in which four environmental scientists play Oilsprings of Catan, destroy world

Catan: Oilsprings. image by Andrew Thaler

Catan: Oilsprings. image by Andrew Thaler

This weekend I assembled a small team of marine and environmental scientists, including a molecular ecologist, a human geographer with experience in environmental justice, a political ecologist with experience in common-pool resource theory, and a veteran of the US Commission on Ocean Policy with extensive experience in marine spatial planning, to test out the new expansion for Settlers of Catan, Catan: Oilsprings. Settlers of Catan is a popular and expansive board game that focuses on resource management, development, and trading. Oilsprings is designed to add an element of “Tragedy of the Commons” to the game by introducing a new resource, oil, which allows rapid development, but at a cost that affects all players.

When oil is produced, it can be either traded for two of any other resource, or used to upgrade cities to metropolises, which produce more resources and are immune to coastal flooding. For every five oil used, a natural disaster occurs. Natural disasters either permanently remove a resource tile from the game, permanently reduce the available oil reserve, or cause coastal flooding, which destroys all settlements next to the coast. The fifth natural disaster results in catastrophic flooding which destroys the island of Catan. Everyone loses.

Oil can also be sequestered, permanently removed from the game by a player. For every three oil a player sequesters, they receive one victory point. The player with the most sequestered oil earns the “Champion of the Environment” badge. Should catastrophic flooding occur, the player with the “Champion of the Environment” badge is a pyrrhic victor.

Before I get into some interesting outcomes from these new rules, it should be noted that while this is a neat experiment and has the potential to be a useful educational tool, it does not make the game more fun. We found that it promoted more aggressive game play than a normal Settlers game and created a more unbalanced board. Players with early access to oil rapidly outpaced the others and were able to lock out the most valuable tiles. While this was an interesting exercise in responsible resource management, I doubt it will become a regular part of our Catan repertoire.

The effects of oil were clear right from the start. The first players to claim oil springs received a massive expansion bonus and were able to build roads and new settlements quickly. My third settlement appeared, along with the “longest road” bonus on my first turn. The distribution of resources forced several players to develop next to coasts early, which ended tragically when the first disaster wiped out coastal settlements. By the third turn, there were two “wealthy” nations with multiple new settlements and huge oil supplies, and two “poor” nations, who had lost one of their original settlements and now lacked the ability to expand quickly. This resource gap would continue for most of the game.

For the wealthy nations, the benefits of using oil were greater than the drawbacks, which disproportionately affected the poor nations, who lost settlements to coastal flooding and were hit much harder when a resource tile went out of play. There was incentive to use oil immediately after a disaster, since you could get away with eight new resources or building metropolises before the next disaster. Oil use went down when a disaster was imminent, but eventually, the benefit of that fifth oil was of greater value to a single player than the disaster would cost.

The players with the most oil reserves also sequestered the most. Sequestering oil removes it from the game, which impacts both poor and wealthy nations, but disproportionately affected those with the least access to oil. Ironically, the “Champion of the Environment” badge went to the biggest oil producer and the player who triggered 3 of the 5 natural disasters. That player could afford to sequester oil, because he had access to more than the other players, who needed to spend whatever reserves they had to catch up.

Disasters that disproportionately affect nations that aren’t responsible for causing them. Massive wealth inequality between oil rich and oil poor nations. Coastal flooding of populations that have no choice but to live by the coast. Wealthy nations acting as environmental leaders while being the worst offenders. This all sounds rather familiar.

If the goal of the game designers is to provide a detailed and thoughtful microcosm in which we can explore the effects of resource use and misuse, then they have succeeded. Catan: Oilsprings is well-designed, insightful, and very good at fostering informed discussion. As an educational tool, it has tremendous potential to teach by providing a simplified (but not oversimplified) metaphor for our own resource consumption.

The only downside is that it’s not nearly as fun as the regular Settlers of Catan.

Which is why, in frustration over a game that had clearly reached its apex, with no possibility for expansion and victory conditions which were still several rounds away and required little strategy, I did the unthinkable. I cashed in my final oil, triggered a catastrophic flood which destroyed the island of Catan, and ended the game.

Which was fine, because I was the “Champion of the Environment”.


  1. Rosalind · November 7, 2011

    If you think that was interesting, you should try playing Pandemic with a bunch of microbiologists! I always enjoy that.

  2. WhySharksMatter · November 8, 2011

    “in frustration over a game… I did the unthinkable. I cashed in my final oil, triggered a catastrophic flood which destroyed the island of Catan”

    You destroyed the whole world because you were frustrated with how things were going? Remind me to never,ever make you angry.

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