Nick LaLone
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On Settlers of Catan and the inevitable jokes about Wood and Sheep

So if we are to evaluate how people interact with formalized sets of rules, it is necessary to discuss what those rules are.

Settlers of Catan is a game based on exploration and taming the wilds. 4 - 6 players (with the expansion) will compete over 28 tiles with the expansion. This includes 2 Desert tiles. Players compete by trying to cover the land with roads and settlements.

Settlers of Catan offers a unique opportunity to witness manipulation of objects both physical and procedural.

The gameplay is typically ruled by a dice roll. 2 6-sided dice are rolled. The board, covered with 28 tiled numbers between 2 and 12 will then distribute resources. These resources include:

  • Sheep
  • Wood
  • Brick
  • Wheat
  • Rocks

To build anything, players need to control spaces by having a settlement near it. When the dice are rolled, that space creates resources.

Since it is nearly impossible to cover all resources every turn, players must communicate with one another in order to arrange trades. It is this discussion which causes the commotion that allows this study to be possible.

Take a look at the resources needed to build something:

Playing a game is often a purposeful submission to the parameters of the system that guides it. However, no rule is ever set in stone unless it is computationally mediated.

In order to make anything, for example a road, you need one card that is a brick and one card that is wood. You then “use” these on your turn to build something.

In the board example above however, Bricks are only award on a roll of 3, 11, 8, 5, and 6 and each time one of those numbers is rolled, only those players will obtain brick. Those players on common numbers like 6 or 8 will amass brick quickly whereas those players on 5 or 3 or 11 will not gain brick that often. Further, on a roll of a 7, players can move the “robber” to negate the production of resources on a specific tile.

The rules for trade are as follows:

After you roll for resource production, you may trade with other players (domestic trade) or with the bank (maritime trade).

If you decide not to trade during your turn, no one can trade.

You may trade with another player between turns, but only if it is his turn and he elects to trade with you. you cannot trade iwth the bank during another player’s turn. You may not give away cards.

You may trade as long as you have Resource Cards.

You may not trade Development Cards. You may not trade like resources (e.g. 2 wool for 1 wool).

This is where the interaction of Settlers of Catan comes in. It has been …legendary in some households.

When a system breaks down due to the way the rules situate resources and certain parameters of interaction, the resulting frustration can be severe, but expected as this same frustration is evident in all acts of deviance motivated by resource distribution.

Now, this is where the virtual edition comes in. The game board for the digital client looks mostly the same:

The digital version of Catan, like most programs created to mediate human interaction computationally, is not a perfect realization of the context of the game. Instead, concepts like interactivity are reduced to bare minimum representations of themselves. In study, this will be further bridged by Google Hangouts.

However, rather than discussing trades and creating some tension, the game offers a separate screen for trades. It looks a little like this:

The bare bones method of interaction is sufficient enough to generate similar levels of frustration but these are rarely witnessed given the lack of actual communication affordances.

The bare bones method of interaction is sufficient enough to generate similar levels of frustration but these are rarely witnessed given the lack of actual communication affordances.

In order to trade, play needs to move from the board’s space to a special user-interface for trades. It is here at this space that evaluation of interaction can take place because on the one hand, I am talking to my opponents across the table. Perhaps I tell a joke about wood and sheep? Perhaps I jab at my friend who I have known for years? 

Inside the virtual environment I can offer emotes but like :D or :) or :( it just isn’t quite the same thing. This leaves a space to be examined, evaluated, and unpacked. 

How do players cope with this disruption of gameplay? Does this space add tension to the game itself in a way that is similar to that of the tabletop version? How does this happen?

By using ethnography, by using discourse analysis, by using Social Network Analysis, we can get a complete picture of how all aspects of the table playing the game change between sessions, between modes of interaction, and in doing so, we gain some insight into how the formalized systems inside a virtual environment can change group dynamics.

Nick LaLone