The land rises over the horizon just after dawn. I was told that I should arrive by ship at this time of day to best appreciate the island. And so I stand on the bow, feeling just the slightest chill in the breeze as the dark sea rises and falls around us.
Before I know it, we are upon the island, its rolling green hills looming in front of us in the rising light, mountains extending up through clouds. The white buildings of the port look pink, ringing the narrow harbor ahead of us like a string of lights being turned on.
On the other side of the world on a different day, I approach by train from the airport. I transfer at a station in the middle of pastures, and the original train departs toward the sprawling city, which is obscured on the horizon by dirty air. I board a train with uncomfortable seats and in poor repair. After a half-hour delay, we lurch to a start. Out the window, the slums fade away, and are replaced by farmhouses and cloisters — no doubt quite like my destination, which lies down a dirt road from a lonely depot somewhere ahead.
The island of Catan and the landlocked nation of Carcassonne export entertainment and community. Their economies and politics make possible the board games that families and friends play around their dining-room tables. They are game-nations, which exist only while the power of our minds gives their societies support.
We spend so much time hovering above these places, and yet we know them only through small bits of wood and paper. We read flat descriptions of historic port systems, of the building of new roads, of mountain villages in virginal ecosystems, of sprawling Kowloon-like architecture, and of religious and political intrigue.
But most people who play these games know little about what it is like to live in Catan and Carcassonne. I decided to visit and see for myself.
Lay of the lands
My ship to Catan docked at its busy brick-exporting port on the north side of the island. From there, I took a jeep across the headland roads until I reached the village where I had arranged to stay with a local family. The cities of Catan are fairly modern metropolitan areas, with new development being built with the money made from exporting the many goods produced there.
But most of the island consists of small villages that have not benefited from industrialization. This is where the wealth of Catan originates, and hardly any of it returns. The island’s interior roads are few and poorly maintained. Opportunities for education and advancement are only in the city. However, there are recent innovations, like cell phone service across the island. This is the Catan I wanted to see.
Taking the train through Carcassonne, it was clear that this was a vastly different place than Catan. The population is massive and much more urbanized, living in sprawling cities and slums that have been there since ancient times. But the economy still struggles to recover from the war some 40 years ago with the neighboring nation of Stratego. Relations are still hostile, and lingering sanctions on key industrial equipment, and even the occasional unrecovered land mine, have made it difficult for Carcassonne to get back on its feet.
The various cartels and strongmen that control the country make infrastructure projects difficult to get off the ground. Zones meant to be left undeveloped have lapsed into favelas, and pork-barrel road projects turn into winding, circuitous “roads to nowhere,” eating up what public funds exist and making local travel a nightmare. In Carcassonne, I stayed at an inn on cloister land because I wanted to see the scope of the problem from the outside before traveling into the heart of it.
Six sides to every story
In Catan, I stay with Hex Hallaggen and her family. Hex, a common name in Catan, is the matriarch of a family comprising her husband, his mother, and their three children. Their family has lived on the island for at least six generations. They feel no need to count back any further. Their forebears immigrated to work as sheepherders for Catan Livestock Exports, the company holding the husbandry monopoly, and they have continued at it. Their village also makes brick and mines coal, which they ship out weekly on the company trucks that rumble through the village.
Everything in Catan is considered to have a relationship to six other things. Some connections obvious, some not so. Hex thinks that I have a relationship to my homeland, my notebook, my camera, Catanese polenta (of which I’m admittedly very fond, served with sheep cheese and local herbs), and two other things she would not divulge. She would only mention them, click her tongue as if she were my mother, and continue with what she was doing.
Hex has done very well in guiding her family. They are one of the most prominent sheep-rearing families in the village, and others look to Hex with respect and for advice. Because she has taken me in, they trust me by association. I watch as they mold bricks, and weave soft woolen cloth for their clothing.
This is a hardworking society. Times are clearly good. They have plenty to eat and socialize regularly. Homes are kept in decent repair. They are especially proud of the cell phones that have allowed them to organize with other villages to get better prices for their sheep.
They also showed off the village’s diesel generator, which the Hallaggens and several other families financed and bought themselves, running it for four hours a day in the evening. But I also feel an impatience with the dynamics of the island.
The Catan Knights, the police force on the island, are corrupt, and graft-supported banditry in the form of local “tax collectors” is rampant. The island’s small size prevents anyone from being persecuted to the point of starvation. But the villagers certainly seem tired of the game, and they can see that the merchants and Knights work in the “tiles” (local slang for the boonies) yet live in the cities.
