On our most recent viewing of Star Trek: The Original Series, my daughter, as interested in tabletop gaming as I am, was quick to point out all the three-dimensional chess sets on the Enterprise. I have at times wondered if Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan producer Harve Bennett, in his three month screening of ST:TOS episodes, not only arrived at the episode “Space Seed” for his movie’s foundation, but also was inspired by Starfleet’s three dimension chess sets, as the moment of apotheosis in ST II: TWOK is when Kirk and Spock realize that Khan is a two-dimensional thinker and basically board gaming in space.
Since this movie came out in 1982, there has been such a paradigm shift in tabletop games that a similar change in consciousness could be imagined by more advanced tabletop gamers looking from above at Kirk and Spock’s simplistic three dimensional strategy. In plain English, the tabletop games that people are playing and talking about today seem bigger than the games that were played before.
Settlers of Catan is probably the best example of what I see as three different ways to measure the size of games: Span, which is the duration or time-lapse of a game; Scale, which is the space that the game occupies in the material universe; and, Scope, which is the epistemological substance of a game, the space that it occupies in our minds.
Scope will obviously be the hardest to quantify, and sometimes Short and Little games can be Big in scope, e.g. chess obsesses its players to the point that an immense strategic literature exists. Usually the best sense of an overdeveloped Scope in a game is the production of literature associated with the game. There’s lots of volumes about chess, Bridge, and Dungeons and Dragons, but not so many books on Candy Land.
Until I develop subtler scales to measure these terms, I offer three simplified dichotomies, with Span being measured as Long or Short, Scale being measured as Large or Little; and Scope being measured from Big to Small.
While games are not necessarily better for having these attributes (the classic game of the ages, chess, is both short and small), Catan benefits from having them, and while a common complaint is that Catan games can be too long, many players enjoy games in which the other attributes of size are even more magnified.
And, in truth, most of the games that humans play tend to be hypertrophic in one of these scales, with Monopoly being Long in Span, classic wargaming from Kriegsspiel on being Large in Scale, and Dungeons and Dragons being Big in Scope. While modern tabletop gaming may be providing a more hospitable environment for quick games small in all three of these game measurements, one working theory of mine is that games that we bring along with us throughout history are typically sizable enough in one of these scales not to be overlooked.
What makes Catan a great example of all three qualities is that Catan is so overdeveloped in these terms as to be a caricature of them, especially in terms of measuring game time, as the source of most complaints about the game is that it at times occupies an extensive duration in time. However, Catan is not only Long, but also Large, as it takes up an extensive amount of the participating gamers’ visual fields, as well as the tabletop, and Big, as it continues to generate a respectable online literature due to the way that its strategies preoccupy gamers. In fact, one thing that looking at Catan makes me think is that one thing to consider going forward is the way that one measurement can feed into the others, especially the way that preoccupation with the Scope of a game, whether trading or other strategies, can influence the Span of a game.
Catan 5th Edition
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan [Director’s Cut] [Blu-ray]