Here’s my hipster confession: I know it’s popular to hate Catan at this point, but I was hating Catan well, well before it was popular (stupid Robber). So why am I even writing this review? Because I think San Juan is a better game than Puerto Rico. Freed from all that “player to your left” nonsense, San Juan distills the core elements of play down into an easy to teach, quick to play card game that’s portable and fun. Could Rivals do the same for Catan?
Much as with the infinite flavors of Monopoly, Rivals for Catan follows the same basic setup as every other Catan game: you and your opponent (only one, this time out) are racing to build the most impressive settlement for a fledgling colony, this time by purchasing and laying tiles. You start with a hand of 3 tiles, and one Road and two Settlement tiles, which collectively support 6 Resource tiles numbered 1-6. Each turn you roll a standard d6 to determine which resources hit and a special Symbol die to determine other random events, most of which grant additional resources to one or both players. You then use resources to buy more tiles, either basic Settlement tiles or extra tiles from your hand. In the basic game, the first to 7 VP wins; the game also supports a few “themed” variants with additional tiles and higher VP totals.
Rivals elegantly handles the #1 gripe about Catan: speed of resources. The Robber (replaced by the Brigand in Rivals and tied to the special symbol die) no longer precludes production when it is rolled, and since each Settlement you add to your layout brings 2 new Resource tiles with it, it won’t take long before you’re generating 2 or 3 resources nearly every turn. Other tiles introduce boosters that make your Resource tiles more effective, trading ships (the ports from Catan – trading here happens only with the bank) or Heroes that can help you earn additional victory points and an advantage over your opponent.
There is also an interesting limiting factor found in Rivals that is wholly absent from its hexagonal forebears: you count resources not by gathering and holding cards, but by rotating your resource tiles – the icons on the side closest you indicate how many resource that tile is banking. This means that to expand beyond 3 of any given type of resource, you’ll need to acquire more Resource tiles by building Settlements. This has the interesting side effect of making both players’ current resource count open information, which changes the strategy in subtle ways.
“Competent” is the word that first leaps to mind when describing this app – it doesn’t hit any sour notes, but nothing stands out as amazing. While a tutorial is present, it does little more than offer a slide show of the basic rules of the game; note that you cannot access these rules during play (the help menu only gives a card almanac) but the tutorial can be replayed.
As with any decent iPad translation, there are some interface niceties to help keep gameplay organized. You can quickly shift to either player’s layout by tapping their player icon, and a series of numbers by each portrait keeps relevant game stats at the ready. The top center of the screen toggles between a count of how many tiles remain in each of the 4 stacks that feed your hand, and a handy list of how many of the games’ resources sit on your tiles alongside a summary of your opponents’.
The app features 8 different AI opponents, who do seem to follow subtly different strategies. Sadly, the only information you get about them are prosaic blurbs reminiscent of the Playmate Datasheet – “Mary-Ann has a big heart and is always concerned about the welfare of the peasants of Catan” doesn’t tell you much about her strategy, nor her relative level of difficulty. Still, there is decent variety, and with few online players lurking about, the wealth of AI opponents is nice to have.
A couple other interface quirks and bugs have yet to be fully addressed, but overall the app is stable and playable; what it lacks in polish it makes up for in responsiveness and ease of use.
Rivals For Catan gets points for being a fresh take on Catan. It doesn’t so much distill the game as refocus it for two players, and provides a few options not seen elsewhere. This results in a game that even critics of the neo-classic should consider worth a look. While the app won’t win any awards for innovation, it does what it needs to do well enough to make this purchase a solid recommendation.