We witnessed something very special recently that reminded us that humans can be pretty alright. In a true act of love, generosity and ingenuity, a Los Angeles man painstakingly crafted something incredible for someone special to him. Max Schapiro turned one of the Settlers of Catan expansions, Cities and Knights, into an incredibly personalized version of the game that went very deep. It is a story that has brought us lots of joy, joy that we wanted to pass on to you. This is Settlers of Wilmette: A Catan Story.
MEET THE MAN
My name is Max Schapiro and I’m a freelance editor out of the Los Angeles area. I’m a pretty average mid-20s dude- I like video games and complaining about popular media online to an active follower base of about 6. You know, basic stuff. I mostly do short-form comedy cuts and motion graphics for a Dungeons & Dragons web show called Critical Role. My work isn’t necessarily in the spotlight for their videos, but honestly, I love finding ways to bring graphics to life, so it’s a job I absolutely love.
WHO WAS THIS FOR?
I did this for my girlfriend, Carrie. We met over Hinge in January of 2019 and, wouldn’t you know it, a dating app actually successfully brought two really compatible people together for once. I absolutely love the hell out of her- simultaneously a low-key goofball but also the most down-to-earth and chill person I know.
Hannukah, the New Year, our 1-year anniversary all fell within, like, a week or two of each other, so I decided to try and absolutely ruin my chances of being able to top a gift I give after a single year of dating by pooling every sentimental gift concept I had in mind together- the result was a game I would go on to make, The Settlers of Wilmette: Mackeviches and Zukrows.
AND WHY CATAN: CITIES AND KNIGHTS?
Settlers of Catan is her favorite board game, specifically the Cities and Knights expansion- in fact, her whole family feels the same way, and plays the game with her when she’s home. Coincidentally, after being introduced to Cities and Knights through her, it’s probably my favorite too. Can’t say the same about Seafarers, but that’s beside the point. I think we all just appreciate how much deeper the gameplay becomes in comparison to the base game.
Carrie and I play Catan basically every other time we hang out, and having played it with her family, I could tell that the game itself was something she positively loved and specifically considered to be something she connected with her family (the Mackeviches and Zukrows).
NOW THAT WE KNOW THE BACKSTORY, WHAT EXACTLY WAS YOUR PLAN?
Carrie is incredibly close to her family and fond of her native Chicago-area suburb of Wilmette. I figured the best way to show her how much she meant to me on the special occasions that lined up in late December-early January was to combine her love of Catan, her family, and the Chicago area together into a board game celebrating all three things at once.
I started in the springtime to get it completed by early December in time for the holidays.
HOW WAS THE CONSTRUCTION PROCESS?
I worked on it sporadically in the first few months, but as the deadline approached I took a good number of hours for a couple of days desperately trying to finish it before the holidays. I got it done, but of coarse, there were shipping problems.
The biggest hurdle was easily just trying to recreate the assets with my admittedly limited graphic design knowledge. If you look at things like the cards and compare them to the cards in the original game, you can see pretty clearly what I was going for but lacked the skill and resources to do (that badly stretched stone-archway that sits at the bottom of every progress card picture still haunts me to this day). I think, given the circumstances, however, that I did a decent job. Then after that, the hardest part was just waiting for the printing services to finish and ship it to me without spoiling the surprise for Carrie.
WHAT EXACTLY DID YOU CHANGE?
Oh lord- I basically endeavored to change every graphic I could to something pertinent to either the Mackevich/Zukrow families or Chicago. The only things I think I didn’t change were the number chits and the red/yellow dice.
The resources were changed to be the five members of her family- Carrie, her two sisters, and her parents. The three sisters were attached to the resources that got commodities- their corresponding commodities were things that were important to them respectively (Carrie’s beloved old iPod, her middle sister’s dog Cooper, and a soundboard for her sound engineer eldest sister).
