Klaus Teuber Saved My Life

By now you’ve likely heard of the passing of Klaus Teuber at 70 from a “brief and severe illness.” Even though his Google return defaults to identifying him as a “German former dental technician,” it isn’t an overstatement to say he may be the figure who’s had the single greatest impact on modern board gaming. His 1995 Spiel des Jahres game of the year win for Settlers of Catan was his fourth and final time bringing home that award.

I never had the pleasure of meeting Teuber, but his designs are written into my gaming DNA. Maybe that’s why the news of his passing has hit me so hard. I can’t recall feeling this saddened by any other celebrity death. Then again, no other creator gave me a relationship with my father or helped me survive the bleakest two years of my life.

This is not Settlers of Catan.

Dad didn’t seem to know what to do with me. I wasn’t into sports. He would tell stories about how as a kid he would ride his bicycle to the field and play baseball all day with his friends; how he longed for those rare opportunities to go fishing with his father. Once, he added “play golf or go fishing with dad” to my weekend chores list. When I protested, he was furious. Why didn’t I want to spend time with him? I tried to explain. It wasn’t the time that was the problem. Nor, really, was it that only his hobbies qualified for the list. Of course I wanted to spend time with him. It was the reduction of quality time to an obligation that worried me. He didn’t hear me. He thundered out of the room. We didn’t speak for the next few days. Our relationship was marked by turbulence like that. We orbited each other at a distance, wary of the next big miscommunication.

Eventually, Dad brought home The Settlers of Catan Card Game. I’d never heard of Catan. But it looked nifty, and I was a weirdo who biked to the library every day over the summer, so playing something history-adjacent seemed okay to me.

We powered through the rules. It was the most complicated game we’d ever stumbled into. The rulebook was surprisingly thick. It still is. Today it would probably be four pages. Then it was thirty, walking us through concepts we’d never encountered before. How to rotate cards to indicate our stockpiled resources. What exactly constituted a trade. What an “event” was and how to resolve it. There was even a probability chart to explain why we would roll 7 more often.

Despite being guided by the hand, we made mistakes. Unlike the other five resources, we had no idea what gold was for. It only occurred to us later that gold was a sort of pity prize, a resource that built up until you had enough to trade for something else. This was long before either of us knew about catch-up mechanisms or game balance. We also didn’t know beans about hand management. Many cards existed to offset rough events or rival attacks. Since we didn’t know how often those would happen, holding onto those cards felt like a waste of space. We habitually tossed them out. As you might expect, brigands and black knights tended to have their way with our kingdoms.

This made me very upset with my father.

Our favorite card was the Colossus of Catan, a high-value structure that could swing the game into your favor. It took heaps of resources to build, and could only be erected in a city, which made it doubly precious. In hindsight, chasing the Colossus isn’t the most efficient use of resources, but it dazzled us all the same.

One time, I managed to build the Colossus. On his next turn, Dad threw down the Arsonist card. The Settlers of Catan Card Game — which later earned the better title Rivals for Catan, and was eventually licensed to become Anno 1701: The Card Game — was also a dice game. The Arsonist only burned down a structure on the right roll. Of course, Dad got it. For the first time ever, I was holding the proper counter-card. The Bishop would cancel a Brigand or Arsonist on a roll of 3-6. I rolled the die.

(Looking at the cards now, I have to laugh. They don’t even express those rolls as ranges. The Bishop doesn’t say “The attack is canceled on a roll of 3-6.” It says “The attacker loses on a roll of 3, 4, 5 or 6.” Today the concept would be put across as icons. Back then, the game was a mess of text. User-friendly iconography was still a ways off.)

I rolled a 2. And I lost it.

Dad was shocked. Then he was angry. Why had I shouted over a game? Why had something permitted by the rules reduced me to tears? He shouted back. He threatened to never play Catan with me again. We didn’t finish that session. We played another sullen round or two, then called it quits. I was certain it was the last time we would play a board game together.

