It has become cool to call yourself a nerd; to say that you once struggled to make sense of the complexities of human interaction and/or listened to a lot of wrist-cutting music in your childhood. It’s disarming –  a weakness that’s not all that weak. An opening offer in the negotiation of a social contract.

To those of us who are or have been truly nerdy, it is a move that borders on teeth-grating. We sense that some of those claiming “nerdiness” know almost nothing of what they speak; that they are minimizing our high school awkwardness with dubious assertions that they were subject to the same.

Give us our communal pain, if nothing else, we say.

For a snapshot of my nerd bona fides: in the ninth grade, I played trombone in the school band, I was about to reach the rank of Eagle Scout, and I hadn’t yet kissed anyone not related to me.

But why am I trying to prove my worthiness in Nerd-dom? After all, might I not be attempting, with this semi-harmless self-deprecation, to do the same thing every lonely heart does on a Saturday night on Twitter?

Maybe. Except that I’m documenting my nerdiness for a very good reason: I want you to believe me when I tell you that Settlers of Catan is the best board game you’ll ever play.

I can’t say that being a nerd caused me to love board games; probably, that love is a symptom of the same disorder that caused me to get melty-faced when, in the Copenhagen Lego Superstore this summer, I learned that there was a buildable Lego version of the AT-AT.

What I do know is that I’d rather play a board game than do just about anything.

In the last decade, though, I’ve been estranged from my cardboard and plastic mistress; I’ve been busy being faithful to Real Life. Oh, I dallied now and then – I learned how to play poker, like everyone else, but mostly because it is far more socially acceptable to propose Poker Night than Stratego Night.

I found myself back in the arms of my lover thanks to my friend John, he of a frighteningly tight grip on the pulse of popular culture, who turned me on to a new wave of board games. It turns out that, in Europe, while the rest of us have been developing iPhone apps and ways to tune each other out, board game design has undergone an explosion of innovation. One of the products of this explosion is the best board game in the history of board games: Settlers Of Catan.

Before I go on, I should note that I haven’t played every board game that has ever existed. But the depth of my research is nearly unimpeachable, I think; thanks to serious restrictions on childhood television-watching, the Shirley game closet was almost comical in its board game comprehensiveness.

We had the obvious ones: Sorry and Clue and Life and Monopoly and Yahtzee and Trivial Pursuit and Mouse Trap and Battleship and Risk and Pictionary and Connect Four and Stratego and Checkers and Chess. We had the obscure ones: Trapdoor and Fireball Island and Solarquest and Rummy Royal and Hi-Ho Cherry-O and Skip-Bo and Mad The Game and Waterworks and a 50’s-era version of Cootie. And we had ones that weren’t board games at all: Gin and Knock Poker and War and Spades and Hearts and, one time, because we were bored with everything else, Canasta, which my brothers and I taught ourselves from a book my parents had, called 1001 Family Games.

So, I’ve played a couple of board games in my life.

I was primed, then, for the arrival of the European gaming revolution and its most successful progeny.

Whenever people ask me to describe Settlers, I make a weird noise and grimace. I do this because, as with most Good Things, it’s difficult to compare Settlers to anything that previously existed. Settlers is a little like Risk because there’s a map. It’s a little like chess because you have to think ahead. It’s a little like SimCity because your goal is to gain resources in order to build things that gain you more resources. And it’s a little like poker because you have to be ready to change strategy on the fly.

The beauty of Settlers lies in three aspects of its play: 1) It’s quick. (Once everyone knows what he or she is doing, games take less than an hour.) 2) It’s really, really hard for anyone to get so far ahead that the other players are demoralized. (Credit to German socialism, perhaps?) 3) Everyone stays involved. Each turn, whether it is your turn or the turn of one of your opponents, could result in something happening to you.

This third attribute seems like it would be a facet in all board games. But when you think about it, this isn’t the case. Usually, when another player is playing, you’re sitting and watching. In this way, most board games are like baseball – it’s my turn and then it’s your turn and when it’s your turn nothing good can happen to me.

If most board games are baseball, then Settlers is basketball; it’s your turn, but something good could happen to me.

Legend has it that, in the throes of work on the game, Settlers designer Klaus Teuber would cart the game up from his basement workshop, force his family to play and critique the game, before retiring to that workshop to work out any kinks he had found. The result of all that tinkering is board game near-perfection.

And. AND! I haven’t even gotten to the best part: there are expansions. And these expansions – or rather, the one that I have, called Cities and Knights – amplify the game’s positive attributes even further. (There is another expansion, called Seafarers, that I am anxious to try but that I have not ordered, for the same reason that I have not yet read Fight Club – I need to know that there’s something great waiting for me out there.)

The only valid criticism of Settlers is that it is roll-of-the-dice dependent. Like poker, certain players might have a good day based on a particularly lucky run of fortune. But also like poker, these runs are evened out over the long haul. So, as long as you play Settlers of Catan more than once (which you will, of course), it works out.

The only real drawback to all of this Settlers mania is this: whether you were a real nerd before or not, Settlers of Catan will make you one now. Carrying your boxes – one for the original game, one for the expansion to six players, one for Cities and Knights – will probably make you feel far nerdier than even the ninth-grade version of me.

In other words, the coolest kid in town.

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  1. Kyle
    Settlers of Cooltan.
  2. Danny Pizdetz
    Thanks for breaking down why this is supposed to be such a great game. I've heard it praised many times on different geeky blogs or in tweets, but no one ever really broke it down. Until now...
  3. John
    Settlers is a really fun game. Go out and buy Pandemic for Christmas, you won't regret it.
  4. Mike
    I don't know how many professional basketball players can pull of decent nerd creditials- maybe Paul and Mark Madsen? The game sounds pretty sweet though.
  5. Paul
    Try "Ticket to Ride" It is even better than Settlers. Same kind of general premise - fast, everyone's involved, resources, map, but it has trains!!!
  6. BL1Y
    Working on adding new resources: Spice, Conscripts, and Marryable Offspring, and changing the game to Settlers of Kaitan. For older board games, I think one of the best is Clue. That is, if you're a logic nerd, and enjoy sudoku puzzles, Clue is a very fun game, because once you learn a few cards that other people are holding, you can start to make really complex and interesting deductions. Like Catan, it keeps you playing during every turn. You can still gain information based on what theory someone guessed, and who showed them the card disproving it.
  7. Evan Sellers
    While reading about different ways to teach economic principles to high school students I encountered this game. I will have to check it out and see if it can capture the interest of 17 year old economics students.
  8. Evan
    Sounds good! Used to love Axis & Allies but was so encompassing and took so long. Your point about everyone now remembering they were a nerd sounds about right. I feel like bullying is sliding into this....everyone was bullied, but nobody was the actually bully. This makes me want to buy the Choose Your Own Adventure stuff for my kids. I used to love those.
  9. Scott Hagen
    Settler's isn't even close to the best. Check out if you are interested in learning more about boardgames. It's the best resource for boardgames.