Arcade: Catan Q&A
Well it’s that time of the week where we fire up our 360’s and download new content from the Xbox Live Arcade. Today sees the release of Catan and Centipede and Millipede, both now available to download. To coincide with this release we have an XCN Q&A with Brian Reynolds, who shares with us his experience in developing one of today’s Arcade titles – Catan, enjoy.
Q. For those of us who haven’t played the Catan board game before, could you give us an introduction to it and why it is so successful?
The island of Catan consists of 19 colorful land tiles, representing mountains, pastures, forests, and other regions. Players colonize the island, founding settlements in places they think will be productive, and each time the dice are rolled some of the settlements produce resources. The most exciting part of the game begins when the players wheel and deal to trade the resources with each other to get the ones they need, and then build new roads and cities to settle the land. The winner is the player most successful at planning, trading, and expanding!
Q. We hear that you’re a pretty serious player of the board game. What are your favourite memories of playing it, and are you confident that the Xbox Live Arcade game will let others have similar experiences?
Yes I love the board game and have played it at the tournament level here in my home state of Maryland. The game where I won my first place trophy, I managed to build my final city using a crazy set of 15 resource cards, none of which were the normally-called-for wheat and ore, traded at my three-for-one port – it was one of the biggest hands of cards I’d ever held, I was very lucky not to roll the robber, and it worked out perfectly to win the game and the tournament.
Catan Live is going to be great both for players who already love Catan and for players who’ve never seen it before. One of the huge advantages it offers is the chance to find new opponents from around the Xbox Live community, and then to play with them using the great graphics and sound of the Xbox 360 platform. We’ve also streamlined the interface so that gameplay is quite fast and intuitive. With the Xbox handling all the rules and recordkeeping, you can easily finish games of Catan in 30 minutes, much less than the 90 minutes normally needed to play the board game. That means you’ll be able to play many more games and have even more fun!
Q. You’ve worked on some of the biggest and most loved strategy games of all time in Rise of Nations and Civ II – how does Catan compare to them, both in terms of the development process and the play experience?
Developing Catan definitely reminded me of “the good old days” when teams were small and one guy could make a huge difference on a project. I’d never even heard of the project until last April (of 2006), but then in May we talked to the XBLA and Catan guys at E3, and I came home and started the prototype. I spent the summer writing the AI in collaboration with the board game designer, Klaus Teuber, and working with an artist and a couple programmers to design the interface for the game. My entire role on the project only lasted until about October, when we locked down the AI and game features and moved into the testing and certification phase, but it was a whirlwind of exciting activity and some of the most fun I’ve ever had in the game industry.
One interesting thing Catan has in common with Civ II and RoN is its graphic treatment – the game and map depict an historical, colonial period, albeit on a fictional island in this case. Because of that historical feel we thought it would be especially appropriate to name the AI personalities after historical figures (Alexander, Cleopatra, etc), which we think adds a lot to the atmosphere of the game and also makes the actions of the AI players more intuitive. It also feels most satisfying when you are able to make Cleopatra really mad!
Q. What elements of the Catan board game make it ripe for an Xbox Live Arcade version?
First of all the Catan map board consists of simple but beautiful components: it was easy to depict the map and cards on the screen using bright colourful images, even on small TV sets. Secondly it’s one of those elegant games that is both extremely easy for beginners to learn yet enjoyable for all levels of game player. Thirdly it’s a great fit for Xbox Live because it’s so much fun to play multiplayer and the Xbox Live matchmaking helps you find opponents of a similar skill level easily. Finally it’s a nice tight 25 MB download that delivers the most fun you’ve ever had in such a small cheap package – as a download on XBLA we think it’s one of the best deals out there.
Q. Catan involves playing a lot of cards – what do these do and how does this work in your version?
If you’ve played the board game you’ll know that there are two kinds of cards in the game.
First of all you have resource cards such as “wood” or “sheep” which you receive from your settlements. Your resources will appear in your “hand” of cards at the bottom of the screen (and you’ll see the other players’ concealed hands near their avatars as well). You can then spend the resources when you buy something (you’ll see the price automatically discarded from your hand), or you can go to the Trade screen to trade the resources with other players to get the ones you really need.