But that night, Dad climbed up to my room. “I guess we both have a temper,” he said. We talked about how angry some things made us. How we couldn’t even see straight when something hit us wrong. He asked if I wanted to play Catan again tomorrow. I said yes. And we did. And we did. And we did. We played that game until the cards were smudged yellow. We played until we could handle losing.

More than that, though, I think that was the first time we saw each other. In our tempers, we shared something shameful. Something that made it easier to be patient. Or, when patience wasn’t enough, to forgive one another’s outbursts. We were father and son after all.

This is also not Settlers of Catan.

My next encounter with Klaus Teuber was a sheer accident. I grew up in a Mormon family, complete with the many trappings that went with it. I was much older, in high school, when my cousins invited me over to play the latest and greatest board game for Family Home Evening. FHE was a Mormon tradition at the time, a Monday evening gathering complete with snacks, a game, and an overbearing lesson. My family only bothered with FHE sporadically, so I was a regular guest in my cousins’ home. I don’t remember the lesson or the snack. But the game…

…was not The Settlers of Catan. In fact, I had no idea it bore any connection to the card game I’d played with Dad all those years earlier. This was The Settlers of Zarahemla, named for the center of Nephite civilization in the Book of Mormon. There’s no reason to recount the rules; it’s identical in nearly every respect. Its main difference is a transposition of setting. Instead of knights, your army gains “stripling warriors.” The robber pawn becomes a band of “Gadianton Robbers.” Instead of populating an island, you’re founding a civilization in the jungle, a mirror image of Lehi’s family sailing from Jerusalem to the Americas and dividing into antagonistic clans. Certain cards ask you to read scriptures. Since this was Family Home Evening, of course we complied. That was the cheesy part. Okay, that wasn’t the only cheesy part. You can also build a temple, The Settlers of Zarahemla’s sole contribution to Teuber’s original. Presumably this is the temple where Joseph Smith’s version of Jesus will eventually appear, both as climax to the Book of Mormon and as the crowning act of rewriting indigenous history to appeal to white frontiersmen. Thank goodness the game doesn’t go as far as to award its winner a one-on-one visit with the big guy.

The good old days when board games made you look up scripture references.

Two years later, I became a Mormon missionary. A deeply depressed Mormon missionary. I was already struggling with my faith when I was assigned to work on the Crow Reservation. The local branch suffered from significant racial tensions between its white leaders and native membership. The local mission leader, a native, called himself “a good Lamanite” and talked about how Zarahemla had been built in North America rather than somewhere farther south. I was often sick. When my leaders talked about how we’d volunteered for the Lord’s Army, my heart would beat until I could feel it in my throat. Nothing seemed voluntary about it. I kept a tally of the days until I could go home. Until I could read books again.

Relief came in the form of a weekly game of The Settlers of Catan. While the other elders shot hoops, a handful of us gathered into a side room to play board games. The first time I played The Settlers of Catan, I remarked that it was super cool that somebody had adapted a new edition of a Mormon game. Oh, how they laughed at me for that one. An hour later, we added Seafarers. Then Cities & Knights. I hadn’t known board games could have expansions. When we were done, I realized it had been four hours since I’d swallowed vomit or beat a hasty beeline for the restroom. For the first time in months, I felt normal.

Later, our mission president outlawed board games. Sending my copy of Catan home felt like nailing myself into a wooden box. When I returned home a year later, it was the only thing that had gotten lost in the mail. I’ve never owned a copy of Catan since.

The next generation.

I understand why Catan has become a punchline. It looms so large in the hobby that there’s really no escaping it. There are board games before Catan, and then there are board games after Catan. That makes it all the more impressive that Teuber’s landmark design is so peerless. It’s the game that launched an entire genre, but none of its successors quite recreated its appeal. The fast turns. The thrill of playing the odds via its dice. The negotiations and trading. For being the Eurogame, it’s so unlike most Eurogames.

