Catan: New Energies challenges players to build — polluting : Short Wave Today, we're going full nerd to talk about a new board game — Catan: New Energies. The game's goal is simple: Build and develop a modern-day island without catastrophically polluting it. Although the concept mirrors the effects of climate change, those words don't actually appear in the game. NPR correspondent Nate Rott talks to Emily about the thinking behind the new game and how the developers hope it can start conversations around energy use and pollution.

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How the new Catan board game can spark conversations on climate change

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You're listening to SHORT WAVE...


KWONG: ...From NPR.

Howdy, SHORT WAVErs, Emily Kwong here with climate reporter Nate Rott.


KWONG: And I want to declare something that at this point should be fairly obvious, I am a nerd. And part of my nerdom is a passion for board games. Tabletop board games.

ROTT: Emily, I fully encourage you to own your nerdom. I have a dinosaur lamp on my desk, a framed Ewok cartoon in my office and a cupboard full of board games. So you are in good company.

KWONG: This is why I like talking to you, Nate. I feel among friends.

ROTT: OK. So knowing that you love board games, it is fair to assume that you've played Catan, or as it used to be called, Settlers Of Catan?

KWONG: Yeah. I have. It's kind of like our generation's Monopoly. There's the original, and there's so many different spinoff versions.

ROTT: Yeah. You can play Catan in space. You can play Catan anywhere. OK. So, how would you describe the goal of the game? Like, if somebody's never played before, like, what would your advice be on how to win?

KWONG: Well, there's a lot of strategies, but you got to manage your resources. I mean, the goal with Catan is to obtain these five resources - grain, lumber, brick, or - and wool, which is represented as, like, a sheep on the card.

ROTT: Yeah.

KWONG: And you turn your settlements into cities and you expand across as much of this island as you can.

ROTT: Yeah. So those, like, forests are there to be logged, right? The ore is there to be mined. The sheep are there to be traded.

KWONG: Nate, no one wants your sheep.

ROTT: Yeah.

KWONG: You should know that by now.

ROTT: Very, very true. Most invaluable resource. Anyway, what if I told you, Emily, that there is a new version of Catan that is scheduled to be released later this summer that adds a bit of a 21st century twist.

KWONG: Do you, like, trade Bitcoin as a commodity?

ROTT: Thankfully, no. This new game introduces energy production and pollution to the game play.


ROTT: Here's Benjamin Teuber who co-designed the new game called Catan: New Energies.

BENJAMIN TEUBER: Cities, towns produce pollution, we all know that. And then additionally, you can build power plants, and you can have fossil-based power plants or renewable energy-based power plants.

ROTT: Fossil fuels allow you to build faster, but they also create more pollution. And pollution, in the new game, much like in real life, causes catastrophes.

KWONG: Oh, so this is Catan with a side of climate change.

ROTT: Totally. Yeah. But without saying the words climate change, which we can get into later. The aim is to make people wrestle with this, like, very real-world challenge of balancing growth and development with pollution, well, you know, while also still having fun because it is a board game.

KWONG: Today on the show, how new rules in this latest version of Catan mirror our world today.

ROTT: And whether board games can change a person's perspective on a huge topic like climate change.

KWONG: You're listening to SHORT WAVE, the science podcast from NPR.


KWONG: OK. Nate Rott, I am truly curious about this version of Catan. You said it's called Catan: New Energies.

ROTT: Yep.

KWONG: What time period is it set in? Like, is it a situation where modern-day Catanians (ph) have a cellphone that needs powering?

ROTT: Essentially, yes. So unlike the original game, which was set in the year 900 or something, modern Catan, much like modern human occupied Earth, needs energy. It needs power plants. So players have the option of building faster with fossil fuels or slower with renewables. But the catch is that fossil fuels create more pollution.

KWONG: Well, this is just like human occupied Earth.

ROTT: Yes. It is definitely mirroring society. So pollution doesn't have an immediate effect on the gameplay, which is taking the real-world metaphor even further. It kind of sneaks up on you. So Benjamin Teuber, the game's co-developer, says that imagine you're playing with someone who's, like, you know, I don't care about pollution. I want to be aggressive. I want to build fast and get ahead.

TEUBER: Then maybe you do that, and I'll be like, well, I need to grow, as well, and then everybody does that. But then suddenly, pollution strikes like an inundation, a flooding smog.


ROTT: And this is the key part, Emily.

TEUBER: It doesn't always have to hit the people that actually did it. Sometimes it does, like smog, for example. But then very often, like, a flooding just hits everybody just as we see it and it doesn't matter who created the pollution, it, like, affects someone.

KWONG: That is so parallel to our world today - right? - that the people and populations that are being worst affected by climate change are very often the ones who contributed the least.

ROTT: And, Emily, there is a benefit to investing in renewables in the game, other than just, you know, feeling good. If the board gets so polluted that it pretty much becomes unplayable, the person who invested the most in renewables wins. So everyone has a collective interest in not over polluting, and you are kind of constantly negotiating with other players about who gets to pollute and when.

KWONG: Too bad that's not the case in the real world, Nate.

ROTT: Tell me about it.

KWONG: So you said that the new game doesn't mention the word climate change. Like, it's not in the rule book, it's not on the box. Even though flooding, because of fossil fuel production, does seem very climate change inspired, to me, as a game mechanic.

ROTT: It's a mirror of what's happening with climate change, but it doesn't make that connection explicit, which is, you know, a really big difference from other new climate change related board games like Daybreak.

KWONG: Isn't that the cooperative one where you and other players are trying to limit global warming together?

