Developer:United Soft Media Verlag
Release Date:December 10, 2009
Summary:A nice adaptation of the original Settlers of Catan. I can't wait for the expansions. Bring on the Traders & Barbarians, I say!
So there’s this disease that’s been going around. Not so much a disease as an affliction, or an addiction, among my friends, and I, ultimately, introduced it to them, with all the swagger and bravado of any drug dealer. But, like the heavy warmth and stupor of a single malt Scotch, it just tastes so damn good.
As it turns out, I’m talking about a game. A what? Yes, you heard right: a game. And not just any game, with cool graphics and availability across all consoles. A board game. You know, those clumsy, cumbersome, folding pieces of compressed paper you must tote around in an equally cumbersome box, with odd sorts of pieces and die and cards that will indubitably get lost, mysteriously, in the dark confines of your closet. I’m an expert when it comes to losing pieces, and I’ve done my fair share of plotting out surveys on the carpet, on hands and knees with a magnifying glasses, in some wry attempt to find those tiny military men from Risk as I separate woolly strands to inspect every divot, nook and cranny. I’ve also lost Scrabble tiles, much to the chagrin of my Scrabble club members in college, and I have become artistic in my efforts to stencil in monetary reproductions of the $500 bills from Monolopy that manage to flutter away from my grasp, into some unknown rip in time and space. Thankfully, I have yet to lose anything from Catan, my latest addiction, the addiction I spread like wildfire to my friends, and this is because Catan could very possibly, be the greatest game ever made.
If ever there was a game that would end in pieces lost after the first time, Catan is it. It’s also a game of tears and frustration and whoops of joy, but more on that later. The board, upon initial viewing, is so complicated, so intricately and tiresomely pieced together, it borders on the insane. Just putting together the board is a challenge in itself, a puzzle even, so much that I recommend a good pane of glass to weigh it down, make it playable. One of my friends even jokingly remarked the game’s box should read “Pane of glass not included.” But, this is only the beginning of the game’s complexity. When my dear friend Kevin introduced me to the game, explaining – in his slow, calm droll of a voice - the ins and outs of the various hexagons, axes, wooden pieces in various colors, flip charts, barbarians, objectives and more, I felt a surging anxiety, thinking, “How the hell am I ever going to remember any of this?” Add to this the knowledge there are several game expansions, such as Cities & Knights and Traders & Barbarians, both of which tack on even more complexity to the original premise. But, don’t worry. After the initiation rite of your first game, rife with clumsy trades and bad strategic expansions, you’ll have the game down pat. Catan is actually quite similar to the games Age of Empires, Empire Earth, and Civilization, all games of economy-building and kingdom expansion, but unlike the others, Catan has surprisingly little emphasis on war given all the resource nabbing and upgrading of technologies. It’s actually a very diplomatic game, compared to the others, with polite trading of resources and commodities, and a slow expansion through the building of settlements and cities, harbor ports and armies, and eventually Metropolises that all combined, cumulatively, rack you up enough points to be the first to reach 10 or 15 or whatever set point you and your opponents decided as the winning number prior to the game. And strangely enough, this calm game of trading, of rolling dice, of exchanging cards, is absolutely wild.
The iPhone app for Catan is a very different playing experience from the board game. I realize I’m biased toward the more tactile, palpable feel of a board game (I haven’t played the online version just yet, so I cannot draw a comparison there), but the iPhone version of Catan does have a few notable and distinct differences that change the feel of the game. The board, upon cursory first look, is the same, and you have all the pieces necessary to Catan, but I noted that this app is more an adaptation of the original game, Settlers of Catan, and is called The First Island. In this iPhone incarnation, the objective is to get the most victory points by building settlements and upgrading to cities, all while stalling robbers and having a pair of dice roll your fate. Here’s a brief rundown of the game. The board is a giant hexagon, with many different hexagon tiles inside representing different resource masses. You collect resources with your settlements, and later, cities, which you place at the connecting corners, or axes, of these hexagons, by rolling the dice to hopefully correspond with a number on one of your tiles. The different resources are lumber (or wood), grain (or wheat), wool (or sheep), brick and ore. Each of these resources must be collected in order to build structures and expand; for whatever resource you do not collect – whether because you do not have a settlement next to a resource and cannot collect, or because the dice haven’t been rolling in that resource’s favor – you have the option to trade with your fellow players, or, if completely desperate and sufficiently stocked, you may trade in with the bank (overseas transactions, for suspension of disbelief) at a 4:1 ratio, for example, trading in 4 grain for 1 lumber. For your first expansion, you’ll want to build a road connecting to your initial road (each player places down one road per the one settlement and one city each player must place down strategically before the start of the game), since each settlement must have a blank axis point in between (must be situated two spaces away). To do this, you must first gather one lumber and one brick, as these are the resources necessary to construct a road. Later on, to build a settlement, you must have one each of wool, lumber, brick and grain. To upgrade to a city, you must possess three grain and two ore. What I’ve noticed is there never fails to be one scant resource per game – in my experience it’s usually brick or ore – which is a testament to the complexity of the game’s setup: no matter what, there will be a resource monopoly, and no matter what, trading is a quarrelsome but necessary task. Better shape up on your domestic relations to keep up your GDP.
