Review: Catchup14 Aug 2014 0
Nick Bentley designed a well-regarded print-and-play abstract boardgame in 2010. The game so impressed Martin Grider (developer of the very well-executed For the Win, which I reviewed here way back in 2012) that he took on an iOS adaptation largely as a passion project, with help from contractors. Two years on, Mr. Bentley seems almost guilty at having occasioned so much work, with such a polished product released into the viciously unforgiving App Store, that he's written a moving plea and a wonderfully detailed designer diary. As someone who has written about games for years, I am not amused that some yahoo can waltz in and make what I do look easy and sound like a caring, brilliant guy at the same time.
Catchup is a very simple matter of creating a larger connected structure than your opponent. Each turn, you take two hexes. There are only two exceptions: the very first turn only gets one hex, and when the catchup mechanism is invoked. Whenever you pull ahead or extend your lead, your opponent gets a half-turn bonus. In this game, that means they claim three hexes on their next turn, rather than two, but the idea could be applied to any game which maintains a score and which allows an even number of actions on a player's turn. Catchup is probably the most accessible possible use of this mechanic, but it has some quite interesting properties, so I hope to see it again. The other wrinkle is that, if there's a tie for the size of the largest connected structure, the tie is broken by the size of the next largest structure for each player, and this is applied recursively until a winner is found (which must happen, due to the odd number of hexes on the board).
The resulting game feels like a somewhat more manageable version of Go, with the timing concerns of Ascension. The early game tends to involve a fair amount of careful placement of singleton hexes or small structures, to avoid allowing your opponent to connect up their hexes quickly without giving you extra actions. Sometimes there's a slow creep up, with each player making several pairs, then triples; other times, someone decides it's time to stop messing around and throws together a group of seven hexes in the middle of the board, hoping position will outweigh the bonus actions given to the opponent. Deciding whether to do that feels a lot like deciding when it's time to stop building your deck and go for points in Ascension, but with no randomness--you're just trying to guess when your opponent will stop trying to lay the groundwork for future territorial acquisitions and start acquiring.
So that's Mr. Bentley's work. Mr. Grider's is nowhere near as simple; in fact, it's packed with all kinds of options, some of which are unprecedented in my experience. The stats page offers an absurdly large variety of data (including the number of times you've viewed the stats screen). Even more unusual are the 20 levels of AI. That might sound daunting, but there's also an auto-select feature which lets you play to your level without worrying about it. Asynch multiplayer, local multiplayer, a clear interface and an app free of crashes--about the only thing absent is a chat function, which at least insulates you from potential awfulness.
Catchup is as elegant as a game can reasonably be, presented in a marvelously user-friendly way. I often feel abstracts give my imagination too little to grab hold of, and the pleasure of thinking about pure strategy sometimes eludes me. Catchup largely avoids this by being so uncluttered by exceptions or distracting interface choices that I never manage to lose sight of the strategic concerns. Turns out, that's just what I needed to appreciate it.
Catchup was played on an iPad Air for this review.