A board and card game re-invented on PS3. Sounds like a recipe for boredom, right? Wrong. This game is excellent.
Catan is a 4-player board game of building and resource management. The aim is to be the first to reach 10 victory points – or VPs – before your opponents. The board is arranged as a grid of hexagonal tiles, each with a randomly assigned number and resource type, with port tiles around the outside. Players build settlements and cities on the intersections of tiles and roads on edges. A roll of the dice at the start of each player’s turn results in the acquisition of resources from any tiles with a number matching the dice throw to any players who have settlements or cities on the tile corners, in the form of playing cards. You then use these cards to construct and upgrade.
There are five resource types – brick, lumber, wool, grain and ore – and four things to build: settlements, cities, roads and development cards. A settlement is worth 1 VP and a city is worth 2; settlements must be upgraded to cities. Development cards are one of five types of special card, giving you the option of building two roads, stealing one type of another player’s resource, gaining 1 free VP and so on.
If someone rolls a 7, anyone with 8 or more cards has to discard half of them (rounded up), but then has the opportunity to move the Robber, a special chip on the board which, when placed on a tile, prevents any players from acquiring resources from that particular tile. After moving the Robber you can choose one of the players with buildings on the affected tile to steal a single random resource from. There is also a development card called Soldier which lets you move the Robber.
That is the basic gist of it, how does it play? Well, superbly. I was fortunate to get a free copy of this and I would never have bought it based on the game description, but I quickly discovered this game is crammed with subtle nuances and strategy.
At the start of the game each player has the opportunity to place 2 settlements and 2 roads (in the player order 1, 2, 3, 4, 4, 3, 2, 1, with the players being decided at the start by rolling the dice). Immediately strategy comes into play. Do you go for the rare resources? Do you try and straddle tiles with the most likely dice roll numbers (for example, there are more ways of rolling an 8 than a 3), or do you try to monopolize a single resource?
Monopolizing a resource is a clever ploy for two reasons: firstly, if you have four of a resource you can trade it in for one of any other kind of resource. Secondly, if you own a port you can trade in three of a source for one of any other kind, or if you own a special “2:1” port, you can trade two of a specific resource for one of any other kind. On top of that, you can trade with other players, which is a core feature of the game.
Trading works brilliantly. A negotiation screen allows you to specify what you want and what you will give in return. Other players can accept, or negotiate by placing their own demands instead. This can be used in many ways: you can specify just what you want and see what the others will offer; or if another player wants say grain in exchange for lumber, you can require him to give 2 lumber, or 1 lumber and 1 brick for the single grain. The cycle of negotiation can go on for a while (up to the time limit specified when creating the game) until the players come to agreement or agree to disagree. Trading happens on almost every round; if more than one player agrees to a trade, the initiator can choose who to trade with.
Tactical placing of settlements and roads, clever positioning of the Robber, smart trading and use of ports, thoughtful use of development cards, tactical resource monopolization, and blocking of trades if a player is getting too close to victory are all essential.
Upgrading a settlement to a city doubles the resources you acquire from neighbouring tiles. You can also have more than one settlement or city on different corners of the same tile for even greater multipliers. As a twist, there has to be at least two roads between any two settlements or cities, which means judicious placement of settlements can also prevent your opponents from expanding on the map, as settlements have to be placed adjacent to one of the player’s own roads. Finally, you can only have a maximum of 5 settlements, so you need to choose the right time to upgrade to cities.
If you have the most number of Soldier cards exposed with a minimum of 3, you earn the Largest Army bonus; if you have a road with a minimum length of 5 tiles and it is the longest of all the players’ roads, you earn Longest Road. Both of these are worth 2 VP, but if an opponent builds a larger army or road, the bonus is stolen by that player. Since only 10 VP is required to win, keeping control of these is also very important, as well as deciding whether to focus on army and road building, or standard play.
Graphically, the game is functional with 3 skins to choose from. It looks pleasant enough and does its job. There are only two songs which grate pretty quickly but you can always turn the music off.
The learning curve is pretty steep and the tutorial is a bit of a slog; the hardest part is remembering which resources you need for which items, though fortunately there is a hint sheet with this and other information accessible from within the game. On my first 10 minutes of the tutorial I thought the game was going to be trivial and boring, but once you get further into it you quickly realize it is a tactical masterpiece.
Playing against the AI is decent enough, but this game is really designed to be played online, and it really is amazingly addictive. A game lasts quite a long time, from 45 to 90 minutes depending how the board develops, so don’t expect to play in quick 10 minute bursts. The online options are completely configurable in every way, even down to whether the dice is weighted. Other players can of course see these options before joining. The multiplayer includes a special multiplayer cursor which players can optionally use to suggest trades or tiles to other players, or opponents to target. Voice chat is bundled in and there are some shortcut text message keys for quick comments. All very well-designed.
Unfortunately, there is no way to create a private match online, so if you have 3 friends to invite and the slots fill up, you’re done for. Although you can play with less than four players, the game is by far at its best with a full house. Much more worryingly, there is no local multiplayer and this is really a great shame.
- Absolutely brilliant strategy game
- Well-designed and polished throughout
- Highly customizable online play
- Excellent value for money
- No offline multi-player
- Steep learning curve
If Catan sounds tactical, it is, if it sounds boring, it isn’t. This is probably one of the best uses of £4 you can find on PSN. The only reason I haven’t given this a 10 is because of the local multi-player. Catan is so addictive just writing about it has made me want to have another go. Even if you’re not usually into board games, it’s hard to imagine that anyone who has ever played a Tycoon, Theme, C&C, Dune or other RTS-type game wouldn’t like this. For the money, what’s not to like?
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