The Road to the Catan World Champs in Malta 2022! [Part II]
Part I was largely about how i found myself chosen and made my way to the Catan World Championships in Malta. Now to talk about the competition itself.
Strategy vs Luck and some other third thing!
The most asked question, by fellow competitors, and others, during the weekend of the Catan World Championships was ‘Strategy vs Luck. What is your percentage?’
Because Catan involves dice, there is a certain amount of luck involved. My roommate, David from Portugal, has the most unpopular opinion that it was 50% Strategy, 50% Luck although the stat i heard most consistently was 70% or 80% Strategy and the other 30% or 20% Luck, which seems to be where most people sit. [i forgot to ask Klaus his opinion on this one!] However, i, of course, have a different third option…
For me the game Catan is broken up into THREE very distinct [and overlapping] pieces – Strategy – yes, Luck – of course, but also Politics or the Social aspect of the game [which can make it incredible or frustrating]. i have no doubt [and Etienne from Solarpop agreed in our interview] that Politics even before the final game started, contributed in some small part to me winning the South African Nationals.
STRATEGY is definitely a huge part of the game. Which is why i think four rounds of games gives you a decent idea of where the strength of players lies for the World Catan Champs, but then two single games to win the whole event requires a bit more luck [and i say this before i go to Malta so listen to the podcast!]
i would have loved to have seen five games in the initial competition and then three games in the semis against different players. The final i think does need to be just one game else people will gang up against the person in the lead. And most of the Strategy is about placing your first two settlements. Which usually takes the most time. And is arguably the most important part of the game.
Games are definitely lost by decisions made here although you need some dice luck for good strategy to be rewarded. Once the game begins, there is still some strategy but i think it mostly morphs into the social/politics aspect of the game while you wait on the luck of the dice to see how your initial placements and first decisions have paid off.
LUCK is obviously a huge part of the game [but not 50%, David, staaaahp!] – in one game i played, an opponent had two buildings on number 10 which didn’t roll once the whole game [perfect strategy, no luck] and i am convinced that Gustavo from Peru was robbed a chance in the final game as three times when he had a huge hand of cards he rolled the evil seven that would make him discard half of his cards and seriously hampered an otherwise dominant game [and i told him so! And he agreed!]
For me i can name a few moments in the first four games that were the difference between me making top 16 and not being there at all, but then i had pretty much no luck go my way in the semis and so it balances out. In fact the four people who played the final were all seeded outside of the Top 10 going into the round of 16 showing just how volatile one game can be.
Then there is Politics or the Social Aspect of the game. Which, i tend to believe, can make you lose more games than it can help you to win. If you somehow – through being overbearing or arrogant or just irritating – manage to piss someone off for any reason during a game, then it is very difficult to turn that around and you might find yourself targeted by that person who will refuse trades and constantly send the robber your way.
One of the strategies i picked up during our practice games was the idea of befriending people before the tournament [although to be honest, that comes naturally to me, but taking more opportunities to make friends]. The hope was that if you happened to play against one of your friends they would be more likely to attack a stranger with the robber and be more favourable in trades with you. This did NOT work for me at all. While i am super grateful for all the friends i made during this weekend [the real prize of the Malta Catan Championship hands down!] there are at least two cases where people i had connected with seemed to be more intent to gun me down rather than grant me any favours.
There was a Discord opened before the event and while not so many of the players jumped into it, i was quite intentional in terms of connecting with people early and one of the big ways that played out was through a snack-sharing vibe that was created. One of the first people i saw in the group was Luka from Holland and i lived in Holland for a while and so asked if he would bring me some Hagelslag [basically vermicelli that the Dutch eat on bread for breakfast – or just straight out of the box in my case] in exchange for some Rooibos tea and rusks. Then Donna, one of the organisers jumped in and so i quickly ordered some Frosting-in-a-can and Reeses, and a few other exchanges were booked on there.