Secondly you can buy Development Cards which allow you to activate special powers. Once you’ve held the cards for a turn, you are allowed to play them by selecting the “Development Card” option and then picking which card you want to play. If you played the “Soldier” card, for example, you’d then move the robber and pick a resource, and another Soldier icon would appear near your avatar.
Q. And how does resource gathering and trading work?
You gather resources from your settlements – when the dice are rolled at the beginning of each turn some land tiles will produce resources: everyone with a settlement near that tile gets a resource. So the trick to gathering resources is to claim settlement spots near the tiles most likely to produce resources, and then upgrade those settlements into cities. The Xbox automatically handles your income for you – you’ll see resource cards dealt into your hand.
Each turn, you can also trade your resources with the other players, perhaps giving up an Ore card you don’t currently need to get a Brick that helps you finish building a Road. You can trade as much as you want as long as you have cards left and people who want to trade with you. In Catan Live this happens on the Trade Screen, where you use the joystick to plop your resources into “want” and “give” piles that tell the other players what kinds of trade you want to make. Once someone else’s offer matches yours, you can hit the green (A) button to propose the trade, and if they also hit (A) to confirm it then the cards change hands!
Since the heart of Catan is in many ways this “wheeling and dealing” for resource trades, one option players will enjoy in the multiplayer mode is using the Xbox Live voice chat feature to talk to the other players. But we’ve also provided 16 special emotion animations or “ticklers” which you can activate using the Right Bumper button to convey particular thoughts or emotions to the other players, such as “You’re too far ahead!”, “I hate the dice!”, or “Sweeten the deal!”. These ticklers (and their associated sound effects) not only help players communicate they also make the game lively and fun. The AI players use the ticklers too!
Q. Most titles on Xbox Live Arcade are quite instant gaming experiences. Did you have any concerns about bringing a more strategic title to the platform?
I don’t think players will find the Catan experience any less lively than a game like Uno, and that’s one of the more successful titles up there. One of the reasons Catan is so popular is that it’s so easy to learn and so much fun to play with other people; that should make it great fit for Xbox Live Arcade.
Q. What have you done to ensure that Catan is accessible to newcomers but also challenging for veterans?
In terms of making the game accessible and fun for newcomers we worked hard to make the interface as clean and intuitive as possible – in particular we spent a lot of time in the user testing lab honing the trading interface since we think that’s key to the experience. We also created a “learn as you play” mode: so that you can jump right in and start having fun without having to read a rulebook or something.
Then of course there are veteran Catan players! For those folks we’ve created the “Hard” difficulty level of the AI, which I’m certain they’ll find stands head and shoulders above any other Catan AI ever designed – it’s really challenging and a lot of fun to play against. We’ve also included user interface preferences to allow players to speed up things like the animation for dealing the cards out: in other words once you’re an expert you can turn everything up to high speed. Likewise I know many long-time Catan fans like to play with various “house rules” for Catan, and we’ve supported several in our upcoming release. For example players can choose to use an “event deck” instead of dice rolls, and they can choose a “friendly robber” or “friendly resources”.
Q. The creator of the board game, Klaus Teuber, helped to develop the AI in Catan. How invaluable was his input, and what can players expect from the AI?
About the time I was ready to start writing the Catan AI, we heard that Klaus Teuber had made “some Excel tables” on that subject. That sounded interesting so we asked to see them, and it turned out it wasn’t just a spreadsheet it was a vast workbook of many different interrelated formulae, showing a lot of profound thought about the game system and ways it could be adapted to a really competitive AI. It gave us a huge head start in developing the AI – not only did we not have to “reinvent the wheel,” we were able to concentrate on extending and refining the ideas Klaus had laid down and increasing their sophistication using tricks I’d learned writing AI over the years for games like Civ 2. So it was absolutely invaluable, and one of the funny things was apparently I was the first developer who was willing to take a serious look at Klaus’ AI workbook and try to structure an implantation around that instead of “going my own way”.
