Rivals for Catan Review

Translating board games to computer games is a risky job. On the one hand, the game you’re making is already proven to be fun. On the other, sometimes you need a shoehorn to make it fit into the restricted environment of processor and screen. Sometimes you triumph and get a Carcassonne or a Ticket to Ride, but more often you get a mixed bag like Rivals of Catan.

Rivals of Catan has a strong pedigree. It’s a two-player version of Klaus Teuber’s famous Settlers of Catan, and it’s been perfected over a couple of editions. You play the ruler of a small country represented by cards that depict regions, settlements, buildings, and people. You roll dice to find out what resources you get, then spend those resources adding roads, cities, and other cards to your layout.

The game starts simply, plays quickly, and has some clever ideas. (For example, you track your resources by turning cards instead of using money or tokens.) It looks like a perfect candidate for conversion to an app, and developer Exozet Games makes a valiant attempt. But looks can be deceiving.

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Unlike Playdek’s recent version of Agricola, this is an exact translation. The cards appear on the screen the same way they would appear on a table, and there’s even a turning animation when you add or subtract resources. The layout is clear and easy to understand, but it’s missing important information when you actually try to play.

The game simultaneously presents a hand of cards, a tableau of cards in play, several decks for the player to draw from, and a menu bar of commands. There’s too much on the screen and not enough detail. I kept having to examine individual cards to remind myself of what they cost and what they did, and it was too easy to forget about abilities that I wanted to use.

That wouldn’t be so bad if you could quickly undo mistakes, but the game traps you into actions that you can’t back out of. For example, when you draw cards, the game does not show you the card you drew. Tapping the card to see its details starts a discard card process. You can avoid discarding by tapping cancel, but that’s not the natural behavior of a player who is just looking at a card. If you tap OK instead, you’re forced to discard the card you just drew with no further opportunity to cancel. That’s terrible user interface design.

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Then there are the bugs. The current version of the game has problems with saved games, multiplayer connections, and occasionally losing cards that are in play. None of the bugs are common or crippling, but they make the game look a little slapdash. The developers put a lot of effort into equipping each AI character with its own set of custom taunts, but maybe that extra effort should have been put into quality assurance instead.

The introductory tutorial could also have used more work. It shows you the basics of play, but never makes it clear what you’re trying to accomplish and why. If you don’t already know how to play this game, the tutorial is not going to enlighten you.

In the end, this is an accurate copy of a good game, but it’s not a very good app. If you already play Rivals for Catan, or have a friend who does, and you can steer clear of the bugs and design problems, you’ll enjoy this version– but that’s a painfully limited audience, and Exozet Games could have had so much more.

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