When you think about early eurogames in the US, what do you think of?
Settlers of Catan is almost certainly at the top of the list (along with the other members of the gateway trinity). And with good reason—it’s one of the most popular games of all time, and there’s a good chance that it was the first euro that you played. It was also the first eurogame to get popular in the United States after it was published here in 1996, bringing the genre to an entire nation of gamers for the first time.
So when you think about titles that helped popularize eurogames across the US, Catan is the obvious leader. But you might be surprised to learn that another game, released three years before Klaus Teuber’s genre-defining heavy hitter came to the States, actually laid the critical groundwork for the takeover.
That game was Magic: The Gathering.
It doesn’t make intuitive sense that Magic, the first CCG, would be so crucial in helping Catan spread throughout the States. It’s an entirely different genre of game, and the CCG and eurogame communities might not seem to overlap very much. But the pre-1993 gaming environment was very different.
Before Magic, the hobby game community in the United States was primarily split into two camps: Dungeons & Dragons players and war gamers. Sure, there were euro fans, and people who played a lot of family games, and people dedicated to games like Acquire (the first eurogame) and Cosmic Encounter, but the vast majority of people who spent a lot of time, money, and effort on games were RPG players and fans of historical war games.
This meant that gaming groups were very tight-knit. War gaming and RPGs, even during their heydays, boasted relatively small communities, at least by today’s standards—and because both of them involved long campaigns (especially monster-level war games, which could span over months), it made sense for the same group to gather on a regular basis. These games took a long time at each sitting, too. Playing three or four hours wouldn’t be abnormal for most of these players.
That all changed when Magic hit the scene.
Now, single games could be played in 30 minutes. And the organization of the tournament scene meant that the hobby community became much more fluid, with lots of new people meeting, playing, and connecting. If you’ve ever played in a CCG tournament before, you know that there can also be a lot of downtime between matches; if you finish a match quickly and someone else’s goes a long time, you can be waiting for quite a while for their match to finish up and the new pairings to be announced.
You also might know that CCG players often spend time hanging out in game shops playing informal matches and chatting with friends and other players.
This meant that there were a lot of hobby gamers hanging out in the same places at the same times with other gamers they didn’t know very well. In short, it was an absolutely perfect environment for Catan to spread quickly across the country. It’s a pretty quick game, both to learn and play—unlike the RPGs and war games of the day—and it wouldn’t have been hard to convince a fellow Magic player to give it a shot.
These seemingly unrelated factors all came together to radically change the gaming environment. Magic created a gaming community on a scale that had never been seen before, and this community was conducive to a new type of game being introduced and quickly spreading. Especially one as deceptively simple as Catan.
The release of Magic kicked off a completely new genre of game, and with it, a new community of hobby gamers (one that still thrives today, and has been evolved by games like Hearthstone). That community was one of the first stirrings of the wave that carried Settlers of Catan across the country and into the hearts of a new generation of hobby gamers.
And with Catan came a whole slew of European-designed board games, eventually leading to another revolution in hobby gaming. CCG players and board gamers may seem like they’re entirely different breeds of gamers, but we’re all connected in more ways than are immediately apparent.
So next time you play Settlers of Catan—or any eurogame, for that matter—remember Magic, and how it helped bring high-quality board games to your kitchen table.