The Vikings and Catan
When I started developing “The Settlers of Catan” in the early nineties, I was inspired by the Vikings.
The story of the men and women of early medieval Scandinavia had already captivated me as a child. Maybe those high-quality plastic Viking figures manufactured by the company Hausser were to blame for it; I received them as a gift when I was 10 or 11 years old. At that time, I let them fight Roman legionnaires, completely ignorant of the true historical facts.
Later, I read a lot about the Vikings and learned that many stereotypes are not true. For example, they did not wear horns on their helmets, and they mostly were hardworking farmers and clever merchants. Only those who set out to raid called themselves Vikings. I was particularly impressed by their oceangoing ships and the journeys of discovery they undertook with them. For example, they settled Iceland and discovered Greenland and, long before Columbus, also America, which now is a proven fact.
So, if there existed a medieval people able to discover Catan somewhere in the vastness of the sea, it would have been the Vikings.
When I developed the game in the early nineties, at first I envisioned Iceland, which during the Early Middle Ages was warmer than today. There were birch forests on this island in the far north when the first settlers arrived; however, within a rather short period of time, the trees were lumbered for building longhouses and ships. Grain was growing only sparsely, but sheep and horses thrived on the otherwise barren volcanic island. Therefore, trade must have been the most important means for the Icelandic settlers to get the vital goods ore, grain, and lumber.
After the game “The Settlers of Catan” was published in 1995, the island of Catan seemed to me more fertile and climatically more benign than Iceland after all, and I imagined it somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean, farther south of Iceland.
In the late nineties, I purchased a wonderful reproduction of a small Viking longship with 14 thwarts (historical evidence shows that there were longships with up to 78 thwarts).
The ship was manned with Viking figures made of pewter that were painted with great attention to detail. Their faces expressed the effort of rowing so realistically that one could almost smell their sweat.
Each time I looked at the ship – seemingly fragile, but actually oceangoing – I got a sense of the tremendous feats the Vikings accomplished when journeying across the often storm-swept Atlantic Ocean. All this helped me to imagine how the Vikings would have discovered Catan, had it really existed somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean.
I felt tempted to use these ideas for a novel, but I was afraid I might not be a talented writer.
Then I got my hands on bestseller author Rebecca Gablé’s novel “Fortuna’s Smile” (“Das Lächeln der Fortuna”). This story of a family in medieval England totally captivated me, and I was fascinated by the author’s writing style – it really breathed life into the characters.
Without further ado, in 2000 I traveled to the Frankfurt Book Fair and met with Mrs. Gablé. Three years later, she had created a gem for all friends of Catan: the exciting and empathetic story of the people of the village Elasund who – driven by necessity – left their homeland Norway and became the first settlers of Catan.
Rebecca Gablé’s novel, in turn, insprired me to create the two games “Candamir” and “Elasund.” Candamir is a role-playing game, where you are a penniless hero or heroine meeting some characters from the novel, such as Candamir, Osmund, Sieglind, or Brigitta, who assign you different tasks. Only if you fulfill these tasks and don’t run away from bears or wolves on your journeys across Catan, you will achieve affluence and reputation on Catan.
In the game Elasund, however, the island is already firmly in the hands of the settlers. Trade and economy prosper, and all players conjointly build Elasund, the first city of Catan.
At some point, I realized that although the Vikings had inspired me when I developed “The Settlers of Catan, the game components were not really expressing this fact. For this reason, I designed the Viking Edition in 2008 – also because some players said that they missed the wooden game pieces after the revision of the Catan games in 2003. The wooden game pieces of the Viking Edition are larger and more beautiful than the wooden game pieces of the first edition; their design is based on Viking originals. The settlement pieces have the typical gables of Viking houses, and the city pieces are modeled on Nordic stave churches. Of course, the beautiful, large game pieces are also available for all three game expansions; you can obtain them at the Catan Shop.
To all those who are interested in history, I most warmly recommend the traveling exhibition “Vikings: The North Atlantic Saga.” Produced by the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, it examines the history of the western expansion of the Vikings and sheds new light on this remarkable culture. Though the physical exhibit is no longer available, there is a virtual one you can visit at http://www.mnh.si.edu/vikings/.