By Alec Meer on April 4th, 2013 at 7:00 pm.
The boardgame I’ve played the most times, by far, is Settlers of Catan – and that’s not something I expect to change by time I reach my deathbed. Sure, it’s obvious, but it’s also a sweetspot of strategy and competition, as early co-operation turns to bitter rivalry and even the merest mention of sheep can reduce grown adults to shivering balls of purest hatred. I gravitated towards Lukáš Beran’s free, boardgame-like Expanze, which made no secret of its Catanic ways, with mixed excitement and anxiety. Excitement: Catan! Anxiety: But is it just a cheap’n'nasty, slavish rip-off?
No, it isn’t. It’s based on Catan’s essential mechanics – the gathering of brick, wood, sheep, ore and wheat, and the spending of these on the expansion of your agrarian empire – but it goes off and does its own thing with them. Better still, it turns them into a surprisingly workable singleplayer game.
First impressions do suggest a straight-up Catan clone, but quickly you’re mucking around with new types of structures – Monasteries, Markets and Forts – which enable gathering, trading and building boons in addition to the more familiar roads and settlements. You’re also generating vast numbers of resources, able to wind up with, for example, hundreds of sheep in your corner, as opposed to the half dozen or so which characterise a more bounteous Catan hand. Building costs are in keeping with this – a town costs 30 of most resources and 60 of the rest, while you’ll need to rustle up 100 sheep and 30 corn for a Market. That’s probably not a terribly interesting fact to share – I guess I’m just amusing myself with the idea of turning up with a wheelbarrow full of sheep and asking if someone wants to swap them for some awning.
In singleplayer, trading rapidly becomes the key strategy: how much of something you’ve got decent amounts of are you prepared to exchange at a scandalous 4:1 rate for something you desperately need? And is better to spend/trade everything to try and hit the level’s objective as quickly as possible and hope the turn-timer doesn’t run out before you can make it all the way there, or to play the long game of gradually, expensively building the upgrades which turn exchange rates and resource generation hugely in your favour? The latter means enormous rewards, but with each level requiring the meeting of certain construction goals within an arbitrary amount of turns, it’s a hard fight to get to that point.
It’s well-designed, tight and challenging without being frustration. Those turn-counts might be arbitrary, but they seem very carefully arranged to ensure a little bit of sweating. Amazingly, I didn’t even once think ‘why am I playing a singleplayer version of a multiplayer game?’ as was the unfortunate case with Talisman Prologue, and that’s because Expanze has made its own rules to suit that structure, rather than attempted to brute-force someone else’s into something it was never designed for.
Ingame video – Indie DB
Presentation values are all over the shop unfortunately. It looks a bit Quake II, the menu text is in mangled English in a horrible font, and important concepts and features are barely introduced, let alone explained, but you’ll figure it yourself without too much weeping and screaming. I can’t begrudge it that given it’s free and in all other regards feels as thought it warrants a pricetag. I’m yet to try the multiplayer, though the occasional appearances in the campaign of rival ‘players’ lends a decent sense of the land-grab war I’d be in for there.
Expanze lacks the clean lines of logic and chance of Catan, but it spins off into its own game that merely evokes, rather than plagiarises, Klaus Teuber’s cardboard classic. Grab it for free from IndieDB, before the dev reverses his unwise decision to keep it freeware.