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For years, a small team in a Charlottesville home office has quietly managed the business behind Settlers of Catan — one of the most beloved board games of the 21st century.
“We are trying to build the biggest board game company in the world,” said Pete Fenlon, CEO of Catan Studio. “Our games are not toys. They are a refined, fun form of interactive storytelling.”
Fenlon previously was CEO of Mayfair Games, which began publishing English-language Catan board games in 1996. When Asmodee Group acquired Mayfair in 2016, Fenlon took the helm of a new entity, Catan Studio.
Morgan Dontanville, Catan Studio’s chief creative officer, supervises illustration and branding for Catan games and helps organize Catan competitions across the world. The biennial Catan World Championship, held in Cologne, Germany, this November, has featured competitors from more than 40 nations.
“It’s amazing to see people who might not be able to communicate in many other ways play this game with each other,” Dontanville said. “The game requires a common understanding of just a few words.”
Catan boards are composed of hexagonal tiles that represent different kinds of terrain, each yielding a natural resource. In the original Settlers of Catan game, those resources are brick, grain, lumber, metal ore and wool.
Players attempt to build roads and settlements while trading and acquiring resources, gaining “development points” as their projects grow. The first player to reach a set number of points wins.
Since its debut in 1995, Settlers of Catan and variations of the game have sold over 27 million units in 39 languages, including 1.7 million products in 2017. Also last year, it was reported that Sony Pictures was working with producer Gail Katz to adapt the game into a film.
Catan Studio is a key part of Asmodee’s strategy to compete with Hasbro, the world’s dominant board game publisher for generations. Hasbro’s titles include Monopoly, Risk, Battleship and many other bestsellers.
Fenlon said some of Hasbro’s legacy products were designed in another era, when games were limited by “zero-sum stories.”
“In those games, you knock out other players as you go, and the losers are out of the game entirely,” Fenlon said. “We are into the idea of having lots of little victories, with everyone being in the game until the end.”
Kai Rady, owner of the Shenanigans toy store in Charlottesville, said she has seen a rise in the popularity of Catan and other board games that emphasize cooperation. Catan Jr., a modified version of the game for younger children, sold out at her store last year.
“Catan Jr. is introducing younger kids to the game,” Rady said. “We [at Shenanigans] like that, because we see more families than millennials at our store.”
Catan Studio is located behind Fenlon’s home in Charlottesville. The property is decorated with a small waterfall and pathways made from dark slabs of Buckingham County slate. The team can see Monticello and other nearby mountains from their desks.
“We have a lot of outdoor meetings,” Fenlon said. “It’s good to be inspired by nature.”
Fenlon in 1980 co-founded his first game company, Iron Crown Enterprises, after graduating from the University of Virginia. He earned a law degree at the College of William & Mary and then returned to Charlottesville in 1982.
Iron Crown signed a licensing agreement with Tolkien Enterprises to make role-playing games set in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth. In 1997, Iron Crown acquired Mayfair Games and the worldwide English-language publishing rights to the Settlers of Catan series.
Iron Crown entered bankruptcy and shut down in 2000 — just before the global success of the “Lord of the Rings” films. But Fenlon quickly rebounded with a new business that produced “alternate reality games”— including a groundbreaking viral marketing mystery for Steven Spielberg’s film, “A.I.: Artificial Intelligence.”
In 2007, Fenlon became CEO of Mayfair Games, overseeing the growth of the Catan brand in the English-language market, as he has continued to do with Catan Studio.
When developing new products, Catan Studio collaborates with the game’s German designer, Klaus Teuber, and his family’s company, Catan GmbH. The German executives visit Charlottesville for “Catan Conclaves” every year.
Catan Studio also participates in weekly videoconferences with other Catan and Asmodee teams around the globe.
“It’s important to bring other people in and get an objective view of the game process,” said Coleman Charlton, Catan Studio’s managing editor. “The designers working on their own can get tunnel vision.”
This summer, Catan Studio will release Catan Histories: Rise of the Inkas, which uses novel game mechanics to simulate the rise and fall of ancient civilizations in South America’s Andes mountain range.
Teuber imagined Catan as a completely uninhabited island, allowing the game to distance itself from histories of colonialism and conquest. However, Fenlon said it was still important for Catan to continue branching out from its original story inspired by European settlement.
“Catan is a global brand, and people interact with the game from different personal perspectives,” Fenlon said. “We embrace diversity and diverse stories.”
Fenlon said Catan Studio likely will remain a small operation in Charlottesville. But its merchandise manufacturer, Creative Goods Companies, could have a larger impact on Waynesboro’s economy.
Creative Goods was established in 2016 to produce a wide variety of Catan products, from pins and paraphernalia to branded luggage.
“We make all kinds of cool stuff and custom-crafted goods,” said Robert Carty, CEO of Creative Goods and a former vice president at Mayfair Games. “It’s not like buying a Coca-Cola hat that they made 50 million of.”
Carty said Creative Goods currently employs six people at its facility in downtown Waynesboro, and eventually hopes to add 10 to 15 more.
Fenlon has recently worked on Catan corporate philanthropy initiatives to support Childaid Network and food banks throughout the U.S.
“We have been blessed with money and resources. And with millions of people playing Catan globally, we have a good pulpit,” Fenlon said. “Our brand is based on the values of giving back, sharing resources and building together.”