Not only did this not work with Pavel, my friend from the Czech Republic, who at 17 was i think the youngest player by a bit, who i exchanged snacks with, but he Dirty Monopolied me [traded me wheat for some other resources and then played a Monopoly card and stole all the wheat]. So great strategy, but poor outcome.
Back to Politics though, this can play out in a number of ways. One is trading which can be a super frustrating way to watch a game go downhill [typically with less accomplished players so we didn’t see too much of this at the finals although it was still present]. When someone makes a trade that benefits the other person whose turn it is but doesn’t help them as much or often at all. This is not a great way to play Catan in my opinion because it gives the person you are trading with a distinct advantage.
The second and perhaps main way politics plays out is through subtle – or sometimes no-so-subtle – diverting of attention from yourself or casting attention on to someone else [to keep it away from you]. Highlighting someone else as the threat so people will stop trading with them and try and block them and send the robber their way. Do this too much and you can have the whole table against you. Do this too little and one of your opponents might have the whole table chasing you. This definitely happened in my semi-final game – possibly exacerbated by the fact that i entered the game as #1 seed in the competition and this greatest threat [whether true or not] – where Richard, the England player, thought i was a threat long after i was, which allowed Hamish a lot more leeway and to sneak ahead a little more under the radar [Richard admitted this after the game – i was definitely a threat for a while but when the balance changed it took the rest of the table too long to pick it up].
So coming back to the Strategy vs Luck question everyone seemed to be asking, my answer is obviously a little different. And you can definitely group Politics/Social game with Strategy if you are forced to decide. But when i think Catan i would place the percentages at around Strategy 45% Politics 30% Luck 25%. You can have all the Luck in the world, but without sufficient Strategy and Politics, you will likely still lose. But if you have all the Strategy and Politics and no Luck [Gustavo in the semi-finals where i didn’t have good luck but he had actively bad luck] then you can watch victory disappear in front of you.
Day 1 of [hopefully] 2
87 competitors, or possibly 86 as one person had visa issues which sadly kept them from the competition. From, i think, 49 different countries that i counted in the book! Some of the very best Catan players from around the world, and i got to face up to them.
Now the range definitely varies. South Africa, for example, had a qualifying tournament in Joburg and then a few players flew down to join us in Cape Town for the Nationals, but on that day i basically beat 23 other people to the title. Whereas i heard Singapore had 274 people in their final event. And a place like America had regionals all over the place which you had to navigate to make it to the finals where you had to place top 2.
The World Catan Champs happens every two years, but due to covid, the last event was scrapped and so some countries ended up with four people at the finals [America and the Czech Republic were two of those whereas South Africa just had me!] as each country can send a max of two players. So it was a slightly different competition to before.
And there was definitely a range of skill on display, although for the most part these were all really good players. But having played a number of social games on the Friday night and at other times, plus facing off against 14 other players during the championship [because i played Gustavo twice!] i could definitely pick up two levels of players. And so the round robin gives the best possible opportunity for the top players to make it through [but for a reality check, last competition’s winner, Quetzal Hernandez from Mexico [super nice guy], didn’t even make the top 16. Competition was fierce.
My aim for day 1 of the competition was simple – i needed to finish top 16 so i could make day 2. Two wins out of four were absolutely necessary, but three wins would likely get you through immediately and with two wins you would need to score well in the other two games. Every game has 10 points on offer and so any time you don’t manage to win, it is imperative you score as many points as possible.
Which is why losing the first game with 7 points did not feel particularly great.
But let’s throw in some fun history here. Because from the very first tournament where i was one dice roll away from winning [blasted seven!] i have never won my first game. In fact losing the first game with 7 points seems to be my thing. And then arriving at a point where i know i need to likely win all of the rest of my games. Tha happened in all three tournaments i had played in before, and coming into the World Championships i was telling myself to just get a win in the first game to take off the pressure. i came tie second with 7 points.
Which meant i had to at least win two of the next three games, and quite possibly all three. No pressure.
Up your game
So after game 1 i was looking at the too-familiar situation of needing to win 2 or maybe even 3 of the remaining games. A loss in game 2 would really hamped my chances and my confidence.
