Virtual sheep for virtual wood? Hands-on with Catan VR

Enlarge / Welcome to the hunting lodge…
Asmodee Digital
cardboard.arstechnica.com.

I admit to a fair amount of skepticism when it comes to most virtual reality applications; I remember hearing how VR was the Next Big Thing back when I was in graduate school—and that was 20 years ago. Even if the technology was further along than it is now, a VR application needs to benefit substantially from a port to the VR setting and the additional features (especially the 360-degree perspective) this allows.

Boardgames do not appear, at first glance, to meet that criterion. If the play’s the thing, then why would it be better to play something in a virtual cabin than through a regular app or at my kitchen table? (I have a good table.)

Asmodee Digital

But Asmodee Digital hopes to change that perception by porting the most popular and mainstream Euro boardgame, Catan, to a VR setting. Asmodee acquired rights to the Catan brand in January 2016, and it has since launched several new extensions to the brand, including a new Game of Thrones-themed Catan game.

Catan was first released in 1995 as The Settlers of Catan, winning the prestigious Spiel des Jahres (Game of the Year) award in 1996. It went on to sell over 23 million copies, even appearing at Ben’s bachelor party on Parks and Recreation as Ron Swanson tried a novel wood-hoarding strategy. But as tabletop games found new audiences through app versions, Catan has lagged with one of the worst app adaptations out there, featuring corny graphics, weak AI players, and an unwieldy implementation of the game’s core trading mechanic.

Asmodee Digital recently offered select members of the press a peek at the current build of Catan VR, which I sampled on an Oculus Rift device. While I’m still a VR skeptic, the port does offer some substantial advantages over a 2D rendition of the game. Catan is popular because it’s a social title by the standards of Eurogames; you can play without trading, but it makes the game harder and far less enjoyable. The negotiations that go on throughout the game as players try to acquire the right combinations of resources to build roads, settlements, and cities are as central to the game as the dice rolls… and so is telling one of your opponents to go pound sand when she asks to trade an ore for a sheep—or when you roll a seven and the Robber steals half of her goods.

Playing in virtual reality makes this more conversational aspect of Catan come to life even when you’re playing opponents who aren’t in the same (real) room with you. While Catan VR will include AI opponents sporting the same cartoon avatars that have always accompanied Catan products, virtual reality doesn’t bring much to the table if you’re only playing the computer. If you’re playing human opponents, however, VR will bring the experience of digital gaming a good bit closer to reality: you’ll hear them through the headset and see their avatars move and gesture (if crudely) while they talk. Given how much the Catan experience depends on active table talk, this seems to be the biggest improvement a VR game can offer over a good Catan app for tablets.

To place pieces on the board, you drag and drop, an intuitive motion that’s at least reminiscent of working with wood and cardboard on the table top. You use hand controllers to “press” virtual buttons by pointing at them—just as if I were poking someone hard enough to wake them—which then advances you to the next menu, where you can select a road, settlement, city, or development card. Any structure you’re building then appears with your cursor in front of you so you can drag it with your fingertip to a legal spot on the board. Each opponent’s current victory points, cards, longest road, and army size is always visible in a banner above the player’s avatar. The trade mechanism is weak with AI players—it wasn’t evident when a trade offer had no takers—but it would work well with live opponents who could tell you where to stick that offer of a wood for a brick.

VR doesn’t add much to everything away from the table, however. The board looks great, with texture on the hex tiles to match the mountains and forests, and cute if non-essential animations like birds flying around. The room around you looks like a country cabin or lodge, and aside from the Catan sunrise appearing if you look out the cabin window, there’s nothing new to see beyond the board and the avatars of the players you face. Creating an immersive experience might help convince people who haven’t already invested in VR—both in the equipment and in the concept—that virtual reality will enhance the boardgame experience, but the current build’s static environment doesn’t go far in that direction.

It’s also possible that virtual reality and boardgaming just aren’t a good mix—or at least, the combo doesn’t offer enough beyond what we can get in a good boardgame app. There are hybrid games that combine tabletop settings with RPGs, like Gloomhaven, or cooperative adventure titles like Dead of Winter, any of which might work well in VR. Perhaps Pandemic, the king of cooperative boardgames, could switch from a static board to a virtual war room where players can manipulate the map and share information.

Catan offers name recognition and broad appeal to many levels of gamers, but this implementation—which, to be clear, is still in development—has to ultimately clear a higher bar to show why a VR version is necessary.

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