If you’ve never heard of the board game Settlers of Catan, you aren’t alone.
Marcus Smart hadn’t. Neither had Kemba Walker. Nor Brad Stevens.
If you have heard of it, you’re in good company, too.
The game is a favorite of Celtics rookie Grant Williams.
Williams was introduced to Settlers of Catan — Catan, for short — when he was a sophomore on the basketball team at Tennessee. He walked in on Riley Davis, the team’s video coordinator, playing the classic strategy game with players Lucas Campbell, Brad Woodson, and Yves Pons. A self-proclaimed nerd, Williams wanted to learn.
“They’re like, ‘Oh dear, we have to teach Grant now,’ ” Williams recalled. “Next thing you know, we played and I won my first game.”
Williams was hooked. The group kept a board at the training facility, where they would play at least twice a week, as well as one in each of their dorm rooms. There also was a “road-trip board” that would travel with the team.
Williams still has a list of the number of wins for each player.
“We played enough Catan for a generation at Tennessee,” he said.
The objective of the game sounds simple: Collect resources to build roads, settlements, and cities on the island of Catan. The implementation is a bit more complicated.
Bear with me as I try to explain.
The board is made up of 19 hexagonal tiles, with 18 representing resources — brick, wood, sheep, wheat, and ore — and one representing barren desert. Each tile, with the exception of the desert, is randomly assigned a number 1 through 12.
To start, each player builds two settlements and two roads on the corners of hexes of his/her choosing. A turn consists of a player rolling two dice to determine which tiles produce resources. If a 6 is rolled, for example, then players with settlements on the corner of hexes with a 6 will collect that resource.
Using those resources, players can then build roads, settlements, and cities to, in turn, collect resources. Players also can trade their resources with one another, or exchange their resources for development cards, which offer varying advantages.
A settlement is worth 1 victory point; a city is worth 2. Other achievements, such as establishing the longest road, can earn additional points. The first to 10 victory points wins.
For someone unfamiliar with Catan, like me, those instructions probably make little sense.
To try to gain a better understanding of the game — and why a 21-year-old NBA player loves it so much — I asked Williams if he would teach me, with help from two reporters who already knew how to play.
We played for three hours and finished two games, both of which Williams won. He walked me through the thought processes behind some of his decisions, and even shared tips on how to get under the skin of other players.
Williams by no means went easy on me, though. He wasn’t afraid to critique my moves, especially my propensity to try to build the longest road — a tactic he says is common among beginners. He encouraged us to target one another, even though we most definitely should have been targeting him. And he made sure to enforce the rules, not allowing me to move one of my roads seconds after I had placed it on the board.
While we played, Williams couldn’t help but tell stories from his time at Tennessee.
He recounted some of the custom rules they instituted, from future trades to blind trades to a shot clock. He remembered the time Woodson didn’t speak to him for almost a week and a half because he had cut him off in three straight games, thwarting his efforts to build. And the time they made a bet in which the losers had to prank call their coach, Rick Barnes.
“Man, I used to play this game a lot,” Williams said midway through our second game. “I didn’t realize that. It just hit me after talking about that stuff. I used to play this game a lot.”
Inside the game room at the Auerbach Center, Williams has donated Catan as well as two special editions, Catan: Starfarers, and A Game of Thrones: Catan. Since getting drafted in June, however, he hasn’t had much luck in persuading his teammates to play.
Fellow rookies Carsen Edwards and Romeo Langford both say Williams doesn’t ask them because he knows they are not “board game guys.”
“Grant is his own person,” said Langford. “I’ve never met anybody like Grant. It doesn’t matter what we’re doing, his nerdy side comes out.”
Williams tries to be strategic with his requests, approaching only those he feels are likely to say yes. Jayson Tatum, he says, is a long shot. Gordon Hayward would be a promising option, but he knows Hayward has three young daughters at home.
“Have you asked Kemba to play?” I asked.
“Play what?” interjected Kemba Walker, who was walking by.
“He’s too cool for Catan,” Williams said. “It’s a board game.”
Walker: “He never asked me, though.”
Williams: “Look, look, I understand guys have lives to live and they don’t want to take an hour of their time daily.”
Walker: “It takes an hour? Damn, you’re probably right about that.”
Although he’s in the early stages of converting his teammates, Williams still plays Catan using the single-player version available for Nintendo Switch. He estimates he’s lost four games on the hardest level of difficulty since the game was released last June.
“It’s not as fun, but it gets you by,” Williams said.
Enes Kanter and Tacko Fall have agreed to learn. Teaching newbies can be challenging, but Williams is hopeful that, with time, they’ll catch on.
“They may not get it at first, but after they continue to play, they end up falling in love with it,” Williams said. “After the first game, you’re probably like, ‘All right, this is weird. I’m kind of confused still.’ But after two or three games, you really enjoy it.”
In my case, Williams was right. I played a round of Catan on my computer as soon as I returned home. Later that week, I proposed we play again in a few months.
“Not even in a few months,” Williams said. “I have time. Keep practicing and we’ll make it happen again.”