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The ‘Settlers of Catan’ as a Model for Post-Conflict Development

The use of wargames can give military leadership vital exposure to unusual and complex conflict scenarios. War gaming has been well established for centuries, from the earliest uses of chess in ancient India to the British Army’s modern equivalent Camberley Kriegsspiel. However, rarely are wargames discussed as a tool to play out post-conflict scenarios. This article will introduce The Settlers of Catan – Cities and Knights Expansion (“Catan”) as a model for just such a purpose.

Out of practice

The story is a familiar one, and yet the setting could be anywhere. A successful military intervention has occurred and for the local population there comes a temporary respite from a formerly oppressive regime. And yet what next? All too often, despite the best of intentions, the liberating force finds themselves spread too thinly, surprised and challenged by competing demands on their time. Sun Tzu teaches that “There is no instance of a nation benefitting from prolonged warfare” and yet, in effect, that is all too often the outcome.

The problem might perhaps stem from the fact that most military leaders are unlikely to plan for more than one major post-war scenario in their careers. And practice can be hard to come by when war games are typically designed purely for enacting direct military conflict. In the absence of the availability of any bespoke products, The Settlers of Catan, and specifically the expansion pack of Cities & Knights, is an ideal candidate for educating young leaders on the nuanced balances and trade-offs required to assert control once the fighting stops. In the game, players compete to build a small trading empire in a barren land, fighting off barbarian attacks whilst developing their network of infrastructure. There are many paths to victory and in each game players are forced to experiment with conflicting strategies dependent upon the availability of resources. Analysis of the benefits and pitfalls of these strategies in a military context can prove highly educational.

The Four Priorities

To support a local government to re-build the nation, an occupying force must balance four competing demands on their time and resources:

  1. Restarting of industrial production
  2. Development of infrastructure
  3. Investment in innovation
  4. Planning for insurgency

In each round of Catan, players choose to invest their resources in one of several different areas. These areas parallel very closely with the four key priorities listed above:

  1. To produce more resources, Catan requires that a player invest in the building of settlements and cities. In real life, ramping up a nation’s ability to produce raw produce (e.g. agriculture, oil) is essential to securing the future of a fragile economy.
  2. War will very often see a nation’s infrastructure destroyed, either as collateral damage or through deliberate acts of sabotage on both sides. Rebuilding is always a priority and this will create a significant drain on the available financial and material resources. In Catan, it is impossible to advance without extending and expanding a network of roads, the building of which will consume important resources that would otherwise be used elsewhere.
  3. Third on the list is investment in innovation. Often forgotten as an immediate priority, the long term success of a country depends upon a solid pipeline of innovation. This parallels well with Catan, where players can choose to spend commodities on city improvements. Initially these are only of modest benefit but over time they provide significant technical advantages.
  4. Finally, any story of a post-conflict situation, particularly in the Middle East, is peppered with tales of the constant battle to limit the effects of insurgent attacks on the local population and occupying forces. In Catan, on average every 14th roll of the dice yields the arrival of the barbarians, who will raise cities and destroy the ability of players to generate resources – unless they defend with knights. The cyclical yet unpredictable nature of the attacks is an excellent proxy for the challenging and relentless battle to secure a country against those who would seek to destabilise it.

The victorious player in Catan is the one who successfully balances these four priorities to the best effect throughout the game. There will be significant debate to be had between the best strategies for both initial stability and also long-term development. Resolving the interface between these strategies will enable a player to tie together a coherent plan through the short, medium and long term. This will prove to be excellent training for the more challenging task of doing so in a real life situation.

Planning for the future

To conclude, the Catan model could be used as the basis for improving military training for post- conflict scenarios:

  1. The military should look to experiment more with the use of wargaming in scenarios outside of direct conflict situations
  2. Resources should be invested in the development of appropriate war games
  3. In the interim, using commercially available games as a proxy for bespoke productions will provide good training in the skills needed, and may also prove enjoyable for the officers involved.

May the best player win!

When he isn't planning expeditions to distant parts of the globe, or squeezing as much adventure out of the 67 hours available between finishing work on a Friday and starting on a Monday, George is an avid gamer.

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