Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Capitalism, Privilege, and Oppression: Settlers of Catan Style

PhotobucketI am a huge fan of the game Settlers of Catan  and it’s various expansions (especially Cities & Knights ), and I’ve found a website  where I can play a similar game online with other people. Actually, it’s identical to Settlers of Catan, but due to copyright issues, they can’t use any part of the name Settlers of Catan and therefore use the name Xplorers.

Anyway, I’ve been playing the game for some time now, and can’t help but notice the theme’s resemblance to capitalism in the US.
For anyone unfamiliar with the game, I would like to give a brief run-down of the object of the game and some of the key ways in which you can win that will be relevant to the subject I want to discuss. I’ll try to keep it as short as possible, so try to bear with me for a minute here (also check out the photos from the Wikipedia links provided to get a general feel for the board),
To start the game, each player must place 2 settlements on the map on a corner adjacent to 1 – 3 resource hexes. Who places first is determined by a dice roll. Whoever receives the highest number places their first settlement wherever they’d like. The next person in the clockwise order then places their first settlement on an open spot of their choice. The third person then placesboth of their settlements in open spots of their choosing.

After the third person has placed both of their settlements, the player who placed second then places their second settlement, and finally, the player who placed first places their last settlement.

There are clear advantages to going first, second, and third. First placer will be able to secure the best spot on the board, but will not be able to predict which other good places will be available by the time s/he is able to place the second settlement, making planning an adequate spread of resources — and a long-term strategy — difficult. The third placer will likely not have access to the best places on the map, but because s/he gets to place both settlements at the same time, s/he can plan an even spread of resources without worrying that another player might beat him/her to a good spot, and create a solid long-term strategy.
So, we’ve established that the first round of who goes first, and when/where each player places their settlements is based mostly on chance, but there is the element of strategy involved in determining what benefits each location on the map holds, and possibilities for future expansion and building.
Each hex represents a resource (Brick, Wood, Sheep, Ore, and Grain), and the bold font of the numbers on each hex represent how often each number will roll, according to odds of the two dice being rolled. The object in placement is to find a good spread of all 5 resources with often-rolling numbers like 8, 6, 5, and 9. Each resource is more or less equal in terms of value to the game.
Each time a number rolls, players who are settled adjacent to the hexes containing said numbers receives a card representing one of that resource. There is one card per settlement, and 2 cards per city, touching the hex. Resource cards are used to purchase building materials such as roads, boats in some expansions, additional settlements, and cities. You can also use card combinations to purchase Development cards, which grant “victory points” (10 are required to win; certain developments receive between 1 – 2 victory points each) or other useful card like “road building,” which allows the recipient to build 2 free roads, which normally cost 1 brick and 1 wood each.
No hexes will contain the most frequently-rolled number, which is 7. When a 7 rolls, the player who rolled it must place the “robber” on the hex of another player, and take one of the cards that they have in their hand. What this does to the person being robbed is prevent them from collecting resource cards when the number/hex being robbed is rolled. This is generally done to the player who is currently the most powerful in the game. If all players have equal victory points, the person with the most, or the assumed most desirable cards is the one robbed. This rule, however, is not official, and is only practiced as a courtesy, and not always.

In order to win the game, players must earn 10 victory points. In order to earn victory points, players must expand their initial settlements into cities, build more settlements, build long roads, and acquire an “army.” There are checks and balances in place to ensure that the person who rolls the highest numbers on their first turn, or the person who is able to settle on powerful hexes, is not necessarily going to win by chance alone. One way this is put into practice is with the “robbing” feature, as the person being robbed is generally the person with the highest victory points or most powerful position in the game at the time. This is supposed to give the weaker players a leg up, so as not to allow chance alone to be the primary determination for who succeeds the most in the game.

