Friday, July 23, 2010

App O' The Mornin': Catan

Settlers of Catan is considered old hat by a lot of people who are passionate about games, follow all the latest releases, and are eager to debate the pros and cons of everything they play. Yet the game remains important for a few reasons.

  1. It’s a terrific design. Period. Spin it any way you like, make any kind of new version, and you still have a rock solid foundation of good design. (The randomness doesn’t bother me in the least. Don’t fear the dice, people.)
  2. It remains the only Eurogame with a fighting chance of breaking into the mainstream with titles like Monopoly and Scrabble. The other day I found a copy in Target. TARGET! Can Walmart be far behind?
  3. It’s still the single best gateway game to introduce people to Eurogaming. It’s easy to explain, very interactive, and a lot of fun.
  4. The majority of people in this country have never heard of it. My 9-year-old daughter is completely hooked on Settlers. Whole generations are still waiting to discover it. Everything is new to someone.

So, in keeping with the theme of this blog (“if it can be played, I’ll write about it”) I will be writing about Catan, even though it is about 15 years old by now. Just like I’ll be writing about Scrabble, Rummy, and anything else that can be played.

As for the Catan app, it’s simply magic. It was one of the first great conversions of a major design, and although we’ve seen others since then (Carcassonne, Roll Through The Ages, High Society, Money), it still holds its own.

Yes, it’s a simple conversion with meager graphics and only a few customization options. But it’s Catan! For iPhone/Touch! And it works great. Shrinking this masterpiece down to pocket size and still leaving it playable has taken some minor miracle of programming genius.

For those who’ve never played it before (and shame on you), the game is played on a board made of randomly assembled tiles, each representing a different resource: brick, wool, lumber, stone, and wheat. You use these resources to buy cards and build settlements and roads, which all add together to make a winning score. The map can be arranged in various ways, there’s an opportunity to bargain and trade with other players, and a bit of luck in the form of dice throwing.

The Catan app handles all this very well. The game autozooms when you need to place roads, settlements, and cities, but otherwise displays the full board (albeit one limited to a single shape). A simple control wheel pops up for trades and card purchase/play, and dice are rolled automatically at the beginning of each turn. A selection of AI opponents offer a diverse range of challenges, and a few rule customization options (start with one city, start with different resources, etc) mix up play a bit. You can also play against live opponents by passing the device around, although a true online version (using Bluetooth, internet, or WiFi) remains elusive.

This is portable Catan with a respectable AI and simple controls for $5, and that’s all most people will need to know.

UPDATE: Welcome Catan Facebook fans! This is a new blog which will cover all aspects of gaming, from beginner to advanced. Stick around, read some of the introductory posts, and follow us on Facebook or Twitter!


Sam said...

It truly is a fantastic re-creation of the game. Here is a cheat I learned on accident: If you roll the robber and rob yourself, exit the program immediately, then go back into it. You'll get to roll again.

Matthew said...

I would have to regretfully disagree with your statement that the game has a "respectable AI." I'm a pretty lousy Catan player -- I have played probably 20 or so games against my fellow humans and won exactly zero times -- but I can almost always beat even the hardest AIs in this app.

I agree that the game is very well designed in every other respect, but the ease of beating the AI pretty much kills the fun after a few plays.

Thomas L. McDonald said...

If I remember correctly there were 6 AI opponents. A couple were easy, but I thought some provided a pretty good challenge. Then again, I may just be THAT BAD a Catan player!

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