My wife Emily (then girlfriend) and I had arrived in Charlottesville, VA, the charming and historically significant city of Jefferson, Monticello, and the University of Virginia. Two days earlier, on July 23rd 1997, I had stepped off a plane in New York, arriving from Germany and ready to start my new life in the USA. Emily and I drove from New York to New Orleans, and Charlottesville was one of our stops along the route. When we entered the gorgeous historic town center, I thought about the early European settlers in this country who lived on the edge of civilization. Not only the US settlers, but also the Settlers of Catan were on my mind. After all, for me they were the main reason for our visit to Charlottesville, which was not only Jefferson’s place of residence but is also the birthplace of the US edition of The Settlers of Catan. Charlottesville represents the starting point for Catan on its remarkable US journey. This article is an introduction to this journey as well as to my own American adventures (to be followed up in future blog postings).
We arrived at the headquarters of Iron Crown Enterprises (ICE) and were greeted by the company’s CEO, Pete Fenlon. At the time, ICE was the largest shareholder of Mayfair Games, Inc., the US publisher of the English language edition of The Settlers of Catan. Pete and his crew at ICE were responsible for the creation of the Mayfair edition of the game. While Mayfair had published an earlier version of the game in 1996, Pete and his team created the version that made it a sustainable international success.
Pete introduced me to his team members, who were busy putting the finishing touches on The Settlers of Catan basic game. In 1997, Mayfair started with a print run of 5,000 Catan basic games. At this time, I always kept up with my father’s game designs, but we had not yet formed a company. Despite Catan’s relatively modest start in the US, I was optimistic that the game would have a great future in this country. And indeed, under the prudent and careful guidance of Mayfair Games, Catan eventually took off and thrived.
By contrast, in 1997, The Settlers of Catan was already a popular bestseller in Germany. In its release year, 1995, the game was awarded the prestigious German Game of the Year award, which propelled its success. The success of Catan in Germany was a surprise even for us. For sure, we were confident that the game was great and would indeed be selling well; however, we did not anticipate its broad appeal. We were lucky that the release occurred at a time when board game reviews had become common in large German newspapers. Moreover, by 1995, the board game hobby had become a mainstream leisure activity in Germany.
In comparison to Catan’s immediate stratospheric rise from the time it was launched in Germany, the game took longer to spread in the US. Initially, only a small group of European board game enthusiasts had heard about Catan. However, the game quickly gained a following on board game related hobby websites, such as www.boardgamegeek.com. Soon, college students and families became aware of Catan. Mayfair has always been a cautious and prudent steward of Catan and grew the brand patiently and steadily in North America, mostly by relying on the power of word-of-mouth marketing.
In 2002, my father and I founded our own company, the Catan GmbH/LLC. This allowed us to better manage rights protection, licensing agreements, game development, marketing, etc. Since then, I have been involved with Mayfair on an even closer, day-to-day basis.
One of my favorite non-fiction books is Malcolm Gladwell’s “The Tipping Point: How little things can make a big difference.” In his book, Gladwell describes how various small factors can bring something to the surface. For instance, Gladwell describes how products can suddenly become successful. When reading the book, I immediately thought about the development of the Catan brand. Mayfair did a lot of little things right with Catan, on a consistent basis. Over time, this eventually led to the tipping point, i.e., now the mainstream audience increasingly knows about Catan.
Catan is an ever-evolving gaming and entertainment world. It is hard to imagine any limits in terms of its creative potential, and there is a plethora of possibilities to explore the world of Catan. I am always reminded of this potential, when visiting Pete and his team in Charlottesville. While Catan has settled comfortably in the US, I never feel complacent. There are always new frontiers to explore about the game, the people who play it, the way they interact, and how they play (for instance, increasingly, people play Catan online on www.playcatan.com).
Similarly, I feel comfortable with the American way of life after having lived here for 12 years. And yet, I am not complacent either, but still driven by curiosity and the eagerness to learn about this great country, its history, culture and people. In this sense, I consider Catan as a travel companion on my American journey.