July 24, 2024

Illustration of climate-themed board game pieces

The spotlight

On a balmy Seattle evening in June, four climate journalists walk into a bar. I am one of them, with a cardboard box — the reason for our gathering — tucked under one arm. Inside is the just-released climate change on a classic board game, Catan: New Energies.

We’re all longtime fans of the cult favorite it’s based on, and we’re curious about this new version of Catan, in which players balance renewable energy and fossil fuels on the fictional island. But our real mission is to find out if a board game about clean energy can actually be fun – and if it might get more people talking about climate change, which scientists and advocacy organizations suggests is a precursor to climate action. We order our pints, crack open the plastic-free packaging and start playing.

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The inside of a board game box, showing decks of cards and other items wrapped in paper

Unbox the New Energies game. Game pieces come wrapped in paper, rather than plastic. Grist / Sachi Kitajima Mulkey

The original game that New Energies is based on was released in 1995 as Settlers of Catan. It has more than sold 40 million copies worldwide and is available in more than 40 languages. In 2015, the company dropped “settler” from the name, but the game still drew criticism for perpetuating a narrative of resource exploitation and colonialism.

Designed for 3 to 4 players, it features a new hexagonal map of colorful tiles, each representing a different type of land that can give the player a corresponding resource. During their turns, players can trade and barter resources to try and get what they need to build towns and roads. During the few hours it takes to play, these negotiations can become lively, even heated – probably the only modern context in which many of us have argued over sheep.

Released on June 14th, New Energies is the latest standalone addition to the expanded Catan universe. It was inspired by a fan-made expansion called Oil Springs, which got an official release in 2011 and added a fossil fuel mechanic to the base game.

Benjamin Teuber, son of original designer Klaus Teuber, said that squeezing realistic energy and pollution dynamics into a relatively short game was challenging at first. To make sure they got it right, the family consulted with one of the original designers of Oil Springs, sustainability researcher Erik Assadourian.

“As my father always said, it has to be fun – otherwise the best message will not be experienced,” said Teuber. “But we have to recognize and respect the fact that we have a very complex subject, like climate change, reduced to something playable.” After more than a decade of making games together, New Energies was the family’s last collaboration before Klaus passed away in 2023.

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A photo of a board game card with green and black energy tokens

“Local Footprint” scorecards, on which each player balances fossil fuels and clean energy, are a new element in New Energies. Grist / Sachi Kitajima Mulkey

The game has company on climate-themed shelves: Titles like Dawn, CO2: Second Chanceand turning point all challenge players to tackle the compounding effects of man-made planetary warming and defeat them with clean, green ingenuity.

“It’s just more evidence that people have climate change at the top of their minds right now,” said Dargan Frierson, a University of Washington professor of atmospheric sciences who leads Earth Games, a climate game design group on campus. Even though people are often reluctant to talk about climate change – according to s 2022 report, 67 percent of Americans “rarely” or “never” discuss it with friends and family — they really want to, he said. “There’s a demand for ways to think about it, deal with it, in fun ways.”

In 2022 the Environmental Game Design Playbook has been released to guide creators who want to meet that demand. Daniel Fernández Galeote, a game researcher and playbook contributor, says that games can provide an interactive education in climate topics. “It’s experimenting with them in a safe environment, and having this kind of social contract with other people to discuss and reflect together,” he said. “Games can be very good conversation starters.”

These games and the conversations they spark can also inspire action. A 2017 paper found that playing the Catan Oil Springs expansion shifted players to more sustainable actions. Social psychologists call this bridging the “intention-behavior” gap — which takes people from beliefs or goals to actual behavior change.

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Of course, for a game to spark conversation, people have to try it first. For casual players, the setup of New Energies can be a bit overwhelming. All told, there are about a dozen new components, and even for my group of Katan-savvy colleagues, getting ready to play had a steep learning curve. Fortunately, our small team included a focused “rules guy” – an essential role for any successful game night.

A bird's eye view of the Catan New Energies board setup on a table

A view of the New Energies board, and all its accessories, at the end of a match. Grist / Sachi Kitajima Mulkey

As our rules man instructs, each turn begins by blindly drawing an “event token” from a pocket, which can fill gauges on the board to trigger events such as air pollution, floods, and climate conferences. In a rhythm familiar to Catan old-hats, we roll dice, gather resources and build, while juggling new elements like energy and science.

The game begins with the assumption of a world embedded in polluting industries; it is faster and cheaper for players to build fossil fuels than renewables. But as players build more renewable energy, they are rewarded with a higher chance of “green events” and lower pollution.

Following Teuber’s belief that planetary warming should be an issue outside of politics, the game takes a stab at neutrality and avoids the words “climate change.” Instead, Kelli Schmitz, the director of brand development at Catan Studio, said the game aims to normalize renewable technologies. “It takes the controversy out of it,” she said.

Like the original Catan, players still win by being the first to collect 10 victory points, either through fossil fuel or green energy. “It’s important to enable people to win the game by playing fossil fuels, because that’s also something that happens in the real world,” Teuber said. But it’s also possible for the game to end early with a maximum pollution meter, or when climate event tokens run out. In these scenarios, the player with the lowest carbon footprint becomes the winner by default.

“The person who invested the most in green energy, we determined that person to be the natural leader,” Teuber said.

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Like the majority of people, I find the topic of climate change anxiety provoking and, outside of work, I tend to avoid the subject. But as we play, the group begins to talk about the same visceral topics that are common in our newsroom. We giggle our way around the “environmental inspector” (the new name for the resource-blocking robber from the original game), revel in the clean energy spoils of government funding, and cheer at the start of every climate conference event.

In the weeks since its official release, I have visited the island of Catan and its “new energies” repeatedly. Each time I had to convince a group to take the trip with me – a trust falls on the promise of fun. And each time we babble our way to a victory over renewable energy.

— Sachi Kitajima Mulkey

More exposure

A parting shot

This is not the first time Grist has tested a clean energy board game. In 2020, then-Grist staff writer Nathanael Johnson gathered a group of climate professionals to play a new collaborative board game called Energeticdeveloped by the nonprofit organization City atlas. In the game, pictured below, players take on different roles and work together to build a clean energy supply to power New York State before 2035.

A picture of the board game Energetic showing playing cards and tokens on a map.

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