There’s a secret world of tabletop gaming that many people aren’t aware of. Games like Monopoly, Risk, Life, and the slew of card games that can be played with a standard deck are solid games, don’t get me wrong, but there are as many different types of board games as there are video games. Light, quick games, heavy games that require loads of thinking, party games, cooperative games, games based almost entirely on luck, even solo games… Honestly, I could go on and on, just like Forrest Gump did with shrimp, but my point is this: out of all of the tabletop games that exist, Catan is one of the most well-known.
I’ve dipped my toes in those waters a bit myself: Smash Up lives up to its name due to its humor, Pandemic is infectious fun, and Takenoko is as much fun for us as it is for the panda eating a smorgasbord of colored bamboo. But it wasn’t until recently that I was able to explore Catan, and I’ve certainly learned why it’s earned a place on so many gamers’ shelves.
Publisher: Asmodee Digital
Platform: Nintendo Switch
Game Version: Final
Review Copy: Provided by publisher
Interface: Handheld Switch Console
Available on Nintendo Switch
The island of CATAN ™ is an uninhabited land rich in resources for you to settle. Unfortunately, your opponents have the same plans.
Build settlements, roads and cities strategically to gain supremacy on CATAN! Some resources you have in abundance, other resources are scarce.
Trade resources wisely & skillfully to stack the odds in your favor and become the greatest settler of CATAN!
Catan is a resource management board game. That means pretty much exactly what it sounds like: players manage the accumulation, trade, and use of resources, and whoever does the best job wins! 3-4 players (AI or online human opponents) face off on a board full of various types of resources like lumber, ore, and grain. These resources are used to expand across the board, presenting players with access to more resources, obtaining victory points, and battling for different types of supremacy.
As someone who has never played Catan before, I was incredibly happy to have a brief tutorial to play. It managed to explain the most basic rules, but there were still some things that I was confused by once I started a game of my own. Luckily, the game does a terrific job of ramping up the difficulty and complexity: you begin with The First Island, a very basic map, and work your way through the base game’s three campaigns before entering into numerous campaigns in the Seafarers expansion (included free). I really loved the various ways the campaigns not only added new rules to learn, but they also messed with the board: one level puts most of the grain on islands you have to sail to, for example, and another allows you to alter the board itself as you reveal more of the map. I’ve got to admit, though, it was a bit funny that the one rule I was confused about – where you’re allowed to place a settlement – was missing part of the text in the almanac (digital in-game rulebook).
The biggest thing that took me a while to get used to was the absolute importance of setup. At the beginning of each match, players take turns setting up their first settlement, and you only have a chance of obtaining resources from hexes around them. I ended up failing one of the campaigns five times because I kept starting myself off in terrible places. Once I learned what all of the resources are used for and which ones were the most important, things got a lot easier. You can easily move the camera down and look at the “recipes”, and you can even pull up the menu to craft the various things any time. Heck, there aren’t even many things you can make: in the base game’s three campaigns there are only four combinations you need to worry about, and there are only five types of resources.
Once I fully grasped building and expanding, I was amazed by just how many ways there are to earn points. Whoever has the longest road gets 2 points, settlements and cities each give you points, and you can earn points through drawing cards via your army or just drawing a card that grants you a point. Some campaigns allow you to get points from settling on another island, and my favorite campaign includes treasure chests to loot. Not only are there various methods to gain points, but there are also various tactics for attaining resources as well! If your opponents claim the spots with the best types of resources, you can try to specialize in one or two others and claim a port that lets you trade one of them at a great price. I had a blast in one game amassing loads of wool and trading them 2:1 for anything else I needed, and since I practically had a monopoly on it, the AI players were offering all kinds of sweet trades. In another game, I built a huge armada of ships and used them to find the best resources on islands, settling down on the best ones while ruling the seas. Ticket to Ride players will also know the pain of having paths cut off by other players, which I may or may not have done a few times to mess with opponents…
The world of Catan is a colorful place, and the graphics really nail the tabletop vibe. Hexes actually look clunky and solid, and the pieces you lay down look real enough that one may try to pick them up (note: there are no touch controls, though, so you can’t no matter how hard you try). The hexes, cards, and UI are colorful and clear, allowing players to quickly see everything at a glance. I’m particularly grateful that all of the controls are shown on the screen at all times as well; at one point I didn’t play for a few days, and when I came back I forgot pretty much all of the controls. Finally, by using the right stick (the only control not shown), you can look around the table to get a peek at the build cost reminder card and the number of each type of piece you have left. As the campaigns get more and more advanced, and the victory point requirement to win gets higher, this becomes more and more important. Plus, come on, it’s just cool to see that stuff laid out as it would be in the tabletop version of the game instead of seeing it in a pause menu or something.