While i can’t remember the specifics of the second game, i do remember it being one of the two easiest wins of the opening rounds. Actually, now that i think of it, i think this might have been the game where i needed one victory point to win. i had enough resources to buy three development cards [5 victory point cards out of 25 cards in the deck] and so i bought them. Then i did a poker reveal to myself and by extension everyone else at the table who was convinced i had one. Sneak a peek at the first card – Knight. Sneak a peek at the second card – Knight. As i am readying myself to sneak a peek at the third, knowing i will likely lose the game if i has to go another round, i am feeling the sinking sensation of three Knights in a row, but am fortunately met with the sweet golden view of a victory point card. Game won and i am back in this. All the relief and all the emotion.
While a game 2 win was not a pronouncement of me making it to day 2, it did prevent the inevitability that a loss would have had. Two more games to play and need to win at least one of them.
One more win?
After two games of the competition we break for lunch – which was incredible, five star hotel and all – and then prepare ourselves for the next two games.
So game three starts with me thinking a win here might be enough. By now i have heard enough scores from people to know that there have been a number of fours and fives and sixes in people’s totals, and every time someone scores below the 7 i scored in my first game it means i am currently ahead of them. So people are doing projections and it starts to feel like two wins might be enough. But i really want to get a win here and not put all the pressure on myself for the last game.
One of the benefits of the structure of the finals was that over the four games each of us got to be in each position. Being first doesn’t mean that you necessarily play first, but it means you get to choose your position of play and depending on the board sometimes second, third or even fourth is the best spot to start in. A typical game of Catan – and we were playing just the base game with no expansions for this tournament – starts with the first player selecting the best spot to build their first settlement, followed by second and then third player. The benefit of picking last as fourth player – which helps to achieve some balance in the game – is that you get to put both settlements down at the same time and so often it works out strategically better for you. It goes backwards from here and so the first player who typically gets the best spot then gets the 8th best spot. Often 4th and 5th best work out better than 1st and 8th but the general agreement seems to be that starting third is often the way to go.
A really huge gift i got in this round was that there were two really good spots on the board and as the person picking third i was not going to get to choose any of them. That is until the second person picking chose what i thought was a very unusual spot and i got one of the two i was going for. And ended winning a relatively easy game.
Two victories and a 7 pointer and a very good chance of making the finals.
The 4th game was a real pressure cooker. A colleague of my roommate David from Portugal was playing and the hope was that if it came to push and shove he might go easy on me, but no such thing. From the get go it felt like he had a personal vendetta against me and was picking on me with both trades and the robber.
At this point only myself and Gustavo from Peru i think were able to make it into the semis, given our record, which freed up the others just to play their natural games, but there were definitely no favours given [which is right, of course!] In this game, my first point of call was trying to secure 7 permanent points to hopefully help me make it through [although we were not assured of this, it did seem like a likely goal] and unfortunately given the nature of this specific game i had to do something i really don’t like doing. i had to make an early play for longest road. Now in Catan the person who has the longest road has two victory points, but getting it early generally puts a target on your back and it is something that can be stolen if someone else builds a longer road, so you can spend the whole game fighting someone for it. i prefer to snatch longest road in the last move of the game if possible as a winning move, rather than having it early.
But in this particular game i had an abundance of wood and brick which is needed to build roads. And didn’t have the resources necessary to build cities. So once i had built my five settlements [5 points], building and holding on to longest road while i tried to find the other points [cities or development cards] became an essential part of that game. And i managed to do it. So i was sitting on a hazardous 7 points clinging on to longest road and desperately working towards those extra concrete points. i eventually managed to build one of the cities and i think i had a victory point card and so 8 and 9 points of which 2 might be snatched away had me feeling a whole lot more confident.
The whole game came down to one last development card i could afford to buy which luckily [i told you early rounds gave me the luck!] was the victory point i needed. Otherwise i think Gustavo would have taken that one and it would have been a bit more touch and go for me.
