Catan VR Preview — The Classic Tabletop Game Comes to Life

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When it comes to tabletop gaming and “the classics,” few hold the regard of something like Settlers of Catan. Amassing over 22 million sales over the course of its 20+ years since release, Catan is a game that’s synonymous with tabletop gaming. Thanks to the immersive powers of virtual reality, tabletop players will get to experience the game in a whole new way later this year with the upcoming Catan VR.

During this weekend’s PAX Unplugged in Philadelphia, PA, we had the opportunity to get an early look at Catan VR, which brings over the beloved Settlers of Catan to virtual reality in a way that will certainly feel faithful to Catan veterans, while also providing a great entry point for newcomers to the game itself.

For those that haven’t played the original before, Catan VR is a virtual reality adaptation of the building and trading-focused tabletop game, Settlers of Catan. While the game has seen numerous expansions and iterations since it released over two decades ago, the core of Settlers of Catan sees up to four players competing to claim their stake on the scenic isle of Catan. The ultimate goal of the game is for the player to claim a certain number of Victory Points over their opponents, which players gain by accumulating various resources (wood, brick, wheat, sheep, and ore) and establishing their own settlements on Catan.

These resources, in turn, are then used to build settlements (which gather resources), upgrade them to more valuable cities (which generate twice as many resources), construct roads (letting you build new settlements), or take a chance on other valuable items like Development Cards, which could give you the edge over the course of the game. All of these items contribute to your Victory Points total, but victory can always be swiped at the last second by a cunning player, giving the game a certain level of unpredictability (even for seasoned players).

Since its publication in 1995, Settlers of Catan has remained an iconic tabletop game that has sold over 22 million copies, in over 30 different languages.

As a longtime player of Settlers of Catan, it’s easy to see why it has been regarded as a classic since first releasing back in 1995. By and large, Catan is incredibly easy to pick up and play (even for novice tabletop gamers), but still contains plenty of depth due to its board — which is comprised of a series of hexes that represent each of the game’s resources — being randomly-drawn, ensuring that the game is a new experience every time. With each hex being assigned a specific dice roll and placement, no map is ever played in the same way, which definitely plays into the appeal of Catan.

Likewise, deeper strategies to the game (such as trying to claim specialty cards like “Largest Army” or “Longest Road,” or dealing with the game’s resource-stealing Robber) give more options to players beyond its core “get resources and build settlements loop,” and that’s especially the case when playing one of the game’s expansions that drastically can change the board and rulesets.

However, Catan VR keeps things basic by using the standard four-player set-up of the original game. Having played some of the alpha build of Catan VR at PAX Unplugged, it’s encouraging to see that the classic board game has been translated almost perfectly to virtual reality, and in a way that should be pretty easy to pick up for those that have played Catan before, while being approachable for newcomers to the game.

Right from the get-go while playing Catan VR, one of the most immediate qualities I appreciated from the demo was the fact that it truly immerses the player inside the look and feel of Catan. With the game board laid out mostly front and center, players can look around and see that the game is being played inside a beautiful and scenic Catan-style cabin with a view of the game’s iconic artwork peeking out from a large window, giving plenty to look around and admire outside of the gameboard.

Of course, looking deeper into the gameboard itself, there are also some nice touches and attention to detail that help to make the game feel like it’s come to life in some small ways. Each of the different hexes representing one of the in-game resources has small little animations to give them some character and life, such as sheep running across a meadow or wheat blowing in the wind, which I certainly was a nice touch in giving the board a less static appearance.

The demo we played had four players surrounding the gameboard represented by in-game portaits, which the background color of each portrait representing the specific pieces on the board (red, blue, orange, green, etc.). While I played against 3 AI opponents, Catan VR will feature full support for playing against friends or matchmaking against others online, and can also allow players to fill in the gaps with AI opponents if needed.

Even better is the fact that the game will feature cross-play between Oculus Rift and Gear VR, ensuring that anyone can hop into the game regardless of what VR-capable device they have. While the game appears to be limited to those two devices for now, the development team expressed that other platforms and devices may be considered down the line, which would certainly be a great appeal to the game if it expand its list of supported devices for cross-play.

Catan VR Preview -- The Classic Tabletop Game Comes to Life

The typical layout for a standard gameboard in Settlers of Catan.

As far as the actual integration of VR controls goes, the alpha build of the game definitely had a few rough patches as far as getting certain gestures or interactions to register correctly (which is expected at this stage in its development), but by-and-large, Catan VR implements its VR gestures well.

One of the neatest tricks that the demo implemented specifically was the interactivity of the UI for the players’ hand of cards. With a pair of the Oculus Touch Controllers, the player can literally grab and move around the box containing their hand and place it wherever they see fit, whether they want to keep it on the lower hand of the screen for easier access, or placed above their heads to not interfere with the game at hand.

Either way, this implementation of the more finely tuned VR features made sense and was a smart design decision, as I imagine trying to overlay the player’s hand in a more static position could have made for some awkward placement without covering up the game board or other important game information. Likewise, a lot of the game’s other implementations of VR gestures, such as pointing to roll the dice or grabbing cards to trade with other players or the bank, felt natural once I got the hang of adapting to the in-game interface in Catan VR.

Catan VR Preview -- The Classic Tabletop Game Comes to Life

While a few other experiences like Werewolves Within have adapted popular tabletop or board games to virtual reality, Catan VR really felt like an experience that got both the immersion of VR and the social aspects of tabletop gaming.

Given that tabletop games rely so heavily on being with the presence of other players, Catan VR definitely captured a lot of what I love about Settlers of Catan, and already shows the promise that tabletop games can provide with the magic of virtual reality. Catan is a timeless game, and it’s exciting to see it played in a whole new way.

Catan VR will release on PC for Oculus Rift and on mobile for the Gear VR headset in Holiday 2017.

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