Settlers of Xbox Live

October 2, 2009

Settlers of Catan is the juggernaut of Eurogaming. I’m pretty sure it has infinity+1 different expansions, versions, and alterations. But one of those versions doesn’t have wooden dice, cardboard cutouts, or playing cards, in fact it is completely digital and found only on Xbox Live.

Catan was the first board game to appear on Microsoft’s digital download service for the Xbox 360 Arcade. And thanks to a promotion a couple years back I was able to download it for free. Now, it will run you 800 MS points which is approximately $10.

The game boasts the most sophisticated artificial intelligence of any Catan game to date and last night I fired it up to give the game another test. I played a 4 player game against three AI opponents–Alexander, Elizabeth, and Fredrick–on medium difficulty. I used the quick set-up option where the game places your first settlements in the optimal places automatically. From there it was time to press “A” to roll dice.

The early stages of the game included a lot of trading. The AI opponents, all named after historical figures, where happy to trade to get into a position to build whatever they needed. I used my early resources to connect my two villages with a road, gaining the “Longest Road” victory points, and upgrade them to cities thanks to all the stone I was collecting.

However, this launched me into an early lead and the once friendly AI turned on me like a pack of rabid raccoons. Every time a seven was rolled, the robber was placed on my territory and another card taken from my hand. But, I still wasn’t out. Thanks to buying development cards, I was able to play soldiers and move the robber off my land. This in-turn gained me the “Largest Army” VP and put me further out ahead.

But, as if robber trouble wasn’t bad enough, the new VP made me a bigger target. I now felt like a third world dictator facing an embargo, no one would trade with me. I tried offering 3 or 4 cards for just a single wheat, but was faced with a stern rejection on all fronts. I had to resort to port trading to get whatever I wanted.

Soon Alexander leaped forward with the “Longest Road” stealing VP from me. But I had an ace up my sleeve. Thanks to an abundance of brick and a brick port, I could buy and development card and turn my last village into a city, provided no one rolled a seven.

Luck was on my side. I dodged the robber and got a development card worth a VP. This bumped me up to ten, winning the game. The computer opponents were fairly good, but they came across as homogeneous. I felt more like I was trying to beat the game rather than beat three separate opponents. However, it was an enjoyable game and an easy way to get a fix of Catan.

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Hiding the Resources/VPs

September 3, 2009

I apologize for the lack of activity here on the blog lately. I’m in the process of moving right now (stay tuned for pics of my new game room!). Once things settle down, we hope to create a backlog of posts we can draw on during busy times.

After playing a relatively high number of Euro games this summer, I’ve been thinking about hiding resources and victory points. Three games in my collection have this written into the rules: Power Grid, Settlers of Catan, and Small World. In Power Grid, you are told to keep your cash secret from the other players. As we’ve learned the game at home in recent months, we’ve usually kept money faceup so the other players can see if someone is sitting on a big stack of cash. Playing with the hidden money rule at the WBC tourney gave the game a very different feel; tabletalk was significantly cut as a result and we could only guess at people’s bank accounts. In this game, I confess I don’t understand why this rule exists. If you’re really playing a power company, then your resources should be public knowledge, right? Also, trying to keep track of other people’s cash flow is just another distraction in a game that already involves a lot of mental math.

In Settlers of Catan, you keep your resources secret. Again, we have often played with resources faceup, but that’s primarily because we’ve got new players at the table. When playing with Joe and other more experienced players, we’ve played with resources hidden. Again, I’m not quite sure why this should be the case. If it’s a game about resource trading, then you’d think it would be beneficial to see what people have so you can make offers or know who to target with the robber. Like Power Grid, hiding the resources adds a layer of complexity that doesn’t enhance the game any; it just makes things more complicated. However, I can see keeping development cards hidden. They do represent choices you get to make, and are much like the strategy cards in Conquest of Paradise or other games that involve buying cards.

In Small World, you keep your victory points hidden until the game ends. Considering how light the game is, I rather like keeping them hidden. Because you must count up your VP at the end of every turn and take them from the bank, it’s pretty obvious who is having a good turn (14+ VP, for instance). You can easily discuss it at the table and then turn on the current leader. It’s not a very complex game, and unlike the two mentioned earlier, hiding the VPs doesn’t add an annoying level of complexity.

I’m curious if there are other games out there that have you hide resources or VPs. This is a big component of Euro games–even  in Ticket to Ride you’re hiding your routes. Do you find this an interesting mechanic in some games, but not in others? Why?