Road Building: The Board Game by Elizabeth A Yazvac

In class, I was prompted to describe an important or meaningful road in my life. I wrote about a literal road important in my childhood (because this made for a more appropriate writing assignment), but what I discussed in my essay was not the first road I thought about.

The first road I thought about is the one that I build in the board game Settlers of Catan.



I laughed to myself and shook off the thought. But after class I was still struck by the idea and importance of roads in Settlers of Catan. Naturally, this led me to think about another board game, Carcassonne, and another board game, Ticket to Ride, and, finally, I ended up where all of my thoughts usually end up – thinking about the video game Skyrim.

In Settlers of Catan, players build settlements on terrain hexes that produce resources when players roll the dice. All settlements must be connected by roads, and, thus, road-building is necessary for expansion and, in turn, victory!

Carcassonne is a tile-laying game during which players construct unique layouts of the medieval French town Carcassonne, with monasteries, cities, and farms all connected by road tiles.


In Ticket to Ride, players build railroad segments connecting cities across the United States. I argue that the railroad holds the same importance as roads discussed in class, and brings about the same notions of journey, travel, and freedom.

Finally, in Skyrim, players can travel from hold to hold along roads and pathways. Straying too far from the road increases the likelihood of running into an aggressive bear, thief, or dragon.

skyrim roads

J.B. Jackson’s chapter “Roads Belong in the Landscape” discusses two roles of roads. First, “as promoters of growth and dispersion”, and, second, “as magnets around which new kinds of development can cluster” (Jackson 190). Roads in the above mentioned games fulfill both of these roles, and through these games we can examine the importance of roads in (sometimes imaginary) worlds other than our own.

First, the role of “promoters of growth and dispersion” is the easiest to understand and examine. In both Settlers of Catan and Ticket to Ride, the roads are literally the only way of expanding. Roads must connect settlements, and railways must connect cities, respectively. On the second point of roads as “magnets around which new kinds of development can cluster,” a similar argument can be made, especially for Settlers. Settlements and cities can only be built along your own road segments.

Road building doesn’t immediately strike me as great board game material. Neither does resource production or laying railway tracks, but all of the board games mentioned in this blog post are incredibly fun. And it has a lot to do with the road as a symbol of freedom and expansion. These games specifically deal with road themes that invoke ideas of romantic Americana, even if they may not take place in America.

The Ticket to Ride board is a map of the United States. The board, pieces, and characters that players assume are taken from a generic early 1900-caricature of the US, at the height of railway construction and travel. Nostalgia for the Frontier and the way in which railroads allowed Americans to conquer the Wild West are apparent in the design of the game. The game makes you superficially happy as you cover the country in tiny train pieces, but, on a deeper level, the game satisfies our inner-American dream. (Even though that dream may be representative of a romanticised version of the past. For example, the way modern day imitation found on Route 66 in the form of 50s diners and old gas stations allows people to experience an “authentic” version of the glory days.) This American dream that lives within us all, that hungers to expand and travel and be free, has an outlet when playing Ticket to Ride, making it addicting and enjoyable.

ticket to ride

In Settlers of Catan, one of the gameplay strategies is to expand across as much of the board as possible with your roads. Players are awarded a bonus for having the Longest Road, so its importance to the game is initially very obvious. But much in the same way that Ticket to Ride is a more accessible way to experience westward travel, Catan is more accessible way for the expression of the entrepreneurial spirit that is a hallmark of the American dream. The explosion of road building as a result from automobile production played a large part in shaping what the road as icon represents. And one thing it certainly represents is the ability to travel wherever you want to go, work hard, and be successful. In Catan, players build roads to connect settlements and cities that produce natural resources used to build said roads, settlements, and cities. It is satisfying to lay down your road segments, construct your own settlement out of resources that you earned for yourself, and watch that settlement flourish into a city. As exciting as it is to watch your pretend cities on the island of Catan produce a lot of wheat, it is more exciting for players because they feel a connection between their gameplay and the opportunity that the road allows – the opportunity to rise from nothing into something.

longest road

There is a reason that these games have roads at the center of their gameplay, and that reason is because the road speaks to our underlying desire to expand and be free. Even if those desires happen at subconscious level, the road evokes a sense of nostalgia for a time when it was easier to travel across country and start life anew. Today, most of us can’t do that. But we can play Settlers of Catan, and that seems to do the trick just fine, too.


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