang/CNS)

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Germany publishes more board games than any other country per capita. (Photo by Joyce Tang/CNS)

In elementary school, Keith Levy spent every weekend hunkered down over a game of Risk, often playing into the early-morning hours. A staple for many American-bred lovers of board games, Risk, in which players try to capture territories from one another to achieve world domination, kept Levy and his friends entertained for hours. Some weekends they would bet their money on Park Place or Boardwalk in Monopoly, which ranks among the most-played board games in the United States.

Levy, 47, now plays Risk only occasionally and Monopoly hardly ever, but not because his love of board games has diminished over the years. His old Parker Brothers classics have been supplanted by games with such unfamiliar names as Agricola, Puerto Rico and Settlers of Catan.

European-style or, more specifically, German-style board games have recently been gaining traction in the mainstream American board game market. With a sophisticated blend of strategy, chance and social interplay—and higher-quality pieces made of wood rather than plastic—these board games from across the pond have generated legions of serious gaming fans.

At the forefront of these games is Settlers of Catan. “That was the game that broke the game barrier in the United States,” says Levy, who is also the president and founder of the Games Club of Maryland. Though Settlers first appeared on the scene back in 1995, its popularity has caught fire in recent years. From 2006 to 2008, sales increased nearly 100 percent, and almost 1 million units have been sold to date in the U.S., according to Bob Carty, vice president of sales and marketing for Mayfair Games, which publishes the U.S. version of the game and other European titles.

The playing ground for Settlers is an array of hexagonal cardboard tiles laid out like a honeycomb. The tiles can be rearranged in a near infinite number of ways, unlike the conventionally static and linear American models in which pieces travel around the same square board over and over again.

“European games have figured out how to keep things fresh,” wrote Trampas Johnson, a frequenter of BoardGameGeeks.com who used to manage a board game store in Pottstown, Pa. “Most new games that come out in the States tend to be repackaging of the same old games but with a shiny box for whatever new movie or TV character is popular.”

With their short playing times and straightforward rules, most European-style games are poetically simple. The premise for Settlers is easy enough: Roll a pair of dice to acquire resources such as lumber, brick, wheat, sheep and ore to build cities, settlements and roads, each of which earns a player points.

With the ability to trade resources, players gingerly negotiate, facilitating a type of social play that gamers note is usually absent in American board games. On a recent Sunday in New York City, Richard Sampson, John Zhang and Nathan Stodola were gathered around a metal table, in the middle of a game of Settlers.

“Do you want to trade some brick for wood?” Zhang asked Sampson, holding an array of resource cards in front of his face. After careful consideration, Sampson shook his head and hung on to a stash of bricks for later use.

“The rules are fairly simple,” Sampson said, “but it’s high-concept.”

“People get creative about elaborate social deals to achieve their goals,” says Jessica Hammer, who teaches game design at Columbia University. “Having that social component is really important.” And unlike American games, which induce a sort of passivity while other players take their turns, each roll of the dice in Settlers has consequences for the other players because it determines which resources they can collect.

“The biggest difference is in the style of play,” says John Kaufeld, marketing director for the Game Manufacturers Association, a nonprofit trade organization for the tabletop-game industry. While American games tend to be based on luck, European games rely more heavily on a player’s strategy and smarts.

In Settlers, rather than having their fate be subject to an unpredictable roll of the dice, players can exercise a certain amount of control by carefully building their cities or settlements near certain resources or by taking into account the probability of rolling, for example, snake eyes versus a seven, which in turn affects the resources they can accrue.

“It’s rare that you will end a German game saying, ‘If I only rolled a nine, I so would have owned you,’” Kaufeld says.

Unlike American party favorites such as Hasbro’s word-guessing game Taboo, which is more about social communication, Settlers challenges players to think more analytically, gamers say. Gene Schildkraut, 25, who’s currently training to be an EMT in Waltham, Mass., likes to experiment with a variety of tactics. His favorite is to hoard one resource in the beginning of the game “because it frustrates the hell out of everyone.”

“Ultimately, these people who play aren’t just looking to hang out, but also to stretch their mental energies and develop skills,” Hammer says.

But “most good Euro games are not as much about competition as most American games,” says Klaus Brune, a programmer from Torrance, Calif., and a devoted gamer, via e-mail. In Settlers, “you’ll need the cooperation of your tablemates to get even close to winning.”

On the other hand, American-distributed games tend to be more draconian, rewarding the last player standing. For example, in Settlers, the first player to accumulate 10 points wins, but in Risk, players are victorious when they have achieved global domination. And in Monopoly, elimination of the competition is the name of the game.

Though European-style games are spreading rapidly by word of mouth and on the Internet, they’ve been merely blips on the radar for market research firms like the NPD Group, which tracks the toy and game industry. Iconic American games such as Clue, Life and Sorry remain top sellers in the U.S. adult-game market.

“Frankly, many folks would rather not play a game that requires some thinking,” says Bill Eldard, a retired naval officer and board game aficionado from Burke, Va. “It’s easier to roll dice and move a token around a board.” But the growing penchant for German games may hint at something more.

“Europeans tend to look at things sort of differently than Americans,” Carty says. He believes German-style games, which emphasize more enterprising themes, typically involving the construction of railroads or civilizations, were adapted from military strategy games imported by American servicemen. In German-style games, he says, there’s “no direct conflict.”

Bruce Whitehill, a leading game historian, has a different take. “You’re brought up in America with a kind of popular culture that is so powerful,” he says, but in Germany, “there’s a distrust of the large names.”

E-mail: jct2136@columbia.edu