(Welcome to Cardboard Cinema, an irregular feature that explores the intersection between movies and tabletop gaming. This column is sponsored by Dragon’s Lair Comics & Fantasy in Austin, Texas.)
For years, Hollywood threatened to make a Monopoly movie. They were taking it seriously, too. Ridley Scott was going to direct it at one point. It sounded like a nightmare. And while everyone held their breath and waited for the movie to never, ever get made, we pondered one question: what the hell is a Monopoly movie? And that inspired another question: are there any board games that would make for great movies?
The answer to that second question is yes, but we’ll get there soon enough. Right now, the big news is that The Settlers of Catan, or just Catan (it was recently rebranded) is heading to the big screen courtesy of Sony. And while this is probably the most famous designer board game in the world, considered the classic gateway game for people looking to dip their toe into the hobby beyond Risk and Monopoly and Sorry, this is also downright weird. The Settlers of Catan is a classic, one of the most important tabletop games ever made, but is there even a movie in there?
Here’s what we know. According to The Hollywood Reporter, The Settlers of Catan is now set up at Sony. Producer Gail Katz (who acquired the rights to the game back in 2015) has teamed up with Dan Lin and Jonathan Eirich to realize the project. Blaise Hemingway, whose auspicious credits include the upcoming Ugly Dolls movie and the “Untitled Playmobil Movie,” has been hired to write the screenplay. No director is attached. It’s not clear if this will be a serious take on the game, which centers around building a civilization on a beautiful island, or if it will be a self-aware, LEGO Movie-style comedy. Heck, it’s not even clear if this will be live-action or animated. But it is “being eyed as a potential franchise starter.”
What is clear is that The Settlers of Catan (or just plain Catan now) has sold 25 million copies and has been translated into 38 languages. While not as universal as other, less good board games (Monopoly stinks, y’all), a lot of people all over the world are familiar with this game. And while it took a few decades, Catan is finally available in big box retailers, where it is sold alongside the flimsy and dated likes of Risk and Scrabble. It’s only going to get bigger.
So of course a movie studio was going to come knocking at some point.
If you’re a board game aficionado, you know what The Settlers of Catan (and no, I’m not prepared to just call it just Catan yet) is all about. Players assemble a modular island, which means that every game is a little bit different, and start building settlements and roads. A roll of the dice determines which hexes pay off their resources, which include livestock, wood, stone, and wheat. This is the only source of randomness in the game – everything else is about good timing, patience, and a little bit of negotiation as players expand their communities, compete for victory points, and hoard goods, avoiding the bandit who steals their stuff and screaming when someone builds their road in the exact wrong place, screwing up the strategy you’ve been plotting for the past hour.
Designed by Klaus Tuber and originally published in 1995, The Settlers of Catan is probably the most famous “German-style” board game in the world. Otherwise known as eurogames, this style of game design is built around limited player interaction (i.e., limited direct conflict), crafty puzzle solving, and building an “engine” to maximize efficiency and get the most out of your turns. It’s easy to see why this game took off and helped usher in the current golden age of tabletop gaming – it’s accessible and easy to learn and while it looks like a math textbook, its visual language is easy to comprehend after a brief tutorial. And unlike Monopoly or Risk (or even actually good “thematic” games) there are no dramatic swings and luck isn’t much of a factor. The best player, the player who makes the best and most sound decisions, wins. It’s fair. And it’s fun.
It’s also hopelessly dated and there are a dozen other better, smoother, prettier, and all around more satisfying eurogames I’d recommend to people looking to for a gateway to the richer end of the tabletop world. But hey, that’s just me being a total snob. The fact that The Settlers of Catan has caught on enough to capture the attention of a major movie studio makes me swell with pride – my hobby has finally arrived! Board games get to join video games in getting movie adaptations that sound like terrible ideas!
Is There Really a Film Here?
I’ll sit down and play a game of The Settlers of Catan with you if you ask. I like it. I especially like it with the expansions, which make the game more complex and add all kinds of new options that transform a deliberately simple game into something meatier for more experienced gamers. You’ve got to love a game that evolves with its players as they get used to its systems!
But I’m not going to sit down and pretend that The Settlers of Catan sounds like a good idea for a movie. After all, this is a German-style board game – the lack of conflict is part of the design ethos! The idea of a Monopoly movie sounds awful, but at least there’s a nugget of cinema there: greedy entrepreneurs compete to become richer and control Atlantic City! But here, you have farmers and townsfolk trying to share an island, occasionally getting frustrated when they run out of sheep. That’s not especially cinematic. That’s great for a Friday night around the kitchen table, not for a Friday night around at the movie theater.
To be fair, it’s possible to imagine filmmakers taking the most basic thematic premise of The Settlers of Catan and spinning it into a movie. There’s definitely a story to be told about explorers landing on an isolated island and attempting to build a new life, braving the elements and establishing a community in an untamed land. After all, Rebecca Gable wrote a Settlers of Catan novel, which was published in Germany in 2003 and was translated into English in 2011.
But then what’s the point? Why pay for the rights to The Settlers of Catan to just make a historical fiction story? You’re paying for that name and iconography. Which makes me wonder if this will be a meta take on the game, some kind of “self aware” board game movie. That sounds like a nightmare…especially when there are plenty of board games that openly invite an adaptation.
The Board Game World is Ripe For Cinema
German-style board games are often about the rejection of theme. This is a realm where game mechanics come first, where light themes like farming and colonization and blowing glass (seriously!) are lightly pasted on top of systems that tease the brain and encourage deep thought and clever choices. These games are often great – but the bulk of them are painfully un-cinematic by design. They are about providing fair, balanced experiences. And stories shouldn’t be fair or balanced. They need to be messy. To need to involve chance. They need to feel organic and alive, capable of breaking out of a rigid system.
So why not put aside The Settlers of Catan, Hollywood. Leave it be. Even if it has a famous title, there are board games more ripe for the silver screen. Look to the thematic games, the “ameritrash” (a term fans have gleefully embraced), games that tell actual stories on your table and use characters, detailed art, and big dramatic choices to make you feel like you’re engaging in a story rather than a clever set of rules.
Look to Arkham Horror and Eldritch Horror, globetrotting horror games that remix the (public domain!) works of H.P Lovecraft into a thrilling race against the forces of oblivion. Look to Twilight Imperium, a detail-laden science fiction war game can take eight hours to play, which sounds like a movie trilogy to me. Look to Mice and Mystics, an adorable and harrowing tale of brave warriors who are transformed into mice and must battle their way through a much smaller world filled with dangers. Look to Scythe, an alternate history sci-fi game about a Cold War fought (and often not fought) between steam-powered mech armies in eastern Europe. Look to Pandemic, the popular and nail-biting game where players work together against the game to save the world from several strains of diseases wreaking havoc on the human race.
The board game world is ripe for your greedy exploitation, Hollywood! You just need to pick the right games.
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