If you know any board game geeks, you’ve almost certainly seen a copy of Settlers of Catan somewhere in their stack of games. For many it’s the infection vector of tabletop gaming, the test people have friends pass before breaking out the heavy strategy games. The German classic has sold millions of copies and was tirelessly developed by Klaus Teuber to be easy to grasp for newcomers and endlessly complex for experienced players. It’s also a great way to haggle with your friends over sheep and ore and wood.
It all sounds ridiculous on the outside, but rolling dice to harvest clay is actually a mess of fun to play with a group. Which is often what makes the video game versions of Catan so disappointing. Board game video games are not new — there are approximately a million versions of Monopoly, so many they even invented a friggin theme song for it. But multiplayer board games are generally hit or miss, and Catan on the switch is essentially a solo experience. Which is a shame, because it feels like we’re primed for a board game revolution in digital gaming, and in a lot of ways the Switch is the perfect device to make that happen.
The good news about this version of Catan is its campaign mode is extremely thorough and challenges you to the many different intonations of Catan you probably don’t want to spend hundreds of dollars on to fill your shelves at home. Since its initial release, the Catan universe has spawned a number of different expansions and new game modes. What was once a single hexagonal island now has multiple islands, ships, and special game conditions to keep Catan fans spending their money. The mobile phone version of Catan has all of those expansions, though many are hidden behind expansion packages. On the Switch, you’re seafaring right away and learning all the different ways the game can grow.
But all of that is done against computer opponents who emptily taunt you with unspecific cracks about your inexperience. Multiplayer for most digital versions of tabletop games — Catan included — are now reduced to online play, which is simply too slow to actually be enjoyable. There’s so much waiting for connections and opponents and just for the game to start in the first place. By the time your turn comes, you feel rushed to make decisions just to be polite, lest it feel like you are the bad guy for taking so long on your turn. With rare exceptions, I never really got a full game in before something went wrong online.
Often there would be at least one AI opponent subbed in for a real person by the midway point of the game, either because their connection had timed them out or they quit, apparently in frustration. It’s not a Catan-specific problem with multiplayer board gaming, but that a game as social as Catan is mostly relegated to a singular experience in front of a screen on the Switch feels somewhat unsatisfying.
What I, perhaps unrealistically, wanted from Catan on the Switch was a game that could replace a board game night in your home. Think a Jackbox-style game where you can use a secondary device like a mobile phone to manage your resources and have the board itself on the screen while you haggle about trades with friends. It’s not fair to review a game that doesn’t exist, but it feels like Catan for the Switch could have been the one to make a truly social multiplayer version of one of the best board games on the market. Asmodee Digital hopes to do something similar with Pandemic next month, and since it’s a cooperative game perhaps it will work.
Catan for shut-ins isn’t a bad marketing strategy, honestly, but it still feels like a missed opportunity this time around.