Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Complex Strategies for Settlers of Catan

Complex Strategies for Settlers of Catan

This is a long strategy article. If you don’t want to read giant blocks of text, hit the “back” button on your browser now. It goes very deep into the strategy of Settlers of Catan. It assumes you have played the game at least once, if not more than once. It also assumes that you understand the development cards and the game mechanics.

The Settlers of Catan has been probably the most commercially successful Eurogame of all time. It is arguably the most loved. There was a period between 1990 and 1997 where I did not attend any game conventions. Settlers of Catan was the game that brought me back. I don’t get as many chances to play it anymore. There have been dozens of superb games that have come out in the last two years, and Settlers has been on the back burner for a little while. I have participated in two “Catan Cup Championship” tournaments (held at the Denver game conventions) and I’ve won first place both. I’ve logged hundreds and hundreds of games with people from all over the place and all walks of life. I don’t list these credentials to toot my own horn - I’d just like to let folks know where I’m coming from. These aren’t theoretical strategies. These are the strategies I use and they work. There’s nothing worse than trying out a strategy that someone else believes will work, only to find out that they have no idea what they’re talking about.

I also ask for a bit of leeway here. I am attempting to write a guide on a game that probably everyone on this board has played a hundred or more times. I’m guessing that many people on this board think that they are probably pretty good at this game, too, which will make them read this whole entire piece just waiting for me to slip up so they can say, “No, no, no, it doesn’t work that way. You can’t win doing it like that.” I fully expect to receive criticism and perhaps outright rejection in response to the strategies laid out in this guide. If you want to refute a specific point, please don’t provide “what if” examples. There are always exceptions to every rule of thumb. The point is that I believe this guide will help you be successful more often than not. I believe that using the strategies outlined in this guide, you will always put yourself in a position to win. If you stink at Settlers, this guide will make you better. If you already kill everyone at Settlers, then this guide will show you all of my tips and tricks so that you will also crush me like a bug if we ever play together.

Although there is luck involved in this game, it can be overcome with great strategy. In poker, the best strategy for winning is to get dealt a pair of aces in every hand. Since one can’t control the deal, a different set of strategies must be employed. Likewise, in Settlers the best strategy is to make sure that only your numbers get rolled every time. Again, this is unrealistic. Anyone who believes that poker is purely a lucky game need only look at the final tables at the World Series of Poker. It usually has one or two new faces, but by and large it is filled with the same old grizzled veterans. If playing poker is just about getting the luckiest cards, then why do the same guys keep getting to the final table? The answer is “skill.” The same can be said of Settlers. Regardless of the “luck factor,” it is generally the same group that competes for the top prizes at the tournaments.

In this article, I will cover placement and early expansion strategies, strategic use of the robber, resource negotiations, and development card use. Although I will not go into detail about Seafarers or Cities and Knights, many of the techniques in this guide can be applied to both.

I will discuss both three and four player games. I will not cover two, five, or six player games. All two player games are at best, sub-standard variants. Playing with only two eliminates the negotiation aspect of the game. The five and six player games are not fun, in my opinion. Generally, at least one, if not two players get trapped, unable to expand, right off the bat. With virtually no chance of winning, they slog through the remainder of the game just wishing it were over. I would rather everyone be actively involved and having fun. Although the placement and early expansion advice will be useful to people playing against computer AI, the rest of it won’t really apply. Computers think in probabilities and statistics. You can’t get a computer to “trust you” or to “owe you one”.


The initial placement in this game is very important. If you do it correctly, you put yourself in a position for victory. If you do it wrong, then it’s going to be the longest hour of your life knowing that you just can’t muster any resources, or grow beyond your first two cities. I’d say about 25% of the game is won or lost before the dice are ever rolled.

I have encountered use strategies like, “Go for wood and brick so that you can make lots of roads.” Other players cite mantras like, “Ore builds cities and soldiers, so try to get on a lot of good ore spots.” Obviously your game can be stagnated without wood and brick in the beginning. Likewise, without any ore, you won’t be able to buy anything at all during the endgame. It is possible, however, for ore to end up on the 2, 3, and 12 spaces. In this case, “going for ore” isn’t really that smart a strategy. The same can happen with wood/brick. If either of these strategies was a dominant one, they would work all the time. Since they don’t, there must be some other more deterministic mechanic at work.

