Board Games can be great experiences for families and friends to come together and enjoy themselves. A dice roll, a few spaces moved on the gameboard, and some money gained or paid are all sometimes a game needs. Up until May of this year there had not been any board games for XBOX Live Arcade. There had been a good handful of card games but nothing like Monopoly, Scrabble, or even Chess (there was Backgammon but who actually plays Backgammon?). That changed when …ig Huge Games decided to create Catan based off the board game Settlers of Catan where resources and the luck of the dice roll were key in securing a victory. The hope was that they would create a game that would whip the rabid XBOX Live users in a frenzy similar to the constant stream of players that reside in UNO or Texas Hold Em. While it is still too early to determine if it will have staying power, there is no denying that Big Huge Games has created a fun and satisfying experience with Catan.
A game like Catan really doesn’t need great graphics but it does need clear graphics or ones that can be easily read. Catan comes in two styles or skins. The first being a 2d representation of the game board. Very clear, very concise. This is very easy to point out and see where roads are placed and settlements are built. Also you can quickly tell once the dice has been rolled how many resource cards you are due before they are dealt out. This is contrast to the other skin; the 3d living world. Selectable in the menu under help & options, this gives a somewhat attractive alternate view of the action. However, this is only pleasing if you are watching the game and not playing it. Once you start to play with the “living world”, you’ll find it a pretty but confusing representation of the Catan world. Additional skins have been planned (a Mayfair or original board game feel is first to drop) but hopefully they are designed around the 2d feel as opposed to any more living world representations.
As with most Board and Card games on console, sounds should be kept to an absolute minimum. A few cute sound effects and maybe some scattered songs when you accomplish something should be all you need. For the most part, they did that here. The sounds effects are cool and mostly add to the on screen action. The first time you hear sheep falling into the ocean due to a port trade you will find yourself laughing. (actually anything going into the ocean is funny). The music is forgettable and at best will probably need to be turned down or customized to your own tunes for best effect. Sure the sound is in 5.1 Dolby Digital but nothing would suggest that the surrounds have been utilized at all outside of the initial effect of starting the game (which kinda freaked me out a bit the first time I did it).
Settlers of Catan, the original board game was first produced in 1995 in Germany by Klaus Teuber. A strategic board game that brought together strategy, luck and even a little bit of negotiation tactics. It starts out innocently enough; 3 or 4 players each pick a place to put a couple of settlements (and an adjoining road to each). They pick that placement based on resources that are needed. There are five different types of resources (lumber, wool, grain, brick & ore) and they can all play an important part in your building process. From here, the dice is rolled and you start to receive resource cards based on those rolls and where you are placed on the board. Those resource cards are then used to build things like additional roads and settlements, cities(upgraded settlements), and development cards (which include things like bonuses to your score and soldiers). All the while you are trying to build up your score to 10 by turning settlements into cities and acquiring the title of longest road or the largest army. You can also trade with your opponents which lead to careful negotiations in an attempt to keep your opponent from deciding that you are full of it and throwing the game out the window.
In the electronic version of Catan; everything is the same with the exception that there is unlimited resource cards, something that is of course not possible in the board game. Controls are easy to perform and the menus are quick to navigate. Occasionally due to the hex design of the gameboard you can’t always place a settlement or road exactly where you want on the first try. The one thing I like is that it does have an intuitive interface. Meaning, that I can go to parts of the screen where necessarily I can’t do something but learn how to. For example, I might not be able to build a City because I need two wheat and three ore. But it will show me right there just that. It won’t buzz at me constantly or make me feel stupid for even coming there in the first place. (that is the human opponents’ job) Challenge is overall well done here. There are many computer A.I.’s to chose from (based on famous leaders) with different skill sets and playing tastes. The overall difficulty can be a mixed bag on occasion. Easy is just that but it does teach you very well how to play the game and adapt a good plan of action. Once you dive into medium or hard, the A.I. does get meaner and the computer is better at placing settlements and building smartly. Trading becomes really difficult here as once you get into the 7 and 8 point range, they won’t have anything to do with you even if they have the same amount of points. This can lead to some frustrating moments but still should produce overall satisfying gameplay.
Catan is one of those games with the tagline of minutes to learn, a lifetime to master. Therefore you will be able to pick this up quickly. However, you will be playing this again and again to fine tune that crucial strategy. But with the A.I., it won’t always work. Big Huge Games took a good deal of time with input from the creator to produce an A.I. that serves to make sure you don’t always win. But it doesn’t go all the way which keeps it from being frustrating. While local is kept to single player for obvious reasons, XBOX Live supports up to 4 players. Live Vision isn’t currently supported though if you have ever been in UNO with cameras on you might think that is actually a good thing. Achievements are of the usual 12/200 arcade variety. These are a mix of offline and online achievements but do drive you towards playing more in online mode. The achievements are fair and all of them should be completed with some good devoted time.
When I first heard about Catan, all I could keep thinking about was that it looked like Risk which to be honest I never really liked and couldn’t get into. However, one of my closest friends came over and persuaded me to spend the 800 points and download the game since they had played the board game extensively. Once they took the time to teach me the basics, I realized how interesting and cool of a game it was to play. The graphics are pleasing (as long as you stay from the living world mutation), the sound not too obnoxious, and the gameplay is easy to get into but keeps you coming back for more. The A.I. keeps you on your toes and makes sure that every game is not a gimme. The achievements are fair (but a little easy) and can be obtained with some good old fashioned effort. Downloadable content will soon be available for the title with a Mayfair skin and a Generals pack which will introduce more A.I. opponents to the fray. Hopefully if this title takes off enough, the expansion packs that are available with the board game will be developed for the electronic version too (I would suggest a $5 or 400 points per expansion). The thought of Seafarers or Cities and Knights would be enough to keep people playing this title for a very long time. If you like strategy board games, I highly recommend this title. Once you get the hang of it, you’ll be wanting to enjoy this again and again.