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HomeWorld newsIn Catan: New Energies, the goal is to avoid a climate catastrophe

In Catan: New Energies, the goal is to avoid a climate catastrophe

In the classic board game Catan, players are colonists racing to develop a desert island. They compete to build settlements, roads and cities as quickly as possible in a universe where growth and construction development are good and even necessary.

A new version of the game released this week puts players straight into the 21st century, where that equation has become more complicated. In the world of Catan: New Energies, climate change is a known threat. Players build villages, towns and roads; trade in raw materials such as steel and textiles; and establish power stations. The central decision they face is whether to continue with fossil fuels and urban growth, which could potentially lead to disaster, or whether to invest in renewable energy sources, a slower and more expensive process that extends the game and creates other routes to offers victory.

“I had some fascinating rounds with very, very, very competitive use of fossils, and we all just wanted to win,” says Benjamin Teuber, New Energies gameplay designer and son of Catan creator Klaus Teuber. Teuber says that during testing, players tended to start out aggressive: “Every time we played, we destroyed the world.”

New Energies was the last game Teuber worked on with his father, who passed away last year. During development, the duo wanted to ensure that the game offered both positive and negative possible outcomes. For example, it can end prematurely if players continually choose resource-intensive activities such as building cities and towns. At that point, the player with the highest ratio of renewable power plants to fossil fuel plants wins. But the other players can try to prevent an early end by building more renewable energy and removing fossil fuel power plants.

Bloomberg

Parallel to real life, New Energy often becomes an exercise in craftsmanship. No one wants to reduce their chances of winning by not building, or by waiting to build more expensive renewables instead of fossil fuels. But more fossil fuels and more development of cities and towns means that all players are more likely to cause events like flooding and air pollution. These events make it more difficult to develop, making cheaper fossil fuels even more attractive. It’s a snowball effect that can quickly get out of hand.

When put to the test, the players were wracked with indecision. Building fossil fuel plants is simple and makes the most sense as a strategy to propel a player to victory, but it feels morally wrong. In the end, everyone built at least one, although the player who won had a mix of renewable energy and fossil fuels.

Teuber says this balance was reflected in his own experience. The gameplay eventually changed from a race to build as much fossil fuel infrastructure as possible to a group consensus on switching to at least some renewable energy sources. “We said, ‘Why did we do that again?’ Well, because it’s just innate. We want to win,” he says. “It sucks because the game stopped too early again, and you know, maybe next time we should start with green (energy).”

New Energies was the last game Benjamin Teuber worked on with his father, Catan creator Klaus Teuber, who passed away last year.

New Energies was the last game Benjamin Teuber worked on with his father, Catan creator Klaus Teuber, who passed away last year. | Bloomberg

New Energies exposes the complexity of solving climate change, says Kelli Schmitz, director of brand development at Catan Studio. “It doesn’t shame you for things you can’t really control, which is kind of nice, but it makes you think on a more macro level,” she says. “If I don’t have control over what kind of power plant comes up, built in the next town, maybe I should start thinking about the systems that get it there and who you vote for, who you support, what kind of conversations you have with your family and friends.

Playing a game can be more educational than passive activities such as listening to a lecture or seminar, says Kris De Meyer, neuroscientist and director of the UCL Climate Action Unit. “Playing games can lead to what’s called experiential learning,” he says. This is especially powerful when players have a chance to dissect what happened during the game.

Catan: New Energies is not the first climate board game. The series has included environmental elements in expansion packs including Crop Trust and Oil Springs, and other games – including CO2: Second Chance and Tipping Point – are also gaming the problem of balancing growth and climate impacts. In the cooperative game Daybreak, released last year, players take on the role of major countries or coalitions working on the transition from an economy based on fossil fuels. The aim is to achieve a ‘drawdown’, when carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere begin to fall.

The game can end prematurely if players choose too many resource-intensive activities.

The game can end prematurely if players choose too many resource-intensive activities. | Bloomberg

“You only win if you have collectively decarbonized and you lose completely if one of the players is in a crisis situation that has put many communities at risk,” said Matteo Menapace, co-creator of Daybreak. “Even though each player has a lot of individual agency and spends a lot of time actually dealing with their own internal issues, the reckoning is global.” The game has found relevance in the real world; Menapace and co-creator Matt Leacock will be holding sessions with bankers and weather forecasters in the coming weeks.

Laurie Laybourn, associate fellow at the Environment and Society Center at think tank Chatham House, says playing Daybreak with climate policymakers highlights the unpredictability of climate impacts. “Games are a great way to help those people, and wider society, grapple with the challenge of imagining something that has never happened before,” says Laybourn, who advised Leacock and Menapace on aspects of Daybreak. “The things that could happen if we don’t address climate change are literally unimaginable because we haven’t experienced them.”

Solutions can also be difficult to imagine, at least as tangible options. That’s one reason why Catan: New Energies isn’t called anything like Catan: Climate Catastrophe. “We wanted it to be positive and progressive,” says Schmitz, “and leave room for hope.”

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