|Dovetail Games, Nomad Games
|Strategy Game, Board Game Adaptation
|PS5, PS4, PC, Xbox One, Xbox Series S|X (reviewed)
|February 23, 2023
Board games. You know them, you love (or hate) them. But regardless of your feelings toward the genre, they’re likely here to stay. They’ve been a mainstay of the living room for generations, and while their reign may have teetered a bit in the digital age, it certainly hasn’t toppled. In fact, board games have had a fair shot at adapting to a brave new world with a plethora of video game adaptations. I’ve even taken a look at one here on GUG: The Game of Life 2. And it kind of sucked. But what about one of the most popular board games of all time, a true modern classic? Could that stand a better chance of surviving the media transition? Well, CATAN – Console Edition seeks to answer that question once and for all.
If you’ve never played CATAN, and by that I mean the real-life version, then you might find the rest of this review a little obtuse. While it’s not the most complicated game in the world, it definitely takes a bit more thought than something like Sorry! So here’s a quick recap, (feel free to skip if you’re already a seasoned Catanian.) The board is made up of a series of hexagonal tiles with number tokens on them. To begin the game, you place two settlements and roads on the borders of these tiles. On your turn, you roll two dice. The number on those dice determines which hexes produce resources that turn. After that, you have the option to trade resources either with other players or with the bank. And finally, you end your turn by building something from the game’s list of structures, or purchasing a Development Card. The aim of the game is to net 10 Victory Points, which you do by building structures, achieving milestones, and collecting Development Cards.
That’s a very basic rundown of the game, and there’s a lot more to the strategies you can employ, such as when to trade, keeping track of who’s collecting what kind of resource, and so on. But I’m here to talk about this specifically digital incarnation of Colonization Simulator 2023. (Okay…maybe that’s a bit harsh.) As far as gameplay goes…it’s CATAN. No bells or whistles to be found. The game handles the dice rolling and resource distribution automatically, allowing you to focus on strategizing and trading. In addition, the UI is pretty intuitive, laying things out really efficiently. Your build cards and resources are never more than a button push away.
I also really like the way the game handles multiple players. You can hide your resources at any point if you’re sharing the screen, but if you’d like, you can have everyone scan a QR code at the beginning of the game, and select their character on their phone. Then, you have your inventory in the palm of your hand, safe from the prying eyes of other players. It’s a pretty ingenious way to simulate real-life card games in a digital format.
The AI is pretty impressive as well, and I found my plans blocked on multiple occasions. My biggest bugbear with the AI is the fact that I was sometimes offered the exact same trade multiple times in a row on the same turn, which was a little irritating. Thankfully, it’s just a simple button press to reject, and the AI gives up pretty quickly after that.
The real appeal of a video game adaptation of a board game, at least to me, is how it brings the world of the game to life. This is where CATAN – Console Edition really shines. Every hex has a little animated world on it, with constantly animated characters harvesting the resources. It reminds me of something from the Civilization franchise, and while it’s not much, it’s a really neat little touch. You’re even able to zoom into the board to see the characters in more detail. Each resource harvest comes with a tornado animation sweeping up the collection, so it’s immediately obvious which hexes were activated by the dice roll. Settlements and cities pop up from underneath the board in a fun trapdoor animation, and the game makes it very clear what spaces are available to build roads and settlements, eliminating any tableside arguments as to whether that road you just placed was legal. The game has even added characters to the game. There’s a set of player avatar characters, and there’s even character descriptions for the workers that harvest the resources. Again, it’s not much, but it’s really nice to see attention to detail in such a niche area.
The game also includes a soundtrack, and it’s…definitely a soundtrack. To begin with, it’s woefully limited, with only around 5 tracks total. Given than an average game can last almost half an hour, you’ll hear every track multiple times over the course of the game. And for about half of the soundtrack, that’s fine. There are some absolutely lovely atmospheric tracks utilizing wind instruments and light strings that complement the game wonderfully. It really feels like a fledgling civilization just working to make ends meet, and the music is just floating along with that.
