Catan

Board games have evolved since the days of Monopoly and Risk. Much of the action has been in Europe, where designers like Klaus Teuber have polished tabletop mechanics to a Teutonic shine. The main improvement: no more grueling six-hour sessions. The bestselling Settlers Of Catan is cleverly balanced, easy to learn, and surprisingly nuanced. Board-game geeks stay engaged, while casual dice-rollers still feel like they've got a fighting chance. And it all goes down in under an hour.

Catan, a digital download, brings the snappy game of resource-gathering and city-building to the unwashed online gaming masses of Xbox Live, and a rare level of social interaction comes with it. In a world where verbal chatter is usually limited to profane trash talk, Catan encourages players to chat up other players, negotiating resource trades and forming alliances. Quite often, the biggest challenge isn't jockeying for the best position or hoarding the right resources, but convincing your fellow settlers to throw you the cards you need, or fling whammies to the player on the left.

Beyond the game: Settlers Of Catan newcomers (or the painfully introverted) can play the game against computer-controlled opponents. Teuber actually contributed the reams of data he collected while creating the original game, in order to help Big Huge Games flesh out the play-styles of the A.I. bots.

Worth playing for: Board-game geeks usually have to go to conventions like GenCon to find a mother lode of enthusiastic opponents. Xbox Live makes these playmates accessible around the clock.

Frustration sets in when: Ranked matches take a while to set up, and players occasionally drop, causing the whole setup to crash and burn with them.

Final judgment: Pioneering Catan scores a victory point for unleashing strategy board games on a new audience.

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