After almost 20 years, it’s time to resettle Catan.
Settlers of Catan is the original German import that kick-started the current craze for European style board games back in 1996. Unsurprisingly for a popular strategy game that old, there are already a number of popular video game adaptations, but licence holder USM has decided the time is right for the PC version to get a spanking new edition.
If you’re unfamiliar with Catan games, players race to build villages and cities on an island, interconnected by roads. The island is made of tiles representing resources like wood and clay, each of which has a number. Every turn players throw the dice and everyone collects resources for settlements adjacent to matching-numbered hexes. These are used to build new roads and settlements, and to fill your hand with cards. Points are gained for the extent of your miniature empire until someone reaches the magical ten.
This simple framework hides a fairly challenging and surprisingly vicious game. Dice rolls are loaded with tension as you wait to see what’s produced, and you must spend wisely to succeed. Competition for space is at a premium, so all the players are racing to expand and not get boxed in, which spells certain doom if it happens too early. You’re allowed to trade resources, so in face-to-face games there’s plenty of haggling and interaction.
You lose that, of course, playing against the AI. But the appeal of the Catan video games has always been the speed in which you can watch your little realm grow and prosper and the fact that you can do so in glorious 3D, rather than the cardboard tiles and wooden houses of the original. And in that respect, this conversion doesn’t disappoint.
The interface is easy to pick up, and games clip by at a pleasing rate. Graphically, everything is clear and bright, and it really helps bring the world of Catan to life, lending extra pleasure to watching your realm expand. The sound is good too, with an appropriately jaunty soundtrack, and each of the different AI opponents has their own playing personality and voice actor.
Less successful is USM’s ongoing attempt to use these characters to inject some narrative into the board game. The mechanics just don’t support it: you can’t really make conquering island after island simply by out-building your neighbours into a fun story. But the campaign mode is still engaging on the strength of the play alone, adding in new opponents and challenges as you progress.
It also adds complexity in the form of the original games’ expansions, Cities & Knights and Seafarers. In previous versions of computer Catan, these were absent or available as extra purchases, but both are included here. Seafarers, as the name suggests, adds the ability to chain multiple islands together. Cities & Knights transforms the game into a civilization-style affair with mobile military units and urban centres offering special powers.
When you add these in, the speed and accessibility of this PC version really starts to shine. Playing the board game with both added expansions has a steep learning curve and a long play time. Here you can learn at your leisure, breeze through several sessions in an evening, and save the game to return to it whenever you please.
But while playing against the varied and competent AI characters is great fun, USM have failed to deliver an online play mechanic. They’ve always been criticised for not doing so in their mobile versions of the game, and it seems an almost embarrassingly obvious thing to add in a new PC version. But, staggeringly, it’s still not here. You can download custom-built scenarios created by other players, but that’s the extent of community involvement. In the age of social media, that’s simply not good enough.
The fact you can download other people’s scenarios means, of course, that in addition to the main campaign mode, you can also create and play your own. The game offers lots of options to fiddle with, going so far as to let you meddle with some of the rules of the game, such the points needed for victory. There are a number of scenarios pre-built for you, and some altered quite extensively from the basic setup with fun additions like exploring hidden tiles.
This should have been the definitive version of Catan. All the required ingredients are here: all the expansions, great graphics and sound, solid AI, and a campaign with lots of rules tweaks and scenarios to play with. But the astonishing omission of live online play means it falls short at the easiest hurdle. It’s a good job that the base game has already proven its brilliance over the past twenty years, and that everything else about this version surpasses expectation.