With three wins and a seven pointer it felt like i really was going to be living the dream of moving into the next round.
Say What Now?
My game was the last game to finish out of all the round 4 games and so it took a while for final positions to be collated and announced. But let’s back up one step here:
The Catan organisers had announced an app we could download on our phones to track our progress. i had decided after the third game where i had won 2 and maybe had a good chance of getting through that i didn’t want to start looking at rankings or it might affect my play. Focus and win the last game and that should be enough to get you through.
But then i sat down with my Portuguese roommate, David, while we were waiting for the third round to end. He did have the app on his phone and i accidently saw the screen on his phone as it loaded up and noticed my name… IN SECOND PLACE! To be fair, about ten seconds later it dropped to fourth, as results were still coming in from about halg the games, but that moment of seeing my name in second place gave me a real hope. If i am second with half the results to come in, then chances are i am in the top 16 and really have a chance to finish there.
From that moment i kept on bugging him to show me where i was. He was sitting on the bubble at around 15th i think and needed a win to move strongly into the top 16 and so we both knew what we had to do. And off we went into round four.
After finishing the game though, my name took forever to be added to the leaderboard. And because of the closeness of all the scores, before any points had been added to my name i had obviously dropped out of the top 16 and couldn’t even be found in the top 30/40 places. We had to rush straight from the game to get supper because supper time was almost officially over and so when i sat next to David and the app finally decided to update with my scores, this is the sight i was met with:
Just as a reference point, here is a list of countries that were meant to be at the competition [i think it was the Vietnam contestant who didn’t make it because of Visa issues]
We are excited to have 87 contestants from 48 nations compete in this year’s CATAN World Championship. You can find the participating countries, regions, and territories here:
Argentina, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Brazil, Bulgaria, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hong Kong, Hungary, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, Jordan, Latvia, Lebanon, Lithuania, Mexico, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Panama, Peru, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Saudi Arabia, Serbia, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Taiwan, Thailand, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, United States, United Kingdom, and Vietnam.
King of the World
So aim for day 1 was what again? Try to make it into Top 16. And yet here i was in FRIKKIN FIRST PLACE!!!
And now this is going to sound a bit like sour grapes, but again i want to point to my words BEFORE the whole tournament began. Four rounds of games [i would prefer five, the three we had for the National finals was definitely not enough because one bad game can wipe you out] is a fairly good way of finding out who your top players are [to some degree – many really good players did not make the top here]. But then you are going to need a degree of luck to win two games and take the overall championship.
So while i did not win the whole thing – i ended up coming second in my semi-final and finished 7th overall – for me, the fact that i was number 1 after four rounds with the top 86 players in the world means everything. Yes, it would have been incredible to have got those next two wins, and i don’t want to take anything away from Hamish who rode some luck but played really well to take those last two games [big political player and good at it!] but i am more than satisfied that i ended up in that place with those points.
And the truth is i was actually tied in points with Bo from the USA who beat me in the first game i played. But i moved ahead of him when they took the average margin of the players we beat and so technically i was ahead, but am very happy to see it as tied first with Bo [who is another really good player, also with the politics!]
So that result was really above and beyond everything i could have hoped for and i am super proud.
Going into the semi final as the #1 seed i had the opportunity to pick my position and i was matched against the 8th, 9th and 16th seeded players and so technically had the easiest game going in. i definitely had a target on my back as #1 seed and that definitely played some small part. But i really had the best shot at advancing and really believed at the time that i would be able to do so.
The choice i made was matched by three of the four top seeded players and didn’t work for any of us i don’t think. But that is where the luck factor comes in, because looking back at the game, i still believe it was the best spot to have, and leaving it for someone else made no sense. Despite that though, Richard who picked fourth, was left two amazing spots i would have been more than happy to play, causing the rest of us to work together to make sure he didn’t get to the two harbours he was near which would have easily given him the game [although, ironically this played into Hamish’s hands in the end]. And then, as mentioned, Gustavo should have won hands down, but three sevens robbed him of way too many cards and he was the unluckiest, happening on his turn each time.
