Ask me what my favourite games are, and once you've snoozed through me banging on about X-COM, Dungeon Keeper and Planescape: Torment yet again, you might catch me trying to sneak The Settlers of Catan into my list. While the PC's cutsey-management Settlers series is loosely based on it, they're two very distinct entities.
Catan is a boardgame, as you probably know - a German boardgame about grain and sheep and tiny wooden roads. One of the things I've always liked about it is that, when describing it to anyone, their brows will furrow with the understandable concern of someone who thinks they're trapped in conversation with a European farming enthusiast. Get them into a game, however, and they'll slip into its fine blend of socialising and intense competition as if they've been playing it their whole lives.
It isn't even slightly edgy to say Catan is my favourite boardgame, as its once-cult following seems pretty damned huge these days (and I have no doubt I'm preaching to the converted here), but it doesn't stop it from being the case. One day, I will own enough money hats that I can cheerfully treat myself to the ridiculously lavish, £200/$300-ish 10th Anniversary Edition, but until then I make do with the standard cardboard jobbie. It's still very nice, but there's one problem - it needs real human beings to play with. It's not always possible to lure other meatbags into my gaming dungeon, so what do I do?
Well, I find a version of it comprised of flashing pixels rather than pulped and compressed tree matter. The Xbox has a pretty fine adaptation in the form of XBLA's Catan, made by none other than Big Huge Games, but mysteriously and sadly it hasn't been ported over to our thundering personal computers as yet. Fortunately, there are a couple of options.
(Oh - I'm fully cognisant I'm posting about stuff from around 2005, thankyewveddymuch. So if you write anything along the lines of "old" or "gee, thanks for telling us something we already know, RPS", you are a miserable toerag of the highest order. We write about what we've recently been up to games-wise here, and unfortunately we bunch of 30-something chaps just aren't as cutting edge as someone fashionable like Vanilla Ice or Charles Dickens.)
Perhaps the flashiest - or rather, the closest there is to flashy - is MSN's Catan Online. It's a little chintzy and a little clunky, but it looks just like the real thing whilst also making a virtue of being a video-game - there's better stat/point tracking, and useful extras like tooltips stating precise odds of how often a given piece is likely to pay out.
It's got a fairly robust singleplayer mode as well as online play; certainly, the AI calling itself 'Margaret' (which I for some reason find more sinister than if it was called Killotron or I-Will-Eat-Your-Babies) gave me a pretty pulse-pounding run for my money when I played this morning. It's not free, alas, but there is a trial/demo, complete with a tutorial that's as good an introduction to this easy to learn, tricky to master build 'em up as any.
Alternatively, there's PlayCatan, which I suspect will be the bigger draw for Catan vets. Not least because, if you fork out for Premium Membership, you can lob in the Seafarers and Cities & Knights Expansions - two mainstays for many established Catan players. A recreation of the boardgame forms the centrepiece of a bizarre, Habbo Hotel-esque semi-MMO, where you wander around a 2D town with a customisable, goon-faced avatar, joining or watching games of Catan at your leisure. The brown'n'buttony interface throughout leaves much to be desired, but it's free and it's surprisingly populous - I suspect I'll be back to visit a few times.
A quick Google also throws up the unofficial 'Xplorers' - also free, and this time including some of the expansions, though like PlayCatan it requires registration. Also popular is Java Settlers, which, with all its talk of leagues and ladders, looks a little too hardcore and competitive for my nervous soul.
None of these are a patch on the real thing, of course - combined with plenty of whisky and shouting friends, it's as excellent an evening in as they come. Apart from RPS's bi-monthly naked wrestling tournaments, of course.