As for the system itself, Catan does a terrific job with the UI. Information is easily accessible, and games against AI have no time limits. Once you have a grasp of how everything works, it’s incredibly easy to lay down roads, build settlements, and trade with other players or the bank. I was worried when I saw that you could turn AI trades off that this would be like those old Monopoly video games where the AI would try to make ridiculous trades 500 times in a row while I beat my head against a wall, but that wasn’t the case at all. Trading with other players is much more strategic in Catan anyway: accepting a trade usually means getting at least one or two resources that you need, but it also means giving up a card an opponent needs for sure. But when you have lots of resources and don’t want anything no matter what an opponent is trading, skipping their trades takes mere seconds no matter how many attempts they make. My only wish for the UI is that it explained why you can’t do things when you try. For example, it took me a while to realize you have a limited number of pieces, so you can’t build a new settlement if you’ve used them all up. It also took a while to learn that cards you draw can’t be used right away, or where settlements can be placed. A simple popup that says “You can’t do this because (reason)” would’ve gone a long way. Oh, and for some reason, I’ve yet to get used to setting up trades: you press up to select which card(s) you want to trade and down on which card(s) you want to get from the trade. My brain refused to accept this concept, and even now I fumble at first each time.
While the game doesn’t allow you to play with local human opponents, it does allow for online play. I don’t have anyone to play with online, so I only tried the random player option, but I found opponents within less than a minute! The online match was fun, even though I got my butt kicked by someone of a way higher level (your level doesn’t give you any kind of advantage, it’s just for pride). As someone who has a crappy internet connection, I really loved that the AI opponents were just as fun to play against as the human opponents, even after playing dozens of matches. So many of the matches came down to the wire, and I managed to pull off numerous last-second wins. Not only that, there are three difficulty levels you can choose from, so people who have experience with the tabletop game can face off against very difficult AI and people like me who are new to the game can work their way up from the lowest difficulty.
While campaign levels require you to complete sets of levels before moving onto the next levels, you can dive into any campaign whenever you’d like from the Campaign menu. Not only can you select any of the campaigns, but you can also adjust all sorts of settings as well. For example, if I wanted to take my favorite campaign – one with treasure chests – and add a fourth AI player to it, I could. I could also raise or lower the victory point total (which adjusts the game far more than you might think), randomize the map, and more. Best of all, individual AI can be altered, so you can play against two easy AI and one hard one if you’d like. The game comes with three campaigns in the base game and fourteen in the included Seafarers expansion, and you can sort by the number of players (some campaigns are only available for three OR four players). Most important of all, though, pressing the left stick will let the game pick one randomly for you! Don’t worry though, if it selects a campaign you really don’t want to play, you can just press the left stick again!
Finally, the game has another expansion available via DLC: Cities & Knights. I didn’t get the DLC and haven’t tried it out, but I enjoyed Catan so much that I’ll almost certainly buy it (it’s only $5.99 anyway!). People who are familiar with the rules of Catan will learn how to play the digital version quickly, and for people like me who haven’t touched the game before, a half-dozen matches or so is all it takes to pick up the basics and learn the UI. It’s a game that’s fun to play over and over, especially when there are so many campaign setups and difficulty levels to face off against. It’s also perfectly portable, allowing you to save your progress anytime you want. I found this particularly useful when I lost track of time and the battery was about to die! Catan has also taught me that I want to purchase the physical game so I can play against my gal, and now that I’ve learned all of the rules from the digital version it’ll be easy to dive in! But most importantly of all, I now understand and share in the pure, unequaled hatred toward the robber and their foiling of my plans. Sure it’s a great way to balance the game and add stress to each roll of the dice, but he’s a jerk that always seems to know exactly when to strike!