The spreadsheets of Catan

Tuesday, 31 March 2009 — 8:11am | Board games, Mathematics

From Andrew Curry and Wired comes this comprehensive article on Settlers of Catan, a superb piece of board game journalism if I’ve ever seen one, and a must-read for players of all levels. It’s got a bit of everything: a look at why Settlers fit the market like a glove, a little about designer Klaus Teuber, an overview of the “German style” of board game design of which Settlers is the most prominent ambassador, and a peek into the complexity underlying the game’s infamously balanced mechanics.

This caught my attention:

In 2006, Brian Reynolds, a founder of Maryland software company Big Huge Games and the programmer who developed the AI behind the addictive computer classic Sid Meier’s Civilization II, set out to make an Xbox 360 version of Settlers. To help programmers develop the game’s AI, Teuber spent months exploring the mathematics of his most famous creation, charting the probability of every event in the game. The odds of a six or eight being rolled are almost 1 in 3 for example, while the chance of a four being rolled is 1 in 12. There is a 2-in-25 chance of drawing a Year of Plenty development card. Teuber created elaborate logic chains and probability matrices in a complex Excel spreadsheet so the videogame developers could see how every possible move and roll of the dice—from the impact of the Robber to the odds of getting wheat in a given scenario—compared. The end result was a sort of blueprint for the game that gave Big Huge Games a head start and showed just how complex the underlying math was. “It was the biggest, gnarliest spreadsheet I had ever seen,” Reynolds says.

I want to see this.

One of the best things that happened to the Civilization series was how in Civilization IV, lead designer Soren Johnson laid the mathematics and AI bare for everyone to see, expanding on a series tradition in the Sid Meier games to make all the data easily accessible (and therefore modifiable).

Settlers is elegant enough that I’m sure people have already figured out the math through a spot of reverse engineering; it’s really not that hard. But I’d love to see Teuber’s spreadsheet for its immense historical value as a design document alone. Surely there was a calculated rationale to everything from the fifteen-road limit to the assignment of three ore/brick hexes instead of four—and I often wonder if the perpetual endgame glut of sheep is here as an intentional crimp.


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One rejoinder to “The spreadsheets of Catan”

  1. Aaron Rankin

    Great link, Nick. Having recently perused the UADS’s double-entry accounting Excel spreadsheet, I can begin to fathom what “the biggest, gnarliest spreadsheet” might look like.

    I found this section of the other article fascinating:

    “German-style games, on the other hand, avoid direct conflict. Violence in particular is taboo in Germany’s gaming culture, a holdover from decades of post-World War II soul-searching. In fact, when Parker Brothers tried to introduce Risk there in 1982, the government threatened to ban it on the grounds that it might encourage imperialist and militaristic impulses in the nation’s youth. (The German rules for Risk were hastily rewritten so players could “liberate” their opponents’ territories, and censors let it slide.)”

    Thursday, 2 April 2009 at 10:22am

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