I’m going to set this next bit apart in asterisks because it is pretty much the core to this guide. After you read it, if you decide you can live with it, please continue on through the rest of the guide.

******** Most important part of the entire guide *************
I am going to give you my absolute most valuable tip. At the end of a few games of settlers, write down where folks put their first two cities with regard to vertices. Don’t worry about whether or not the vertices have ore, wheat, wood, or whatever. Just write down the numbers. As each person places a new settlement, write down the vertices of where these go. Write down where they built there first city – was it on an 8/5/4 vertex or a 6/3/11 vertex? Remember, what resources they actually get is totally unimportant, just the numbers.

There are always anomalies, but over the long haul, you’ll find that MOST of the people who win are winning because they have a good distribution of numbers – regardless of what their stated strategy is. A person will often say, “Oh, well, I just tried to get all the ore in the game.” But is that really how they won? Or is it possible that they inadvertently employed some other strategy that had far more to do with the outcome than simply “get all the ore.” Keeping a log of wins/losses, and starting/ending number distribution, will show you over a number of games what’s really working for the winners.

The key to understanding how to win the game isn’t to work from front to back, it’s to work from back to front. After someone wins, figure out what vertices they started on, what direction they expanded, and how they did it. What kind of number distribution did they end up with? What kind did they start with?

I am a big fan of the book “Moneyball,” a baseball book that I highly recommend to gamers. It talks about general managers in baseball trying to find good talent to draft. How do you know who to draft? How do you know if a kid is going to turn out to be the next Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, or Albert Pujols? The answer is simple – look at Jeter, Rodriguez, and Pujols when they were kids and see what kind of numbers they put up. Then find players like that. The book “Moneyball” suggests that it isn’t the number of homeruns a player hits in college, it’s the number of walks. If you see a player that gets a lot of walks, they probably have great plate discipline, which is what ultimately will lead to homeruns in the future. Although on its surface, it’s about baseball, in reality it’s about how to measure success so that it can be repeated. This is something that doesn’t just apply to baseball, it applies to games as well.

People will keep telling you that Settlers is about the resources, but I promise you, it is about the numbers. If I can’t convince you of that, you should probably stop reading right here. If you can suspend your disbelief long enough to continue, I think you’ll find some really great stuff in here.

Ok, continuing on with initial placement strategy…

The best strategy of all is to diversify – and I’m not talking about resources. You should try to get on as many different numbers as possible to ensure that whatever gets rolled, you get a resource. Above all else, it is of paramount importance to get a good spread of numbers. Grabbing 6, 8, 5, 9, 4, and 10, are a first priority. You may also eventually want to expand to 3 and 11 if there is a particularly valuable or rare commodity on those hexes. For example, if sheep is only available on hexes 2, 3, and 11, you will probably eventually want to build toward a 3 or 11 hex. Both 3 and 11 can be ignored throughout the game, however.

Having a good distribution of numbers allows you to always get resources. The name of the game in Settlers is cards. If you don’t have cards, you can’t play. If you can’t play, you can’t win. I would rather have two sheep cards than none at all. And, I would rather have ten sheep cards than one ore and one brick. I cannot stress this enough. I know I’m going to get people saying “Would you put your marker on the 5/6/9 vertex if all three were sheep?” The answer is “Absolutely.” My second placement would obviously provide me with a couple of other resources, and I would likely be able to trade sheep in to the bank for something useful. This strategy would obviously require some kind of port, but ignoring a good spread of numbers for any reason is a good way to get beat. If you like the ore strategy or the brick strategy, by all means, you can still usually pick one or the other. But if you fail to get a good distribution of numbers, chances are high that you won’t have enough cards to trade in order to put yourself in a position to win. The “lucky” part of this game is the dice rolling. If you have a settlement on all (or nearly all) of the numbers, you’ve eliminated much of the “luck” involved.

Most of the time, you will get shut out of either a 6 or an 8 at the beginning of the game. If the first two players lock down the 6, the third player may position his first settlement on the other 6 hex such that your only other placement would be on a vertex that contains the 6 and 12, or the 6 and 2. If this is the case, you may just have to play without a 6 to start. No matter. Try for an 8, 5, 10 vertex, then look for something with a 4 and a 9. Position your roads so that you can build toward the 6 later in the game.

