Don’t settle for this one.
Taking beloved board games and putting them on computers and video game consoles is nothing new. You can probably find a version of Monopoly on nearly every mainstream platform, but the question is: How faithful and fun are these digital takes on tabletop classics? The latest board game to see a digital release on Switch is Catan, a Eurogame that was originally released in 1995 and only grown in popularity since. The Switch port is certainly playable, but one major omission, spotty online, and some control issues hamper the experience.
For those who might be unfamiliar, Settlers of Catan is a game about scoring victory points through the construction of settlements, cities, roads, and cards. By accruing resources like lumber, brick, and wheat, you can build structures on a board of hexagonal resource tiles that have numbers from 2-12 on them. If you have a city or settlement touching a given hex when that hex’s number is rolled, then you collect one or more resources of that type. You can trade with other players and play cards that allow you to steal from them or block their resource collection. With three or four players, the game’s ultimate goal is to be the first to score 10 victory points.
The Switch version gives you the base Catan game along with the Seafarers expansion. The Cities and Knights expansion is available as paid DLC on the eShop. Within the single-player mode, there is a campaign consisting of 15 maps, most of which are played with the Seafarers rules. Each map has three different difficulty settings, but you have to win earlier maps before new ones will open up. However, a separate scenario mode allows you to play any campaign map you want, regardless of whether it’s been unlocked. In all of these, you can customize the difficulty of your opponents and the number of victory points needed, but the number of players is still locked to the given scenario you choose. You can also determine whether the map is randomized in terms of which resource tiles are slotted into which available areas on the map and if you want to play with random dice throws or a collection of 36 rolls that reflect the numbers 2-12 being distributed according to their probability.
Multiplayer is where the cracks begin to show. The two main options here are Custom Match and Auto Match. The former involves playing with a mixture of online friends who own the game and A.I. opponents. You cannot play with randoms in this mode. Auto Match, as the name implies, seems to allow you to suggest one or more scenarios and then search for random players online who also want to play one of those maps. You cannot adjust any of the rules in Auto Match, but the larger concern is that it can take a long time for a game to start. This could be due to lack of players at launch, but there’s also no way to find out how many people are online or looking for games. My first Auto Match game took 10 minutes to start, and the three opponents I was matched against eventually dropped out of game one at a time, so I was given the win by default. Particularly with four players, it can take 30-60 minutes to finish one match, so it’s likely that people won’t stick around for full games, especially if they fall behind early. My Switch has gone into sleep mode multiple times while waiting for opponents, and that’s never a good sign.
The most egregious issue with Catan on Switch is the lack of local multiplayer. It’s fully possible that those who would buy this port already have the physical board game, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t an audience who would want to play it digitally. Given the need to hide the cards in players’ hands, I can somewhat understand the omission of this feature, but the Switch’s ability to pass and play around a table could be used to solve this problem. A more minor issue is that navigating the menus doesn’t feel great. At times you have to use the stick to move up and down, and other times the directional buttons can be used as well, but for both of these, movement feels sticky and just a little off. Finally, it’s not entirely clear how Auto Match actually puts players together, nor was I ever able to find an online game for any of the Seafarers maps.
There are absolutely digital board games that effectively re-create or even improve upon their physical counterparts—such as the iOS version of Agricola—but it’s hard to recommend this version of Catan. Much of the enjoyment of what my friends and I affectionately call “Settlers” or “Sottlers” (don’t ask) is the social element of chatting, taunting, teasing, and laughing while gathered around a table. One potentially neat thing is that you earn experience points while playing, and by leveling up you can unlock new tile, game piece, and table themes, but earning some of these bonuses can take a lot longer than you are likely to want to play. Catan on Switch doesn’t have that, so unless you really enjoy playing board games against A.I. or have the patience to wait for potentially unsatisfying online competition, you are better off building the largest army or longest road somewhere else.