Catan presents a decent implementation of the modern classic, but it will likely be obsolete soon.
Android & iOS
# of Players
1 - 4
Catan is the game many credit with launching modern boardgaming. It was originally released in 1995 as Settlers of Catan, only recently being shortened to just Catan, and is a mix of dice rolling, route building, and trading. The app plays 1-4 players and takes about 20-30 minutes but that can vary depending on number of players and how the game goes. Players accumulate, and occasionally lose, victory points (VPs) throughout the game and the game ends when one player reaches ten points.
Before we get going here, I have to point out that the developers of this app are currently working on a new version titled Catan Universe. This will likely be a replacement for this Catan. Ideally we would judge this app on its own merits, but knowing it will be phased out soon necessarily changes our recommendation.
Although most people know Catan, I’ll cover the basics anyway. The goal in Catan is to generate VPs. This can be done a few ways, all of them require resources to do so. You start by building two settlements at locations of your choosing on the hex-based board. Each hex tile produces a type of resource when its number is rolled. Each player rolls the dice at the start of their turn and resources are distributed to anybody owning a settlement adjacent to the hex that is producing. Players can then build roads, settlements, or cities. Roads are required to reach new tiles to build settlements. Settlements give one good each time the dice turn up the number of an adjacent hex. Cities are upgraded settlements which give two goods instead of one. Settlements are worth one VP while cities are worth two.
Trading is a big part of Catan as you likely won’t be producing every good you need, especially early in the game. The app allows you to offer up a deal and any opponent can accept, decline, or present a counter-offer to you.
Catan is a classic. Everybody has their take on the game at this point, it is either outdated and stale or the modern Monopoly to a lot of people. Whatever your take on it, the game has stood the test of time for over 20 years now and that has to be respected. The fun comes in the trading, deals will make or break friendships and family bonds.
Barrier to Entry
If you are learning Catan for the first time, the game comes with a tutorial series. It is a series of small tutorials covering one aspect of the game at a time, it does a good enough job of getting the rules across. It is a little annoying that you can’t go through them as a series, the app forces you back to the menu to select the next one which includes the same “welcome to the tutorial” screen each time. A minor issue, but an annoyance nonetheless. The game also includes an almanac to provide some text clarification on certain topics. They followed the almanac from the physical rule book, but the difference there is that the physical rulebook contains the actual rules. So the almanac in the app is left feeling incomplete as there is no text to explain many of the basic rules.
Overall, the tutorial is good enough to get you started, but it could use some cleanup and the almanac is a bit of a mess without a written rule companion.
Online game options
Game setup board
Well, I will certainly try...
Look and Feel
During gameplay, the app looks good and the controls are easy and work well. There isn’t a lot of custom artwork here, but that’s fine, the game is represented well. The controls are simple and intuitive, exactly as you would hope.
The problem comes in with the menu system. When I was dusting off the app for this review and trying to remember my login for online play, the menus there were often unresponsive to clicks and even switched languages on me a few times. The whole menu system just feels clunky. It’s not nearly as important as getting the gameplay right, but it is an issue here. Additionally, the app runs in landscape mode but will only work in one direction. Flipping your phone over won’t result in the app flipping upside down to match, another minor annoyance that you’d expect would be fixed. One last quirk I’ll mention, when you launch the app you will get a blank screen for a second, then you will return to your phone screen before the app actually launches a few seconds later.
Catan can be played cross-platform in real-time against two or three opponents. You can add in AI opponents to fill out the game if desired. You can play a Custom game which allows you to pick a scenario to play and add AI and/or invite friends. A Custom game can be made public to allow random opponents or kept private for only friends to join. The other online option is a Quick Match which will, as expected, quickly match you with anybody else looking to play a game.
The matchmaking works well, despite the age of the app and other options available (more on that later), I had no trouble finding games to join. Gameplay works well and it is always fun to take on human opponents. The scenarios add in varying map setups and use one or both of the expansions’ rules. In order to play any scenario other than the basic Catan set up online, you must purchase expansions.
Catan also offers a pass-and-play option although the logistics of this get a little tricky when you need to have four people working on a trade offer.
Online play is a highlight of this app. It is easy to find matches and they play well. The games are limited to real-time, which we usually aren’t a fan of, but in this case with the frequent interaction that comes from trade requests/counters, real-time makes a lot of sense. Especially when a minimum of three players are necessary, an asynchronous game would potentially drag on for a long time.
Single player can be played through Campaign mode or Custom Game. Campaign mode is only unlocked through purchasing an expansion, so we won’t spend much time on that, but it is a series of scenarios to play through.
Custom Game allows you to select the scenario and which AI (or human) opponents to play against. Most of the scenarios are unlocked through expansions, but a few are available for free to allow you to test the expansion rules. The scenarios offer a variable map setup, changes to the rules and the ability to use the bigger rule changes from the two expansions. You can always play base Catan with the traditional board set up and rules.
There are ten AI opponents and they each have their own ratings in three categories: Expansion, Aggression, and Skill. There is one super easy AI which is bad in all three, but there is no stud AI with five stars in all three. Most fall in between and offer interesting choices for which kinds of opponents you want to play against. One confusing aspect here is that while each AI has different ratings for these skills, there is an additional Easy/Medium/Hard difficulty setting found in the app settings. So you can play a character with five stars in Expansion, but if you put it on easy they won’t actually be that good at expansion. It’s a weird mix, it works out okay in the end, but it isn’t explained anywhere as to how the AI ratings and the overall difficulty tie together.
Lin is tough
Hi Professor Easy!
Catan has a handful of expansions for the physical game, and two of those have made their way to the app as in-app purchases. Seafarers allows players to build shipping lanes, similar to roads, and introduces some interesting startup variants which create islands to explore. Seafarers also unlocks the campaign mode in Catan, which is 16 unique scenarios with varying goals. Cities & Knights adds a slew of changes to the game, introducing commodities cards, replacing the development card deck and how it is used, and introducing knights which can be build to protect a player from barbarian attacks. There were the first two expansions for the board game and are generally considered to be strong additions, some players won’t play without one or the other.
On top of those two major expansions, Catan offers two smaller scenario packs as in-app purchases. The base app comes with Seafarers LITE and Cities & Knights LITE which provide a sample of what is available from the full expansion by unlocking scenarios which use those new rules. There is an option to buy everything currently offered for $9.99.
The game also offers incredibly detailed stat keeping. You can see the distribution of dice rolls throughout all of your games or check your winning percentage against each of the ten AI opponents. This provides little tangible value, but is fun to look at nonetheless.
The Wrap Up
Catan is a mostly well implemented version of the classic game, but it is also overly clunky with some poor design decisions. The app is clunky at times in the menus and the odd choice to make one of the three primary game modes (Campaign, along with local and online games) only available with IAP make this app fall short. The writing's on the wall for the future of this app with Catan Universe currently in development. There’s a good chance Catan doesn’t make the 64-bit jump in iOS, and Catan Universe becomes the only version available on the App Store once it is released.
The only recommendation we can make at this point is that Catan offers an overall playable version of the game and if you are absolutely itching to play the game digitally from your mobile device, it will scratch the itch. However, for most of the audience, we would recommend waiting until the Catan Universe release. That game will likely be more polished than this version and will also be the version supported going forward.