Settlers of Catan and ‘Grayson’s ontological argument for the existence of God’.


I had my younger brother sleep over at my place this weekend. He’s just turned fourteen, and this is his first year in high-school; he’s in that awkward, confusing, transformative stage of adolescence where you finally realize that you are a distinct entity capable of authentic ideas. So there’s been a lot of diverging opinions kind of in the background of the landscape between us. It was just great to spend some quality time with him, and reaffirm those family ties that naturally go out of focus during those few years following puberty.

I live on my own and my parents have shared custody, so we don’t have the best luck with scheduling boys night. But this weekend the stars aligned. My younger brother Braden (who is also my roommate) was home most of the weekend, and my dad offered to drive Grayon over on Saturday to spend the night.

We had a fun day adventuring around Ancaster, going from bus to bookstore to A&W. He skates so I spent the time traveling from point to point lagging behind him. I had this weird empathetic experience; by identifying with his-life-as-a-teenager I realized how wrong I was much of the time when I was a kid, and how frustrated my parents and teachers must have felt knowing I was wrong but not knowing of any way to communicate that fact in any manner convincing enough to persuade me to broaden my narrative. When I was his age I distinctly remember feeling how right I was about stuff, all the time. One of the benefits of the life I live now is that my most convicted ideas are proved wrong very regularly. I’ve learned to enjoy the malleability of my opinions, knowing that truth doesn’t spell ‘conviction’. Also, I feel very old when I hang out with him; which is crazy because although I’m a decade older than he is, I’m still only twenty-four.

After our youthful escapades around town we finally came home to our brother and my dog and decided to play Settlers of Catan. Although Braden and I are very competitive with one another, and in general, and neither of us particularly enjoys losing (although we do so with grace – although sometimes forcibly), we always have fun playing. I think table-top games are one of the few activities that brings out the best qualities of relationships. When we play there is a suspension of the rules people agree to when hanging out. War, conflict, and antagonism are encouraged and churn out new value in the relationships.

Braden wins more often than not. He and I uniformly contend for victory when we play, but usually he has the upper hand. As far as goal orientation goes, I personally enjoy exploring the mechanisms of the game more than perfecting a strategy to win. But when Grayson and I were out during the day we agreed over hamburgers to form an ‘Alliance To Defeat Braden’. He won the dice roll and got to play first… and on his first turn I realized he had forgotten about the alliance entirely – which I half expected, anyways.

It was fun watching him play; he had no strategy but perhaps making us laugh enough that we slip up. There is a card called the ‘Longest Road Card’. As you might have concluded, the card is awarded to the player with the longest road (five continuous road sections, to be exact). Braden and I were in a near-constant battle over this card. Nearing the end of the game, some two hours after we had begun, realizing I was going to win in a matter of only a few turns Grayson decided that he wanted to build the longest road. In his words “I don’t care if it’s not connected. I just, like, want to build it all around the entire map”. If he had managed to build a discontinuous road around the entire map before one of us reached ten victory points (when you reach ten victory points you win the game) I think we would have given him the win just out of sheer astonishment.

Settlers of Catan (or Settlers for short) is a multiplayer board game set on a fictional island in which you play as a settler, collecting resources, strategically building roads, settlements and cities, building armies and competing for territory – and indirectly the monopoly of resources. It’s a non-cooperative strategy game, although alliances can be formed (like the ‘Alliance To Defeat Braden). Because its competitive, easy to understand (the rules are quite simple), and aesthetically gratifying, it is quickly immersive. A typical game for us runs around two or three hours. Each players turn usually doesn’t take that long, but each players turn involves every other player; there’s no sitting back and waiting to play. You’re nearly always playing. It has the perfect blend of immediate gratification and delayed gratification.

Each hexagonal piece on the map represents a resource (Brick, Wheat, Sheep, Stone, Wood). The terrain isn’t fixed; you choose where each hex is placed (though there are some standard playing formations for beginners to follow). There are three hexes per resource. Atop each hex you place a number. The numbers correlate to the dice roll; so if a five is placed on a Wheat hex, and you have one settlement on an edge of the hex, you get one Wheat from the bank of cards. The resource cards can be combined (given back to the bank and put back into circulation) to create roads, settlements, cities or traded for a development card (of which you can win victory points, play to steal resources or block the production of a resource hex etc…) You roll dice to determine who places their settlement and road first, so you generally want to spread out the resources so no one has a monopoly on one resource, but uniformly enough so that you have the best chance to have access to each resource. Each player gets to play two settlements and two roads anywhere on the map; If you win the first play, you place the first settlement and road, and then the last settlement and road (the last of the first play places first the second settlement and road). This way each player has a fair shot at a good starting position.

