By Joe Donato
Fine German engineering—we find it in automobiles, pork products and board games. Yes, board games. Forget Monopoly, Battleship, Chutes & Ladders and Mall Madness, because for the last decade or so, Germany has been home to some of the world’s finest board games. Now, thanks to the popularity of online games, three of Germany’s best strategy board games have been converted for the Xbox Live Arcade.
Settlers of Catan
Catan is easily one of the best board games ever, and the translation to XBLA is impeccable. Catan is unique in that it does not have a solid board; instead, hexagonal tiles are arranged randomly to form the playfield. Players place their initial settlements and roads and begin rolling dice to collect resources, allowing the development of further settlements, roads, cities or special cards. The dice rolls create probability rather than blind chance. For example, building a settlement on a hexagon labeled “6” or “8” is helpful as they’re the numbers most likely to appear when rolling two dice. Conveniently, these probabilities are clearly labeled on the tiles for the statistically challenged.
Strategy, or being an asshole, means making solid trades with other players, taking the best settlements and catching others off guard with your winning move. Trading is one aspect of the game that could have been lost in translation, as a live game usually involves lots of communication. In the XBLA version, a simple and clear trading screen is supplemented by voice chat. The trade screen works well enough alone too, making Catan a great game for human competition, without all that annoying human trash-talking.
If there’s one flaw with Catan on a TV screen, it’s that the game can’t be played as a party game. Seeing others’ hands would ruin the flow of the game. Get a good group of players online, especially friends you enjoy chatting with, and Catan on XBLA is every bit as fun as its cardboard counterpart.
Ticket to Ride
The latest board game translation on XBLA, Ticket to Ride offers a fast-paced, strategic and deceivingly simple experience. It also offers some of the most epic asshole opportunities seen in strategy board games. Believe me, tears will be shed.
The game is played on a map of the United States, with colored train routes connecting major cities. The rules are simple—each turn you may take one of three actions, draw train cards, draw destination cards and claim a route. Train cards are traded in for the actual trains used to claim routes. Destination cards require you to complete a route for bonus points or risk penalties if you fail. The trick in Ticket to Ride is being discrete about you plans. Revealing your intentions opens you up to bastardly maneuvers like others blocking you from your vital routes.
Having never played the actual board game, I’m finding Ticket to Ride to be the most fun of the three to play online. Games are quick, addicting and the competition is stiff. In the beginning you’ll probably lose a lot, but once you embrace the role of a slimy train baron and start ruining everyone else’s day you’ll be hard-pressed to stop playing.
Carcassone is a bit of a mystery to me. It’s not that I don’t understand the game, but calculating who wins seems like a nightmare. Luckily it’s all automated on the Xbox Live Arcade version. Unfortunately, Carcassone failed to grab me in the way Catan and Ticket to Ride did.
Over the course of the game, players take turns placing square tiles and claiming structures, roads and farmland. Connecting similar tiles creates larger areas to claim and nets you more points. Much of this is left up to chance; the tiles are drawn from a deck and there are many different shapes. Strategy is relegated to moment-to-moment tile placement, while any planning is stifled by high levels of randomness. The best strategies seem to involve limiting other players rather than accomplishing anything grand for yourself. The end result is a game that can seem haphazard and unfulfilling.
However, I do have to give credit where credit is due. The quality of production is there. I’d imagine the score tracking makes it a replacement of the physical board game for some. Not only that, but unlike Catan, Carcassone lends itself to local multiplayer, allowing four players to duke it out on one couch. With that said, it’s not a bad game, but a lot more is left to chance compared to Catan and Ticket to Ride, a style of game design I find as appealing as random battles in Japanese RPGs.