Catan iPhone app review

Screenshot of Apple iPhone app 'Catan - The First Island'I’ve expressed before that The Settlers of Catan is my favorite board game. But I don’t get to play it much lately, so I was excited by the news that there’s now a version for the iPhone and iPod Touch. “Catan – The First Island” was developed by Exozet Games and released by USM; the Catan app is $4.99 from the iPhone App Store.

Previously, Catan fans had to settle for a knock-off called Kolonists (currently not available from the iPhone App Store — pulled due to being too close to Catan without a license, perhaps?). Kolonists dressed the game in a Roman theme and did away with the random dice roll element of resource gathering, replacing the roll with a workable-but-inferior mechanic of having a single worker per settlement (and two per city) that provided guaranteed resources each turn, and a bit of jostling for position with your neighbors. It made the game faster but less interesting. So it was refreshing to go back to the original mechanic. (Other limitations of the Kolonists app are that it’s single player only, and there’s no ability to trade resources with the computer players, only the bank.)

This is a preliminary review of Catan, having just three-and-a-half games under my belt, but that’s enough experience to offer the following points. First, the good:

  • It’s Catan. The rules are implemented faithfully, the terrain and icons are familiar, and the gameplay is smooth. If you’re a Catan fan, you can stop reading here and just go get it now.
  • The music is excellent, and the sounds are good (but I could see them becoming annoying over time). There are options to switch off either or both.

And the bad:

  • This is just basic Settlers. No expansions, no 5- or 6- player options. You do have a few options when creating a game, however. These options are: fixed or variable setup, random vs. stacked dice, optional friendly robber (no attacking players who haven’t earned any points yet), changing the victory requirement from the default 10 points to either 8, 9, 11 or 12, an optional catch-up “resource bonus” to players who haven’t earned any resources in five turns, or starting with a settlement and city instead of two settlements.
  • Even switching the option for “quick animation” on is not quick enough. You get bogged down in transitions and long dice roll animations and the resource assignment animation. Kolonists had a faster pace.
  • I don’t like the UI. All the commands (building, trading, etc.) are hidden in a slide-out menu to the right, guaranteeing that even a simple “end turn” is two gestures. Building a settlement is needlessly complex: Slide out menu, tap build, slide left in the build menu to choose to build a settlement, tap a checkmark to confirm, tap on screen where you want to build the settlement, tap a second checkmark to confirm. A better option would have been to dedicate some of the screen real estate to action buttons.
  • No undo.
  • While there is a good in-game statistics section (keeping track of dice rolls and other interesting data), it doesn’t keep track of your overall win-loss record. Kolonists offered a campaign mode, awarding points for each game that earned you new (cosmetic) titles. Catan would have done well to offer something similar.
  • The AI does not seem great. I’m 3-0 so far (but might have lost another game that crashed). You can choose either random computer opponents or select different characters, which are rated by skill. I’ve seen even the best-rated AIs make some questionable moves. And they all trade too much in the end-game.
  • You can only save one game at a time. If you save a game and then start a new game, it doesn’t warn you that your previously saved game is lost.
  • It’s a bit buggy. For example, I chose to switch off the insipid comments that the AIs make when building items, but sometimes they still make comments anyway. And one game had to be abandoned when it was a computer player’s turn but it took no actions, with no options to continue or skip.
  • Multi-player is only done via pass-the-phone (hot-potato style) — no networking support.
  • Picky: The random setup of ports isn’t in accordance with the rules, randomly putting ports closer together than the official random setup rules allow. (Unless something has changed in the fourth edition that I’m unaware of.)

Despite the limitations, I recommend this anyway. I’m hopeful that all of the above problems will be fixed over time.

For players not familiar with the board game of Catan, they offer extensive tutorials and help. I didn’t go through them all but they seemed exhaustive, which should help a bit with the learning curve.

I’ll give it 3.5 stars for now.

One Response to “Catan iPhone app review”

  1. Bill Zollinger Says:

    Stephen:

    I found your post because I’m in the same situation you were in; namely, that it’s a computer player’s turn, but they won’t do anything. How do you abandon a game in progress and start a new one?

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