Derek Johnson Muses

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Why Economist Should Play Settlers of Catan

I was introduced to the game Settlers of Catan at a game night with some friends from church. The game instantly fascinated me, because of its complexity and how resources had the potential for different values based on which numbers were on top of them. I went home  and downloaded Catan to my iPod and got into it.

In the first game I’d played on the board with people, the experienced players tried to get a settlement on a region for each resource so they wouldn’t have to trade, and I mimicked this strategy in my first couple of computer games I didn’t win a game and walked away frustrated, but I noticed something: the value of a resource changes during the game. Ore, for example, isn’t valued much early the game, because everyone wants to build roads and settlements to avoid getting hemmed into one or two areas, so everyone wants to trade ore for brick and wood. But as the game goes on, players value ore more because they’re trying to get cities.

After I took a break and realized that my initial assessment was comprehensive enough. Trying to get a settlement on each resource was too hard and tiring, and even if you did, it wasn’t worth much if it was on a 2 or an 11 or a 12, numbers that aren’t rolled much.

I considered our present economy: who get the most value for their work? I’m not talking about workaholic lawyers and doctors; although their work is very valuable, they have to put in a lot of time to get that value. No, the most valuable people in our society are consultants, people who can come in and increase the average earning power of workaholics and companies with some tweaking and telling them which markets to pursue. Apply that principal to Catan, and I only needed to control one or two resources to win at the game.

I revised my initial take on how the resources changed throughout the game. When the players choose their first two settlements at the beginning of the game, all of the resources had an equal value. To be successful, I had to choose a place on the board where I would get one resource constantly and could flip that resource into whatever I needed. For example, I would put my first settlement on a port where sheep traded at 2:1, and my second settlement on two sheep regions. It doesn’t matter that the sheep aren’t a critical resource throughout the life of the game; as long as I could flip them at that rate, I could easily convert the sheep into whatever I needed.

So as I’ve played, I don’t bother making long roads across the board; I build more and more on main resource squares, especially if it’s on a 6 or an 8. If I get a city and settlement on one of those numbers, I can pretty much assume I’ll win the game.

There is a second secret I’ve found to succeeding at Catan: take what you’re given. If you end up taking wheat as your main resource and find yourself with two ore and two wheat a couple turns into the game, take an ore if someone else is willing to trade it and build a city. Don’t worry that you only have two settlements; ore’s going to get more expensive as the game goes along. Part of getting value is taking what people are willing to trade when they want to trade it. Say you can trade wood at 2:1 and it’s early in the game. If you don’t have a settlement on a sheep region, you’re better off taking a sheep anytime someone wants to trade it, even if it helps your neighbor at an inconvenient time. The game is about getting value whenever you can.

Any comers?

Appealing Flaws

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others.” Matthew 23:23 (ESV)
John Grisham’s novel The Appeal, while a work of liberal propaganda, raises many issues conservatives must confront. Grisham, a self-described moderate baptists who supported Hillary Clinton in the 2008 election, draws his lines clearly, using a tort case against a big company: on the one side, there are the big corporations who use “Christian values” to mask their agenda of advantages for the rich. Then there’s the real church, the one that’s concerned with helping the poor above all else. Just judges, in Grisham’s mind, will always take the side of helping the poor. While I do think that helping the poor needs to be an important part of the judicial system, Grisham draws too many generalities when it comes to religion and excludes the obvious connection between the liberal philosophy he’s advocating and abortion.

Grisham’s perspective, however flawed, does provide insight as to how the Democrats have won the upper hand in the current political arena: cast them as rich, out-of-touch bureaucrats who use empty values to mask greed. Jack Donaghy has done as much to ruin Republicans’ image as George W. Bush did. Growing up, I always thought of Republicans as a party primarily defined by religious, traditional values, but political parties are much more complex. In light of the financial crisis where big corporations share much of the blame, it does give me second thought about the party I belong to. Truth be told, I get my political news from SNL most of the time. Being a true Lutheran, I’m politically apathetic.

