Though the terms "board game" and "arcade" seem somewhat incongruous, the first board game for the Xbox Live Arcade has just debuted in the form of Catan. This is an updated version of the classic German board game Settlers of Catan, a cult favorite among board game players. It is a game of resource management and very careful planning that rewards players that think far ahead. While that might sound a bit dull and overly complex, the good news is that Catan doesn't require a huge investment of time to learn. After a few plays, you'll have all the basics down, and you may just find yourself oddly addicted to this slow-pouring strategy game.
The rules of Catan are a bit confusing initially, but they make more sense as you begin to play. The playing field is a board separated by several numbered grids. The numbers represent the number you roll on the dice each turn, and each grid is randomly assigned a resource. There are five resources in the game: lumber, wool, wheat, brick, and ore. Managing these resources is the key to the game. You use these resources to build settlements, roads, and cities, as well as to collect development cards.
The overall goal of the game is to reach 10 points, and the things you create with your resources all net you points in various ways. Building a settlement gets you a point, whereas building a city (which is actually an upgrade to an existing settlement) or the longest road gets you two. There are also development cards to consider. Some development cards just sit in your deck and earn you a point automatically, while others, such as the soldier card, build up over time. If you use three soldier cards over the course of the game, you'll be awarded the largest army distinction, which gets you two points.
Ultimately, it all goes back to resources. You can't build anything without the resource cards, and you can't get resource cards without building anything. You start the game with two settlements placed wherever you like on the board, ideally in spots that get you a variety of resources. Settlements must be placed on the corner of a grid and at least two spaces apart from one another. Figuring out proper placements for roads, cities, and settlements is one of the trickiest things about Catan, because if you end up in bad spots, you'll get lapped by the competition or muscled out of key resource areas. The good news is that you can trade for resources you're lacking, if you can manage it, either with other players or by using port areas that surround the game board. Ports require you to give up four of one resource type to get one in return (unless you build a settlement on a port, which cuts the amount you'll have to sacrifice down a bit), whereas player trades can involve any number of cards. Of course, a smart player won't trade with you if you're getting too far ahead in the game.
There are other elements of the game to consider, such as the robber piece that can be moved around the board when you play a soldier card or roll a seven (and, in turn, used to steal a resource card from any one player that happens to be connected to the grid you place the robber on), but the basic meat of the game boils down to figuring out the best spots to build your settlements, cities, and roads, and then managing your resources accordingly. All this might sound daunting if you're more into the Hungry Hungry Hippos brand of board games, but in practice, Catan isn't much more complicated than something like Monopoly--it's just not as immediately familiar. The good news is that if you are left scratching your head at any point, there's a help menu that explains all the rules in detail, as well as a "learn as you play" option. Both of these do a nice job of laying out the game for you.
Catan offers both single-player and online multiplayer modes. The ideal way to play is definitely online. It's not that the single-player is bad, but the computer opponents tend to be a bit one-dimensional. They're not dumb, at least, and if you crank the difficulty level up to hard, they'll give you a good run for your money in most matches. At the same time, they tend to be a little too willing to trade, and sometimes they don't seem to take into account any development cards you might be holding when plotting their strategies. Online, you can play with either two or three opponents, and the game can be played in standard player or ranked matches. In player matches, multiple rules can be tweaked, including some "friendly" options that make things such as the penalty for being hit by the robber, or what happens if your resource intake runs dry, a bit less stiff. There are also game-speed options to play around with, though even on the highest speed, Catan is a fairly slow-moving game. Matches can take anywhere between 20 and 45 minutes, depending on how skilled the opposing players are. It's a time investment for sure, but a worthwhile one.
Though you probably don't expect a ton from a board game, Catan does a nice job with its presentational elements. There are two skins available for the game, one of which is the standard board-game presentation while the other turns the board into an island, complete with animated animals, foliage, water, and even a dancing robber. It's a nice-looking skin, though some purists might find it to be overly busy. Even if you play with the board-game skin, the game still looks entirely decent. As you play, pleasant background music occupies the aural space, and a variety of goofy but enjoyable sound effects pop up as action takes place on the board.
Catan isn't going to appeal to everyone. At its heart, it's a fairly esoteric turn-based strategy game with a dry sensibility. There's no flashiness to what Catan does, but that's fine for what it is. It simply takes the original board game and dresses it up slightly for Xbox Live Arcade consumption. If you're looking for something simple to supplant your current Uno addiction, Catan probably isn't going to do it for you. But if you like turn-based strategy games with relatively easy-to-learn mechanics and very satisfying gameplay, Catan offers precisely that.