Settlers of Catan is one of my favorite board games. With over 10 million units sold, it’s also one of the most popular board games of our time. It takes minutes to learn and a lifetime to master. With so many random variables, including the layout of the board itself, you’ll never experience the same game twice. It’s this quality, chiefly, that has created such a large following. Now, thanks to Big Huge Games, of Age of Empires fame, the German-style board game has arrived on Xbox Live Arcade in the form of Catan.
In Catan, players try to be the dominant force on the island of Catan by building settlements, cities, and roads. On each turn, dice are rolled to determine the current production on the island. Players collect raw materials to build up their civilizations to gain enough victory points to win the game. Got it? Don’t worry, Catan is very accessible; one or two tutorial games and you should be up to speed on the basics of play.
The interface in Catan is fantastic. Trading resources, one of the key components of the board game, is particularly slick and there are all kinds of stat windows that you can instantly access that show building costs, each player’s totals with respect to victory points, length of road and soldier size, as well as total resources in play. There’s also a grid available at the touch of a button that shows how frequently each number has been rolled as well as the last dozen rolls or so. There’s even an action log that keeps track of players’ actions through each of their turns.
As a solo game, players can select from three difficulty levels and play against three or four AI controlled historical personalities of varying skill levels, including Lincoln, Shaka, Sun Tzu, and Cleopatra. The AI is competent and challenging, though they tend to work as a team on the hardest difficulty level. For example, when you’re ahead in victory points they’ll rightly cease trading with you and place the robber on your production tiles at every opportunity. Oddly though, when one of the AI opponents is on the verge of winning, the other AI players will continue to trade with that player and their robber placement becomes a little sketchy. I suppose it’s one method to make the game as challenging as possible but it’s a little frustrating to watch the AI let one of its own win without putting up much of a fight.
Catan really takes off when you jump online to put your strategies to the test against other human opponents on Xbox Live. In a player match, you can have as few as two humans play with up to two AI opponents or as many as four humans, and you can tweak the rules to your liking. In ranked matches, four humans will face-off with the normal set of Catan rules. Leaderboards track player and ranked matches, as well as your TrueSkill rating. In ranked matches, the game pits players of equal ranking against one another whenever possible.
Visually, Catan offers two skins. The first is a faithful recreation of the board game, with simply colored tiles and game pieces that Settlers of Catan fans will recognize instantly. There’s also a “Living World” skin that brings the game to life with a 3-D landscape, animated pieces, and just a lot more color and detail. While this skin certainly is fun, it’s not all that functional. For starters, the numbers associated with each tile are absent. You have to press and hold a button to show the numbers any time you want to see them. It’s also difficult to distinguish roads. I found myself going back to the tried-and-tested generic skin, but the option for a more colorful experience is there. There are all kinds of bells and whistles for various events in the game, some of which are taken straight from the Age of Empires series, and it all fits well within the game.
Settlers of Catan is a very social board game, especially when it comes to trading resources. As such, Big Huge Games has added an emoticon system that allows you to send emotes when you want your opponent to sweeten a deal, indicate when you have nothing of value for them, taunt them when things are going your way, show frustrating when they’re not, and even target an opponent to let the other players know they’re ahead and possibly on the verge of winning. It’s a cute system, one AI opponents use all the time.
Catan, and UNO before it, have started a trend of bringing popular card and board games to Xbox Live Arcade. Other German-style board games Carcassonne and Alhambra are already in development, as is the popular fantasy board game Talisman. There’s even rumor Puerto Rico will be making its way to the Xbox Live Arcade service. In the meantime, Catan is a faithful and enjoyable videogame version of Settlers of Catan. If you’re a fan of the board game or strategy games in general, there’s no better way to spend your Microsoft Points.