Politics aside, there is a bigger problem in this regard, and Grisham takes advantage of American’s (and even Christian’) lack of religious knowledge). There’s more to churches than just large, suburban, and callous, and urban and outreach oriented . Grisham writes little about specific beliefs in The Appeal, andI wonder if he would be surprised to find out that churches who preach social activism over Christ forty years ago are now dying off in America.

As Lutheran, I understand this personally. My own church body, the LCMS, while trying to resolve its issues, has congregational practice that can vary quite a bit from congregation to congregation, and with that, teaching also can very. Not to get into that debate, but churches just can’ be judged actions only. Their teachings (and specifics) should be debated too.

Yes, many Christians have abandoned missions in the cities for houses in the suburbs. Repentance is needed, but we cannot go into these neighborhoods with just food and money. If we don’t preach Christ to these people, than they are worse off than before. This is something that cuts at me personally, because my own church body, while doing notable acts for the poor, does have a track record of pushing doctrine, sometimes too hard.

As far as cases like the one Grisham describes, sadly there are instances where families who suffer injuries aren’t compensated fairly by the courts system. But the judicial liberalism that Grisham advocates for victims is the same logic that legalized abortion, which in many ways slaps the poor in the face by telling them, “The world doesn’t have room for your unexpected babies.” Grisham subtly ignores this fact and does his readers a great disservice by doing so.

But conservatives should read and deal with the issues raised inTthe Appeal, because these are the tactics that lifestyle left are using in their arguments against them. The winning side of a political debate isn’t the one that’s right, merely the one who frames its argument the best.

Part 2 on The Hunger Games: A Social Analogy

Since I first heard the premise of The Hunger Games, I debated whether or not I would want to see it, or if I had kids, whether I would let them see it. Teenagers killing each other? That itself sounds squeamish enough to make you wonder if it’s appropriate at all, let alone young people. Unfortunately, neither the book nor film is tell us how sadistic does a society have to be to put children in an area and tell them to fight to the death. All we know about the motivation of the Capitol for staging the games is that it demonstrates their control, but for what purpose?

In many ways, Collins seems intent on satirizing the manufactured love the entertainment industry gives America, and pro sports leagues for the way they manipulate violence and game play (NBA reffing, NFL rules that benefit passing). But as screwed-up as those industries may be at times, killing young Billy from down the street seems to be taking it too far? We don’t need to be told how schmaltzy the game-makers must be, just make them as cruel as possible.

This is where Katniss’ perspective as the narrator is limited: on the one hand, she, with the ninety-nine percent, observes hopelessness up the obliviously rich people with lavish hair, but she doesn’t give any insight how the Capitol has maintained day-to-day control on the districts for the last seventy-four years, other than their cruel tournament. Granted, many young people in poverty may, though no fault of their own, lack perspective, but that doesn’t help me as a reader trying to understand the world of The Hunger Games. This is why Jonathan Frazen says that if a character narrates a work, then that character has to add something insightful to it.

Violence on screen is a means of catharsis, whether it be the mid-aged man trapped in a separation from his wife (Die Hard), the terror of a senseless world we don’t understand (The Dark Knight, The Walking Dead) the unspeakable atrocities of war (Saving Private Ryan, Black Hawk Down). For the violence of The Hunger Games to be cathartic enough to work, the world has to seem so cruel and arbitrary that the games seem strangely fair. Suzanne Collins only goes half-way there. If the Capitol was sadistic enough to enjoy the death of young people as entertainment, they wouldn’t have a problem of putting people to death arbitrarily on the street, which Katniss likely would have seen as a child.

But then I got to thinking: are the hunger games just an analogy for abortion? Are the teenagers being sacrificed in the arena just represented by the children the poor women sacrifice because our society has told them that they would just grow up to be criminals? Meanwhile, the rest of society just moves on and calls it a tough decision.

I digress. Would I let my kids see this movie? Frankly, I would have a hard time, at least until they were older and I could talk to them about it. I’m somewhat more disturbed by the fact that the film doesn’t know how to handle the violence then the violence itself.

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