Not long after the quarantine began, Andrew Helms, a documentary producer, was stuck in his Brooklyn apartment and already getting bored of Zoom calls with friends. He started brainstorming other fun, socially distant ways to spend time with pals. That’s when he Googled to see if it might be possible to play a board game together online — namely Settlers of Catan, an iconic German game about competitively developing territory on a vaguely medieval island. The game, which long ago achieved cult status in the tech community, has sold over 30 million copies worldwide. Although Helms played the board game regularly with friends before the pandemic, “I had no idea there was an online version of the game,” he says.
In fact, there have been online versions of Catan since 1999, but they never reached a mainstream audience. The latest online version, however, called Catan Universe, is a fully functional online multiplayer game that includes customizable avatars, in-game currency, and expansion packs. You can play with specific friends or just connect with random players. It’s kind of like a very lo-fi World of Warcraft, available for Google Play, iOS, Steam, and web browser. Any user on one platform can play against any user on another. The only problem? Catan Universe wasn’t built to handle everyone ditching their board games at once and going online. During the pandemic, its servers were completely overwhelmed. Catan games were tough to coordinate. “One person would log on, another person couldn’t log on; friends requests wouldn’t work,” Helms said. “The first few times it took forever.”
Catan isn’t alone — a slew of old-school, usually IRL games have been booming online during the pandemic. On some nights, the European website Board Game Arena, which hosts digital versions of games like Carcassonne, Connect Four, and chess, saw 10 times its normal traffic. And Jackbox, which makes a collection of party games that involve trivia, guessing-games, and Pictionary-like activities, suddenly experienced daily traffic to its game servers that was bigger than its previous record. Even Colonist, a digital Catan knockoff, saw a jump of 30 times their normal concurrent players.
Behind the scenes, the Catan team in Germany was scrambling. The online game is a collaboration between Catan GmbH, which designs the board game itself (created by Klaus Teuber in 1995) and the German software publisher USM. In total, the digital team is only about six employees, and they were suddenly dealing with four to five times the usual amount of users. “For us, it started around mid-March,” says Gregor Giehrl, a USM employee who works on Catan. “We saw a spike in the numbers.”
The biggest jumps came from players in Spain and then the United States. “You build a platform for a certain amount of audience,” says Giehrl. “You can’t just add new servers and make everything run smooth again.” With Giehrl’s team also quarantined in their homes, they pulled seven-day workweeks to update the game, communicating over a flurry of messages on Skype and Whatsapp as well as countless phone calls. “We were sitting in front of our computers, sweaty, hoping it will be okay,” he recalls, laughing.
The biggest stress points for the system came in the evening European time and then evening time in the U.S. — when people working from home would get a moment to relax.
The team had to upgrade the server capacity but also update the app to help limit the load on the server. “New players mean different systems happening on the server: registering, database entries, adding friends. It makes many more calls to existing databases,” says Thorsten Suckow, who also works at USM.
Since mid-March, the team has scrambled to push updates to the game app every week, going through the coding, testing, and approval processes each time. The biggest stress points for the system came in the evening European time, followed by evening time in the U.S. — when people working from home would get a moment to relax.
Online multiplayer was always part of the vision for Catan. “Klaus imagined that you should be able to play Catan whenever you want and have people connected all over the world,” said Arnd Beenen, the head of digital at Catan’s parent company. The earlier computer games allowed you to play against A.I. and through a local server; they also had cartoonish, animated graphics, where the current Catan Universe is almost an exact replication of the physical board game. (Most people weren’t interested in fancy graphics, Beenen says. “They want to concentrate on the gameplay, see the numbers and opportunities.”)
For the online version of Catan, basic accounts are free, though the play options are slightly limited. Players can make one-off purchases of the full version of the game, which lets you play with four players at once, or add Viking- or pirate-themed expansion packs that add new elements to the game. (The full game and expansion packs go for about $5 each.) The new flood of users often try the game and then buy it, says Suckow. The company also launched time-based in-game tournaments that players have enthusiastically participated in as a way to make quarantine easier to bear.
Adjusting to the expectations of new players has been a process for all of these companies. Board Game Arena now has between 200,000 and 400,000 daily users; after a week of upgrading their servers, they can now accommodate up to 50,000 people at the same time. The U.S., Russia, and Europe make up three-quarters of the traffic (the company makes money on ads as well as premium accounts, around $4.50 per month, that lets users play more games and use voice chat with their friends). All of the games are popular, but an older crowd is particularly drawn to the card games, says the company’s art director, Ian Parovel. Some of those users have had difficulty adapting to online play. “They want to play with their families or friends, and they’re not used to online games, so they get really angry really fast,” he says. “It’s impressive — they can act like a 12-year-old.”
Since the quarantine, Board Game Arena made several updates, including adding more explainer text as signposts for new users and creating a function to play only with your friends, instead of strangers. The team continues to be surprised by new ways people are using the site to connect. Schools have been requesting group accounts for their students to use safely and multiple psychologists have requested a way to play games with their young patients while conducting therapy sessions via phone or webcam.
“Everyone realized all at once you could play our games pretty effectively over Zoom and Skype and Hangouts.”
For Jackbox, the boom has caused something of an identity crisis. Jackbox is a set of digital party games, released in $25 packs of five. You can buy them anywhere from Steam and Playstation to Apple TV or Amazon Fire. They’re meant to be played around a TV in person, with each player interacting via their phone but laughing and chatting out loud. “Everyone realized all at once you could play our games pretty effectively over Zoom and Skype and Hangouts,” said Jackbox CEO Mike Bilder. All you need is someone tech-savvy enough to both host a stream of Jackbox and livestream themselves. That’s why the company has been seeing weekend traffic that exceeds even its busiest day in the past, New Year's Eve.
As businesses have begun to reopen, Bilder has seen user numbers start to decline. But he sees the mainstream move to virtual gaming as a lasting trend. “I expect that play pattern to continue,” he says. The company is considering adding new technology that would allow for easier setup with video chat software. The games could even gain a reputation as an all-digital activity. “When the world finally does open up,” says Bilder, “some people might not know you can play the games in your home with your family.”