- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Here’s a look at some hardware and software that’s available: Catan, from Big Huge Games for Xbox 360, rated E for everyone, 800 Microsoft points ($10). With the expansive selection of frenetic, high-volume, action-packed console challenges on the market, I still find it a joy to play a game that offers none of the above.

More precisely, in the Xbox Live Arcade download of Catan, I found a strategy-rich, turn-based methodical challenge perfectly simulating a board game created in Germany 12 years ago.

A player becomes a settler on the lost island of Catan and must collect resources and establish a thriving colony within the confines of a hexagonal board made up of 19 randomly arranged hexagonal numbered tiles that represent wool, grain, bricks or lumber.

Old-fashioned dice rolls determine the numbered tile that will deliver resource cards to players. The player who meets enough conditions with his settlement to collect 10 victory points wins. A certain combination of resource cards collected in turn allows settlers to build cities and roads and earn victory points.

Trading between players is encouraged and will become contentious — especially with other live opponents. The collection of Development cards adds another twist to the action as they allow players to use armies and steal resources from other settlers.

Those overwhelmed by the rules will appreciate a “learn as you play” tutorial that offers hints and some strategies during a practice match.

The single-player mode allows a player to challenge up to three of the greatest computer-assisted leaders on Earth. Thirteen luminaries such as Abraham Lincoln, Cleopatra and Alexander the Great are available to challenge, each with his or her own cerebral strengths and weaknesses.

The most wondrous part of Catan is its Xbox Live multiplayer functionality for up to four settlers to take part in a session with their broadband connection.

I am more impressed every day with the Xbox Live Arcade service as at 2:30 a.m. on a Monday, I was able to set up a game within minutes with three other night owls. We could chat with one another via headphones or shoot some taunts at one another via some silly animation directed at the players’ icons.

It is not as impressive as other Xbox Live Arcade games that allow video conferencing during the action (with Xbox Live Vision Camera), but do I really need to see what a bunch of goofs who play a video board game at bizarre hours of the night look like?

3D Ultra Minigolf Adventures, for Xbox 360, rated E for everyone, 800 Microsoft points ($10). Another traditional game goes from the outdoors to the virtual realm via an Xbox Live Arcade download as the fine sport of miniature golf is livened up through some colorful and cartoony environments.

Up to four players can choose from four avatars and hit the links in a challenge that offers three themed courses — Old West, Carnival and Outer Space — with a possible 36 holes’ worth of action.

Intricate designs greet the golfers as they encounter familiar challenges such as ramps and obstacles, but they also will find an occasional spaceship to give their ball a lift into the hole or a scorpion ready to send a player into double bogey territory.

Additionally, the controller can be set up three ways, and players can take advantage of power-ups scattered on the courses that can be used to blast or electrify an opponent’s ball out of bounds.

A too-brief tournament mode for the solo golfer as well as a limited course creator rounds out the game’s extended options.

Even though I can’t argue with its cost, the game offers only slightly more than a demo. It could use more of everything, especially more holes and a more robust course creator.

Overall, 3D Ultra Minigolf will not appeal to the single player but may fit the bill for those looking for a passable party game at an extremely reasonable price.

Write to Joseph Szadkowski, The Washington Times, 3600 New York Ave. NE, Washington, DC 20002; or send e-mail

(jszadkowski@washingtontimes.com).

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