Catan

The revision of a beloved geek franchise is a holy thing. It's treading into St. Peter's Basilica with an electric guitar -- you're either going to engage an entire new audience in a sacred mystery, or you're going to get shot by some very tough hombres in funny costumes. In my geek milieu, tabletop games are the temple, and a few games serve as my relics. Dungeons and Dragons. Gamma World. Chess. Risk 2210. Acquire.

And Klaus Teuber's masterpiece Settlers of Catan.

Big Huge Games launched Catan, the Xbox Live Arcade version of Settlers of Catan, as part of last weeks Xbox Live Arcade Wednesday release schedule. It's the first of a wave of so called "Euro Games" hitting the platform (to be followed by Carcasonne and Alhambra). Their electric guitar is finely tuned, and the acoustics are perfect. The Swiss Guard will be dancing in the pews, and legions of jaded videogamers should flock to Catan, discovering the joys of EuroGames for the first time.

For the unconverted, Catan, in either the pixel or cardboard version, is one of the archetypal German board games. Players take turns building a series of roads, towns and settlements. Building requires resources (Lumber, Wool, Grain, Ore or Brick), which are generated by having settlements or cities adjacent to the appropriate piece of (randomly distributed) land. Each piece of land has a number on it. Players roll the dice, and where the numbers match, the land generates resources.

 

That's the simple version, but as with most games, there are a dozen little twists along the way. Resources can be traded amongst the players, or to the port spaces on the game board. Cards can be purchased that let the player build more roads (which have to connect cities). Rolling a 7 brings a "robber" into play who penalizes resource hoarders. There are dozens of other fine points.

The beauty of the online implementation is that these subtler rules are enforced. Magic the Gathering Online is the proof point of how important this is. In a face to face game, more time is often spent trying to figure out what should happen in a given turn of magic than actually figuring out the best card to play. In MTGO, the implementation process is automatic, and the game plays faster and more smoothly. Catan benefits from the same infallible referee.

As a board game simulator, Catan does everything extremely well. The game looks like a more polished version of the physical board game, the dice roll and sound like dice, the road and city pieces look right, even the cards look right. Catan also adds innumerable improvements to playing on a table. Various combinations of triggers and bumpers bring up simple reference screens (how much things cost), stats (which spaces have the highest probabilities of being rolled), and scores (who has how much of what). The two primary activities in the game (building and trading) are easy to figure out and work well.

Where Catan falls short isn't in the implementation, it's in the nature of bringing a social board game to a solitary experience. The root game, Settlers of Catan, is nearly multi-player solitaire. Far from an indictment, many of the best German board games can be similarly described. Unlike a first person shooter, players don't actively work against each other as much as they all participate in individual gathering and building games, with a single direct interaction -- trade negotiation. In Catan, the interface for this is extremely well done. Players present offers (I'll give one lumber for two grain) and their opponents signal acceptance, rejection, or counteroffers. But it's too easy to simply say no.

If you were sitting in my basement playing Settlers of Catan across the table, this act of saying no would have social consequences. Begging, pleading and threatening can be done in a fun, direct way, and the continued rejection of trade for an entire game would simply make you a bad sport, and you would henceforth be denied entrance to the Xanadu of my basement. But in the anonymous world of Xbox Live, I've found that players more often than not remain entirely silent, and reject nearly every trade.

This communications difficulty is mitigated when you know the players, but it makes for an uneven experience. This problem isn't unique to Catan. It's present in all of the turn based games on Xbox Live -- Uno, Poker, Hearts, Spades, Worms. So the games can become solo endeavours very quickly, where the only interaction is that of screwing your neighbors. While invoking misery in anonymous opponents is as entertaining as always, it can make the game a lonely, hollow experience when compared to beer-and-pretzels camaraderie of a game night at Rabbit's house.

The second difficulty in bringing a complex game like Catan to a simple interface is simply learning the game. Catan features a streamlined "learn while you play" option which simply walks you through a sample game. Theres's also a very brief series of 14 screens which lay out the basic pattern of play. But there's simply no substitute for learning a game like this from an experienced player. I worry that legions of players are being turned off, simply because learning on their own is too daunting.

