When Nintendo announced that Catan was coming to the Switch, I was pretty ecstatic, but also wary that the developers would not be able to capture the unique magic of the tabletop board game that has taken the world (and my brothers and I) by storm. After all, publisher Asmodee Digital and developer Exozet’s previous attempts to bring the Catan experience to digital devices such as the multi-platform Catan Universe have been infamously plagued with bugs and lacking in features, and going in, I was also aware that this iteration of the game would not feature local play (whether locally against other Switch players, or on a single console), a tremendous oversight that I still can’t wrap my head around. That fact alone might be a dealbreaker for some, but for the love of the game, I knew that I just had to have it.
A game of strategy, chance, and foresight
For anyone not familiar with Catan (formerly called Settlers of Catan), it is a multi-player game focused on building and trading, where you play the role of a settler on an island (or islands), and are tasked with expanding further and building up your territory. The catch is, you won’t be able to do this alone, since you’ll find it necessary to trade with your fellow settlers in order to acquire all the necessary resources to prosper and expand your territory. The five resources (wood, brick, grain, sheep, ore) are all essential to victory. You’ll build roads, settlements, and cities, rolling the dice to determine which resources get drawn. Settlements adjacent to a hex will net you one resource of each given number, while cities will grant you two. If a seven is rolled, a robber comes to strip away half of every hand with more than seven cards, while the person who rolled will get to block off the resources of a particular hex until next moved, whether by a Knight Development Card or another seven roll. Helpful Development Cards can also be purchased, and a good one, played at just the right time, can change the tide of a game. On the edge of the map, ports allow players to trade resources 3:1 or 2:1, but any one resource can be traded for any other at a 4:1 rate.
The world-famous tabletop game, by Klaus Teuber, has sold millions of copies over the decades and can be played with a plethora of different variants, with 3-6 players. The base Switch game includes many ship-centric Seafarers maps and various tried-and-true Seafarers scenarios, such as the Fog Islands, to provide a good deal of variety in the gameplay. There is a campaign mode, and custom games can also be made, but here’s the big catch: there is no local multiplayer. So much for passing the Switch back and forth between friends, playing with other Switch owners locally, or linking up with the Catan Universe apps (as of yet there’s no word as to whether this will be possible with a future update, but I’m not holding my breath). You’re pretty much stuck playing either online, or with bots. This isn’t a problem if you’re somewhere with WiFi and multiple Switches, but that’s not always the case for me, and I personally find this to be a huge oversight.
The true game begins with cities and knights
As for downloadable content, Catan also features the Cities and Knights expansion pack ($5.99), which, in my opinion, is an essential part of the true Catan experience, worth every penny (especially seeing as the Cities and Knights board game expansion retails for full price). Cities and Knights is a more complex variant, involving commodities (cloth, coin, paper) and upgrade trees tied to cities on Hills (sheep), Mountains (ore), and Forests (lumber).
In Cities and Knights, you can specialize and pick the strategy of your choice - do you want to beat back the invading Barbarian hordes with your armies and score Defender of Catan victory points, use tricky cards like the Inventor and Alchemist to turn the odds in your favor, or would you rather trade your way to victory by focusing on the Merchant cards? It’s a rich and often rewarding game. The AI don’t seem to play the CIties and Knights maps as comfortably as they do the base Catan and Seafarers scenarios, but for multiplayer options, this is where the fun really begins, and where the most hardcore of Catanians stand their ground and settle their scores.
A little polish would have helped
While Catan itself is a fantastically-balanced game, its various digital adaptations have been plagued with bugs, and Catan on the Switch is no exception. As of this publishing, there’s currently a bug that involves saved game files - sometimes, when you load a campaign map from a previous save, the game won’t register that you’ve completed the mission even after if you beat it. I also encountered a bug where, in the Cities and Knights expansion, the game didn’t recognize my commodity cards, and therefore didn’t allow me to upgrade my city developments, derailing my progress. A third bug involves the game incorrectly displaying the number of cards in your hand on the main board (although the count is correct in the trading menu). Thankfully, these are the only bugs I’ve encountered, and if they should be fairly simple for the developers to address. I just hope they will do so promptly.
The presentation is also nothing to write home about. The graphics are basic to the point of being lazy, the controls simple enough to not be unintuitive, and the soundtrack relaxing, if extremely limited. You’ll likely get bored of the music pretty quickly and just put something else on. There are AI characters/competitors who speak to you before and after each of the campaign missions, but there’s no overarching story. As for the AI itself, it’s far too dumb on Easy and Normal, but on Hard, they seem to enjoy ganging up on you in the early game and choking you out by robbing the player character blind, regardless of who else is in the lead, tipping the game’s balance and frustratingly lengthening each mission. Thankfully, these challenges are something a seasoned player can work around, should the dice rolls favor them enough to regain their advantage.
But doesn’t an online board game kind of defeat the point?
As for the online, I haven’t tried it, but by all accounts, it is functional, although matchmaking can be slow. You need at least one additional human and can fill the other spots with bots, and if someone drops out, a bot will replace them for the rest of the game. You also can’t mix friends with random people. It’s a shame how the developers couldn’t do what party games such as Jackbox did and have local multiplayer with smartphones and a Switch working in tandem (to hide one’s hand of cards and make discreet trades/offers). I suppose they didn’t want to compete with the board game’s sales by making something that would be overly convenient for a room of friends to play for a fraction of the price.
All in all, it’s a bit difficult to whole-heartedly recommend this digital iteration of Catan. I surely enjoyed my time playing through the unique challenges of the campaign and facing off against unfair bots, but then again, I am a battle-hardened fan of the series seeking to constantly improve my game. Likewise, the online modes appeal only to groups of three or more who own Switches and pay for online, or lone wolves ready to spend 60-90 minutes trading cards with groups of faceless strangers and bots. What’s more, those new to the series likely won’t even know where to begin. They might be better served by starting the old-fashioned way: with the tabletop game and a group of friends.
+ The same great game, plus Seafarers and optional Cities and Knights DLC
+ Autosaves and a clean interface make on-the-go playing smooth
+ Campaign mode offers a good variety of missions and scenarios
- No local multiplayer whatsoever - you’ll need Nintendo Online to play with friends
- As of this writing, no compatibility with Catan Universe
- Various little bugs hamper the experience
- Presentation is limited by basic graphics, sounds, and writing
What I’ve Played
Beat the entire campaign on Master difficulty, including Cities and Knights DLC
Played several custom games
Played on: Nintendo Switch