The Settlers of Catan is, at heart, a game of collecting resources and building a collection of settlements and cities on a modular board, with the goal of reaching a set point total (between 8 and 12, but defaulting to 10) before the other players. Players who know the rules will be able to jump right in. You can set the animations to turbo and turn off the opponent comments for the fastest possible game. If you're quick, a full game can take around 10 minutes – about as much time as it takes some people to set up the tabletop version. Players who aren't familiar can go through a tutorial with digital Catan's familiar Professor Easy to learn how to build, trade and acquire points or read up on the game at Board Game Geek.
The Catan gameplay doesn't suffer on the iPod's small screen. Each resource hex is clearly differentiated by both color and graphics, but colorblind players might have trouble figuring out which settlements and roads belong to which player since there are no player icons to be found. You'll have to rely on memory to kept things straight,
Figuring out how the game operates is superbly straightforward. Things blink when you can can affect them, the menus are easy to figure out and so on. If you know how to play the tabletop game and aren't totally new to the iPhone, you will probably know how to play the app in, at most, 90 seconds.
Take, for example, the trade screen. You can see the five resource types and how many you happen to be sitting on at any given moment. Flick one up towards your opponents and the number goes down. This is what you're offering. Flick one down towards your player avatar and the number goes up. Simple and clear. Click on the big green checkmark to try and seal the deal – and notice how this icon is located at the opposite side of the screen from the decline/exit button. Very smart.
If you get fed up with AI opponents trying to trade with you, there is an option to decline all offers for the rest of the turn. When you have the resources that you want already, this greatly speeds up the game (a good thing).
This brings up a point: who is this app's target audience? With the tutorial and the easy playing time, someone totally new to Catan could pick up the game and enjoy it. But, c'mon, the people who will be most excited about this are the hardcore players. A skilled player will be able to beat the game's toughest bots – William and Hillary – with some regularity, but there is still enough challenge here to be worth the five spot. If you're addicted to Catan and want ultra-easy access to a quick game (make your decisions fast and you can be done in ten minutes), this is the app for you. Hopefully, enough players will complain about the less-than-brilliant AI and we'll get another update to make them play better.
While it would be feasible to implement in the tabletop version, one new feature in the app is the "resource bonus." This setting allows a player to never go too long without getting at least a little something. Especially early in the game, a series of bad rolls can mean you're not building anything while your opponents erect cities all over the place. With the resource bonus option turned on, after five empty rolls, a player can simply select one resource of their choice.
A drought like this is less likely to happen if the dice option is set to Stack (or Stack5). When using Stack, the dice rolls have perfect distribution, so that if the game ends after exactly 36 rolls, you'll have seen every possible combination of two dice during play. With Stack5, five random options are removed at the start of the game and the numbers reset after 31 rolls. There is a deck of cards that Mayfair Games sells for the tabletop Catan version that does the same thing, but the extra text on those cards is not included in the iPhone version.
Speaking of mini-additions, the First Island is ripe for mini-expansions like The Great River of Catan or The Fishermen of Catan, and I hope we'll be seeing some of the more game-changing expansions like Seafarers or Traders & Barbarians. They'd better be working on these options. Seriously.
Looking even further down the road, should Exozet ever develop a larger version for the iPad, adding the 5-6 player expansion might also be cool, and players could play a tabletop game just by setting the iPad on the the table and going from there (dealing with cards hidden in players hands will be tricky, for sure). It's a thought.
For some reason, Exozet thinks players want to listen to in-game music instead of their iTunes library. The game's music and sound effects can be muted, but is still doesn't allow your own music library to play; that's annoying, and one of the most-requested changes in customer reviews. Another downside is that there's no way (that we could find) to offer trades with other players on their turn. This is important if you're trying to offer 2-1 trades to stay under the 8-card robber hand limit, but because the game moves so fast it's not that much of a problem, really.
We'd also really, really love an undo button. The app is pretty idiot-proof, but mistakes do happen.
Finally, there's a bonus feature to this $5 app that hasn't gotten nearly the attention it deserves. The Settlers of Catan needs at least three players (the 2007 expansion Traders & Barbarians expansion for the tabletop game gave us a reasonable two-player ruleset, but it's not the same game) to get going. With this app, we now have a very good way to play real two-player Catan. It's a slight hassle to coordinate, but this app gives two people a third "player" whenever needed. Catan: The FIrst Island is the next best thing to having an extra friend around who's always up for another trip to Catan.