And last, there's the AI. Catan gives players a handful of AI's to compete against, each represented by a historical figure (Abe Lincoln, Sun Tzu). Each has a purported love of a particular strategy (Trade, Expansion). But in practice the inability to actually communicate with these ersatz strategists makes them unsatisfying opponents. Defeating them seems much more a matter of luck than skill. However, it's still wonderful to be able to grab a pickup game of an old favorite without worrying about having to quit mid-game.

In the end, Big Huge Games has absolutely nailed the Catan experience. It's great fun, and gives me a way to play a game I love more often (and get better at it). It leaves me desperately wanting more. As good as Settlers of Catan is, it's expansions (notably the Seafarers and Knights and Cities) are simply richer, more varied, and better games. My hope is that these are in the works as downloadable content.

With luck, Catan will be a huge success, and this will make other developers take notice. With Carcassonne and Alhambra on the way, it won't be long before I can convene a "game night" on Xbox Live that rivals those rare and precious evenings in my basement sitting around a card table with good friends.

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Nerd PS: I feel obligated to point out the one rules failure in the game. In the tabletop rules for settlers, a player has to do all of their trading before they start building. This forces players to have a plan in place, and to think through what they will do based on their successful trades. This has the effect of punishing mental errors. I understand why the developer chose not to implement this -- it would make the game seem arbitrary and cruel for a new player. Indeed, it's for this reason that later versions of the game, which add complexity, abandoned this strict A then B turn sequencing. Still, it's there.

Comments

I have been a player of Settlers of Catan for many years now. In fact I am proud to say that I own not only the original German version of the original game but also the German expansion, Seafarers of Catan, the English version of both, the Knights of Catan and Spacefarers of Catan. It's a great game and I've always wanted it to go digital. However why Xbox? I want it for the PC! I don't own and will not own a console in the conceivable future.

If nothing else, having Catan on the 360 has actually motivated some of my friends to play the game, both on the XBox and in real life. For that, I am happy.

On another note, I probably haven't heard someone mention Gamma World for 15 years. That was an awesome RPG.

Nice article, rabbit.

While the level of multiplayer interaction in Catan is not the greatest among Euro games, it has more than the level for which it is given credit. The mechanic of placing the robber allows direct offense against opponents. The knight cards that comprise the majority of the development deck allow you to purchase that offensive power. The monopoly development cards also are wielded directly. Many players ignore the development card aspect of the game, but in doing so, forgo the ability to most directly impact their opponents. Of course, trading is another direct interaction, and that was mentioned in the article.

Most of the interaction in Catan happens indirectly. You build your "machine" and let it run. Everyone else is doing the same thing in a different way, so you need to make their machines slower than yours. This is largely accomplished with some type of denial. It could be resource denial in the case of building your own sprawl to block your opponent's access to settlement opportunities. Robber placement also denies resources, but more temporarily. Port denial is another tactic that can be used to hamstring an opponent who has an abundance of one resource. The escalatory battles for largest army and longest road are won by a commitment to that strategy coupled with the necessary resource production. That commitment means forgoing other means of development. That choice has an impact on the way your opponents will play.

One more thing. While Catan is the primary source of Teuber's fame, he has several other games that deserve attention.

  • Hoity Toity (aka Adel Verpflichtet, By Hook or Crook, Fair Means or Foul) - It's hard to get more interaction than in this game. It's one of the few games that plays best with 5 players.
  • Domaine (aka Löwenherz) - Very tactical.
  • Entdecker - More random than Catan, and enjoyable as a light discovery game.
  • Barbarossa - The clay sculpture aspect of Cranium originated in Barbarossa. Cluzzle is a more streamlined reworking that is a must-buy.
  • Drunter und Drüber - It's a game of tactical deception with imperfect information. It's a toss up between this and Hoity Toity for my favorite Teuber game.
Nerd PS: I feel obligated to point out the one rules failure in the game. In the tabletop rules for settlers, a player has to do all of their trading before they start building. This forces players to have a plan in place, and to think through what they will do based on their successful trades. This has the effect of punishing mental errors. I understand why the developer chose not to implement this -- it would make the game seem arbitrary and cruel for a new player. Indeed, it's for this reason that later versions of the game, which add complexity, abandoned this strict A then B turn sequencing. Still, it's there.

