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Board and Card Games on XBLA
10:04am EST - 11/21/2008
Now Fa/tg/uys Never Have to Leave the House
Board and Card Games on XBLAPart I: Catan
For those of you such a devastating lack of social skills or utter contempt for basic hygiene that you can no longer live the sanctity of your home without exposing yourself to withering derision and scorn, I have good news. Thanks to the wonders of modern technology, you can now completely cut off human contact. Sure, the advent of digital purchase of groceries was a major boon, but if you wanted to enjoy a rousing card or board game, you still had to be in the same physical space as another repulsive organism. Not any more – now you can play a number of popular and well regarded traditional games over the Xbox Live.
Of course, before you rejoice in your freedom from ever having to conform to society’s standards - like the tyranny of regular bathing – you probably have some questions. Namely, are these bastardized “vidya gaem” versions worth a sack of shit. Worry no more, for this article shall provide the answer.
Right now, there are three board games and one card game that have been adapted for the Xbox Live Arcade (XBLA): Settlers of Catan (simply as Catan), Carcassonne, Ticket to Ride, and Lost Cities. All four support playing actual human opponents over the Live service. That is, if you want to call the average Xbox Live user human, which would stretch the definition pretty fucking far. In addition, you can prepare for our eventual conquest by our rampant robotic creations by choosing to take on AI opponents instead.
A few notes need be made before going forward. Each game will be listed with its developer and cost in MicroSoft Points and then in actual human money since MS Points don’t make any fucking sense. A general review of the game follows, focusing on how it compares to the hard copy version. If you’re not familiar with any of these games, go and get yourself familiar right fucking now. Go. Do it. This’ll still be here when you get back. The last point to make is that, in general, each of these adaptations is startlingly faithful to the original game, which is pretty goddamned impressive. So if some of the points to follow seem nit-picky, deal with it. Catan is up first, with the other games to follow in future articles, because I’m longwinded and have nothing better to do.*Catan*
Big Huge Games
800 MS Points (approx. $10 US)
Besides the name change, likely to assuage raging MS fanboys who have trouble with basic punctuation on a good day and thusly can’t be expected to understand a three word title, Catan has made the transition into the digital world intact – in fact, the only difference is that resources are not limited to the number of cards in a game box deck. Before you rage, Klaus Teuber was the one who suggested this. And since he designed the fucking board game, he gets to decide that shit. It should be noted that currently only the four player basic version of the game is available, however. Big Huge Games has made some noise about doing expansions, but nothing yet.
Visually, the game is actually pretty damn impressive. It doesn’t rise above World of Warcraft level graphics, but there is an actual 3D version of the game board that’s actually pretty easy to navigate. Everything is highly stylized and colorful, which makes it easier to figure out what’s going on. The board can also be rotated and zoomed freely at any time, which is nice.
The user interface is also pretty slick. It offers reminders of each option and button presses, but manages not to be in your face about them. A few bits are not as well executed – checking on which development cards you have involves going through another menu, which makes it easy to forget what you have, unless you have Soldier cards, since the game nicely reminds you they can be played before each chance you get to roll the dice. Scores are also displayed constantly, and a single button press brings up more detailed information. Combined with the fact that the AI handles scoring, this makes it easier to figure out where you are in the game without pissing everyone off every five minutes by asking them to add up their scores. Another beneficial feature is that the game will simply not allow you to make an illegal move, which cuts down on idiotic mistakes.
Speaking of idiotic mistakes, don’t expect the AI to make them, even on Easy mode. Klaus Teuber turns up again here – the man had notes and statistics he worked up years ago for an AI but could never use. Just lying around, you know. Fucking Germans. Anyways, as a result the AI behaves in pretty intelligent ways, most of the time. The only real exception is a slight tendency to gang up on a human player, and to not trade on higher difficulties. Again, even the Easy mode AI does reasonable things, they just do it in very obvious ways, as if they were newbs. And the Hard AI is simply very good at the game’s strategy – the game doesn’t rely on bullshit tricks to create artificial difficulty. Plus, different AI personas actually do behave differently. A low adaptability AI reacts more slowly if you fuck over its preferred strategy, while a high adaptability AI changes tactics quickly but sometimes gets a little scattered and ends up spending a lot of resources going nowhere.
The designers even tried to deal with the loss of face-to-face reactions by including an “emoticon” system. It sounds retarded, but it actually works okay, though human players don’t ever seem to use it. The AI does, though, in disturbingly appropriate ways. It still isn’t worth a damn compared to actually having your opponents face to face. For example, it’s a lot harder to intimidate someone into a mistake, and trading tends to be a bit colder and rational, though the trade interface is very easy to use. And swapping wood for sheep never gets old.
As far as addons, even without the expansions, Big Huge Games has squeezed out a few. Ignoring the usual pile of shitty themes and gamer pics – purchase of which carries a penalty of having your head caved in with a rusty shovel – there are two worth mentioning. The first is a Mayfair skin (150pts/$1.87 US), that transforms the board into a very faithful recreation of the US board game’s look. It’s actually pretty cool, and fuck knows the pricing on the Marketplace means you probably have at least 150 points you can’t get rid of sitting around. The other adds three AI personas (200pts/$2.50 US). Again, the AI personae are pretty damn good in this game, but skip it.
Overall, Catan is a faithful and surprisingly satisfying recreation of the board game. The AI makes setting up painless, and also speeds up the game overall. The software handles the bits its good at - counting shit, basically – and gets the hell out of the way. The biggest problem with Settlers of Catan was always finding someone to play with, and connecting through Live makes that much easier. And the good AI even means a quick match when you’ve got thirty minutes to kill can be challenging and enjoyable. I definitely recommend downloading this one if you have an Xbox 360.
Even if you lost every fucking ranked match like I do. Hurr.