How the makers of a beloved board game reworked it to address the climate crisis

For many people, games are an escape into a world of fun and fantasy.

It may come as a surprise, then, that the newest edition of a popular board game deals directly with a timely issue that’s not quite so fun: the climate crisis.

Catan, a game about collecting and using resources such as bricks and lumber to build and expand settlements in a fictional world, turns 30 next year. While the company has since released numerous versions and expansions — and sold more than 45 million copies worldwide — its latest edition, Catan: New Energies, is one of the biggest departures for the game so far.

Instead of gameplay set in pre-industrial times, New Energies is set in the 21st century, with real elements such as power plants and pollution playing a major role.

In many ways, it makes sense for a game about the rapid expansion of humanity to explore the effects of the climate crisis. After all, industrialization caused it.

You may not expect a game about the climate crisis to be fun — or to be backed by deep research on the intricacies of the topic. But the developers of New Energies worked hard to balance joyful play with environmental science. And they’re not the first.

More games are tackling the climate crisis

In fact, climate change — or elements often related to it — is popping up in more games as the topic becomes increasingly prevalent in news reports and cultural conversations.

The popular empire-building video game “Civilization 6” released an expansion titled Gathering Storm in 2019, which was almost wholly centered around climate.

In Gathering Storm, players’ actions such as burning coal have major repercussions — rising sea levels and more frequent natural disasters such as tornadoes — which affect gameplay.

A volcano erupts in a game of "Civilization 6" with the Gathering Storm expansion. - From 2k
A volcano erupts in a game of "Civilization 6" with the Gathering Storm expansion. - From 2k

Terra Nil,” a popular world-building strategy game released in 2023, sees players transform a barren wasteland into an inviting paradise through the use of technology such as wind turbines and “toxin scrubbers.” This was the same year the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a report saying we had a very small window in which to “secure a livable and sustainable future for all.”

“Climate change is an ever-growing problem … it makes sense that the most popular media in the world would also reflect these growing challenges,” Rachel Kowert, a research psychologist who specializes in games, tells CNN.

This is, says Kowert, because “games reflect culture.”

Adding climate crisis elements to games can also make the topic more accessible, Kowert says.

“It adds that element of playfulness and fun. It makes it a social activity,” she says. “Not many people are going to sit down and read documents on climate change, but people love Catan.”

Catan: New Energies rewards players for using renewable energy

In New Energies, the basic gameplay of gathering resources to build settlements is the same as in the traditional version of Catan. But in this version, there are additional cards, pieces and mechanics that introduce climate crisis elements.

Instead of just building roads, towns and cities, players must build fossil fuel or renewable power plants to gather energy. But their choices carry consequences.

On the side of the Catan: New Energies board, a little black marker tracks the level of greenhouse gasses in the current game. - Courtesy CATAN GmbH
On the side of the Catan: New Energies board, a little black marker tracks the level of greenhouse gasses in the current game. - Courtesy CATAN GmbH

If a player builds a fossil fuel power plant, for example, the level of greenhouse gasses in the game increases — indicated on the board itself with a little marker. When this happens, the potential for climate-related events in the game, such as flooding or air pollution, also increases.

These climate events can block resource production for players and therefore their ability to expand their settlements and win the game. It can also trigger the early end of the game, in which case the player with the most renewable power plants wins.

Players can add green discs to the bag — which can give players using renewable energy bonuses — by building renewable power plants. This also brings down the global carbon footprint on the tracker, so fewer discs need to be removed from the bag each turn.

Adding climate elements into Catan certainly makes it more complicated to play. But this also reflects the reality of our world. Even experts struggle to reach a consensus on the best solutions to mitigate climate change.

The game is based on real environmental science

While Catan: New Energies was released on June 14 of this year, the game has actually been in development since 2011.

It started with a scenario called Oil Springs based on managing oil resources, which was pitched to the Catan team by Erik Assadourian, a researcher at the Worldwatch Institute, a sustainability think tank. In the Oil Springs scenario, players could use oil to expand more rapidly — with the added potential to cause flooding of the Catan world.

“At its heart, Catan is a growth story,” says Assadourian. “Without recognizing the limits to growth, that’s a problem.”

The Oil Springs scenario, paired with WWF’s 2050 climate solutions report, inspired the idea of a Catan that deals with electricity as a resource, says Benjamin Teuber, game designer and Managing Director at Catan GmbH, who created New Energies with his late father, Catan creator Klaus Teuber, who died in April 2023.

When development on New Energies started in 2011 there were three renewable energy sources: wind, water and solar. This, among other things, made it “very complicated,” says Teuber.

Event markers in Catan: New Energies determine positive or negative in-game effects. The brown markers, from left, depict a climate conference, rain and flooding, environmental pollution, and air pollution. - Courtesy CATAN GmbH
Event markers in Catan: New Energies determine positive or negative in-game effects. The brown markers, from left, depict a climate conference, rain and flooding, environmental pollution, and air pollution. - Courtesy CATAN GmbH

Development of the game was shelved until the Covid-19 pandemic hit, when Benjamin Teuber and his father had more free time to revisit the idea. Immediately, solutions to the original gameplay problems started presenting themselves, Teuber says.

To ensure the game’s climate science was still within the bounds of reality, Assadourian came on board as a consultant for New Energies toward the end of its development in 2022. He also wrote an almanac about climate at the back of the rulebook to build out the game’s thematic background.

“You can only do so much when you’re constrained by the simplicity of game mechanics,” Assadourian tells CNN. In real life, “No renewable energy power plant is going to be a minus one pollution point.”

Instead, Assadourian hopes the game will show people how we can transition from the current energy and economic system we’re in to a sustainable and regenerative one. The first step to that is reducing energy use.

Even the physical materials for New Energies were chosen with the climate in mind.

“When you’re creating a physical consumer product, it’s impossible to have no impact, but we focused on how we can lessen the environmental impact,” says Kelli Schmitz, the Director of Brand Development at Catan Studio. “The English printing of New Energies is printed and assembled in the United States using cardboard and wood from sustainable sources.”

Its makers hope the game will inspire people to act

Before the design of New Energies wrapped in December 2022, outside playtesters were asked to provide feedback on the game. After all, it wouldn’t work if the game was too complex or not fun to play.

“People liked it because nobody felt that we pushed our opinion on them,” says Teuber. “They were like, ‘Oh, I can actually grow quite well with fossil (fuels). Do I like this? I don’t know.’

“We wanted to really make this feel like a simulation, if you will, of reality. And for that reason, it’s important that you can win with fossil (fuel) energy. It would be bad, I think, if we just balanced it in a way that it’s impossible because then you give the wrong message — you don’t give the message of reality. The more real it feels, the more serious people will talk about it.”

Many of the playtesters had to question their morality and make decisions based on it, says Teuber.

“They said, ‘It’s fascinating, because I really wasn’t sure what to do. I had this moral thing, but I wanted to win the game.’”

In real life, almost everyone has an opinion on what we could do as a society to reduce the effects of the climate crisis. But few of us are in a position to make changes on a global scale.

Having the power to improve the health of the planet, even in a board game, can be empowering.

“The fun thing about games is there’s enough detachment that you can engage with this big, scary concept in this big, varied space,” says Kowert, the research psychologist. “And then maybe at the end of it, come out with a greater understanding of what you can actually do, what power you have.”

If players come away from New Energies having philosophical discussions about our climate and trying to make little changes in their lives, the game will have done its job, says Teuber.

“The game itself won’t change the world, but it maybe enables you a little bit in thinking, ‘Oh, I maybe have more power to make things change.’”

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