As you mention, the rule books from the expansions they do away with this limitation, as (from my research) Kluas Teuber decided that it unnecessarily hampered the social aspect of the game. Further, from what I've read it seems that in most tournaments that rule is ignored, even when playing Catan with no expansions.

Seeing as Teuber was actually closely involved with the development of this version of the game (in interviews folks from Big Huge Games have given him almost full credit for their ability to create functional AI players), I'm guessing that it very well may have been his wish to strike that rule from the book when transitioning the game to XBLA.

I, for one, am glad to see that the rule has been abandoned. What it added in forcing strategy was not worth the extra bickering and more limited play opportunities that it created in practice. I suppose that it could have been implemented as one of the optional "house rules," but I don't see it as a real loss.

Settlers of Catan is the only board game that I recommend unequivocally. Only the stuffiest scrooge wouldn't enjoy this game. Rabbit is right, though, something is lost in the translation.

kilroy0097 wrote:

I have been a player of Settlers of Catan for many years now. In fact I am proud to say that I own not only the original German version of the original game but also the German expansion, Seafarers of Catan, the English version of both, the Knights of Catan and Spacefarers of Catan. It's a great game and I've always wanted it to go digital. However why Xbox? I want it for the PC! I don't own and will not own a console in the conceivable future.

There is a good chance that Live! for Windows will have the game, if it doesn't already.

Great article, Rabbit!

I'm so grateful they've made the choice to implement these in the XBLA environment, it's wonderful news that it's being so well received. I'm really looking forward to having a library of these on XBLA, i'll bet in 6 months i'll see many groupings of people on my friends list playing Carassonne, Puerto Rico, hell maybe even Ticket to Ride. Makes casual pickup gaming very accessible to the masses with a 360.

kilroy, there are several versions of Catan on the PC, some in the public domain, one controlled by Microsoft on MSN games. I think it's still running (can't check from work).

I particularly like Entdecker and Domaine, those are great games to pick up if you like the experience of gaming on a board.

Another change to the rules - players can hold an infinite number of resources. Teuber always wanted to do this but obviously couldn't with a physical product.

Here's a quote about Catan's AI:

Brian Reynolds wrote:

(Klaus Teuber) was instrumental in helping us create the A.I. for the game. It turns out that over the years since designing the original board game, Klaus Teuber has always wanted to have a strong computer player, and so he had put a lot of thought into what the proper strategies and tactics were, and formulas that would be useful for helping a computer player evaluate choices. Of course he'd never had a chance to bring these into play, because the developers of previous versions of the game either didn't have time to do a full treatment of his ideas, or else decided to try their own approach altogether. So he had these Excel spreadsheets full of formulae, plus a nice write-up he'd done. Being an old-time A.I. guy, I looked at these and saw gold: here was somebody (the designer of the game no less) who'd already done the legwork of collecting the tactical situations and strategies, and even done some of the work of creating algorithms to choose between them. So I was able to blast through all of that stuff in a few weeks, and use most of my time refining the really high-end game for the expert players. The result... a much stronger opponent at the top level!

If you focus on the mechanics of the game, not the social interaction, the AI is amazing.

Sadly, I have a feeling that this follows in A&As footsteps as boardgames with high social interaction transitions to the computer.

Now multiplayer might overcome some of it, but I generally like seeing my friends.=)

Good article though Rabbit -- I'll have to check this out, if just for the name.

Hopefully some more people will read this and give Catan a try on Live. I am thoroughly hooked on it so far and for the price and ability to find a game any time it's well worth the $10.

I love it! If only I wouldn't keep getting spanked by the A.I. Still an awesome game. Hopefully the board game train will keep on rolling. I would so love a heroquest/Warhammer quest type game.

You couldn't ask for a better title graphic than that.

Maybe if when you clicked on it an opera guy sang "Catan."

When coupled with Gears 'n Beers, Catan is a great experience. I don't play public matches for any game, really, so I won't bother trying to venture a guess on that.

I learned how to play via the tutorial and found it very easy to pick up. Frankly, I'm not worried that "pub-tard" types won't like it. If it's too cerebral, slow-paced, or pacific for some gamers, I think we're all better off not trying to bring those gamers into our matches.

