Catan Review (Switch) — Settling for Less Than More
While Catan is a faithful adaptation of the beloved board game, it doesn't quite deliver on the Switch's potential for tabletop gaming.
As much as I love the experience of sinking dozens of hours into video games as my hobby of choice, I still have a pretty big spot in my heart for tabletop games. There’s just something about gathering a group of friends to get lost in a game together for a couple of hours, and few games have scratched that itch for me as much as Settlers of Catan, which is still one of my perennial favorites whenever I have game nights at home.
While I don’t always get the opportunity to get a group of friends together to play through our old favorite board games (and the new ones still sitting on my bookshelf waiting to be played), digital board games like Asmodee Digital’s Catan for Nintendo Switch seem like they could fill a very particular void for those times. While it isn’t the first time we’ve seen a digital tabletop game make its way to a console (or even the first time for Settlers itself), Catan shows some glimpses of how I could see the Switch adapt itself really well to more tabletop-style experiences, but falls short in a few other key areas.
For those unfamiliar with the game itself, Catan puts players into the role of a group of settlers on the idyllic island of Catan as they seek to establish towns, gather resources, and (ultimately) work their way up to building a proper civilization. In each game, the board is comprised of hexes that each represent a different resource for players to utilize: wood, brick, wool, wheat, and ore. Each of these resources is the primary way that players build and establish their settlement, and each time that the dice are rolled at the beginning of a turn, each player then gains resources depending on the location of their settlements at each hex. Given that it’s difficult (at least at first) for players to have one of every resource right from the start, this leads to situations where players will have to barter and trade to get the resources that they might be lacking from other opponents, while working their way to gain Victory Points and win the game by building settlements or upgrading to cities (among other paths to victory).
While initially it might sound a little complex to grasp, Catan is ultimately the type of game that is easy to learn and (moderately) difficult to master. Though a good portion of the game purely revolves around luck and hoping for good dice rolls, Catan‘s blend of strategy, social interaction, and economic tactics are largely key reasons why the game has continued to be seen as a classic for decades. Having played dozens (if not hundreds) of rounds of the game myself, Catan is a game that really doesn’t wear out its welcome too easily.
Coming from the original tabletop game, Catan on Nintendo Switch features both the base game and the Seafarers expansion, which expands on the basic “trade-and-build” mechanic of the original game by adding boats and the sea into the mix. The Cities & Knights expansion is also available to build on the range of Catan games that you can play, but at an additional cost as DLC versus being included in the base game.
In this instance, Catan manages to bring the classic board game to life remarkably well. The boards, cards, and pieces all feel especially faithful to the original game, while players can also obtain and unlock various customization options to change the game board and pieces. Likewise, the music and visuals are suitably pleasant–not too distracting to take away from the moment-to-moment gameplay, but calming enough to complement events as they unfold.
The core experiences of Catan come down to playing through either a single-player campaign that takes you through a collection of different game types, and online multiplayer to play against friends or other random players. Both of the game’s modes will suit those looking for either a quick dose of Catan on-the-go solo (like myself) or to take on other players online. But for anyone looking to hop into a game with their friends in the same room, Catan might leave you disappointed in that regard.
By far the most glaring omission in Catan for Nintendo Switch is that it lacks local multiplayer support, limiting the experience to those that might have been hoping to jump into a game with their friends in the living room. Understandably, there are probably design considerations that have to be taken into account for the lack of being able to play locally, most likely due to the fact that there’s not an easy way to conceal your cards from other players. From that perspective, I can understand that local play may have been a challenge to design around while also keeping the integrity of the game intact. But it does feel like a missed opportunity given that the Switch seems so perfectly suited towards replicating a tabletop experience, even if it meant passing the Switch around the table or some other alternative.
While being able to play Catan on-the-go at any time has its appeal, from a gameplay standpoint limiting the experience to just playing against the computer-controlled opponents has its setbacks. The biggest of these that I encountered while playing was attempting to trade resources with the AI players, as more often times than not they wouldn’t trade with me no matter how much I sweetened the deal when it came to the cards that I was willing to offer. Most of the time this led me to just abandoning trading altogether and rely on the bank, other than when the AI opponents would initiate a trade, but it’s still a setback to one of the most crucial parts of playing Catan that trading is so unreliable when you’re playing solo.
Outside of the gameplay experience, the UI and menu navigation in Catan is equally a bit uneven in execution. While visually the Catan board is pleasant to look at, the layout of the game UI might be a little overwhelming to those coming to the game for the first time. But apart from the game information being laid out a bit confusingly, the menus themselves to access core parts of the game (building and trading, especially) can feel a bit sluggish. Sometimes while playing I would have issues navigating the menus as the Joy-Con analog sticks would feel unresponsive and then switch over to the D-Pad, while in other areas the D-Pad would then feel slow to move between game options and switch back to the Joy-Con sticks.
Catan has always been held up as a classic for tabletop gaming, and by-and-large, the Switch version does a faithful job at translating the iconic rhythm of gathering resources, building settlements, and establishing your fledgling island community well. Though Catan might be a serviceable translation of a beloved board game, it also has some glaring omissions that might make it a bit of a disappointment for those hoping to play the game locally with friends, confining its tabletop-like experience to either playing solo or against others online. While I’ll definitely enjoy the chance to curl up with a game or two on my own before bed, I can’t help but want to share the game’s best qualities with others, where this iteration of Catan comes up limiting.