May 30, 2007

Catan represents the first of a number of announced board game to Live Arcade conversions, and as such has an enormously wide range of first reactions amongst the players. Those with a background in video games are finding a totally different style steeped in patient strategy and moderate game speed. Those with a board game background are, in some cases, taking a first step into a bright and terrifying modern world. Caught between the two audiences is Microsoft, hoping their choice to license one of the best selling german board games of all time will round out their library of offerings and establish the Live Marketplace as a source of diverse gaming for the whole family. Does this brave step forward represent something great for both sides of this unusual coin?

For those who have no idea where Catan comes from, it is a digital incarnation of the board game The Settlers of Catan by Klaus Teuber, published by Mayfair Games. It is a game of settlement, trade, and negotiation, with conflict being limited to competition for resources. Social atmosphere dominates the game as scratching the back of the competition may be key in trade interactions later in the game. Is this the first game where it is important to be nice to the competition? It very well may be. There is not shooting, no death, no quick wins or losses. A game of Catan that lasts less that 45 minutes is exceedingly fast. You income of resources depends on the probability of two six sided dice, and your fortunes lie only in how you can convert the five simple resources into victory points.

First one to 10 points wins.

A game could be no more dissimilar to something like Gears of War or Crackdown if it tried, and the best part of reviewing Catan was observing the Xbox Live audience react to how alien a world it is. It took 2 whole games of Catan to be called a vulgar and derogatory name, and occurrence so damn amusing that I couldn’t help but grill the offender if he had any idea what he was doing. He failed to see the irony in accusing me of “biting” something that rhymes with “rocks” for constructing a port in a specific location. Perhaps this is a sad meditation on the state of the industry, but I think it really only represents some growing pains. Kids with dads credit card tied to their Live account will buy anything, but there is no value for them in playing a game like this. There is no visceral thrill. Soon they will fall by the side, but until then there will be problems with random matchmaking in a game like this. This is an inevitable truth of the philosophy behind a game like Catan. I can see where Microsoft wants to go with this, but it is going to be a bumpy ride. Players take heed.

But setting aside abstract soap-box philosophy, how does the Catan translation fare? The game is a remarkably tactile experience, staying extremely close to the idea of translating a board game experience to the screen. There is a fancy “3D” graphics setting, but it does nothing but detract from the experience and is best ignored. The interface, controls, visuals, sound, all present the notion of a board game exquisitely well. The music makes one feel like they are on an elevator, but you can just turn it off. The Artificial Intelligence is delightfully competent as well, especially on Hard, but it is still a pale representation of a social interaction: Catan is designed to be played with people.

Which is where the crux of the review lies. If you had an audience of friends to play Catan with, this could possibly be the best expenditure of Microsoft Points ever. Its a fantastic way to connect distant friends for a mind-bending strategic game that supports idle conversation during the course of play. Hell, I’d recommend anyone without OCD at least try it, I bet most of you will like it. But, and this may be the most important use of that conjunction in the history of my reviews, the network code behind Catan is plagued with connectivity issues. I’ve been disconnected from ranked games, unable to invite ANYONE to private games, and been told I wasn’t on the internet when I obviously was. This has improved since the launch of the game, but is still a grave concern. Catan is a shadow of itself if played against the computer.

Should they resolve the issues completely, this game is a must buy, or at least a must try.

Score: 5/5

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