To be honest, the semi was not a fun game for me, as i knew fairly early on, that without a huge boost of luck, i was not going to win. Once i got my five settlements built and nabbed longest road i was going to struggle to get cities or development cards cos of a lack of ore. Both my brick numbers 5 and 9 barely rolled [and i had a brick harbour so them throwing would have given me a fighting chance] and despite 9 being blocked by the robber for most of the first half of the game, i didn’t even lose all that much cos it really just didn’t happen. Meanwhile Hamish numbers [he only had a few as he had doubled up, which is a risk i tend to shy away from] did roll and so he had maximum cards, and by the time Richard realised it was Hamish and not me who was the threat, it was all a little too late. i was a little played out of the game [cos i built the 5 settlements fairly fast and so was a genuine threat early on] and a little hampered by the dice. Same board again and i am pretty sure i make the same choices.
But 7th in the world at anything is not to be sneezed at, and since the previous South African players had finished in the 40s, this felt like a huge step forward.
My main goal before heading to Malta was to not forget that the real prize was always a trip to Malta and the opportunity to meet new people from around the world who are passionate about this same thing. Losing the semi-final match was going to be the moment of truth for me in terms of how this played out. i have struggled with being overly competitive and at times both a bad loser and a bad winner, and so this was really the contest for me. And i couldn’t be more stoked with how it played out. Within moments of losing the match, i found a space in the hall where i could sit down and make a Tik Tok video sharing my immediate thoughts and reflections:
So we got the coolest Catan bags [LOVE MY CATAN MAN-BAG!] and we got the ugliest bowling shirt competitions shirts [sorry, Catan, but they are ug-ly – LOVE that it has my name and country on the back cos that feels super official, and love that i got the chance to have game designer Klaus Teuber sign mine!]; we each won a board game and i managed to get an entire original game minus one sheep card [so if anyone discovers they have an extra sheep card or if Catan you are able to send me a lone sheep card, let’s talk! i arrived late to the Catan-plundering!]; we got some super cool Catan-related badges which i love and a specialised robber to use in the game; we got a leaders expansion pack and a fridge magnet which is also super cool. So all in all, a great big stash of things and fortunately i was somehow able to squeeze everything in my bags. Oh and THE RED CATAN INSIGNIAD WATER BOTTLE! Which is my new all-purpose water bottle, and i dig that [even if it had a chinese puzzle trick lock kind of vibe to close the thing properly so it doesn’t spill out all over your signature collection book – eek!].
But, as mentioned, the real prize was also a trip to Malta and i was very fortunate to add two days before and three days after to give me the chance to really see a whole lot of the island, as well as do a day trip to Gozo, one of the other two islands. Saw some beautiful sights. Bumped into Fred from France on my jump-on jump-off bus trip post the competition. Met the most amazing old deaf Irish lady, Anne, on my harbour boat trip and we became instant boat companions [as a 22 year old she jumped on a ship by herself and went to visit South Africa – nuts!] Caught a magnificent sunrise on a piece of beach rock i’m pretty sure i tresspassed on to by mistake.
