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.
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.