The goal for Settlers of Cattan, possibly the very best board game you have never played or heard of, is a simple one: collect and trade resources to build the best settlement on an island.
The strategy board game was imported from Germany to the United States by Mayfair Games Inc. in 1995 and is considered by many to be the sparkplug that ignited the “European games” trend in America over the last decade. While mainstream retailers such as Toys ´R Us and Wal-Mart are still stocking mainly games from domestic manufacturers, smaller hobby shops have been happily ringing up sales of Settlers, its more than 20 variants and expansions, and fellow foreign designs.
Settlers epitomizes the so-called “European designer games”: non-violent in theme, elegant in game play and gorgeous in presentation. The fictional island of Catan, on which the players are to build their settlements, is constructed randomly with hexagonal tiles each time, so virtually no two games look the same. Players take turns collecting resources ranging from wood to sheep, then converting them into the little road, town, and city components they lay down on the board to score points. Each move requires strategic planning; a player may opt to expand his or her resources, to block an opponent from getting his, or sometimes do both. Negotiating and trading resources is allowed, further encouraging interaction between players. Interaction is especially prevalent when one is entertaining offers for the one precious material that everyone else seems to lack.
Of course, Settlers is not the only import making its mark. Companies such as Rio Grande Games (ToyShow) have staked out their territory in the import game market with popular titles like Medici (competitive cargo bidding as a merchant house in the age of the Medici family) and Carcassone (another city-tile building game). Although slightly more expensive than the average American counterpart at $30-$50 each, these games offer entertainment for the whole family with deceptively rich strategy beyond mere choices of, for example, whether to buy Park Place or Boardwalk (as in Monopoloy). In addition, many game designers, have a large fan following of their own. Any game from Klaus Teuber, Reiner Knizia, Alan Moon, or other noted designers are practically guaranteed sellers just from name recognition alone.
If those names are not familiar to you now, try finding and playing a couple of these hidden gems. Not only will they be fun, but chances are, phrases like “two sheep for your grain” will soon become a part of your gaming vocabulary.