Over and above everything else though, it was the people that were the real prize. And i know that by mentioning names i will definitely leave some people off – and you are important too! – but these are the ones that jump to mind. Starting with David, my Portuguese roommate, and our early morning swims in the kind-of-warm-but-not-overly-warm swimming pool and some great conversation and the best cheerleading; the whole Czech Republic crew who let me join them for dinner the first night and then were friends for the rest of the time, starting with Michal and his partner Martine who welcomed me in and especially Jan who let me stick the world’s most famous stuffed dolphin, No_bob, in his world’s longest dreads for a classic photo op, and Pavel the youngest and most enthusiastic player out of everyone who brought me some Czech snacks while planning an evil dirty Monopoly that almost thwarted my plans; the Dutch contingent of Luka [the Hagelslag!] and his delightful companion Christien, as well as Stefan and the amazing Mariska [who collectively bought me a stuffed Malta fish, now called Dalta, y’all!] who also took a whole of pics for me; there was Svetlin from Bulgaria who i had [and continue to have] deep conversation with on matters of faith and life; Arnaud from Belgium who got completely lost in the rain [due to my directions and his GPS fail] with me and thoroughly drenched; Estephan and Elyane from Lebanon who hosted the most full and least warm jacuzzi moment of the week; Peter and Sam from Australia [Sam who from the moment he left his farm to catch a bus to the airport was travelling for, wait for it, SEVENTY-FIVE HOURS to make it to the hotel; Garvan from Ireland and Richard from England who i faced in the semis, Gustavo who was the only player – and a great one at that – who i got to face twice, Mats from Sweden who i met early on and hung out with a bit, and various other players who played with me, ate with me, walked the town with me… not to mention Hamish, the ultimate winner and this year’s Champion of Catan – really enjoyed getting to know his whole family and his daughers were pretty amped with No_bob and always coming to ask where he was.
The only was this competition could have been much better was if they’d given us another three days to hang out with everyone afterwards. That truly was the absolute best prize that everyone got to enjoy and everything in me is thinking about how i manage to win the next South African Championships in 2024 so i can see everyone again!
i have been offered rooms in Lebanon [with an attached brewery!], Belgium, Portugal and Netherlands and am now trying to figure out ticket-to-Europe money because going to visit and stay with everyone would be such a great gift… and i imagine there might be other offers on top of that if the trip actually moved past the dream phase [i might need a better paying job!] i have been in Instagram conversation with a number of the players from these countries who i think i can now count as my friends. Sho, this was a way more incredible trip than i could ever have imagined. i do hope there might be another one in my future. But no South African has ever gone twice [yet!].
Oh and absolute special mention has to go to my physical South African cheerleading crew in the form of two South African Twitterer friends who recently moved to Malta. Kambabe and Scott surprised me in the middle of the first day’s play with a poster and Maltese chocolate balls and such a great vibe that really got me psyched for the next two games which i really wanted to win. And so HUGE THANKS must go to them for making the effort of the trip and the poster and the pop in! So much appreciation!
i am filled with overwhelming gratitude! Especially coming after the hardest year-and-a-half of my life which many of you will know about. My latest podcast episode is not called When Your Ship Hits The Fan for nothing. And so to be gifted this incredible opportunity [thanks again, Solarpop!] at this time was just so amazing. And i could not have done it all without the support of so many – my family who cheered me on [and gave me spending money for Malta!], my friend Dunc who lent me luggage and adaptors and passport carriers, my crew of ‘Play more Catan’ people who gave me practice and ideas and help, Roz from Roz Hair Studio who always gives me the very best hair, Alex from Scarlet Rose Beauty who nailed the nails. Jess and Byron who gave me a place to stay pre-tournament and didn’t make me have to navigate arriving late at night in a foreign country and find my way to a place; and the amazing Megan, my brand new BIRTHDAY TWIN who looked after me post tourney and showed me the most beautiful sunset spot on the island… and and and. It takes a village to raise a Catan #7!
Lastly, to a humble former dental technician, who moved from teeth, gums and drills, to sheep, wood, and brick and changed the way the world thinks about and plays board games. Klaus Teuber, who joins legendary figures, including former Archbishop Desmond Tutu and South African fast bowler Dale Steyn in not setting the police on me when i asked them to pose with a yellow-and-white stuffed dolphin called No_bob. Thank you, thank you, thank you! That game, and all the ones it inspired, have been the source of so much enjoyment and laughter and fierce competition and late night/early mornings for so many of my friends and extended community.
i am so glad you didn’t SETTLE for being a dental technician, Klaus! And such a pleasure to meet and get to speak a little with Benjamin Teuber, the next generation…
Brett Fish is a lover of God and people, and owns the world's most famous stuffed dolphin, No_bob (who doesn't bob). He believes that we are all responsible for making the world a significantly better place for everyone.