This classic game is taking on climate change

This article is from The Spark, MIT Technology Review ’s weekly climate newsletter. To receive it in your inbox every Wednesday, sign up here .



There are two things I love to do at social gatherings: play board games and talk about climate change. Don’t I sound like someone you should invite to your next dinner party?



Given my two great loves, I was delighted to learn about a board game called Catan: New Energies, coming out this summer. It’s a new edition of the classic game Catan, formerly known as Settlers of Catan. This version has players building power plants, fueled by either fossil fuels or renewables. 



So how does an energy-focused edition of Catan stack up against the board game competition, and what does it say about how we view climate technology?



Catan debuted in 1995, and today it’s one of the world’s most popular board games. The original and related products have sold over 45 million copies worldwide. 



Given Catan’s superstar status, I was intrigued to learn late last year that the studio that makes it had plans in the works to release this new version. I quickly got in touch with the game’s co-creator, Benjamin Teuber, to hear more. 



“The whole idea is that energy comes to Catan,” Teuber told me. “Now the question is, which energy comes to Catan?” Power plants help players develop their society more quickly, amassing more of the points needed to win the game. Players can build fossil-fuel plants, represented by little brown tokens. These are less resource-intensive to build, but they produce pollution. Alternatively, players can elect to build renewable-power plants, signified by green tokens, which are costlier but don’t have the same negative effects in the game. 





As a climate reporter, I feel that some elements of the game setup ring true—for example, as players reach higher levels of pollution, disasters become more likely, but there’s still a strong element of chance involved. 



One aspect of the game that didn’t quite match reality was the cost difference between fossil fuels and renewables. Technologies like solar and wind have plummeted in price over the last decade—today, building new renewable projects is generally cheaper than operating existing coal plants in the US .



I asked if the creators had considered having renewables get cheaper over time in the game, and Teuber said the team had actually built an early version with this idea in place, but the whole thing got too complicated. Keeping things simple enough to be playable is a crucial component of game design, Teuber says. 



Teuber also seemed laser focused on not preaching, and it feels as if New Energies goes out of its way not to make players feel bad about climate change. In fact, as a story by NPR about the game pointed out, the phrase “climate change” hardly appears in any of the promotional materials, on the packaging, or in the rules. The catch-all issue in the game’s universe is simply “pollution.” 



Unlike some other climate games, like the 2023 release Daybreak , New Energies isn’t aimed at getting the group to work together to fight against climate change. The setup is the same as in other versions of Catan: the first player to reach 10 victory points wins. In theory, that could be a player who leaned heavily on fossil fuels. 



“It doesn’t feel like the game says, ‘Screw you—we told you, the only way to win is by building green energy,’” Teuber told me. 



However, while players can choose their own pathway to acquiring points, there’s a second possible outcome. If too many players produce too much pollution by building towns, cities, and fossil-fuel power plants, the game ends early in catastrophe. Whoever has done the most to clean up the environment does walk away with the win—something of a consolation prize. 



I got an early copy of the game to test out, and the first time I played, my group polluted too quickly and the game ended early. I ended up taking the win, since I had elected to build only renewable plants. I’ll admit to feeling a bit smug. 



But as I played more, I saw the balance between competition and collaboration. During one game, my group came within a few turns of pollution-driven catastrophe. We turned things around, building more renewable plants and stretching out play long enough for a friend who had been quicker to build her society to cobble together the points she needed to win. 



Our game board after a round of New Energies, with my cat, who acted as our unofficial referee.  Photo: Casey Crownhart



Board games, or any other media that deals with climate change, will have to walk a fine line between dealing seriously with the crisis at hand and being entertaining enough to engage with. New Energies does that, though I think it makes some concessions toward being playable over being obsessively accurate. 



I wouldn’t recommend using this game as teaching material about climate change, but I suppose that’s not the point. If you’re a fan of Catan, this edition is definitely worth playing, and it’ll be part of my rotation. You can pre-order Catan New Energies here ; the release date is June 14. And if you haven’t heard enough of my media musings, stay tuned for an upcoming story about New Energies and other climate-related board games. 







Now read the rest of The Spark



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Keeping up with climate  



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Sublime Systems uses an electrochemical process to make cement without the massive emissions footprint. The company just installed its first commercial project in a Boston office park. ( Canary Media )



→ According to the Canary story, one of the company’s developers heard about Sublime from a story in our publication! Read my deep dive into the startup from earlier this year. ( MIT Technology Review )



A rush of renewable energy to the grid has led to some special periods with ultra-cheap or even free electricity. Experts warn that this could slow further deployment of renewables. ( Bloomberg )



Natural disasters, some fueled by climate change, are throwing off medical procedures like fertility treatments, which require specific timing and careful control. ( The 19th )



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Canada’s hydroelectric dams have been running a bit dry, and the country has had to import electricity from the US to make up the difference . It’s just one more example of how changing weather patterns can throw a wrench into climate solutions. ( New York Times ) 



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