Catan’s trajectory has been incredible, given that it’s only 28 years old. Initially, it was something of a disruptor, helping the “Eurogame” become a dominant approach to board games. From there it became a Monopoly-like thing – a game that absolutely everyone owns a copy of and is aware of how to play, but once you’re more familiar with board games you move on from it. Now it has settled into a point where it’s an undeniable classic… but one that most people would find quite flawed.
So of course it is the one that gets one of the few board game adaptations onto the PlayStation 5. Enter Catan – Console Edition.
Now, in fairness to the developers at Nomad Games, this is quite possibly the most detailed and high-quality take on Catan yet. The “board” comes to life thanks to the level of detail that has been put into the art. Zoom the camera in and you’ll see people working the fields and travelling the roads. It’s not the most playable way to look at Catan, but it certainly helps to set the scene. AI is competent enough, and there are the standard online multiplayer options. Impressively, there’s even a dual screen-enabled local multiplayer mode, where players can scan a QR code with their phones to have the phone screen represent the resource cards that are meant to be kept private and hidden.
Of course, you could argue that for the purposes of local multiplayer people could just break out a physical copy of the actual board game, but some people will appreciate the aesthetics and the fact you don’t need to pay away a digital game, so there will be people that find value in the local multiplayer mode and that makes this version of Catan the most playable in a party situation yet.
There are also expansions and a variety of play modes available. Some effort at some single-player longevity (a narrative mode, perhaps, or just a greater range of unlockables), would have been appreciated, but that’s splitting hairs. I really have no complaints about what has been done with Catan here. It’s an excellent adaptation.
The problem is Catan itself, which, a little like Monopoly, relies on randomness far too much, and can therefore be far too frustrating if luck runs against you. For people who somehow haven’t played Catan before: The map is broken up into hexagons, each with a number on them. Each turn, a player rolls the dice and the corresponding hexagons provide resources to players that have “towns” or “cities” built on those hexagons.
The problem with that system is twofold. At the start of the game, the placement of hexagons is randomised, meaning that in most games, there are going to be sections of the board that provide substantial advantages to the players that occupy them. It can heavily favour one player before the first turn even takes place in extreme cases. The second problem is the dice rolls that occur during each turn. The laws of dice mean that “8” and “6” will be rolled the most (“7” is statistically the most likely, but it has a very different role in this game, with “8” and “6” being the best resource-generating numbers). A good strategy is, therefore, to make sure you have some kind of presence with hexagons that have the “8” and “6” numbers… but then it is entirely within the realm of possibility that for five turns in a row, players will roll numbers like “12” and “2”, and suddenly, through no strategic failing of your own, the other players that missed out on the good numbers have lucked into a winning position.
This is frustrating. It’s fine for a game to have a random element if good strategic play can overcome it, but Catan is limited in this regard. It’s by no means as bad as Monopoly, as you have much more control over how you go about playing. However, it’s the simple reality that since Catan’s release there have been vastly superior board games created. Games that really downplay the impact randomisation has on the results.
And this brings me to my biggest problem with Catan on consoles. Why, on earth, is this game the one, out of all the Eurogames and board games, to get a console release? Over on the PC, there are dozens and dozens of digital board games, from the brilliant Twilight Struggle to Lords of Waterdeep, Gloomhaven and Tokaido. All of these games would have been great to have on console too. And yet But for whatever reason the people that work on video game adaptations of board games seem to think that the extent of interest that console gamers have in digital board games is Catan, Monopoly, Uno, Risk and Talisman (though in fairness the Nintendo Switch does get marginally more). With the exception of Monopoly, there’s nothing overtly wrong with these games, but it’s sad that there isn’t a greater effort to bring the full breadth of board games to consoles.
Catan – Console Edition is a perfectly fine adaptation of a hugely popular board game. The developers have done their best to make it work for both online and offline play, and present it gorgeously. I just wish that another, equally talented developer, took Twilight Struggle, or the Game of Thrones board game, or any of a few hundred other incredible board games and adapted those instead.