The End of the Catanian Knighthood
An Investigative Look Behind the Curtains of Editorial Annihilation of a Social Status
A Cannon Story – Part 1
In 1997, for the first time I held the “Tournament Set for the Card Game” in my hands: the dignified ancestor of today’s Tournament Card Game that enthusiasts now play with highly developed strategies. Not yet suspecting the kind of gaming enthusiasm I would soon be in the throes of, I looked at the “Cannon” card, for which Klaus Teuber had written the following text: “The end of knights is near!”
“Well, that’s a great start,” I said to Babsi, my wife. “It is a popular mistake to believe that there was a relation between the advent of firearms and the downfall of the feudal system. In fact, social changes such as the capital accumulation of the free imperial cities made it possible to raise large infantry armies in the first place…”
“Calm down,” Babsi responded. “It’s only a game.”
Both of them were right, Babsi with her sense of realism that is always a little scary to me and Klaus Teuber with his prophetic Cannon card text, because this coming September – anno Domini 2010 – the Catan Card Game knights will be dead, carried off just like their entire, more or less medieval Card Game world.
And who dug their grave? Was it indeed a cannon?
Let’s review, step by step, the tragic events that cost the lives of Karl the Strong, Lothar the Drunkard, and even Johanna the Warrior-Maiden.
What time in history does the Catan Card Game actually belong to?
In a somewhat non-binding fashion, until now it took place sometime “in the past.” Maybe last Tuesday in the Middle Ages, in the commingled era we know from summertime events such as renaissance fairs where Charlemagne and Joan of Arc meet Prince Valiant and Xena at the fast food stand to exchange their cell phone numbers.
When Klaus Teuber developed the “Cataniverse,” he envisioned a parallel Iceland (located in a slightly warmer alternative universe). Rebecca Gablé portrayed this world, the beginnings of its settlement in the 9th century, and some of their inhabitants in great detail in her novel “The Settlers of Catan” published in Germany in 2003. In the games themselves, however, this setting in space and time wasn’t reflected for a long time.
Only the 2008 Viking edition of the game pieces and the new board game editions published in 2008 and 2010 brought at least this game closer to its roots.
Over the years, I sporadically contributed one or the other marginal idea for developing the Cataniverse, and in 2008 I was invited into the very small and very intensely working circle of editors of the Card Game.
The first project for me to participate in was the general revision of the Card Game. This was a task ten game designers would need ten years to accomplish. We were four people. So, how much time did we have? Right: two years. That’s something I one day should rub Ms. K.’s nose in, the math teacher who forty years ago tried to make me understand the rule of three.
And here are the three Card Game editors who allowed me to “join the game”:
Klaus Teuber. Wanting to introduce him to the reader of this page seems kind of pointless. Everyone knows his games. However, his many novel ideas regarding the solution of conflict situations in the rules system, his openness towards suggestions from coworkers who simply aren’t on a par with him in matters of success, his subtle and never offending humor, his ability to motivate a team whenever it has come to a dead end – those are the things you get to know only when closely collaborating with him for some time.
Dr. Reiner Düren: PhD Chemist, successful tournament player and involved with the gamer community since the beginnings of the Internet gaming scene, moderator of various forums, co-organizer in the Catan Online World, and one of the founders of the rules database “Encyclopœdia Catanica” (and currently the only person in charge of it). One seems to recognize the sharp, unerring eye of the chemist analyzing an unknown substance when he suddenly picks two or three points from a long list of rule and card concepts and, in a few words, clearly points out that a problem is lurking there, perhaps because a player who is the first to perform a certain action cannot be caught up with afterwards.
Sebastian Rapp. Sometimes I think that he must have played every game in the world at least one time – and remembers them. He always kept an eye on the objective of our shared task, and more than once he brought us back on track again when we enthusiastically pursued some witty idea without stopping. Witty ideas are actually kind of tricky: the people who developed them might like them a lot, but the real touchstone for an idea isn’t that its author likes it but whether or not it can make the game attractive for newcomers and keep seasoned players interested in the game for the long haul. The new, clearly structured rules system of “The Rivals for Catan” – with a minimum of requirements and exceptions – is, therefore, in great part due to Sebastian’s insistence on reminding us what it was we wanted to achieve.
We Ask the Ones Who Know the Ropes
In 2008, when the four of us started to rack our brains over a comprehensive, fundamental, radical, and absolutely unprecedented revolution of the Catan Card Game, we as accomplished Catan experts inevitably needed to first seize the opportunity to rewrite the Card Game, so as to match it with Catan’s history as an isolated Viking culture in the Atlantic Ocean.
At the beginning, it didn’t occur to us at all. So, for more than the entire first year of our collaboration, it still was “last Tuesday in the Middle Ages” on Catan. Meanwhile, we focused on constructing an inherently consistent rule from the compilation of individual cases that gradually had emerged over a period of 10 years.
Strange as it may sound: The biggest problem for the Card Game was its own success. This success generated a continuous demand for expansions. But expansions must introduce new aspects, and new aspects often interfere with the old system of rules. Therefore, in 2008 – its 11th year – the Card Game had already gone through two extensive rules reforms. The focus of these reforms had been on making it possible to use the existing game components – retrofitted with a couple of stickers containing text corrections – for play by modified rules. That way, the game unwittingly had been led into an almost impenetrable maze of rules; for potential newcomers, the game was hardly accessible anymore, while seasoned players, particularly experts of the challenging Tournament variant, felt quite at home in this maze.