I also really don't mind the AI. Sure, they're jerks, and at best they're stand-ins for goodjer friends, but I thoroughly enjoy blowing kisses at Cleopatra. I call her Cleo. Sometimes she blows kisses back.

That said, I'm used to dealing with brusque, realpolitik jerks from playing Civ and the like.

rabbit wrote:

... you would henceforth be denied entrance to the Xanadu of my basement

... where you always roll 20s and the beer fridge never empties.

rabbit wrote:

Catan benefits from the same infallible referee.

Screw that. How the hell am I supposed to cheat?

I do love me some Catan. I do not have an Xbox, or I'd try this out. I agree that Cities and Knights is a great expansion. It brings more interaction to the game than the normal settlers. That being said, I'd rather set up the board than play online even if they had nailed it perfectly for the Xbox. The only benefit I see to this? That I have the ability to play with my friends who don't happen to be in the same state as me. Perhaps a good tweak would be to incorporate chatting over XBL into the trading more.

mazzilo wrote:

Perhaps a good tweak would be to incorporate chatting over XBL into the trading more.

I don't see how chatting could be any more incorporated with trading. It's open channels the whole time.

Edit: We determined there is not hot seat, right? That's the only thing I'd like to see changed.

Nice article.

I am enjoying playing Catan every night since its release. One thing that annoys is the player(s) that quit MP shortly before I win. That happened last night where all three quit just before I won. I ended up not getting credit for the win -- apparently, because at the end I was playing a MP game with three substitute AIs.

Edgar_Newt wrote:

Nice article.

I am enjoying playing Catan every night since its release. One thing that annoys is the player(s) that quit MP shortly before I win. That happened last night where all three quit just before I won. I ended up not getting credit for the win -- apparently, because at the end I was playing a MP game with three substitute AIs.

Funny things, those public games. Not even the lure of achievements is enough to get me into public servers.

Edgar_Newt wrote:

Nice article.

I am enjoying playing Catan every night since its release. One thing that annoys is the player(s) that quit MP shortly before I win. That happened last night where all three quit just before I won. I ended up not getting credit for the win -- apparently, because at the end I was playing a MP game with three substitute AIs.

They don't have something in place to handle that? Bad design. That kind of thing should be anticipated in any multiplayer game.

For fellow poor people, there is an ugly-yet-servicable linux clone called Pioneers.

I think it's in the Ubuntu Universe repo, for the sake of convenience

Here's a completely off-topic-yet-related question. Is it pronounced to rhyme with "Batman" or "Kublai Khan?"

Any time I hear someone say it they pronounce it Kuh 'ton.

Razorgrin wrote:

Here's a completely off-topic-yet-related question. Is it pronounced to rhyme with "Batman" or "Kublai Khan?"

Depends how much I've had to drink, and whether country accent Wordie or Chicagoan Wordie decided to come out and play as a result.

Rhymes with Batman, if you ask me. Kuh-tan.

zeroKFE wrote:

Rhymes with Batman, if you ask me. Kuh-tan.

I think the difference in my and Zero's pronunciation is a pretty good indicator of the respective regions we live in.

The only pronounciation I´ve heard here in Germany is

"Ca" as in "cut" and
"tan" with a looong "ah" as in "Khan".

Gorath wrote:

The only pronounciation I´ve heard here in Germany is

"Ca" as in "cut" and
"tan" with a looong "ah" as in "Khan".

How many other languages even have that distinctive, nasal, short "a" sound? Chicago is sort of the home of the most extreme version of it, but I'm not sure how far it spreads.

Edit: Also, for it to truly rhyme with "Batman," the accent would ahve to be on the first syllable, which I haven't heard done in any pronounciation of "Catan."

You're all wrong. All the consonants are silent.

So it sounds like you've just burned yourself?

Chiggie Von Richthofen wrote:

So it sounds like you've just burned yourself?

Or you sound like Lucielle Ball.

If you are not on Xbox Live or just plain don't own one, there is a pretty decent free PC implementation of Settlers called Sea3D Connector

It is fully ranked and I have pretty much always been able to get a game in at any time I've tried. Has plenty of variant maps too.