ROTT: Yeah. Exactly. The makers of that game said they made it to try to get people thinking about how to respond to climate change in a cooperative way. Catan: New Energies, this game we're talking about, does not do that. And Benjamin said that was actually an active choice, that they wanted to focus on energy choices and their consequences instead of saying climate change and then let players kind of just draw their own conclusions.

TEUBER: I think a game is a little world, like a model, focused on one topic that you can actually just play without having a severe and bad consequence, unless a divorce is the result. So, like, you can experiment and you can - yeah, like, model a little bit how your behavior A or your behavior B could maybe help you better to reach your goal.

ROTT: Benjamin said that when they workshoped this game in beta testing and even when he's played himself with friends, you know, people often over pollute. There's this human instinct when you're playing a game - and maybe in real life - to kind of win at all costs. But then people would come back and they would feel bad about that and they would express that remorse. And the next time they would play, people would generally try to build a more balanced energy portfolio.

KWONG: Oh, interesting. So on a second play through, maybe they're investing in renewables and not just going full throttle on fossil fuels.

ROTT: Exactly. Yeah. They kind of learn a lesson from their prior gameplay.

KWONG: So how often does that happen in board games where someone is, like, learning in a real-world way things that could apply to, you know, I don't know, maybe their life decisions one day.

ROTT: So, yeah. I mean, there is peer-reviewed research that shows that playing board games can influence human behavior. A 2019 review of a bunch of the latest research found that there could be more research on the topic. But generally, the consensus is, yes, there is a connection. I talked to a researcher who focuses on this, who thinks that games could play a very big role in shaping societal conversations around things like climate change. His name is Sam Illingworth, and he's an associate professor at Edinburgh Napier University in the U.K.

SAM ILLINGWORTH: For me, what games are really powerful at is starting the dialogues.

ROTT: Games can create this thing called the magic circle. And that's this theory from the 1930s by a Dutch historian who essentially said that when people are playing - right? - the act of playing, when you do that, you create this separate world with separate rules.

KWONG: I think this is why I like board games so much. You can experience emotions in a low-stakes way 'cause it's just a game, right?

ROTT: Totally. Yeah.

KWONG: It's like the fantasy novels afford the same production. You can, like, play out scenarios. But ultimately, you're just reading a book and you can, like, put it down...

ROTT: Yeah.

KWONG: ...When you're done.

ROTT: I like to think of it as escapism. That's why I read "Dragonlance Chronicles" all the time, right? Like, so it's this place - games create this place where, like, anyone can be anything. And, like, the normal rules of society that we all usually live by, they don't exist. So Sam, like, points to Monopoly as a really good example of this.

ILLINGWORTH: In the game monopoly, it's perfectly good/advisable for me to want to bankrupt you, which is behavior that's morally repugnant away from the gaming table. But it means that those social hierarchies can break down and we can have conversations that we wouldn't normally be able to take place.

KWONG: Monopoly is a cool example of this point, because I just happen to know that one of the first versions of monopoly was created by Lizzie Magie, and it was meant to demonstrate the pitfalls of capitalism. In some ways, honestly, this new version of Catan is in that spirit. It's meant to show the pitfalls of human decisions, in this case, of our decision to use fossil fuels and to pollute.

ROTT: Absolutely. You know, though, we should say, you know, not all board games are as good at sparking public conversation as others, Sam says. So, for example, you know, like, he says, take edu-games, like, when you're in school, where you have to read a lot about the problem before playing.

ILLINGWORTH: That there may be games that the teacher gets out, and the kids are like, oh, God, not other one of these, right?

KWONG: (Laughter).

ROTT: No, I think we both know the feeling, right?

KWONG: Yeah.

ROTT: So Sam says...

KWONG: I respect the teachers for trying, though...

ROTT: Yeah, you got to - yeah.

KWONG: ...To engage us. Yeah.

ROTT: No hate. But Sam says, it's, like, really different than a game where the lesson is baked into the mechanics of the gameplay, where there's this, like, direct cause and effect. Like, over pollution creates catastrophe.

ILLINGWORTH: So rather than just having a conversation about what might happen, you're actually experiencing that, which is really, really interesting.

KWONG: That's the difference. You're experiencing, personally, in your mind, but still, like, what it's like when there's too much pollution on the game board, and you have to contend with that reality and, like, discuss it with other people as you're playing.

ROTT: Exactly. I mean, the emotions you're feeling are real, right? The frustration you would feel if someone at the table is just saying, like, the heck with it. I'm going to pollute anyway. Like, you feel that. And you're forced to have to negotiate with other players as a result because there's this, like, joint interest in not over polluting the game so that you, as somebody who might be doing a little polluting, can actually win...

KWONG: Yeah.

ROTT: ...Which is also true of real life. And the makers of the game hope that these kinds of experiences, the conversations are going to inspire people to have will help people think about climate change, the balance between development and pollution and fossil fuels and renewables differently, you know, not just at the gaming table but when they step away from the coffee table and go back to their normal life.

KWONG: Nate Rott, thank you for bringing us this reporting. I would love to, like, play this game with you when it comes out.

ROTT: I'm getting a version of it Emily, and I insist that we play the next time we meet.

KWONG: Only if you're prepared to lose.


KWONG: Oh, I'm not being a good environmentalist, am I? OK.



KWONG: This episode was produced by longest road builder Berly McCoy and edited by the greatest army among us, showrunner Rebecca Ramirez. Wool hoarder Nate Rott checked the fats, and the audio engineer was brick wall Robert Rodriguez. I'm Emily Kwong. Thank you for listening to SHORT WAVE from NPR.


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