It’s that special time of the year again! That’s right, Boxing Day. Wait, Boxing Day… that doesn’t sound like fun, you say. Well, many people throughout Germany and Western Europe agree with you and that’s why today they’re celebrating, a relatively new holiday called Hexmas on December 26th instead.
Seeing as it is Hexmas, I thought I’d take the time to delve into the origins of this hip new holiday. As we all know, Boxing Day is an informal holiday following Christmas. Traditionally, it’s the day when boys and girls (and adult gender specific people, too) box up their newly opened presents so they can later share the opening of the presents with their friends. This practice has, of course, fallen by the wayside with the rise of the internet and unboxing videos, but it’s on Boxing Day that our story starts.
Klaus Teuber, hobby game designer and full-time dentist, was first visited by the Catan fairy* on Boxing Day in 1991. Teuber had already designed several games, which had acheived both commercial and critical success, but none of which thrived beyond the initial release enough for Teuber to forsake his lucrative dental career. Why the Catan fairy chose Teuber to patronise is open to speculation, but it is generally agreed that December 26th, 1991 was the fairy’s first visit, and that is where the story of Catan begins. On the first night, Teuber and the fairy played a game about farmers settling and developing the mythical island of Catan. The fairy, using her magic, was able to conjure a board directly from Teuber’s imagination. The first proto-Settlers is rumoured to have been made of tiles in the shape of equilateral triangles constructed so as to form a hexagonal shaped board. At the beginning of each player’s turn they would flip a coin, and depending on the result, the tiles facing with point away from the player would all produce resources or the tiles facing towards the player would. The fairy, being made of fey magic, was able to easily influence the coin toss and quickly won the game. Teuber spent the next year tweaking and developing the game for their next match.
Over the next three years, Teuber developed his design and each Hexmas he would play the fairy again. In 1992, Teuber and the fairy played on a simple square grid with resource production decided by rock, paper, scissors. The fairy, able to read Teuber’s mind, quickly won this game as well. In 1993, the game was played on a pentagonal grid and resource production was determined by a game of jacks. This game was a lot closer, as Teuber discovered, that the fairy could only influence one thing at a time with her fey powers, so Teuber seemed to have an advantage as the fairy could only move one jack at a time, only slightly influencing Teuber’s success at the minigame. However, halfway through the game the fairy had an epiphany and instead of moving the jacks, she moved the ball in the air, making it harder for Teuber to catch it. She won again. Teuber was elated as he believed he had discovered a path to success, but he came to a sudden realisation after the fairy left – the interlocking pentagonal grid was in fact physically impossible and only given life by the fairy’s magic.
The Hexmas of 1994 finally brought us the game we are now familiar with. Teuber had spent the past year refining the game, trying to develop a luck-based system that would be fair to all players and immune to the fairy’s tinkering. He decided on a pair of six-sided dice, this would produce a predictable curve of probability and limit the effect of the fairy’s magic, seeing as she could influence part of the result but not predict it. The game was tense and very close right up to the end, until the fairy pulled out a surprise win with two victory point cards. Teuber was defeated again, but he was not dejected. He felt that he had succeeded, and needed to make just one final adjustment.
Teuber released the game the following year, winning the 1995 Spiel des Jahres and going onto commercial success. The following Boxing Day, the fairy turned up again, but instead of playing their usual game, tucked away in Teuber’s hobby room he invited the fairy into the family dining room where his son and wife were waiting with the production version of Catan already set up on the dining table. This game had just one small difference from the Catan played the previous Boxing Day, it had a minimum of 3 players. The family and the fairy played together, and played a game not of straight competition but a game of trade and cooperation. Teuber has never revealed who won what we presume was the final game of Catan with the fairy, although he has said that it was not himself.
And this is why on this day across Germany and other game-devout nations across Western Europe, families and groups of friends are ignoring the Boxing Day sales and staying in to once again roll dice and trade resources with each other. It’s a day where we spend time with our loved ones in imaginative cooperation and competition.
In the interest of presenting a balanced account of this rising holiday, I should note that the British are trying to create their own hexagonal holiday, even going so far as to have the day on actual Christmas. If you are so inclined, find out more about Economic Hex-based Tile Laying Gaming Fest.
* There is much speculation about the origins of the Catan fairy, and it is not the purpose of this story to argue for a definitive myth. I offer the following as nothing more than commonly held beliefs. The most popular explanation for the Catan Fairy is that she is a modern mutation of the Tooth Fairy, Teuber’s occupation is often offered as evidence for this. The Tooth Fairy, now mostly replaced by parents constantly raising the price of teeth, was left without a purpose and evolved, as beings formed of human consciousness do, to fulfil a new purpose. Others believe she is the often neglected and forgotten tenth muse, tying her to other game designers and inventors throughout myth and legend. Both of these stories, attribute the fairy’s interest in Catan as purely philanthropic, but the story of Teuber and the fairy always describe the fairy as being extremely competitive, going to to point of cheating and tricking Teuber in order to win the game. Most see this as the fairy’s way of forcing Teuber to balance his design, but others says that the fairy had a darker purpose, that Teuber forged a pact with the fairy – that every night for the next 6 years they would play a game of Teuber’s choosing, and if she won the game every time than Teuber’s soul would be forfeit. While this is a very dark (and some would say very German interpretation), proponents of this origin story point to Teuber’s subsequent career. After Catan, Teuber never again won the Spiel des Jahres or achieved the same level of commercial success with a non-Catan game.