The trade must flow
In Carcassonne, the sprawling square plots of cloister land are much more beautiful and peaceful than the city, but they feel vacant. In the inn, I meet one of the few remaining farmers. He is traveling to the city to sell his produce, and he offers to take me with him. His name is Quad Tornimont.
After paying the tolls, we enter one of the nearest sprawls in his ramshackle truck. In the cities, the air is hot and the streets teem with slow-moving traffic. But there is a certain beauty to these favelas — a liveliness and vitality not present in the surrounding country.
Quad introduces me to his cousin, who is training to be a City Knight; in Carcassonne, this is a kind of low-level bureaucrat. We meet in a café underneath an apartment block that, some 40 years after the cease-fire, still shows signs of damage from shells.
Quad’s cousin and his friends are drinking strong coffee and playing seemingly endless rounds of droits, a type of dominoes that doubles as a fortune-telling practice. The square droits are placed on the table according to matching pips, and then the overall shape is interpreted. After teaching me to play, Quad reads my droits: He says that I’m an honest man who can’t find his own home and so must travel.
Quad gripes about the roads, which Carcassonniennes complain about like the weather. The matter seems more vital to Quad, however, because the roads are the only way he can sell his produce. He tells me that if his truck ever broke down, it would be impossible to fix as spare parts are scarce. The prospect unnerves him as he speaks about it.
The cloisters are supposed to maintain the roads, but they care only about real-estate consolidation and collecting rent. They outsource the job to the cartels (the “highwaymen,” as residents call them) who provide kickbacks to the cloisters to avoid working.
His cousin complains about the bureaucracy. He knows there is little that a low-level Knight can do, because the cartels control all the building contracts and public funds. But it is a job, and he hopes that perhaps the connections he will gain will let him start a business: either a café or an electronics shop.
With the jaded attitude of any city dweller, Quad and his café mates know whom to blame for Carcassonne’s corruption, but there is little to be done. They appeal to me halfheartedly, saying that as a foreign journalist I could bring international attention to the issue. But then they admit that I am hardly the first journalist to visit, and what is any journalist, even one from a game-playing country, going to do against the highwaymen? “You are just the highwaymen of a different sort of road,” Quad’s cousin tells me. He apologizes, acknowledging that Quad says I’m a good person. But I can tell he means it.
My hosts know that it is our dining-room entertainment that sustains their societies, and that their lifelong labor represents only movable chits in a great game. They patronize me, because my presence is patronizing to them. Hex said to me once, while talking about the number of sheep they sell in a year, “I would like to tell a Game-Player like you that it will always be this way. But these resources don’t just grow at the roll of the die.”
I only seek to tell their stories, and I have the ethnographer’s excuse of distance. I am not like the Carcassonne priests in the cloisters or the Catan merchants literally dictating their every move across the land. I do benefit from local corruption. But I am also here to export their stories without compensation, and that is its own form of colonialism.
We will never know the reality of Hex’s or Quad’s life. Quad toyed with me on one of our rambling drives across the Carcassonne countryside, asking me how many cities I had personally built. I told him I was a journalist and not an architect. He responded, “But our cities are only stories to you, aren’t they? You build them in your notebook. Otherwise, they don’t exist.” He laughed and slapped my shoulder, as if I could never fully get the joke.
Even as my hosts view me as an outsider and a higher class, they are grateful for my presence. Their greatest fear is that one day we won’t care about their lives and their development — that no one will build up their stories and they will cease to exist. That is what made me the most uncomfortable.
Tally the points
In the words of Hex, the six-sided relationships of the world already exist, and we have to live upon them, laying down roots where we sprout. She has done well. But I can’t help wondering if the land were reshuffled or if the bandits got too greedy, what would happen to them? The island of Catan is beautiful, but both winners and losers are made here.
Quad tells me that he’s noticed Carcassonne change, watched his family move into the cities, and witnessed luck alternate from bad to good and back again. The land doesn’t so much belong to him as he belongs to it. Carcassonne grows underneath him, and he can only respond by rolling with the changes.
In the end, it feels as if he is too willing to cast his lot with fate. I wonder if he blames the droits more than the highwaymen, clergy, and architects whose mistakes are forced upon this population. Maybe he does. He can at least handle the droits on the café table, while the real power is always out of reach.
The denizens of these two lands have no choice: They can only live on the tiles. But who arranges them? I am not sure. I return home and back to my work. The great games go on.
Photo by Marco Arment and Tiffany Arment.
Adam Rothstein is an insurgent archivist and writes about politics, media, and technology wherever he can get a signal. He is most interested in the canons of history and prediction, the so-called "Future-Weird," and the unstable ramifications of today's cultural technology.