In terms of what to expect, watch out! Anyone who wants a real challenge should play on the Hard difficulty level where the AI uses its best algorithms (and of the AI personalities we are offering in the initial release I think of “Alexander” as perhaps the strongest – put him as one of the three AI’s for a really tough game, with perhaps Joan of Arc and Sun Tzu). You’ll find the hard level AI surprisingly sneaky, and a fairly canny trader as well.
On the lower difficulty levels, the first difference you’ll notice is the AI is looser in its trading – it is more likely to make trades that aren’t completely in its interest. Also the AI on lower levels won’t compete with you quite so aggressively for prime locations.
Q. How enjoyable was it to design and implement the Achievements in Catan?
Not only am I a longtime Settlers of Catan fanboy, I’m also a huge fan of the Xbox Live Achievements system, so it was great fun to get to think up our own set of Achievements for the game—even if for Xbox Live Arcade titles you only get to think of 12.
For the record here are the Achievements we offer:
Settler of Catan: Build a settlement in any game of Catan. (10)
Scholar of Catan: Win a Single-Player game against Moderate AI’s. (10)
Professor of Catan: Win the Single-Player game against Hard AI’s. (20)
Builder of Catan: End any game of Catan in possession of the Longest Road card 10 times. (20)
Knight of Catan: End any game of Catan in possession of the Largest Army card 10 times. (20)
Merchant of Catan: Acquire 100 resource cards in trade in any game of Catan. (20)
Villager of Catan: Collect 25 Victory Points. (10)
Citizen of Catan: Collect 100 Victory Points. (20)
Elder of Catan: Collect 250 Victory Points. (20)
Statesman of Catan: Collect 500 Victory Points in ranked match play. (20)
Chancellor of Catan: Collect 1000 Victory Points in ranked match play. (20)
Ambassador of Catan: Invite a friend to play Settlers of Catan (10)
Q. How does the Xbox Live multiplayer mode work in Catan, and what does it add to the experience?
Catan supports ranked multiplayer games for those who wish to play competitively, and there are leader boards to track your progress. When you play a ranked match the game will attempt to match you against other players of a similar skill level. During ranked games you have 60 seconds to complete each of your turns (including all of your trading), which keeps the game moving quickly.
You can also play unranked “quickmatch” games (with 90 seconds per turn), or you can play “custom” games if you want set the house rules of your choice and/or invite your friends to a game. In a custom game you can set the time limit however you like or even turn it off altogether.
Q. Do you think Catan’s balance of fragile alliances, deception and uneasy truces will result in some people’s Xbox Live Friends won’t be friends for much longer?
Ha ha ha! Catan is a light and fast game, I don’t think many friendships will end just because someone swiped the Wood port.
Q. Do you have any tips to help people get started with Catan?
Yes! When the two dice are rolled for resource production each turn, numbers in the middle like 6 and 8 will be rolled a lot more often than numbers at the extremes like 2 and 12. So count the “dots” on each land tile, which show how likely that tile is to be rolled. Settlement spots next to the largest number of dots will usually generate the most total income!
Another good thing to remember at the beginning is to try to get at least one of your settlements next to a good “Brick” tile, because everyone needs a lot of brick at the beginning of the game and you’ll be “in demand” as a trading partner!
Q. And any clever tricks that expert players can use?
Sure! Here are a couple nifty ones:
• If you’re planning to play a “Monopoly” Card on your turn, then try to trade away all of the resource you’re going to monopolize to other players before playing the card. For example if you’re going to monopolize “wood” then start your turn by trading all your wood away to other players (just don’t let them figure out why!). Then when you play the Monopoly you’ll get all your wood back anyway plus all of theirs, and your trades will have been for free!
• During the opening setup count the total number of dots next to each resource type (brick, ore, etc). The resource types with the fewest number of total dots are usually the ones which will be most rare during the game, so you should consider the locations which produce them that much more valuable.
Q. Do you have plans to work on any other Xbox Live Arcade or Xbox 360 games?
We have many plans of many kinds, I just can’t talk about them right now!
Thanks for your time Brian!