Catan: Settlers on the Mac, Without the Nostalgic Charm

I first heard about The Settlers of Catan in CBS’ The Big Bang Theory, and I was surprised to never have played such a popular title. The board game, if you don’t already know, was invented in Germany and became extremely popular outside Europe, selling over 15 million copies in the U.S. by 2009. It’s also available as a video game on common platforms like the Nintendo DS, PC, and the Mac.

While the game has been available on iOS since late 2009, there hasn’t been an official Mac app until this July saw the release of Catan. I’ve been playing it for the past few days to get a hang of things. The board game is great, but will the legend live on in a Mac world?

3D Graphics are Too Shiny, But There’s An Alternative

The 3D mode looks more like Age of Empires.

The 3D mode looks more like Age of Empires.

Some developers like to completely rethink the experience of a game when making it digital. Battleship, for example, has been adapted many times, some of the variations good and others downright unfitting of the title. Catan, sadly, has a 3D mode that renders a bunch of fancy, completely unnecessary textures. It looks more like Settlers of Pandora than Catan. Additionally, after playing the game with a friend, we both agreed that the ornate looks only take away from the game. Due to coloring schemes, font choices, and duplicate textures, it’s hard to tell what numbers are on hexes when you’re zoomed out and sometimes zooming in just renders things even worse.

The game doesn’t automatically start in fullscreen, so use OS X’s fullscreen button to make things more focused.

A much better traditional look is available with the click of a button.

A much better traditional look is available with the click of a button.

The regular graphics mode is fantastic. It looks exactly like the board game and you can rotate it any direction by holding down the secondary mouse button and dragging. I found it to be a perfect adaptation of the traditional board. It also didn’t take nearly as much CPU on my MacBook Air, though I will say that the 3D rendering only spun up the fan slightly.

Gameplay Takes a Bit of Practice

Catan has quite a few idiosyncrasies in its gameplay. When you first start, it helps you by pointing out what areas you can place a settlement on, which is handy, but if you don’t already know how to play, the app doesn’t offer a tutorial in Scenario mode (which is basically a quick match). If you play the Campaign, it guides you through some of the gameplay, but I still didn’t find it sufficient and ended up having to ask a friend for help in areas.

You can’t zoom out when placing a road next to your current settlements, so make sure you look around the map before clicking that build button.

Learn how to play the game with built-in tutorials.

Learn how to play the game with built-in tutorials.

Speaking of tutorials, the game does have them — just not on the main menu. You’ll find a list of ten guides in the Help menu for anything from setup to the Cities & Knights expansion. Most of them do a fair job of explaining things, but overall I was left confused with some areas. For example, when you’re trading with the computer, its response to your trade appears near its icon in one of the four corners, but lies hidden behind a dark semi-transparent layer, often leaving you to wonder what happened to your exchange.

The computer has a trading addiction and needs an intervention. Every time I rejected a trade, it would continue to spam me with offers, “sweetening the deal” each time. There should be a “reject all future offers” button for this.

The Voice-Overs are Pointless

During a scenario, the computer characters in Catan don’t know whether or not they wish to use audio for communication or post pop-ups with text. Every time I played with Sean (a pre-defined AI), he’d boast about something silly in a short pop-up quote, then start rambling about something audibly five minutes later. All of this seemed very inconsistent.

The characters help to give Catan a story.

The characters help to give Catan a story.

My biggest quibble about the audio in this game was not that the music lacked in originality, but rather that the game didn’t know how to manage its volumes. When playing the campaign, the voices would cut out to make room for the crashing oceans or wind in the background. This made it difficult for me to progress through the campaign without reading the blurbs, making the voice-overs unneeded.

The campaign’s voice acting was fine, but didn’t match the character’s mouth movements at all — I don’t mean it was unrealistic, I mean it was terrible. Their mouths just moved in a pattern until the little scenes were finished. Ah well, I wasn’t looking for a campaign anyway.

Local Multiplayer is Good, But It’s Not Even LAN

Two locals versus the computer.

Two locals versus the computer.

This game would be a lot more fun if it were possible to play other humans over the Internet, or even the same network. Instead, though, you are forced to play your friends on the same computer, which interferes with Victory Points and other development cards. Other players shouldn’t be able to know that you have a Knight before you play it, because then they can use up their resources to avoid getting too many things stolen.

If you’re all playing on, say, a desktop, everyone will see what you have and know if you’re close to building another settlement. They can also predict what you will trade for, and so on.

As my friend said when we were testing out this game, “If you’re going to make a video game for Settlers of Catan, the main feature should be online multiplayer.” The developers could have at least included a LAN mode for friends to play the game cross-platform. I understand that an online one would require a server, so LAN would be more realistic, but they neglected to provide either.

The Board Game Will Remain Superior

Longest road shall be mine!

Longest road shall be mine!

I enjoyed this game, but after playing it I ended up wanting to close my computer and play the actual board game with friends. It’s a lot more fun than passing a computer or staring at the same screen while your opponents build their cities and steal from you.

This game would be more playable if it included online multiplayer. I hope to see it in an upcoming version, otherwise I won’t be playing Catan very often. I’d prefer to roll real dice and move the robber with my hands, even if it’s over twice the price.

Oh, and if it’s a classic game, make the graphics so!


Summary

Catan is an adaption of a board game that doesn't need to be a video game. It tries to deliver the same experience, but misses the mark in multiplayer, which should be the headlining feature.

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