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Sales Of 'Settlers Of Catan' Skyrocket During Coronavirus Crisis


In the pandemic, board games are back. And as NPR's Rob Schmitz reports, many people are turning to a classic one from Germany.



ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: Eight again. More brick.

Family game night - we've done this a lot this year, thanks to the pandemic. And my family has dusted off Monopoly, Scrabble, but we usually settle on "Settlers Of Catan."

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Two bricks for anything.

SCHMITZ: It's a game of trade and development. Players compete for resources on an island and trade with each other in order to build settlements, cities and roads. The most successful developer wins.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Why in the world would I need brick?

SCHMITZ: Entrepreneurs love the game. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg is a fan, as is LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman, who plays the game in job interviews as a way to size up an applicant. In its 25th year, "Catan" has sold more than 32 million units. It's one of the bestselling board games of all time.

ERIK ARNESON: "Catan" was revolutionary, and its impact continues today.

SCHMITZ: Erik Arneson is author of "How To Host A Game Night." In his two decades writing about board games, he's never seen anything like "Catan," a modular game where the board is different each time you play it and where the object is not obliterating your opponents but trading with them.

ARNESON: Every player is involved throughout the whole game. And even when it's other players' turns, you're not sitting around waiting. The games are always quite close. Nobody ever gets eliminated. It is just a remarkable achievement in game design.

SCHMITZ: "Settlers Of Catan" designer Klaus Teuber grew up in 1950s Germany. The country was picking up the pieces after World War II. And he passed the time playing a board game called "Romans Vs. Carthaginians" (ph), mostly by himself. He still remembers receiving the game for Christmas.

KLAUS TEUBER: (Through interpreter) When I opened the box of the game, I liked the scent of the game. Ah, so wonderful. There's adventure in this box.

SCHMITZ: Teuber spoke with me over an old computer, and his voice sounded distant, so we asked one of our colleagues to read for him. He's 68 now, and he's just released his autobiography "My Way To Catan" to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the game. Teuber was a dental technician, bored out of his mind by his job when he began creating games in his basement in the 1980s.

TEUBER: (Through interpreter) And I had a lot of frustration. It was, for me, a little bit like a holiday to be at home and to develop games and, for me, to create my own worlds.

SCHMITZ: Teuber's first games did well. He won three Spiel des Jahres awards, the most coveted prize in the board game industry. Then in the early '90s, inspired by the history of the Vikings, Iceland and the age of discovery, Teuber created "Settlers Of Catan." It was an instant hit. It also won the Spiel des Jahres. But instead of sales tapering off after a few years, they just kept climbing. He has a theory about why it became so popular.

TEUBER: (Through interpreter) First thing, it's variable. Every time, it's a new game. You cannot destroy someone's buildings. It's impossible. And you have to communicate. I think these are actually factors that women like. In my opinion, part of the success is that women play together in the family with their husbands and with their children.

SCHMITZ: And as families shelter in place, sales of "Catan" continue to climb. As the pandemic sent the global economy into a downward spiral, "Catan's" sales skyrocketed by 144% for the first five months of this year. Teuber, whose two sons work for his company Catan Inc., says he still plays the game with his family, but he admits he's not very good at it and that he rarely wins. He says what he enjoys most is playing it and being there with his family, something millions of other families are enjoying, too.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Two brick for fare (ph) or two brick for anything.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: A brick and a sheep for...

SCHMITZ: Rob Schmitz, NPR News, Berlin.

(SOUNDBITE OF TEEN DAZE'S "BY LOVE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rob Schmitz is NPR's international correspondent based in Berlin, where he covers the human stories of a vast region reckoning with its past while it tries to guide the world toward a brighter future. From his base in the heart of Europe, Schmitz has covered Germany's levelheaded management of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of right-wing nationalist politics in Poland and creeping Chinese government influence inside the Czech Republic.