All the progress cards were adjusted to fit certain people or places she or her family are familiar with- be it other family members or Chicago celebrities or locations (or even a frame from her favorite movie Blues Brothers, which thankfully takes place in Chicago). I did my best to try and keep the names of the cards the same – The “Engineer” card is still called “Engineer,” but the picture is of her grandfather, who was an engineer. Kanye West’s ability to sabotage his own career made him a perfect fit for “Saboteur.”
Some cards needed their names changed- “Bishop” felt right to change to “Rabbi,” since her uncle is a rabbi. Unable to think of anything Chicago-or-family related for “Mining,” I elected to change the name of the card to “Dining,” picturing one of her favorite local restaurants, Portillos. After all, the corresponding resource that the card has you pick up was her foodie older sister- it seemed fitting. Somewhat differently, we always joke how useless “Intrigue” is, so I changed that card’s name too- it’s now the “Chicago Bears” card, featuring a picture of a player falling next to an uncaught football. It’s also the only card I added text to the effect for it literally says “this card is practically useless.” Just like the Bears.
On the topic of sports, though she isn’t the biggest fan, she definitely is aware of and was very happy to return home for the Cubs 2016 World Series win. It only felt fitting to put that in the game- instead of Barbarians moving down an ocean tile to take on your three levels of knights, it’s the 2016 Cleveland Indians making their way around the bases of a Wrigley Field tile to take on your three levels of Chicago Cub players- John Lester, Anthony Rizzo, and Kris Bryant.
Finally, the flip charts for improvements were separated into three sections, just like in the original game. One for schools she attended, one for different years at her Jewish Summer Camp that she went to for most of her life, and one for Chicago-area suburbs like her very own Wilmette. That was a fun one- I had to reach out to one of her friends from camp without her knowing to get pictures of each cabin for each year of camp that I was using. It was done near the end of the process, however, and was a bit rushed. Thankfully, she doesn’t seem to mind the glaring typo of “receuve” on the green improvement side.
OK, SO MONTHS OF WORK, HOW DID SURPRISING HER WITH THE FINAL PRODUCT GO?
Funny story- I sorta didn’t. Ever since its inception, because I like teasing her because I’m immature as hell, I would keep bringing up this “secret project” and how much she was gonna love it. It did all seem like just big talk, but I excitedly shared the idea with our friends and family, all of whom adored it and wanted to know how it went.
For 6+ months I successfully kept what the actual project was from her- but on our anniversary, four days before her birthday and the day the package conveniently arrived, my grandparents called to say hello to us. They’re up in NorCal and are coming down to visit in February. We were briefly discussing a new board game I got for Christmas (King of Tokyo) when my Grandpa began to ask “speaking of board games…”
Panicking in the belief that they were about to ask, “did the package come,” as they were well aware of the project, I shot myself in the foot by quickly and ultra-conspicuously hushing them up. He then finished his sentence, which was that he wanted to know if I had any games to recommend for them to play with us while they were down here. I should have given my grandparents, who are still sharp as a tack at their age, more credit that they wouldn’t absentmindedly spoil a surprise like that, but it was too late. Carrie immediately realized what was up and asked if I was making her a board game.
Given that it was one year to the day since we started dating, I surrendered and decided to show her everything. When I showed her some of the art on my computer, she cried. Hell, I got misty eyed too. It was a long road, but I think it really paid off, and seeing her that happy meant I was just as happy, too.
WE ARE ALSO MISTY EYED. HOW DID THE FIRST GAME GO?
It went well! There were a few things about the product itself weren’t perfect in my mind- the stickers on the Knights were too small, the custom dice was too big, the cardboard fit a little too snuggly, and sadly the printer accidentally forgot to ship the Barbarian tile, so we had to use the original un-themed one, But overall, the game functioned perfectly otherwise and she had a lot of fun. Probably not as much fun as she would have had if I had not won, but alas, Catan is Catan, and there is no mercy on the isle of Catan.