But they really bungled the rest of the soundtrack. While about half is the wonderful atmospheric tracks I just mentioned, the other half is a collection of absolutely miserable MIDI tracks that sound straight out of the first Elder Scrolls game. Yes, I mean the one from 1994. I know computer generated music has come a long way in the past nearly 30 years, so this is absolutely baffling to me. It feels like the team got a professional composer to do three tracks, then figured they needed more, so they just threw something together in Mario Paint Composer and called it a day. It’s an absolutely jarring shift going from one style to the other, and I actually grimaced a couple times when the plodding synth decided to assault my city walls once again.
In fact, there are a lot of little issues with the presentation overall. The visuals look oddly dated for such a recent release, resembling something from a PC game in the mid 2010’s rather than a 2023 Xbox Series S release. In addition, there’s only one sound for every menu action, from moving to selecting, and it gets really old, really fast. Rather than an innocuous click or something similar, it’s a chunky chime sound, and hearing it 10 times in a row while I took my turn really started to grate on me, even without the King’s Quest II Symphony Orchestra blaring on behind it. There’s also no fanfare, or music of any kind, when the winner is declared. You simply sit there in silence as the winner celebrates with fireworks around their settlements. And finally, there were also a couple spelling mistakes in the rule book, and while that’s not a huge deal, for a release for a huge board game franchise, it was odd, to say the least.
But all that, I could, and did, overlook. What I couldn’t overlook was that the game just didn’t work half the time. When I first installed it, I booted it up, eager to give it a shot. And when I got to the main menu…none of the buttons worked. The music played, promising a grand adventure on the island of Catan, and I sat pressing every button on my controller to no avail. I reset multiple times, tried different controllers, even tried deleting and reinstalling the game, but nothing. After about a week of waiting, I decided to try again, and lo and behold, I could actually start the game! But the next time I started it, I had the same issue, only for it to function again after a reset. This on-again-off-again glitch had me feeling less like I was playing a board game and more like I was the parent of a toddler who didn’t know whether dinner was going to go down smoothly or end up on the ceiling again.
In addition, my fiancée Michaela and I tried getting a multiplayer game going, only for the game to softlock on her turn. Neither of our controllers did anything, and I couldn’t even access the start menu to quit the game. When we retried, I set her player name to the same as mine, and magically, the game began functioning. I’m still not sure if that’s what fixed it, or if it was the reset. CATAN – Console Edition has trained me to doubt my every decision.
Still, once we did get the game going, we had a lot of fun. It really does play well, if you can get it started. It was fun managing resources, helping her determine the best place to build settlements and roads, and embracing our mutual hatred of Hilda the cook. But I think that’s a testament to the original game design rather than this specific incarnation. CATAN does a great job of encouraging interactions between players. But I will give Console Edition credit for making the process of learning the game much easier, and it sure was nice to not have to deal with other real-life players cajoling me into a trade I didn’t want.
CATAN – Console Edition really started out promising. The animations are fun and charming, and the extra flavor texts adds a fun element of story to the game. It’s streamlined and beginner-friendly, while still being the same meaty game that veterans love. But the music, sound issues, and above all, the glitches make it a hard sell, especially for a $30 game that doesn’t add any extra modes to the original game. If it came with a fun remix or something to really set itself apart from the original in some way, it would be a little more forgivable.
Honestly, the best praise I can give this game, beyond the animation work, is that it is still cheaper than the board game version, and you can play this one online with friends. But I have to reiterate that this is an official CATAN product, and it honestly feels more like a beta build with missing assets than a full release. If you’re a huge CATAN fan looking for one more way to play the game, particularly with distant friends, then this might be worth picking up. Just be prepared for an experience that does exactly what it needs to and no more, and with some really stupid stumbles along the way.
The Bottom Line
CATAN: Console Edition is fun, but that has more to do with the design of the original board game than it does the digital incarnation. Combine that with inconsistent music quality and frustrating glitches, and the only real selling point is that it's cheaper than the board game version, and has online play.