Much like in Risk, the dice roll in this game predicts your economic outpouring, since the numbers rolled reflect what resources you’ll gather for that turn. In the board game, it’s all too easy to lose track of what’s rolled, and every now and then – especially when you’re a noob – you’ll miss out on some resources. In iPhone Catan, the game automatically sorts your cards, eliminating this risk, and thereby downplaying player faults that normally play a crucial role in your success. Another interesting difference involves the dice rolling further. Whenever my friends and I play Catan, it becomes apparent very quickly that based on our individual rolling styles, we tend to roll very predictable batches of numbers. Human predictability is overcome in the iPhone version, because computerized algorithms prevent any formulaic movement inherent to your hand shake. Normally, this adds an interesting, albeit frustrating element to the board game, as we tend to choose numbers on the board that reflect our most empirically evidenced rolls, oftentimes choosing two of the same number just so we can reap double the benefits from, say, a 6, we know our friend Mike will roll continuously. In the iPhone version, however, this strategy would be folly, since rolls are utterly, utterly random and you’ll want the greatest variety in numbers possible, to cover as many rolling outcomes as possible. Are you enjoying the game yet? If you’re completely befuddled – I don’t blame you – don’t sweat it. There are plenty of friendly tutorials in the app.
Normally, my friends and I play the Cities & Knights expansion, which tacks on a whole other level of technology upgrades for cities, commodity usage, barbarian attacks, and bonus points for attaining the status of Harbor Master or Defender of Catan or Longest Road. It’s a more multi-tiered game, if you can surmise this, with the ability to expand up to 6 players, and so in our general acceptance of this standard of gameplay, we tend to let the original Settlers of Catan drift to the wayside, delegating it the more simple version with much less masterful strategizing. To make up for this deficit, both Settlers of Catan and The First Land iPhone version contain Development Cards, purchased with a set combination of resources (one ore, one wool, one grain), and a Robber who you must move on the roll of a 7, both of which add some dimension to an otherwise fairly flat game. The Robber is pretty basic: a 7 is rolled, you move him, steal from an adjacent opponent’s property, and any opponent who holds more than 7 cards in his hand must discard half. It’s a sticky situation for sure, and other expansions of Catan allow you to build city walls to protect your card stock – not so in this game. Make sure to collect and spend wisely, since snap expenditures often leave you with a winning stride ahead of the competition. As for the Development Cards, you may buy as many development cards as you can afford (they’re assigned randomly), but you can only play a recently purchased development card on your next turn, and a maximum of one development card can be played per turn. And, of course, the card is removed from the board once it is played. So, really, it doesn’t add much further complexity to the game, especially with there only being five different types of card: Knight (move the robber and steal a resource from the owner of an adjacent settlement or city), Year of Plenty (select 2 resources of your choice from the bank), Road Building (build 2 roads free of charge), Monopoly (other players must give you all their cards of any resource you want), and Victory Point (self-explanatory).
In essence, the gameplay is very similar to Settlers of Catan, with any differences being negligible. I did mention the dice rolling changes the feel of the game, in its predictive qualities, but what truly changes the game for me is the presence of these colorful A.I. characters, each with their own set of strengths and weaknesses. Some people quibble over the easy nature of the A.I., or how they get lucky rolls in their favor, but when has strategy game A.I. ever been any good? They’re usually too easy on the easy setting, or too hard on the hard settings. There’s usually no middle ground. At least in this game each character has a star rating in terms of expansion, aggression and skill, and there are 8 opponents to choose from. If I have any quarrels with this game it’d be two things: no multiplayer wifi or online and slow gameplay. I mean, seriously? No online multiplayer? What kind of modern game is this? A computer opponent will never be as dynamic as a live one, so this just tacks on further limitations to any already watered-down version of Catan. But, what really got to me was how you’re forced to sit through the A.I.’s turn, watching him trade and sort through his cards, as if he were a live opponent. I’m willing to wait with a live game, I understand people need to think, deliberate over their actions, but a computer opponent? It takes them, what, a nanosecond to process? Sure, in the latest update you can change this animation speed to “turbo” but why not just offer the option to turn it off? To skip the opponent A.I. animation. It’s completely purposeless, and only makes the game drag. Honestly, this feature leaves me less desirous of playing the game.
But, what can I say? I love Catan. I love playing the board game and getting together with friends, directing insults and curses at one another, and then rubbing victory in one another’s faces. The real beauty in board games is the communal aspect, the willingness to devote a whole four hours to playing with your friends, possibly with beer and food in tow, and a smidgen of real, honest to god strategy. Until Catan adds some multiplayer options, it can’t hold a candle to the board game. It probably never will. But, that doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy a single player rendition of Catan on my own time, to improve my skills. And what Catan player wouldn’t enjoy that?