As some of you may know, earlier this year a good friend and regular gaming buddy of mine Sam was crowned UK Catan King and was cordially invited to go play for the word championship belt in the USA. What follows is a first hand account of that historic event!
Take it away Sam
My account of the World Wide Catan Championship 2012
Earlier this year I was fortunate to win the 2012 UK Settlers of Catan Championship at the UK Games Expo. The prize was an amazing trip to compete in the Catan World Championships, thanks to the incredible generosity of Heron Games and Mayfair Games.
The World Wide Catan Championship is held every two years, alternating between Germany and the United States. This year it was held in the fancy conference suite of a lovely hotel just north of Philadelphia, PA, USA. Each country can send up to two representatives, and this year the turnout was 42 contestants from an impressive 27 countries. The tournament was played over two days. Four qualifying games on Saturday saw 16 through to the finals on Sunday, where it was two knock-out rounds to the finish.
On the Friday of the championship weekend we converged eagerly on Philadelphia, most of us enjoying a trip in the inconspicuous Mayfair van. We each received a bag with the tournament rules and some swag – a cuddly catanimal, t-shirts, flask, hex cookie cutter, chocolates, a liberty bell and some other stuff.
Since this was the first time I had been to a tournament on quite this scale I was anxious about what to expect, especially as I walked in to overhear a serious conversation about team managers and coaches! But my initial worries were quickly overturned as I began to meet the other competitors, each and every one of whom turned out to be friendly and genuine, and from a surprisingly diverse range of the walks of life.
That evening there were plenty of jokes and banter over dinner. Larry Roznai, president of Mayfair Games, explained that in his experience you get a much better tournament if everyone sits down to dinner the night before, as it makes the inevitable deal-making and breaking much harder! Entertainment was laid on – a magician and an appellation/folk/Irish band called the fiddlers of catan, but people drifted off to bed fairly early.
Saturday breakfast was an edgy affair. Then we filed into the tournament room to register and get a look at the first board of the day. We were going to play four pre-designed games, starting at each position at the board once. One table was set up to be live-streamed with lighting, video cameras and microphones – pretty ominous stuff. There were a couple of commentators to provide analysis of the highlighted board, but they did their best to keep track of all of the tables simultaneously.
I drew seat 1 first. Some announcements happened, but I had my attention on the board. The pressure to make the first move of the tournament was immense, and I stalled for ages until I made my play. Then relief, and we were off…
The first game was tough. Early on I attracted the robber and then had to play king-maker as two players raced for one particular spot on the board. I was offered a very tempting trade to gift this spot to the player who I judged to be in the strongest position, but in the end (and much to his dismay) I passed. However, the other player then went on to expand faster than I had anticipated by playing a cheeky monopoly card, and ultimately took the game.
Lunch followed, then game 2. This time I was playing against the current world champion, Erwin – a charming Dutch guy. I was fairly happy playing second, as I concluded that there were two good initial settlements, and I was going to get one of them. However, Steven, who played first, picked neither of these spots and put his first settlement away from the “big numbers” on a 9-10-5. He surprised me again with his disarming banter as he traded his way to beating me to my first-choice expansion! However, all of this put Steven into a very strong early lead, and it soon became apparent that someone had to take the longest road off him. With Erwin’s help and a lot of persuasion I got some pretty favorable trades and nabbed the longest road card, and once Steven’s run-away lead had been stalled the game became a free-for-all as we were all back in contention.
Our game went on easily half an hour after everyone else had finished so we became the center of attention. They brought the video cameras over and streamed the last few rounds. I finally bought a development card and got the victory point that I needed to take a very close and exciting game. It was pretty awesome to get a win! It also turned out that some of my friends back home were keeping up with the live stream, and they’ve sent me a couple of hilarious screengrabs from that game.
For game 3 I had to play on one of the two 3-player tables. It was a monopoly-type map where rock/ore and clay/brick were clumped in one place. Our player 1 was a solid Ozzie guy called Ricky who made a grab for the rock. I tried for a balanced strategy, but our third player went for a clay monopoly, leaving me unable to block Ricky from getting all the grain he needed. This resulted in a quick run-away city and development card win for Ricky, even though he had the robber on him for the whole game.
Game 4 was a randomly scattered map, and playing fourth I was forced into a mediocre strategy. Also on my board was a giant of a man called Reiner from Germany, who had already won two games. Reiner was a really sharp guy and he took his third game with a powerful development card strategy, becoming the favorite for the tournament.