The numbers on the resource hex correlate to the numbers on the dice (up to 12). Beneath each number on the little circle cut-outs is a line of dots. Some numbers, like five and six, have several red dots, while numbers like two and twelve have one black dot. The dots represent how frequently a number is likely to be rolled, by the number of total possible combinations (there is only one way to role a twelve using two normal dice). Grayson happened to have a settlement on a sheep hex with a five. Fives are rolled pretty regularly (there are more possible number combinations for five than for twelve or three or two). Grayson’s only strategy was to make us laugh, and he did so by building a ridiculous discontinuous road and using all his resources to buy development cards. There are 19 territory hexes. 18 are resources and one is a dessert. On the desert is the thief. The deserts number is seven by default, and if you roll a seven you have the option to move the thief anywhere you would like on the map. The thief blocks the production of a resource, so whenever anyone rolls a seven it’s always fun.

The knight resource card when played also allows you to freely move the thief anywhere on the map, but whomever has a settlement or city occupying an edge of the hex the thief is moved to has to spread their cards face down so the other player can choose one at random. I had continually blocked the production of Grayson’s sheep resource at every turn; when he would play a knight development card, and move the thief, I would play a knight and move it back. Because his sheep hex had a high roll-frequency, he always had a bunch of sheep resource cards. Whenever I took a card at random, it was usually a sheep. Which was like salt in the wound.

At one point in the game he wanted to buy a development card so that he could win back the ‘largest army’ card (which awards a player 2 victory points, and which Braden had recently won from him). All he needed was a sheep, but he didn’t have any left because his production was blocked and because I had taken all his cards. When he took his turn to roll he cupped the dice, bowed his head and sardonically whispered into the dice with closed eyes, in a napoleon-dynamite-esque voice. It went Grayson, Me and then Braden. Braden had just rolled a seven, and because he shared the sheep hex I had blocked with the thief, he moved the thief over to one of my settlements, blocking my brick production. Grayson rolled a five, and got a sheep. He laughed in astonishment and started kind of comically losing his mind. It was hilarious. He said he prayed to god into the dice saying “if you’re real, let me roll a five”. Now, five is a pretty common roll, but he took it as a sign from the almighty. I laughed and asked him ‘why’?! He was still laughing and said “I don’t know, like, don’t you just like do stuff like that sometimes just to make sure that He’s still there?” It was the most Karen moment of our night.

He not only did this once, but twice! Under the same circumstances, involving the same hex, and the same resource. The ultimate proof of the divines – move over Anselm!

He was joking for the sake of a bit, and none of us thought much of it after the laughter died down. But there are a lot of people who take circumstantial evidence like that and misinterpret probabilities to infer the existence of God – or affirm. A person ‘cured’ of Cancer concludes that God answered their prayers and therefore must exist – meanwhile billions of people’s prayers go unanswered every day (and not in any order of urgency). My brother ontologically includes God into his set of possible things that exist – along with sheep, disconnected roadways and Alien life. Although I can’t say with any semblance of accuracy one way or the other if something akin to what we refer to when we say ‘God’ exists, I don’t believe that he does. And that’s mostly because no matter how sophisticated the teleological argument, nothing is ever really proven that’s much different from what my brother proved with his simple and hilarious ontological argument involving sheep. And yet we all invoke a higher power when something important is on the line, at some point in our lives (and not in any order of ignorance). Whether that’s because by doing so we offload some of the tension and stress associated with carrying a burden alone (even if only for the few moments during your turn), or because all of our attempts so far to disprove or prove the existence of a God have failed, you do see this phenomenon uniformly across age-gaps, cultures and eras.

It would be nice to know that there is something beyond this life. But if you knew before playing that some supernatural force would help you roll the dice the game would lose something essentially enjoyable and fun to it – I know, I’ve cheated before *shocks*… Anyways, if some sort of god does exist, I don’t think it would help you win a board game – at least that’s not the kind of thing I’d be doing if I were him. Plus I won anyway, and I was an atheist in a room of Christians. Wait, what if…


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