Klaus Teuber, creator of the board game Catan, dies at 70
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Klaus Teuber, creator of the board game Catan, dies at 70
Patrons play a game of The Settlers of Catan at The Uncommons board game cafe in New York, July 30, 2014. Klaus Teuber, who 28 years ago created The Settlers of Catan, an enduringly popular board game that has spawned college intramural teams and international tournaments, been name-checked on “South Park” and “Parks and Recreation,” inspired a novel and sold some 40 million copies worldwide, died on Saturday. He was 70. (Jake Naughton/The New York Times)

by Neil Genzlinger

NEW YORK, NY.- Klaus Teuber, who 28 years ago created The Settlers of Catan, an enduringly popular board game that has spawned college intramural teams and international tournaments, been name-checked on “South Park” and “Parks and Recreation,” inspired a novel and sold some 40 million copies worldwide, died Saturday. He was 70.

Catan GmbH, which publishes and licenses the game, now known simply as Catan, posted news of his death on its website. It said only that he died after a short illness and did not say where.

Teuber was managing a dental lab, a job he found stressful, when he began designing games as a way to unwind.

“In the beginning, these games were just for me,” he told Forbes in 2016. “I always have stories in my head — I would read a book, and if I liked it, I wanted to experience it as a game.”

That was the origin of his first big success, a game called Barbarossa, which grew out of his admiration for “The Riddle-Master” trilogy, fantasy books written in the 1970s by Patricia A. McKillip.

“I was sorry to see it come to an end,” he told The New Yorker in 2014, “so I tried to experience this novel in a game.”

In 1988, that game won the Spiel des Jahres (Game of the Year) award in Germany, considered the most prestigious award in the board game world, Germany being particularly enthusiastic about board games. He won that award twice more, in 1990 (for Hoity Toity) and in 1991 (for Wacky Wacky West), before scoring his biggest success with what was known in German as Die Siedler von Catan.

In that game, players build settlements in a new land by collecting brick, lumber, wool, ore and grain. Trading with other players is part of the strategy, lending a social element to the game play. In 1995, the game won both the game of the year award and the Deutscher Spiele Preis, the German Games Award. It caught on, first in Germany and then, as editions in other languages became available, all over.

If a fantasy trilogy had been the inspiration for Barbarossa, Catan owed its existence to nothing but Teuber’s imagination and his long-standing interest in Viking history.

“When I read about the Vikings, when they discovered Iceland,” he said in “Going Cardboard,” a 2012 documentary about board games, “I thought: ‘What would happen if some explorers come to an island where there’s no one? What will they do?’”

Instead of being inspired by a novel, Teuber’s game inspired one: “The Settlers of Catan” by Rebecca Gablé was published in 2011. The game has also been re-imagined in various ways, including some video-game and online incarnations.

Eric Freeman, the 2022 U.S. Catan champion, said that during the coronavirus pandemic, he and many others found the online version of the game to be an antidote to isolation. He and some friends started a virtual league that grew to more than 60 people.

“Incredible lifelong friendships — as well as professional connection — were born as a result,” Freeman said by email. “During the dark and isolating days of early COVID and quarantine, this board game gave us something to be excited about, a reason to connect beyond the simple ‘Zoom happy hour,’ and a feeling of belonging.”

Teuber told Wired in 2009 that creating Catan felt different from his other efforts.

“I felt like I was discovering something rather than inventing it,” he said.

An initial run of 5,000 sold out so quickly, according to Wired, that Teuber didn’t even have a first-edition version. Within a few years, he was able to give up that stressful day job and devote himself to games full time.

Catan has been widely hailed as being challenging yet intuitive — children play it — and has been credited with jump-starting a new era of board games, which moved beyond the staid confines of Scrabble and Monopoly. Instead of sitting idly while other players take their turns, as in Monopoly, Catan invites constant wheeling and dealing.

“The secret of Catan,” Teuber told Wired, “is that you have to bargain and sometimes whine.”

For Freeman, that is what elevates it above older games.

“I truly believe Klaus created the greatest board game of all time,” he said. “Both complicated and approachable, it combines skill, luck, strategy and my favorite aspect: the power of persuasion. You can’t talk your way into winning a game of chess, but you certainly can in Catan.”

The sociability the game required helped it take off. College students discovered it; at some campuses, Catan was made an intramural sport. And tournaments sprung up, including an international one — according to the company’s website, the first world championship to include players participating in tournaments outside of Germany was held in 2002.

Teuber was born on June 25, 1952, in Breuberg, southeast of Frankfurt. Information on his survivors was not immediately available.

After winning the U.S. championship last year in Columbus, Ohio, Freeman traveled to Malta for the world championship. There he met Teuber, and he showed him a spreadsheet he and friends had created logging more than 600 games they had played during the pandemic, with detailed statistics on who had won, how they had won and more.

“Klaus turned to his son,” Freeman recalled, “and in a beautifully charming German accent said, ‘I think they play more Catan than we do.’”

Last year, in an interview with Nikkei Asia, Teuber was asked why he thought Catan was so popular.

“There may have been a good balance between strategy and luck,” he said. “For example, roulette is only about luck, and chess is all about strategies. However, if you win in Catan, you think, ‘My strategy was good,’ and when you lose, you might think, ‘I was just out of luck.’ This is the same as life.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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