It's nothing short of magical that a couple of sheaves of wheat and a handful of ore can turn a modest settlement into a bustling city. Catan has finally arrived on the PlayStation 3, and this digital translation of the world-renowned board game is just as engrossing as its tabletop and Xbox 360 counterparts. This slow-paced game of resource gathering won't captivate wandering eyes with a fancy visual presentation or explosive special effects, but beneath the staid veneer lies a wealth of strategic indulgence. Matches have a tantalizing ebb and flow that requires players to exhibit shrewd tactics, bold maneuvering, and a hint of luck in order to come out victorious, and the delicate volley that encompasses most games is difficult to pull yourself away from. With a limited supply of options, Catan is not the most robust downloadable game. But for just $7, there's enough imperialistic entertainment on offer to stick your flag into.
The rules in Catan are hard to grasp initially, so it's important to flip through the noninteractive tutorial so you have an idea of how to play. This is a four-player game in which participants vie for resources on a hexagonal board. Each space on the board is randomly assigned a number before the game begins as well as one of five materials (ore, brick, lumber, wool, and wheat). You throw a pair of dice at the start of each turn, and resources are handed out to every player who has a city or settlement on the corresponding space. These resources are used to build roads, erect settlements (which can be upgraded to cities), and draw development cards. Your ultimate goal is to earn a set number of victory points (set at 10 by default) by performing specific tasks, such as building the longest road or constructing cities. It should be noted that there is no way to play locally with friends, so competitive play is limited to online.
On the surface, all this talk of roads and wool may come off as a dry experience, but that initial ho-hum feeling quickly dissipates when you get sucked into a race for those precious resources. Even though there are only five materials and four things you can build, there are still plenty of ways you can achieve victory. If lumber and brick is your style, you can build a long road that stretches around the board, limiting your opponents' movement opportunities while you snatch up points. Or if you're more of a wheat and ore kind of guy, you can draw development cards and make improvements on your settlement. Development cards hold a lot of power. These give you the ability to steal resources from your enemies, quickly build roads, and earn an automatic victory point (among other things), and you can come out on top just by drawing as many of these as you can. Because of the varying ways to achieve victory, every match is unique, and you often have to switch your game plan two or three times before a game ends.
Like most board games, Catan is at its best when you're matching wits against human opponents, but the single-player experience is almost as gripping. Matches are vindictive, back-and-forth affairs in which thwarting your enemies' pursuits is almost as rewarding as fulfilling your own. Your AI-controlled foes come from the annals of history, and it's great fun to see ore-poor Marco Polo vie for a taste of this powerful resource and then cut off his attempt by building a road in his path. A robber token can be placed on any land to kill production until it's moved again, and using this tactic against the player in first place always leads to much teeth gnashing and angry shouts. It's always enjoyable to team up with the three other players to bring the leader down, and it's even more exciting when you're the one in first place and you overcome your opponents' desperate attempt to take your crown. It's just disappointing that every match is a one-off game. There isn't a single-player tournament in which you take down famous icons, nor any competitive options beyond playing one match at a time. Catan is deep enough to keep you coming back for more, but long-play options would have been a nice touch.
All this pomp and circumstance is limited to your own imagination, though, because Catan is not very good-looking. The board adequately conveys basic information, but there aren't any frills to add to the delights of conquest. This is a perfect re-creation of the classic board game, but it would have been nice if a few video game flourishes had been added to spice up the matches. At least there is some variety. You can choose from three different skins, and though the default one is the easiest on the eyes, the other two are not without their charms. A 3D board breathes life into these sterile environments, letting you stare at grazing sheep and towering mountains while you plan your next line of attack. There is also a skin called kosmos that draws on Catan's German heritage. The development cards are all in German, and it's certainly fun to read these out loud to your confused opponent. The music is as inoffensive as the boards you play on, but it doesn't get in the way, and it provides a soothing melody to accompany the frantic strategizing.
It can take a few games to become fully invested in Catan. The layers of strategy are not readily apparent, and the sterile visuals do little to suck in reluctant competitors. But once everything clicks and you're building roads and harvesting resources, Catan transforms into a captivating experience. Tournament options or the inclusion of one of Catan's many expansions would have added longevity to this package, but even in its current form, this is a difficult experience to pull away from. And for such a low price, there is plenty of content to satisfy even the most ardent resource fiends.