Catan, Board Games, and Why I Don't Feel So Alone In the World

In what was the most sinister form of irony that I've experience in quite some time, my most anticipated Xbox Live Arcade game of 2007, Catan, released the morning of Wednesday, May 2nd, just as I was packing for my trip.

I didn't let that keep me from playing it for 2 hours though. And I must admit that I even delayed our departure by an additional 30 minutes that night because I insisted Kristin sit down and let me show her how the game is played. I figured she was simply amusing me and focusing on masking her frustration at the fact that we had a 17 hour drive ahead of us and I was on the couch playing Xbox, but her questions about the game later in the trip tells me she was actually paying attention. And I'm glad because the game is absolutely fantastic. It's everything I hoped it would be and more and I must confess that I yearned to be home playing the game several times during our trip. It's that good.

To understand my fascination with this game requires a bit of background. I grew up in a house that played a lot of games together. From Monopoly to Risk to Stratego to Balderdash to various card games, ping-pong, and, of course, loads of videogames. Going outside and playing touch football or riding bikes always took precedent, but when the rain came or when it got dark, or when relatives were visiting, you could bet your bottom dollar we'd be playing a game together. Finally being granted a position at the table with my father and uncles for a game of Risk was indeed a coming-of-age moment for me. Some boys get the birds-and-bees story or a can of beer to share with their pop. I was allowed to play Risk with the grown-ups. It was a major moment and one I looked forward to even more than that special Thanksgiving when I finally matriculated from the kiddie table.

Despite this game-heavy upbringing, I never surrounded myself with game-centric friends. Not in high school; not in college; and certainly not now in adulthood. I've never played Magic: The Gathering. I've never played Dungeons & Dragons. And the myriad strategic board games that have long since advanced the genre beyond the simplicity of Risk have always remained off limits to me. For years they intimidated me. Then they simply seemed too expensive. And when I finally had the money and the interest, I had no one to play them with. Moving across the country with a wife with no interest in strategic thinking does that -- the words "I don't like to have to think" will be etched on her grave. We play plenty of board games together, but none that require any more strategery than deciding whether or not to buy Boardwalk. But that's okay, I love her anyway.

Despite the lack of a group of friends to play the new breed of strategic board games with, I always make a point of browsing the aisles of a game shop when I see one. I read the box descriptions longingly; admire the box art; and lastly, I look to see how many players they require. I've held the box for Settlers of Catan in my hands numerous times and always bemoaned the fact that it required 3 to 4 players. I never played it but always wanted to.

And now, thanks to Big Huge Games and Microsoft, I finally have. The decision to bring a limited-appeal strategy board game to Live Arcade was, for me, a miraculous gift. And I have trouble imagining I'm the only one. Now, thanks to the online gaming community on Xbox 360 I can sit and play Catan whenever I want. Not many of the folks on my Friends list have purchased it yet ($10) but there are plenty of other people out there to play with and, even when there aren't (like this morning), there's the option to play against the rather sophisticated A.I. opponents. It's all I could do to steal myself away from the tv and get to work.

Catan, as great as it is, is not the only game of it's kind coming to Live Arcade. The hit game strategic-puzzle game Carcassone is also coming to Live Arcade this summer and rumors persist that the popular game Puerto Rico is also being digitized. For a budding strategy gamer who needs the assistance of an online gaming network to enjoy these types of games, this is all great news. Finally, thanks to Live Arcade, I'm not missing out anymore. And I can finally see what the fuss was all about. I suggest you do the same.

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