This morning, I played Catan for the first time in fifteen years. Okay, it was actually The Settlers of Zarahemla, the only version of classic Catan I own. My nine-year-old joined me. She even won. If you ask whether I lobbed a few softballs, I’ll deny it to my deathbed. My three-year-old soon got in on the action, planting settlements and roads on the map, collecting resource cards, babbling about trades. To Teuber’s infinite credit, they both understood what they were doing. They were playing.

We’re light-years away from the situations that taught me those games. I’m healthier now. Close with Dad. Far from the church. Able for the first time to see these games clearly. How revolutionary they are. How perfect. How flawed. If I critiqued them today, I’d have plenty to say.

But I don’t want to critique them. They’re holy relics. These are the games that saved my life. Rest in peace, Klaus Teuber. And thank you.


(If what I’m doing at Space-Biff! is valuable to you in some way, please consider dropping by my Patreon campaign or Ko-fi.)

Posted on April 4, 2023, in Board Game and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 46 Comments.

  1. What a beautiful tribute. Thanks, Dan.

  2. My story is in many ways similar. Thanks for voicing my own gratitude for Mr. Teuber.

  3. What a touching story, Dan. Thank you for sharing.

    In 2007, seven years married, husband had just graduated college and been hired by a company in my state’s only major metropolitan area. We left the college town we’d lived in for more than 10 years to a new city 120 miles away, to start grown-up lives. One of our computers died, and we couldn’t afford to replace it. This meant we could no longer play computer games together. So I went looking for some card/board games so we’d have something to do *together* other than watch TV in a new city where we didn’t know anyone and were nearly broke and trying to start a family.

    I bought Blue Moon and The Settlers of Catan Card Game. That was the start of my love of “modern” board games.
    In the long term, board games did not continue to hold my husband’s interest, though he would play from time to time. Nowadays he can’t play at all due to health issues. I developed a love for solo gaming, and found a kindred spirit living 4 blocks away who loves board games as much as I do. Board games give me the fuel for my soul so I have the emotional resources to support my husband through his challenges.

  4. Thanks for sharing Dan! What a touching story!

  5. Great work, Dan. I read all of your stuff, but this one I will remember for a long time. Never had a great relationship with my father, and I am struggling to find one with my son. I can only hope it will improve as it did for you.

  6. Marceline Leiman

    Beautiful words, Dan. Catan is a beautiful, flawed game that absolutely deserves the respect you share at the end of the article. Many of its detractors have also likely played it over 50 times.

  7. Shut up! I’m not crying. I have allergies.

  8. Beautiful post.

    I first saw Catan when college friends were playing. They invited me to join. “No,” I scoff, looking anxiously at my other friends to make sure they know I’m not interested in board games.

    Several years later, I’m working at an outdoor education center and some friends invite me to play Catan. I start to scoff, but then see that everyone is excited. “Uhh…sure!” I spend every single Tuesday night for the rest of the season playing Catan (Cities and Knights).

    Several years later, married and in a new town, I find a post on Craigslist. Some guy is inviting people to his open game nights where they play “games like Catan.” I hesitantly ask my wife what she thinks. “Yes!” she says. We proceed to make the majority of our friends from this group of board gamers who gather at this friend’s house.

    I still think about the friendships I could have made in college if I had not been afraid of what others thought. I’m so glad that Catan remained an avenue to make new friends, and to eventually serve as an avenue for simply not worrying about what other people thought. I haven’t played Catan in years, besides a 4 hour live action game at camp where kids literally built Cities out of sticks and I delighted in running around as the Robber messing them up. But your post really brought back for me the magic heart of this beautiful hobby.

    Thank you for taking such care with your work. It’s very inspirational.

    • Wow, that’s a great story! We all go through the phase of worrying too much about what others think of us. Good on you for shaking yourself free of it sooner than most.

      • Well, I just am grateful to my community and the examples of those in my broader community, online and in person, for their support. Thanks for your model too!!

