The Settlers of Catan provides a good teaching tool overall, helping to teach probabilities, negotiations, and long-term planning. Catan: Oil Springs was designed to help make Catan a valuable environmental educational tool as well. It introduces the dynamic of environmental risks and economic rewards, and allows players to explore whether these factors can be satisfactorily balanced.
Here are some issues to incorporate into your lessons:
POLLUTION: Driving Home the Consequences of Oil Spills
Over the past 50 years, more than 10 million barrels of oil have been spilled in the Niger Delta from leaking pipes and accidents. That is twice the amount spilled in the headline-grabbing Gulf of Mexico spill in 2010. The natural and economic losses from such spills can be catastrophic, but it is difficult for most people to wrap their minds around such huge numbers. Players of Catan: Oil Springs gain new appreciation for the consequences of oil spills when their land becomes contaminated and stops producing valuable resources.
Players carefully choose their settlement locations to take advantage of resources such as timber, grain—or oil. Using oil can speed up economic development and brings players closer to victory. But, for every five oil used, an environmental disaster results: the dice are rolled and a random resource hex may become polluted and unproductive for the remainder of the game. Deprived of resources, players may find their strategies crumbling—even if they weren’t the ones developing the oil.
CLIMATE CHANGE: Coastal Areas Are Vulnerable to Flooding and Protection Is Costly
Climate change and other environmental disasters could generate up to 1 billion refugees by 2050. Many of these refugees will be victims of coastal flooding: as oceans warm, their water expands, causing sea levels to rise–possibly by as much as 2 meters. On Catan, coastal flooding can batter rich port cities and sweep away coastal settlements, undoing players’ hard-won investments. As in the real world, the least developed communities suffer most, because they can least afford to protect themselves from impending disaster.
In Catan: Oil Springs coastal flooding is triggered if a seven is rolled during the “disaster phase” that occurs every time five oil are used. When flooding occurs, cities are reduced to settlements and settlements are removed completely. Disaster-stricken players can always rebuild their damaged communities—but they never know when disaster may strike again. Only coastal metropolises are immune, because of their sea walls and other advanced design. But, building metropolises requires massive infrastructure investment that only oil-rich players can afford. The European Union currently spends a whopping €880 million per year to protect its coastal areas from rising sea levels.
RESOURCE SCARCITY: Planning for a Secure, Stable, Diversified Future
Nobody knows exactly when oil will run out, but it is a finite resource, with proven oil reserves worldwide estimated to be between 1.18 and 1.34 trillion barrels. As oil becomes scarcer, nations will depend more on other resources. They may also rely more on oil from volatile regions, and may find their oil money financing hostile regimes. Today’s world leaders face the challenge of building up diverse economies that can thrive during a future when oil is more expensive and more difficult to obtain.
Catan: Oil Springs players will notice that oil starts to disappear toward the end of the game. This is bad news for a player who has chosen a strategy that relies heavily on oil, such as building too many settlements on oil hexes. When oil runs out, this player will have no oil to use or trade and—like a nation with an oil-dependent economy—may find that she has neglected the development of other sectors (e.g. agriculture or forestry) and cannot obtain the resources she needs to advance. Seeing this unfold can be a useful teaching tool.
TRAGEDY OF THE COMMONS: Unrestricted Resource Use Is a Risky Gamble
Economists and environmentalists began discussing the “tragedy of the commons” in the 1960s, with the example of individual herdsmen each allowing their animals to overgraze a shared pasture. A tragedy of the commons arises because an individual herdsman accrues the full benefit of adding one more animal to the pasture—but he bears very little of the cost of overgrazing, which is split equally between all herdsmen. Each herdsman rationally decides to add another animal to the pasture, until the pasture is ruined, destroying all the herdsmen’s livelihood. Modern-day examples include climate change from the emission of greenhouse gases and the collapse of global fisheries from overfishing.
In Catan: Oil Springs, a player gains significant benefits from using oil to accelerate construction of settlements, cities, and metropolises. After all, what’s the harm in using “just one more” oil? Yet, every time an oil is used, players see the token advancing ominously down the disaster track. For every five oil used, a disaster results, so players must decide whether to ration their oil use—a decision made more easily as a collective than alone. It’s global climate change negotiations on an island scale—and chances are good that some players won’t want to cooperate. If too many oil are used, the island of Catan is destroyed completely and the game will end with no true winner.
LIMITS TO GROWTH: Hitting the Carrying Capacity of the Island and Earth
Today human society is using the biocapacity of 1.5 planets, and in the process undermining Earth’s systems. As our population grows beyond 7 billion and consumption levels increase around the globe, additional pressure is being put on Earth’s freshwater supplies, arable land, fisheries, forests, and climate system.
Players of Catan: Oil Springs can also bump up against the limits of growth. As the disaster track fills with number tokens, the island’s capacity diminishes and if balance isn’t found between growth and conservation of Catan’s resources, the island may be destroyed by disaster and everyone will lose, as represented by the disaster track being filled with 5 number tokens. But the imperative to grow is strong and difficult to resist, which gives teachers a great example to talk about growth and its limits.
DEVELOPMENT DISPARITIES: The Poorest Are Least Prepared to Face a Changing Environment
The world’s richest 500 million people (about 7% of the population) are responsible for 50% of global carbon dioxide emissions, while the poorest 3.1 billion people (44%) are responsible for just 5-10% of emissions. Yet, it is often the poorest who are most vulnerable to the resulting environmental changes such as less predictable rainfall, rising sea levels, more violent storms, lower crop yields, and the spread of vector-borne diseases. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports that agricultural yields in some African countries could fall by up to 50% by 2020 as a result of climate change.
On Catan, all players are vulnerable to industrial pollution and coastal flooding, which are determined by the roll of a die. Yet, as in real life, less advanced players are less able to withstand these disasters. For example, metropolises built with oil riches have sea walls that protect them from coastal flooding, while less developed players watch in dismay as their settlements and cities are swept away. And, when industrial pollution strikes, oil wealth can be the deciding factor in whether or not a player is able to scrape together the resources to build new settlements on uncontaminated land.
THE RESOURCE CURSE: More Oil, More Problems
Paradoxically, many of the world’s oil-rich nations have high—and even increasing—levels of poverty. This “resource curse” is often accompanied by corruption, armed conflict, and ineffective governance. Nigeria, for example, has 36.2 billion barrels of proven oil reserves, yet has been plagued by civil war, military rule, and a poverty rate that rose from 77% in 1986 to 84% in 2004 (EIA and World Bank).
Catan: Oil Springs players will likewise find that they have trouble translating their oil resources into a robust economy. The robber, which makes resource hexes unproductive until it is removed, seems to stubbornly hang around oil springs. A player who rolls a seven on her turn may place the robber token on another player’s resource hex and steal a resource card from that player. Oil Springs tiles—especially the most productive ones that have cities and metropolises on them—are prime targets for players trying to disrupt oil-rich players to prevent them from winning the game.