What can founders learn from a legendary German board game maker?

May 24, 2023

Unless you closely resemble Adam Scott’s character Ben Wyatt from Parks And Rec, the name Klaus Teuber might not mean anything to you. However, you may very well know his life’s work: most famously, The Settlers of Catan – a game that 28 years ago ushered in a new brand of board game.

The game, which requires you to beg, borrow and barter, has grown into something of an institution, going beyond the typical family game night and growing into a global phenomenon – with some colleges even forming intramural leagues.

Last month, Teuber passed away at the age of 70. A dental lab manager prior to becoming a game tycoon, Teuber began creating games as a way to ease the stresses of work.

That’s a legendary move in its own right. Who among us wouldn’t leave behind the stresses of a job to become a beloved game maker?

In 2006 Teuber told Forbes:

In the beginning, these games were just for me. I always have stories in my head — I would read a book, and if I liked it, I wanted to experience it as a game.

The Power of PR

Catan, as it’s now commonly called, racked up many European accolades including the 1988 Spiel des Jahres (Game of the Year) in Germany (a very big deal in the board game capital of the world). However, despite its international success, Teuber credited much of the game’s massive growth in the U.S. and Canada to a 2009 WIRED article nearly 15 years after its creation.  

Prior to the WIRED article, the game sold 200,000 copies in the U.S. and Canada almost exclusively through word-of-mouth buzz. Today though, the game has gone on to surpass the rather rosy predictions of the 2009 article to sell more than 32 million units worldwide –  putting it in the top 15 all-time board game sales and recently eclipsing Risk

That’s the power of good PR!

Leverage Your Resources to Level-up Your Game

For those who haven’t played, Catan’s elegance is in its simplicity. Teams compete to try and settle an island by gathering resources and building infrastructure. The scarcity of resources requires you to trade with your counterparts to assemble the right pieces to level-up until you reach a critical mass and win.

This is not unlike what founders face when creating a company, brand or even board game. It requires a delicate balance of dedicating resources and wisely picking partners that can take your further, farther and faster.

In the case of Teuber and Catan, those resources came in the form of a well-placed story. Whether earned or organic, the WIRED story brought critical exposure to a new audience showcasing Catan’s previously earned, third-party accolades, remerchandising its successes and demonstrating its chops to a new market. The article created a hockey stick growth moment for a game and brand that had already seen sizable success.

Part Strategy, Part Luck

Scoring a truly impactful article can be a bit of a dance that requires both art and science. It’s part creativity, part planning, part timing and sometimes good fortune or flat-out blind luck. Finding the right reporter, who will reach the right audience at the right time and at a moment that the reporter has enough bandwidth to take on your story is no small endeavor, nor is fostering a relationship with that reporter so that even if the timing isn’t right, they’ll think or remember to come back to it at a later time. And all of this has to occur with enough creativity to stand out from the hundreds to thousands of other pitches they might see that week.

No small feat.

However, when it all comes together, it can create the kind of visibility to take you from niche board game maker to internationally renowned creator

In a 2002 interview with Nikkei Asia, Teuber reflected on why Catan was so popular.

If you win in Catan, you think, ‘My strategy was good,’ and when you lose, you might think, ‘I was just out of luck.’ This is the same as life.

…and PR.

Should you find yourself trying to figure out how to best allocate your resources, and which partner to pair with to take you to new heights, perhaps consider the power of a well-placed story and all the places it might take you.

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About the author

Kevin Martin is a PR veteran recognized as an adept strategist who provides practical, creative solutions to real-world communications challenges. Kevin specializes in fintech, adtech and insurtech, as well as B2B companies serving retailers, CPGs and other industries. He has served on the board of multiple startups and nonprofits and is a proud Loyola University Chicago alumnus and season ticket holder.