Friday, May 18, 2007

Catan online, offline

After all these years, to once again face an ancient nemesis, a phantom construct brought to life through the alchemy of electricity and mathematics: the disembodied digital zombie intelligence of Sun Tzu!

When last I did battle with the great Chinese military philosopher, dead in the flesh since the 5th century BC, it was on the CGA battlefields of The Ancient Art of War on my old Tandy 1000. That was over 20 years ago, and he kicked my ass then just as he’s kicking my ass now – with cold, dispassionate perfection.

This latest software resurrection of Master Sun is one of the AI opponents in Catan, the XBox Live Arcade version of Klaus Teuber’s near-perfect tabletop game The Settlers of Catan, and it’s a killer. Alexander, all go-for-broke action, I can read and deal with. Elizabeth, overcautious and naïve in resource trading, rolls over easy. Shaka’s tough, but hampered by the peculiar guilelessness of a warrior’s honor. Sun Tzu, though… he bides his time, sees the future, builds strength where you can't see it and unleashes it when you don’t expect it. He plays like…

…like a computer, I guess. It’s real easy to anthropomorphize when you’re playing Catan – the AI opponents feel like real people, with their own agendas and styles and infuriating quirks. The only things missing from this excellent digitization of tabletop Settlers are the constant bitching and moaning of poor losers (though the AIs’ slightly creepy use of animated emotes – blown kisses, tossed bombs, etc. – brings a bit of that) and the small pleasure of building little forts and towers with your reserve gamepieces while you wait for people to hem and haw their way though their turns.

The quality of Catan’s AI is what makes it work, as The Settlers of Catan is an intensely social game: the politics of resource trading, the exercising of vendettas, the cutting of desperate deals. The easy way of programming an AI – starting with mathematical perfection and then creating various difficulty levels by manipulating the frequency at which the program makes stupid errors – would have left Catan’s single-player experience feeling cheap and empty. For a strategy fan, the next-worst thing to an AI that wins by cheating is an AI that loses by being randomly retarded.

Of course, Catan is intended for online play, with real people thinking real thoughts, using human strategies, making honest human blunders, swearing human swears and hurling human sexual insults. Since you cant play a multiplayer game on a single system – really, there’s no way there could be a single-system multiplayer and have it reamin Settlers – going online is the only way to get the human experience from Catan. Aside from the obvious social problem – if you play over XBox Live, you have to play with XBox Live gamers -- I have one enormous difficulty with the idea of getting my settlers fix online: it would ruin my life.

Honestly time. I have an addiction problem, an increasingly common one: online games burrow right into my soul, so I have to avoid situations where they might snare me. I’ve been tentacled before and have always managed to shake myself free, but I know that if I got careless it’d be only a matter of time before real trouble would start. You think I don’t drool over World of Warcraft screenshots? I read about WoW, even the dumbest fanboy messageboard garbage, and my heart screams to be part of it, to join guilds and power-level and camp and bitch about nerfing and all the rest. Even a super-simple online strategy game like kDice (check it out) has been known to knock twelve hours out of my life at a sitting. So I have to stay away; I don’t even dare have an XBox Live Gold membership -- the simplicity, elegance and depth of Catan are so captivating I’d never get out if I got in.

So I get my social Settlers kick the old-fashioned way: out of the box, with whoever I can convince or cajole into playing. Meanwhile I hone my skills on the 'Box, imagining rivalries and relationships with pieces of software, cussing out the virtual Sun Tzu every time he surprises me with a perfectly executed flurry of roadbuilding to steal the Longest Road honor and cut me off from needed ore deposits, griping when that big baby Alexander won’t trade because I dicked him over with the robber one too many times, enjoying dumb Elizabeth’s coquettish kisses while I run her into the ground.