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Jan 17, 2014 12:37 PM EST

Settlers Of Catan Journal Entry Two: The Empty Chair

Empty Chair
(Photo : wikicommons) Steve's presence was missed on Wednesday night, though his recent hot play wasn't.

Weekly summaries of our group's Wednesday night Catan games

The winter standings (in wins; point totals to come soon):

(1) *Steve: 3 (2) Kim: 2** (3) *Kristen: 2 (4) *Scott: 2 (5) *Katherine: 1 (6) *Pat: 0 (7) Kevin: 0

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*denotes status as a regular player.

**two-point win.

Sorry for the day wait, but my other gaming obsession, the two v. two card game known as "spades," filled my writing time the last two nights.

In order to properly contextualize Wednesday's game, I'll have to describe three separate, but related events in Bickard family history (a last named shared by four of the five regular players).

The first occurred in the spring of 2002, when the Bickard brothers attended the wedding of one of their seven aunts. Either it was held on a weekday or the drive was so long the family left on Friday. Whatever the case, they all missed school that day. One of them (me) hadn't ever previously recorded an educational absence, dating at least as far back as kindergarten. After the wedding, he (I) didn't miss another daily session of middle school or high school. Falling a day short of a record I can only compare to striking out four batters in an inning (when the catcher drops at least one third strike badly enough for the batter to advance to first) still haunts me.

In the second scene, it's 2011 and I'm playing Seafarer's in the eccentric Lake Michigan city of Waukegan, Illinois with an enthusiastic group of newly initiated Catan players. I'm doing well.

The third and final scene takes place on Wednesday at 7:15 pm (we play at Pat's house ever Wednesday at 8:00 sharp) in my basement, where my older brother and current season leader, Steve, lives. His face is as white as the settlement color of my choice (white). Instead of his trademark Budweiser can he's holding what looks to be a container of noodles. They rise above the lid, obscuring his vision of some sequel or prequel to "The Chronicles of Riddick." His head can't even support his standard fitted flat brim Yankee hat because of migraine-like pulsations caused by abnormal levels of white blood cell flow. Like playing 2:00 am Catan using only sheep and wood, Steve was sick.

My nearly perfect formative education attendance record is more like the leading example of a trend rather than an anomaly. Hence, Bickards rarely get sick and even more rarely miss a Settlers game. Yet -- with an eye towards the weekend and Thursday night spades -- Steve wouldn't be attending Wednesday night's game.

It always hurts when a regular misses a session. A win just doesn't feel as legitimate. But at least a four man game would move quicker. Anticipating as such, we chose to go through the rigmarole of playing Seafarer's (one of three sequels to the original Catan) for the first time ever as a group. Lucky for me, I had a "boatload" of previous experience from my wild Midwest Illinois days.

It showed. Even though we played the most basic arrangement, only I took advantage on the new points features: longest fleet and a victory point for settling on a new island. Despite Katherine's superior play within the hexes, I capitalized on specials and timely Knight Card pick-ups for the win. In the back end of the double header, Kristen dominated by quickly accumulating territories and solidifying her stock with a cross continental road numbering at least 13. Not an atypical winning route for Kristen, maybe the hardest player to account for because of a strategy that only seems to make sense upon her tenth victory point.

If you looked at the standings, you definitely noticed that after nine games played, Pat, who dominated the summer season and lost by one point in the fall season (on its last day), still doesn't have a win next to his name. One of the most polarizing figures in the game, a master of the late game steal, and a player so devoted to development cards some believe he hit puberty before the age of ten years old, Pat hasn't even come close to a win this winter.

No one knows why, which brings up another contemplative facet of Catan: how do you assess your own play? With luck involved in every game, it's difficult to gauge how well you're playing and how you should adapt your game to the future. We've all been in this transitional stage aka The Slump. Pat's there now. Firmly.

When I think of summertime Pat, I recall a player who saw angles we neglected, pursued strategies we hadn't considered (since then, we've probably borrowed a few of his tricks), which is why how he transforms his game will make for intriguing study over the next few weeks. In our second game on Wednesday night, for instance, he chose a questionable port for his second free settlement, a move he called both "changing his style" and "getting back to his roots." 

From a purist's perspective, I'm hoping that, like Tiger Woods' noted swing transformations (when he had to get worse before he could get better), Pat once again puts himself ahead of the curve. From a competitor's point of view, I wouldn't be too upset if it takes him a few more weeks to finally break through for a win.

For entry number one, click here.

For why Catan is the greatest game ever created, click here.

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