After all the games were over we hung around whilst the tournament admins totted up the points and sorted out the rankings. Everybody wanted a place in the top 16 to qualify for the finals, but having only won 1 game I wasn’t confident. I ultimately came 22nd but felt really bad for Daniela from Mexico who came in 17th – so close! Amongst those who did qualify for Sunday’s play were Reiner, Ricky, Erwin, and Bijan – the 2011 UK champion.
Saturday’s dinner was a much more relaxed affair, at least for those of us who hadn’t made it though! It was good to wind down and chat with new friends, especially to go over the games we’d played together and compare them to strategies from other tables. We grabbed a few beers and played a couple of games of cities and knights to cool off!
On Sunday, those who wanted left on a morning excursion, whilst a few of us stayed to watch the semi-finals. I ended up running updates for the live-stream crew to make sure they didn’t miss anything, but this gave me a great view of the match on Reiner’s table. Again, this guy impressed me. He sat quietly with only five points on the board calmly buying development cards as one of his opponents completely encircled him. I think he caught everyone by surprise, especially the commentators, when he announce “I’ve won,” turning over a third knight to take the largest army and a further three victory points in hand, rocketing from five to ten without even rolling the dice!
Meanwhile, there was controversy on table 3, where Erwin and Bijan had lost their game. Additional resource cards had mysteriously arrived on their table, which was noticed when Erwin asked for a card count. However, the tournament admins let the result of the game stand. I was pretty outraged for these guys, as at this stage of the tournament there was a lot on the line, and even if there had been no foul play the game should be played with the correct number of components. This was the one serious disappointment of the whole event.
After the semifinals we grabbed lunch and learnt how to play Domaine, the third game of the Catan triad. The tournament room was closed off whilst the board for the final round was prepared. When we entered the room for the final we were greeted by a truly massive board set up on the floor. Players had to literally stride across the island to lay down their settlements and roads! There was also a shadow-table set up amongst the spectators so that we could strategize and discuss events as they unfolded.
The final was a fascinating game. There were moments of hilarity with the ridiculous huge fluffy dice, epic banter, pleading, tough trades, despair and delight. The board was constructed with only one viable grain hex (on a 9), which the first three players pounced on. However as the game progressed no 9s were rolled. One of the spectators was keeping track of the dice rolls on his phone, and the histogram looked really odd. It took well into the midgame before we got a 9, but unfortunately when it came the fourth player had put the robber there! The audience’s cheer quickly turned to amusement as no one collected any grain!
Player four, Justinas from Lithuania, not crippled by the lack of grain, rocketed to an early lead. However, with some cunning trading Chi Wai Chan (Hong Kong) managed to take the longest road off him. Reiner, with plenty of rock but no grain, hobbled up to five points on the board grabbing development cards whenever he could, but this time Herbert Schager (Austria) beat him to 3 knights, taking the largest army.
The game was very close at the end, with Herbert rolling a 7 when it looked like he might win and having to discard half of his hand. But just before sitting down he bought a development card, revealed it to be a victory point, and claimed the title of World Champion. I could not have wished a nicer guy to win, and with such a quietly spoken, considered style of play. And what a prize – an amazing board game cruise in the Caribbean!
I bumped into Reiner right after the game he told me that he had been incredibly close to winning! It unfolded that he had a fourth knight in hand, ready to take the largest army card from Herbert on the very next turn. He also had two victory point cards, so if Herbert hadn’t bought the one that he won with, the game would have gone to Reiner straight afterwards. Wow – a close game indeed!
The final evening of the championship was a lavish dinner and prize ceremony. There were loads of thank-yous to be said, presentations and pictures. Everybody got something, whilst the top four received amazingly ornate trophies studded with precious gems – quite the prizes! It was really sad to say goodbye to new friends.
Later, a few of us sneaked back upstairs to play on the gigantic board!
What can I say as a final word? I love that even at the highest level of play Settlers of Catan inspires such a wonderful and entertaining atmosphere of stimulating debate and friendly banter, whilst at the same time providing a depth of intriguing complexity. And the players of this game, from all over the world, happen to be some of the nicest people it has ever been my pleasure to hang out with!
It’s baffling to me that such a large portion of our society would rather mindlessly watch TV than play a board game. With such great games as Settlers of Catan, let’s convince them otherwise!
For more pictures check out Mayfair’s facebook page.