Catan: A Classic Strategy Board Game

The board game Catan, by Klaus Teuber, has been around almost 20 years now, and has gained worldwide popularity as an engaging strategic game of resource collecting and settlement building. USM, also the developer for the popular Keltis iOS game, brings us this implementation of Catan for the iPhone.

In it you take on the role of a settler of Catan, a newly discovered island rich with natural resources. You compete with the other settlers by building settlements, roads and cities in order to cover enough of the island with your influence to proclaim yourself the Lord of Catan. Stake your claim after the break.

The Basics

The game board is made of numbered, hexagonal tiles that each represent a different kind of resource, lumber, ore, grain, wool and brick, and are laid out randomly at the start to form the island. Each turn, two die are rolled and the number represents the tile, or tiles, that produce their goods that turn. If you have a settlement or city next to such a tile, you collect that resource.

The main interface of a game well underway.

The main interface of a game well underway.

Each player starts with two settlements and two roads, which are placed by each player before the first dice are rolled. Your initial settlement placements determine a lot about how well you will do in the game, including your initial resources, so you have to scrutinize the possible placements based on the types of resources they will get and the odds of their numbers being rolled more often.

Gameplay

The final goal of the game is to be the first to reach the number of agreed upon victory points, usually earned by building settlements and cities. But watch out, for when a seven is rolled the Robber takes action and will steal from the richest players. The player who rolled the seven then moves the Robber to a new tile, a tile which will not produce resources until the Robber moves on.

The trade interface is set up for quick-swipe deal making.

The trade interface is set up for quick-swipe deal making.

Resource trading is my favorite part of playing Catan with live people. During your turn you can offer up resources you possess to trade for those you want. In person, this creates a fun atmosphere of wheeling and dealing, but against the AI it is nowhere near as engaging. I give them credit though, because the AI seems to adjust well to their needs and can drive a hard bargain.

Strategy

Each thing you can build will take a different combination of resources: a lumber and a brick for a road; one of each resource for a settlement; three ore and two grain for a city; plus a city can only be built on top of a settlement. As you start to try and expand from your initial placements you will often find your development blocked by the moves of the other players, and you will want to look to doing the same to them.

Purchasing development cards offer another route for opportunity.

Purchasing development cards offer another route for opportunity.

In addition to the building, you can also spend resources (one ore, one grain and one wool) to purchase development cards. These are drawn randomly from a limited central deck and will each grant you special options for how to proceed. For instance, knights let you move the Robber, and build the largest army (extra points). Other cards let you build additional roads, collect extra resources and so on.

Implementation

Overall, I am impressed with the implementation of Catan for the iPhone. The screen automatically zooms and pans about as the AI players take their turns, helping you to see quickly what they are doing and where. This, combined with the well built pop-out menu system, make for a flowing feel to things as they play out.

The pop-out menu is slick, zooming in and out easy.

The pop-out menu is slick, zooming in and out easy.

One area of the interface that I think needs some help is in the text messages that appear at the top to describe what is happening. Often they do not update quickly enough, which can leave you wondering exactly what is happening. In particular, during trades I often see the message window vanish completely instead of telling me if my trade was accepted or not. Once you have played a few times this glitch will not trip you up, but when I was just learning the game I was totally confused by this.

Game Options

You can play with up to four players, each being either an AI or a real person (for pass and play), and set some minor alterations like adjusting the victory point total needed to win. In addition, there are a few different rule variations you can play with that restrict certain resources or grant extra points for building harbors.

The Seafarers Lite map that comes with the basic game shows you what you can expect in the full expansion.

The Seafarers Lite map that comes with the basic game shows you what you can expect in the full expansion.

The board game version of Catan has released numerous expansions that take the game to new levels of complexity and fun. The iPhone version is following suit with the first in-app purchase being the Seafarers expansion, which brings in pirates, ship building and playing on maps with multiple islands. The basic game gives you a teaser for this, called Seafarers Lite, that allows you to get a taste of what the game is like with the expansion added in.

Limitations

As much as I like the game of Catan, I think this version has a number of striking limitations that hold it back from truly shining. First and foremost is the price. $4.99 for the basic game is on the high side of fair for the quality and fun the app has, but the Seafarers expansion will run you another $4.99 on top of that. Plus, this is not an iOS universal app, so if you like to play on your iPad too you are looking at buying everything twice.

The other major problem with this game is the lack of online multiplayer. They make it clear that this feature is on its way, but without it this does feel like an overpriced app, offering more a sort of pre-release experience. So unless one has others around for pass and play, for the time we are stuck with playing against the AI — which is decent enough, but do not provide the level of fun that is had by playing real opponents.

Conclusions

If you really enjoy a good strategy game then Catan will definitely satisfy in that way. It has just the right amount of subtle complexity that makes it both easy to learn and interesting to play again and again. But without multiplayer you may not get the kind of replay-ability that playing with friends will definitely bring. Even the Seafarers expansion “campaign” mode felt like more of the same, though the new island maps definitely bring in a fun variation on things.

Once the multiplayer arrives I would probably bring my rating up to a seven. But honestly the price of the game and the in app expansion (which I presume is reflective of what future expansions will cost too) bring the value of the game down some for me, compared with all the amazing cheap and free games that are available these days. If you happen to grab this game when it is on sale, and it has multiplayer by then, I would say it is a strong eight.


Summary

A turn based strategy game of resource collecting and settlement development.

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