We wanted to give newcomers simple access to an easygoing, entertaining game while at the same time retaining the strategic and tactical depth of the traditional Card Game for the “old Catanian hands.”
To please both target groups in each and every aspect of the game probably borders on the impossible – although I’m not quite sure yet on which side of it. But then again, it made this task even more challenging.
Well, the four of us are also old Catanian hands. And one of the greatest dangers a team like this must face is that it may get tunnel vision.
Therefore, already in the preparation phase, even before the first rule was formulated, we repeatedly seized the opportunity – or should I say “demanded the opportunity” – to play the Card Game with people who actually didn’t want to play it: either they didn’t like to play anyway or they already knew the Card Game but over time had turned their backs on it. Babsi belongs to the second group. She now has the car, and I have the cats.
Maybe the tests with non-card players were the most important thing we ever did during development. In our conversations with players who disapproved of the old Card Game, our “old hand” perspectives sometimes shifted so thoroughly that we occasionally felt we were looking at an entirely different game than was our opposite at the table.
Dark Clouds Gather Over Shiny Armors
June 20, 2009 was the day when the downfall of the Catanian knights began. But the knights weren’t the only ones unsuspectingly facing a brief and dark future; I also had no inkling of their impending fate when I jotted down the result of a test game with Babsi: “Different scoring of strength points and tournament points too complicated. Knights should only have ‘knight points,’ as an intuitively recognizable parallel to ‘mill points.’”
Personally, I didn’t find that too complicated at all, and I wrote so in one of my memos about the test games. Sebastian Rapp was the one who – with a few clear words – knocked the tunnel vision out of me and thus prompted me to first embrace Babsi’s view and then pursue that thought further. Thank you, Babsi and Sebastian. (I doubt that the knights would share my gratitude, because they’d probably continue to live on Catan for a long time to come hadn’t we pursued this line of thought further.)
But wasn’t Babsi right? At the time, fist and helmet symbols with numbers were printed on the knight cards. And what did the player who had accumulated the most fists get as a reward? A horseman token. Honestly, who’s supposed to understand that?
Forging Swords into Axes
At about the same time, Klaus Teuber had developed the concept that the individual Theme Sets should no longer be named “Knights & Merchants,” “Wizards & Dragons,” “Burgers & French Fries,” etc. Instead, the sets received names such as “The Era of Turmoil,” which arranged them in chronological order.
That was an idea I quickly got enthusiastic about. For me as an occasional author of historical novels, it was tempting to tinker around with the titles and themes of the individual cards against the backdrop of a concrete historical timeframe, which was something we had cared little about so far.
And so the death of the Catanian knights slowly approached:
If we have a chronological order of the sets, then the Basic Game must be at the beginning. In what era should it be set?
Looking back, it seems that a message written in glowing letters should have appeared in the sky above our heads: IN THE 9TH CENTURY ON THE NEWLY DISCOVERED CATAN OF COURSE, YOU DUMBOS!
In reality, however, we continued fiddling around with a variety of ideas for several weeks, until suddenly – as with a puzzle where one realizes that the cat has carried an important piece off into its basket – all loose ends of the thematic accommodation came together in a complete historical concept: the Basic Game corresponds to the early Catanian history and to the achievements that then continue as a tradition throughout all other eras. The Basic Game can be expanded by individual Theme Sets, which – in combination with the Basic Game – allow the players to reenact certain eras of the Catanian history one at a time.
After an idea is formulated as a coherent concept, it often seems so self-evident that one no longer can understand what was actually so difficult about it. But prior to formulating the concept, one often has to bury 69 “good ideas” because on closer examination, they all have drawbacks – until the 70th idea suddenly works.
The knights died on us in the process: a society on an archipelago with an isolationist cultural attitude would hardly develop the same kind of feudal system found on the European continent during the same period. Also, since we were following the setting of Rebecca Gablé’s Catan novel, we no longer had use for knights. The craftsmen, merchants, and seafarers that come to life in this novel are seasoned roughnecks – or at least turn into them as the story develops – but they aren’t knights.
Following the old Nordic sagas, we finally arrived at the concept for our heroes. However, they don’t just have “hero points,” as one might have assumed due to the fact that we pursued Babsi’s triggering suggestion regarding the “knight points.” After extensive consideration of the alternatives and their consequences, we eventually kept the original dichotomy, although with different focuses: the old “strength points” and “tournament points” should thematically describe the same thing, because in a tournament, mostly combat techniques are tested.
Strength is now represented by an ax symbol, and the player who has the strongest hero now receives a game piece depicting an ax instead of receiving – as before – something totally different (for example, a plaster model by Eyjafjallajökull).
We now have juxtaposed the strength of a hero – that is, his physical power potential – with his skill. The German word for “skill” – “Geschick” – also has another meaning: “fate.” Given this context, skill not only symbolizes a hero’s skill as far as negotiations and social problem solution approaches are concerned, but also his fate. “No wonder,” people who know the Catan novel will say to themselves, “that the values of Candamir and Austin are so different.”
A Cannon Story – Part 2
That was the story of the Catanian knighthood’s downfall. Klaus Teuber already anticipated it in 1997, when he wrote on his Cannon card: “The end of knights is near!”
But what happened to the Cannon itself?
As you will learn in Klaus Teuber’s next blog post about the “Era of Progress” Theme Set, it meanwhile has also met its match.
Peter Gustav Bartschat