We're pitting two iPhone and iPad games against one another that are all about settling a brave new world. On the one side, we have the digital adaptation of the classic board game, Catan. In the other, we have a veteran PC title that's made the leap to mobile, called The Settlers.
For some people, the word "Catan" will conjure up memories of hours spent haggling for sheep and building roads. Trust me, it's more fun than it sounds - that nostalgia is what will pull most iPhone and iPad owners to give the digital game a try. The game board is broken up into hexagonal tiles, each with their own resource type. Players build settlements at the intersections of these tiles to gather surrounding resources, and construct roads to connect their towns. Every turn, dice are rolled to determine which tiles produce resources, which the players can then trade with one another as needed. There are a variety of win criteria, none of which involve going to war and razing your opponents' cities to the ground, which is a nice change of pace. Instead, you earn victory points for having the longest road, the most (or biggest) cities, and amassing the largest army. The first one to a certain number of victory points (usually 10) wins.
The charm of the board game was playing with friends - wheeling and dealing in resources, cutting each other off in road construction, and planting robbers in their territory to plunder their resources. Despite the wide variety of turn-based online multiplayer titles available for iPhone, Catan only offers local hand-off multiplayer, which significantly stunts the fun factor. Catan also takes another knock for requiring you to buy "The Seafarers" expansion pack for $5 in order to access the single-player campaign mode, although it nearly doubles the number of scenarios you can play in the one-off custom games. Without the add-on, you're limited to the generic skirmish mode with AI opponents and a smaller handful of game variants. Given, the computer opponents have a wide variety of strengths and weaknesses, providing for some decent replayability, it's still not an ideal single-player experience with a level-by-level narrative. At least dealing with robots means you don't feel bad for taking a long time on turns or screwing them over in trades. I found the user interface and graphics for Catan to be pretty nice, and even when you're just playing with the AI, the fundamental gameplay retains its classic appeal.
Fans of the settling-themed games will likely be familiar with The Settlers series on PC. At its core, The Settlers is a production chain game. The line of production is sensible, but extensive. Make a woodcutter to chop wood. Make a sawmill to make boards from that wood. Use the boards to make a farm. Make a mill to turn the grain into flour. This goes on all the way through feeding miners to smelting iron to training troops to expanding your territory. Though aggressive military expansion is the inevitable outcome of all of that micromanaging, you spend the vast majority of your time making sure everyone is fed and properly supplied. The game stretches across four separate single-player campaigns, traveling through a wide variety of landscapes and pitting you against many different civilizations - both indigenous and competing colonies.
The problem with The Settlers is that the sheer complexity of the chain of production creates a very cluttered user interface on the iPhone. There are tons of sub-menus to pinpoint specific units. Terrain is graded on how quick it is to build structures, creating this jarring blur of red and green dots. Though some of the nitpickier parts of the PC game have been axed for simplicity, such as creating the network of roads to connect buildings, and upgrading building levels to increase productivity, I would say they could have cut even more while keeping the same core, appealing gameplay. For example, we could skip the coal requirement to smelt iron and gold, get rid of stone mines since there are already quarries, and reduce the number of unit types to avoid confusion. There are 33 different types of settlers that you have to manage, each with their own tool, material, and building requirements, not to mention the second- and third-level military units you can train - that's a lot to juggle. They've even introduced a lot of extra elements that I don't recognize since playing Settlers 7 on PC, like sulfur mines, eyecatcher buildings, and priests.
Sure, great real-time strategy games benefit from extensive tech trees, but for an iPhone game, it feels cramped, and I imagine even on an iPad The Settlers would be hectic. The graphics are decent, but zooming in on gameplay just shows a pixelated blown-up view, rather than higher-res textures.
Picking between the two is a tough call because they both have pretty specific flaws; Catan is missing vital online multiplayer support, and Settlers has a cramped user interface. Despite having similar themes, both have fairly different game mechanics, too. Besides having a more streamlined user interface, I found the pace of Catan's gameplay more sensible for mobile; even with a fast-forward button, The Settlers is built for long-haul single-player missions. Meanwhile, you could have a rewarding turn in Catan in a split second, and quickly put it away if something else demanded your attention. I'm sure The Settlers would be less cluttered on the iPad, and if you're a hardcore fan of the franchise, I'd suggest checking it out, but for casual players looking for a fresh colonization game on iPhone, go with Catan.