Klaus Teuber was working, unhappily, as a dental technician when he created The Settlers of Catan:
First published in Germany in 1995 as Die Siedler von Catan, the game has sold more than eighteen million copies worldwide. It was released in the United States in 1996; last year, its English-language publisher, Mayfair Games, reported selling more than seven hundred and fifty thousand Catan-related products. Big-box chains like Target, Walmart, and Barnes & Noble carry the game and its offshoots, such as Catan cards, Catan Junior, and Star Trek Catan. Including all the spinoffs, expansions, and special editions, there are about eighty official varieties of Catan—more if you include electronic versions—and Teuber has had a hand in creating all of them. Paraphernalia in the online Catan shop includes socks and custom-designed tables. Rebecca Gablé, a German historical-fiction author, has written a Viking-era Settlers of Catan novel. Pete Fenlon, the C.E.O. of Mayfair Games, said, “Our volume of sales will be such that, over time, Catan could, in terms of gross revenue, be the biggest game brand in the world.”
Teuber was born in 1952 in Rai-Breitenbach, a small village tucked beneath Breuberg Castle, in central Germany. As a child, he set up miniature fighters and ancient Romans on the floor, using strings to create mountains and rivers and to build routes through the terrain. He rediscovered games during his mandatory military service, when he needed something to entertain his wife and young son in the barracks. He was still running Teuber Dental-Labor in 1988, when he designed Barbarossa, a game in which players mold clay sculptures and try to guess what their opponents’ figures represent. He had been reading “The Riddle-Master,” a swashbuckling fantasy trilogy by Patricia McKillip about a man who wins a game of riddles against a ghost. “I was sorry to see it come to an end,” Teuber said, “so I tried to experience this novel in a game.” It took Teuber seven years to show Barbarossa to a publisher, but when he did it was a hit. The game won the 1988 Spiel des Jahres award, the most coveted prize in the board-game world. According to Stewart Woods, a communications professor at the University of Western Australia, a successful game typically sells about ten thousand copies in Germany; a Spiel des Jahres winner can expect to sell between three hundred and five hundred thousand.
After Barbarossa, Teuber designed several other games and won two more Spiel des Jahres awards, but he was still working fourteen-hour days in the dental lab. In 1991, after reading histories of Viking life, he became fascinated with Iceland and the age of discovery. “What was it like when they reached this virgin island?” he said. “I wanted to find out.” He tinkered with an island-settling game for four years, testing versions on his wife and children every weekend. Initially, the instructions included lots of complicated mechanics—for example, if you had enough cities and settlements in a cluster, you could create a metropole—but eventually, Teuber said, “I cooked it to the heart of the game.” A breakthrough moment came when Teuber experimented with using hexagonal tiles instead of squares for his board. He said he had a dream that he remembered having once before, the last time he won the Spiel des Jahres: “I was standing on the shore of a pond and saw very big fish, and I angled the biggest of them.”
Die Siedler von Catan was an instant success in Germany and won the 1995 Spiel des Jahres. At the time, Spiel des Jahres winners had been gaining traction in American hobby stores for several years, but Catan became America’s gateway into Eurogames, a genre of tightly designed, strategy-based products. Eurogames—also called German-style games, because most of them originate in Germany—have fairly simple rules and are intellectually demanding but not overly complicated. They are also more expensive: Monopoly’s suggested retail price is eighteen dollars; The Settlers of Catan retails for forty-two dollars.