Review: What's old is new again on the Xbox Live Arcade.
When Carbonated Games (Microsoft's in-house XBLA studio) caught lightning in a bottle with Uno for the Live Arcade, one had to suspect that other casual or board games would be re-purposed and deployed for the Xbox 360's ?casual games? space. Enter Catan: a European board game that has a very passionate and vocal fanbase due to the game's simplistic style, yet deep trading and resource system. This particular game seems like kind of an odd fit for the Live Arcade, as it pretty much goes against most of the XBLA mantras that have been established (steep learning curve, long play time, lack of Geometry Wars-inspired control scheme). But, like Uno, Catan manages to find its groove by providing vibrant presentation, proper tutorials and guidance, and a fantastic online experience. In fact, Catan may usurp much of your casual game time (or even major game time) and become a quick favourite.
The main designer on the XBLA version of Catan is Brian Reynolds of Big Huge Games. Reynolds, a veteran designer of such games as Civilization II and Rise of Nations, has been very public and vocal about his collaboration with original Catan creator Klaus Teuber. This is a good thing, since Catan is a very unique game in its original form, and there is a lot more going on than one might initially think. It's readily apparent that this game was a lot of fun for Reynolds and his team to make, and after playing a few rounds, you'll likely realize that a lot of smart design choices were made for this digital version.
A game of Catan involves three or four players vying for control of a loosely hexagonal board that features 19 hexagonal slots containing various resources. The five resources of Catan are wood, brick, wheat, ore, and wool. There is one barren place on the board that is a desert and it contains no resources. There are also ?ports? on the board which allow for trading of resources (two ore for one wheat, as an example), and these are key to eventually winning in a game of Catan. The alleys between all of these hexagons are where roads will be built in order to gather more resources. Each player initially gets two settlements which they must place at intersecting points between the resource hexagons, and each settlement gets a road ?link? built out from it. This initial placement is key, as where you place your settlements greatly affects what resources you'll get. The reason for this is that each resource hexagon has a dice roll associated with it meaning an eight is going to ?pay off? far more than a two since the eight has a higher probability.
The goal of Catan is to ultimately accumulate ten ?victory points? by building settlements (one point), cities (two points, stacked on an existing settlement), the longest road (two points), the biggest army (two points), and by the gaining of special victory point cards. The settlements and cities are built by using a combination of resources you get from dice rolls ? which everyone does at their turn ? and they will net you more resources since you can only gain resources from hexagons touched by a settlement or city (a city gains 2 of that resource). Building road links also requires resources, but sometimes you won't be in the greatest position to build very many links. Finally, the ?soldiers? and victory point cards are culled from ?development cards? ? these also require resources.
Development cards help you gather more resources through monopolies, give you victory points outright, and also allow you to play soldier cards. Soldier cards allow the player to move the ?robber? token onto an opponent's hexagon to effectively block that space from paying resources; the user of the soldier is also awarded a random card from the chosen opponent. The robber also moves when a seven is rolled ? the most likely of numbers to be seen ? and the roller has the same choice as with the soldier card. However, when a seven is rolled, anyone holding eight or more resource cards must discard at least four of them, proving that the robber is one mean hombre.
While the above description may seem a bit complicated, the game sinks in quite rapidly after playing a few rounds or after using the included ?learn as you play? tutorial ? a very nice touch. What can't be taught, though, is the final ? and most involved ? part of Catan: Trading. Any time it is your turn, you are able to wheel and deal with ports (for 4 to 1, 3 to 1, or 2 to 1 value) or with other players. You can offer any combination of cards, and this often gets quite interesting when a certain player is far ahead or if he/she holds a great deal (or even all) of a certain resource. It won't be uncommon to see one player using a key resource to sap multiple cards from opponents, and this is a large part of the strategy in Catan.
Catan plays fairly well against the A.I. in the Live Arcade version, but they do make some odd road building choices or strange trades here and there. There are three difficulty settings for the computer, and the highest level seems to eliminate some of the poor trades or bad habits, but these problems will never fully go away. The fun part about the A.I. is that it comes in the form of random personalities in history (Abraham Lincoln, Queen Elizabeth, etc.). These personalities each have specific traits and tendencies associated with them, and nothing really beats seeing a fuming ?Honest Abe? when you build a new city.
Then again, playing with friends is what Catan is all about. The magic of Catan really develops in front of you within the later stages of a game, and you'll have to think long and hard about some of the necessary sacrifices and risks that must be taken. It's also quite a boon to have the ability to actually talk to people when you want to make trades, and the silliness really goes up when you start firing emoticons at your buddies; unleashing fireballs, blowing kisses, cursing the dice, and snickering at your foes are all amusing little diversions. The only real demerit to online multiplayer is the occasional drop during a game, and these seem to happen about once or twice for every ten games. If this were a shorter game with less investment it might not be so bad, but the game is much more substantial, making the drops a bit annoying.
There are quite a few options and modifiers in Catan for the Live Arcade, and you'll be able to speed up or alter your game in various ways. Admittedly, a game going to ten victory points can get a bit long, so this is why you can do things like speed up the game presentation or lower the victory point limit to 7, making the concept of finishing a game a bit less daunting. Most games of Catan on XBLA will take anywhere from 40 to 75 minutes, but the speed up options reduce this total slightly. There are other modifiers as well, such as a friendly robber, and this means less-developed players will not be picked on as much since a combination of bad rolls and the robber can be quite a pain. Finally, you can select a ?dice card deck? which uses a shuffled number deck rather than random
dice rolls. This way, the final result will be a perfect bell curve and initial placement will end up being vital.
The presentation aspects of Catan are quite good in most respects, in particular because of the smart design choices that are meant to lead players and make the game less confusing. You'll see the dice take prominence when they are rolled and various flashing indicators will also guide you on the board to denote new cities and resource payoffs. It's actually pretty cool seeing the resources jump out of the board and land in each player's mitts, as the aesthetic is clearly telling you what's happening and it looks good while doing so. There are plenty of bright colours on the Catan board, and each resource and location is distinctly represented. You can even activate a 3D board to make everything come to life, including a dancing robber. The audio is decent for what it is, and you'll hear some simplistic fanfare samples playing in the background while you play and they manage to not wear out their welcome. All of the sound cues are good and they also help assist with keeping players up-to-date with what's going on; it's actually kind of jarring (in a sobering way) if you're not paying attention to hear the fluttering noise that indicates a new city for another player.
Catan translates surprisingly well to the Live Arcade, and this is mainly because of its smart design choices and addictive multiplayer offerings. The game may initially be a bit too challenging for people who've been throwing down on Uno for the last while, but it really does reward some patience and subtle strategy. At 800 marketplace points, this game is definitely worth your time and money.