  9. What a beautiful story. Thanks for sharing it

  10. Thank you for sharing your story. You honor Klaus with your experiences and memory of his games which makes the telling so much richer.

  11. I tip my hat to two great geniuses, in their own fields, that we have lost this week: Klaus Teuber, and Ryuichi Sakamoto. They will be missed.

  12. Thanks for sharing this story Dan. It seems like every player who has been in the hobby for some time have at least an anecdote about Catan, which never cease to amaze me.
    I’ve been working at a board game café for 5 years and Catan is the most familiar game to our public, the one they recognize or talk about when looking at the shelves, even when they have little or no experience with modern boardgames.

    Six years ago, as I was hiking in a remote part of New Zealand, I stopped for the night at a refuge. A family of four arrived one hour later and started to cook their dinner. I already ate and was reading, so we only exchanged a few words. Once they were done, they asked me if I would like to play with them. They had Catan in their backpacks, stored in plastic bags so it would take as little space as possible. It blew my mind to see that game here, in the middle of nowhere, on the other side of the world. We had a great game, a great chat, a great time. All thanks to Klaus Teuber.

  13. This is one of the greatest things I’ve ever read about board games, and I’ve been doing it here and elsewhere for years. It’s the nicest obituary I’ve read recently – which I don’t usually do, of course.

  14. That’s a lovely story Dan, thanks for sharing.

  15. Thank you for this Dan. My father, who died 2 years ago next month, didn’t know what to do with me either. He had little patience for board games; he did teach me chess but once I had learned we never played again. Once I tried to engage him in an Age of Sail wargame (Frigate by SPI) but it didn’t work, he never did understand what wargames were about but by the time I started designing them myself he at least saw where I was headed with it.
    I have a completely different relationship with my son (now 28) and much of it is based on and developed through board games. We played a lot of Settlers of Catan Card Game (back when it was called that) and had a good time; later he began to help me with testing out some of my designs and sometimes still does… he’s not shy about telling me when something isn’t landing right!

  16. Arvid Askmar Cederholm

    Beautiful story, Dan! I remember being in my later teens and just playing Catan week after week with my friends. Formative experience!

  17. Christian van Someren

    Excellent article. I can’t believe they banned board games, what kind of dystopia was that?

  18. Thanks for this heartfelt tribute!

  19. Dan,

    Thank you, beautifully articulated as usual and a real gift. And thank you to everyone for sharing your experiences.

    Of course, Catan was my gateway to modern board games as well. It was the only game my 2 best friends and I played for over 10 years. Once or twice I would try to introduce something else, but we always came back to Catan. Because we were all single and unattached at the time, we spent many weekends together going to the movies, talking in coffee shops, or playing 2 or 3 games of Catan after dinner. As life got busier, we played less and less. Today we see each other probably twice a year.

    When I first met my wife she was not into board games. It wasn’t a dealbreaker. But when she took to Catan, it helped to open up a whole new dimension to our relationship. Today she is my favorite gaming partner.

    Over the years I’ve managed to find new gaming partners, but it’s not the same. Those deep childhood friendships are hard if impossible to replace. I’m blessed to have had that time in my life, and deeply grateful to Klaus Teuber.

  20. This made me tear up. Thank you so much for sharing it with us.

  21. And here I stand, crying over… Over what, by the way ? The passing of Klaus Teuber ? This wonderful obituary (may someone ever write something this moving about me…) ? The fond memories of my own Catan sessions with my friends, back then, when we had just discovered modern gaming as teenagers ? That exact thing you nailed here about father/son relationships ? The fact that, as a french guy of a small city, I can precisely relate to all of this (that’s what gaming do, sometimes : speaks of universal) ?

    This, my friend, is litterature. Thank you.

  22. I’ve been reading and enjoying your game reviews for many years. But this non-review tribute is probably my favourite of your writings now. Thank you.

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