Board games and logical thinking: Settlers of Catan

Settlers of Catan!
Image by readmckay via Flickr

During my recent blogging vacation (otherwise known as March) I developed quite an addiction and it’s all Wired magazine’s fault.  I’ve spent the last couple months playing increasingly more difficult board games with my 7 year old in an attempt to let her have a fun way to develop her math skills.  We started with Life, which has larger and fewer bills to keep track of, before we moved onto Monopoly and increased the complexity a bit.

That’s when my April issue of Wired arrived and introduced me to Settlers of Catan.  I quickly and hopelessly became addicted and I’m pretty convinced that a return to logical based games helped me catch a mistake at work.

As the Wired link above will tell you, Settlers of Catan is primarily a well-balanced resource trading game from Germany that requires cooperative play in order to do well.  You and your fellow players are settling on an island with 5 different kinds of resources, which can be used to build or upgrade structures.  The more structures you have, the more resources you can collect.  What enevitiably happens, though, is that the collection of one of the resources becomes difficult either for you or for everyone playing and you are forced to engage in trading to get what you want.

The mix ends up being a little like a mix of poker and a real time strategy game like Age of Empires or Command and Conquer, only without the violence and with better game mechanic balance.  I downloaded the PC version and ended up installing it on every machine I have so I could get the most out of the 60 minute limit you get for the free version befor buying a key so I could play unlimited.  Now I find myself memorizing the odds of rolling a 5 on a standard pair of dice when weighing trade options with AI players.

After a week of this, something weird happened.

A big part of my job is to review things.  Scope reviews.  Design reviews.  Code reviews.  For the 40+ assets I’m responsible for (with a lot of other people, I like to add), there are constantly projects going on that require process phase reviews so that those of us that aren’t doing the nuts and bolts work can make sure everybody is doing things the same way.

At one such review, I caught a logical error that the development team made when estimating the database size they needed that I’m not sure I would have  otherwise had I not had Catan on the brain.  As a result of the EDS merger, this particular asset would need to serve almost twice as many people as it previously did and there was a complex formula involving base size, historical archiving, and future growth esimates based on the last 6 months worth of data that all contributed to a database allocation.  And it was wrong.

I’ve talked to enough of my fellow programmers over the years to be convinced that it is an interest in games like Settlers of Catan that we had as kids (and still do as adults) that formed our analytic thinking that enables us to do what we do for a living.  I’m convinced that I found this math formula error because I had odds calculation fresh on my mind when I ordinarily wouldn’t and it reminds me that mental exercises we might take on for fun can have work benefits too.  While that’s hardly the biggest newsflash in the world that I helped someone get a better database request, the lesson I learned is that it pays to keep your mind working in new ways.

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One Response to “Board games and logical thinking: Settlers of Catan”

  1. Brian DeHamer Says:

    Check out Hanselminutes #48 for more “Board Gaming for Programmers”:

    http://hanselminutes.com/default.aspx?showID=63

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