How it relates to capitalism?
You start the game by rolling the dice, which can be compared to being born into a life that you did not choose or earn. The checks and balances in place help to ensure, as we’ve discussed previously, that the person with the best dice roll– akin to a child born into a privileged, wealthy family– does not acquire all of the available wealth and prosperity available to all players/society, and leaves opportunities for others who were less fortunate in their initial dice-roll to succeed.
If you have a good long-term strategy, your initial placements don’t necessarily matter. You can plan to build outward to more powerful hexes and once you’re settled there, you can build more settlements and expand into cities, creating more wealth. This is similar to, say, a baby born into a poor family, but with access to free public education. The child may be poor, but with hard work and good grades, they will likely be able to achieve higher education (perhaps through scholarships and grants) and therefore be in a better position to make more money as they get older, possibly even creating more wealth for their whole family, not just themselves.
Basically, the person with the best initial dice roll and placements is not necessarily going to win based on that alone. There are ways to prevent that from happening, and there is the frequent possibility that a person with a low initial dice roll and poor initial settlements may be a long-time player with a solid understanding of the game’s intricacies, and a good strategic foundation that comes after playing frequently for a long period of time. You know, practice.
It seems all well and fair, right? Everyone, regardless of how the dice rolled in the beginning, really gets an equal shot at winning. Everyone, regardless of who their parents are or how much money they make or where they live, gets an equal shot at the “American Dream.”
But then it gets tricky.
The person who rolls poorly and has to place their initial settlements on weaker hexes may have a natural inclination toward strategy games such as these, and may well win frequently because of their inherent understanding of that type of game’s mechanisms. They have a clear advantage over someone who gets the basic concept, but has to play a lot more often in order to get better.
To take this a bit further, what happens if you’re a person who’s never played a strategy-based game, and you find yourself at a table where the game is being played, and for whatever reason, you are told you have to play? No big deal, the people at the table will teach you, and you’ll probably not be very good at first, but if it’s intriguing, you can keep playing and get better. Right?
What if everyone at the table refuses to teach you? What if they blow you off because you’ve never played before, because you look funny to them, or because they simply didn’t want to take the time to explain the intricacies of the game to you? Maybe they say to you, “hey, we all had to learn it on our own, so do you. I’m not teaching you anything. Figure it out yourself.”
Well, you can watch and learn as you go, but you’ll inevitably screw up some of your turns and not know what you’re supposed to do. What if the rest of the people at the table treat you like some kind of inferior being as a result of not understanding the game mechanisms? What if they call you stupid, and tell you that they learned so much faster (even if it wasn’t true, even if they grew up playing the game, even if they have a natural inclination toward that type of game, and had a clear advantage as a result)? Then they start making fun of you, and your parents, for never having taught you how to play and for never having instilled that basic skill in you as you grew up. They say you were raised by bad, lazy parents. But they continue to tell you that there is no reason why you can’t just figure it out.
What happens then? Is it your fault that you don’t know how to play the stupid game? Is it your fault that no one will teach you how? Is it your fault that you’d never heard of it until this stupid party? Should you have known, somehow, that you should learn how to play? Should you have picked up a book, hung out in more gamer coffee shops or something? What is it? What did you do wrong? Why didn’t anyone really drill it into you that you should learn how to play this game? Why weren’t you given the proper appreciation and motivation to succeed in school as the player with a family who all have PhDs?
What happens when you realize that it’s actually required that you play this game, and play it well to survive in the society in which you currently live? That there were no other option?
Additionally, I’ve realized that, although I am certainly not bad at the game, I only regularly win when I play more aggressively than I am comfortable with– playing an offensive development card aimed at someone that I just robbed, and then stealing a road of theirs, for example. Or robbing a person with fewer points than myself because they have a high likelihood of having a resource card that I might need in their hand.
Now, I’m not a huge proponent of either capitalism or socialism, and I realize there are flaws and benefits to each. But… it kinda seems to me that the only way to achieve this “American Dream” is to oppress others in your path. Oppression, of course, takes on various degrees. And one could argue that all that really matters is one’s own success. Or, you could argue that aggressively stomping on other people in order to achieve your own goals is just bad.
Ultimately, I don’t really think that everyone will reach an agreement about whether it’s acceptable to follow one’s own goals without regard to others, or whether we should all look out for the collective good. But I’m more likely to sit closer to the “collective good” side.