I have played hundreds, if not over a thousand, games of Settlers of Catan the last eight years. One of my favorite summer memories from college is spending hours in my parents’ basement with four or five other friends playing six or seven games of Catan late into the night while watching the NBA Playoffs or a baseball game.
If you are one of the poor, unfortunate souls unacquainted with Settlers of Catan, let me explain it briefly. Settlers of Catan is a strategic board game that is sort of a mash up of Risk and Monopoly. There are no armies to defeat or money to collect, but there are settlements to build and resources to amass (or steal). The goal is to acquire 10 “victory points” before the other two-to-four people against whom you are competing. You acquire victory points by building settlements, upgrading those settlements to cities, or collecting “development cards” that generate victory points. You build those structures or acquire those cards by collecting resources from various spaces on the board.
Beyond being an incredibly fun board game, Settlers of Catan, or simply “Catan” as we call it, can teach you a lot of lessons about life and leadership. Here are five about leadership I’ve learned from playing.
1. Your success does not depend on the failure of others.
In Catan, the goal of the game is simply to reach 10 victory points before anyone else. One of the aspects of Catan that makes it so attractive to people like my wife, who are not super competitive, is that you can pursue your goal without having to worry about stomping on other people en route.
Sure, there are ways to hurt the progress of others in Catan, like blocking their road building or stealing resource cards from the same person repeatedly, but sometimes this can hinder your own progress more than help it.
In leadership situations, we are too often more concerned with thwarting the competition than pursuing our own goals. In Catan, like in many leadership situations, you can pursue success without using others as your footstool on the way.
2. You have to be aware of relational dynamics.
In Catan, players can trade resources (wheat, ore, wood, and brick) in order to collect the resources they need to build their structures. One of the ways Catan can get feisty and competitive is if one player is close to 10 victory points and the other players enact an informal trade embargo.
When you’re playing Catan, you need to learn how to navigate the relational dynamics that are present among the players. You need to be aware of how many points all of the other players have and what strategies they are deploying to reach their goals. In short, you need to be relationally aware.
3. You cannot ignore how the needs of others can impact your own needs.
I’ve already mentioned this in passing, but it really comes into play for this idea: trading in Catan matters. If I am trying to get to 10 victory points by upgrading all of my settlements to cities, but I am not gathering ore on my turns, I need to be sure I am trading for ore with other players.
But I cannot be so focused on my own needs that I forget what other people need. I am more likely to get what I need in a trade if I have been paying attention to what other people need.
This is true in life beyond Catan. When we make compromises with people, we have to be as aware of the needs of others as we are of our own.
4. You have to manage your resources well in order to succeed.
Without being too prideful, I am going to go ahead and say this: I am pretty good at Catan. Now, I want to let you in on a little secret about how I win so often. I believe that the more resources you collect, regardless of what they are, the more likely you are to win. Because Catan allows you to trade resources with other players or the “bank,” as long as you have a bunch of resources at your disposal, you can eventually find the specific resources you need.
Success in Catan ultimately boils down to resource management. In life and leadership, if you are unable to manage your resources well and figure out what resources are most valuable to you, you will not succeed.
5. Success can be achieved in a number of ways.
In Catan, the goal is always to acquire 10 victory points (unless you’re playing one of the many expansions of the game). While the goal is always the same, the ways to achieve the goal are numerous and diverse. You can play the building game and focus primarily on building structures. You can play the development card game and hope to acquire the majority of your victory points that way. How you pursue success in Catan largely depends upon how the board is set up at the beginning of the game and what resources are at your disposal—it is different every time, which is what makes it so fun.
Leadership in the home, workplace, or church is the same way. As you charge forward toward whatever “success” looks like in your particular context, you can achieve your goal in a number of ways. Your objective, as a leader, is to consider the resources you have at your disposal and figure out the best way to get there.
Settlers of Catan is more than just a fun strategic board game. It can teach us how to lead well, too.
And now I want to play.