If for any reason, the 5/6/9 vertex is available in the game, take it. Depending on where the desert falls in the game, this vertex may or may not be present on the board. Taking this vertex not only gives you amazing numbers, but it will foul up the 5/6/x, the 5/9/x, and the 6/9/x spots. Your opponents will be left with substantially inferior slot choices.

If you are playing first or second, I highly recommend getting on one of the 6 hexes first. The reason is that generally there will be an 8/4 or an 8/10 port available on the board. I would say in about 50% of my games, my second placement is on one of these ports. I generally don’t even worry about the type of port I am on. It’s more important that I get the numbers I need.

Road placement at the beginning is also crucial. The biggest rookie mistake I see is someone pointing their road toward an extremely valuable slot. You know that someone is going to stick one of their first two settlements there, so why would you point a road down that direction? Your first couple of roads should be pointed toward a 4, 10, 3, or 11 – whichever ones you don’t have. Getting your third settlement down in these spots is sure better than missing on a chance at a 5 or a 9 because someone built there first. You may also be able to point your road toward a less desirable 6 spot, such as one near a 2 or a 12.

As a general rule, do not point your roads toward the center of the board. It’s going to get crowded there and you won’t have enough room to breath. I try to point my roads toward the coast. If I don’t have a port already, this gets me my first one. The key is to allow yourself room to move. You need to be able to build a combination of at least four cities/settlements. Keep that in mind. It’s possible to win with fewer than four settlements/cities, but it’s not easy, and it can’t be done consistently. By and large, people win with at least four or more. During your first placement, you need to guess not only where other people are going to go first, but where they are likely to expand. I know that ignoring the middle of the board seems goofy, but it will work. I play for the edges because I can guarantee my ability to put a settlement there. If I work toward the middle, I might get a settlement in – but if I don’t, then I lose for sure.


You’re always supposed to place the robber on the person with the most victory points, right? Or, wait, you’re supposed to place it on a 6 or 8 so that it takes out someone’s best number, correct? Or was it that you should try to put it so that it affects as many people as possible? And of course, you never want to put the robber on someone holding development cards because they probably have a soldier, and they’ll just put it right back on you won’t they?

Once in a while, one of the above strategies for the robber may be correct. If someone has nine victory points, and a handful of cards, putting the robber on them probably is the best idea. At the end of the game, placing the robber is pretty easy to figure out. But, what about in the beginning of the game? What about the middle? Placing the robber in the early/middle of the game will absolutely have one intended effect – someone will not like you for putting it on them. If you’ve hit someone with a robber early and they roll a seven, where do you think it’s going to end up next? Chances are, it will end up on you.

“Ah ha!” you say. “Now I’ve got you. You’re about to tell me to put the robber on a space that doesn’t hurt anyone just to be nice, aren’t you?” Absolutely not. Trying to make peace by not taking a card with the robber is always a bad idea. The whole advantage of getting a seven is that you get a card, someone else loses a card, and nothing good happens for the other two. If you just make the robber go back to the desert, you’ve wasted your entire turn. When you place the robber, though, you are going to make enemies, so you’d better not choose someone that can hurt you too badly.

You should also make sure that you only affect one player with the robber. Affecting two players doubles the revenge factor, as well as doubles the motivation to move it with a soldier card. If only one person is affected, then the robber will probably spend longer on that spot. As a rule of thumb, in the early/middle game, you should place the robber on the player to your right. The reason is that it will spend more time there. The player to your right can’t take the robber off for two or three more rolls, which is great.

Now, if the player to your left or the player across from you rolls a seven, the robber will move. But, they might remember your kindness and not hit you with it when it comes around. If the player to your right rolls a seven, you can bet it’s probably coming back your way. Early in the game, this revenge factor may not make sense, but later, when soldiers are in play, it will have a huge effect.

If you have an unplayed soldier, you can minimize any robber damage from the player on your right. He can place it on you and take a card, but it will only affect one roll. After that, it will be your turn. You can move the robber with your soldier and stick it back on the player to your right for three more rolls before he can do anything about it. Meanwhile, you’re building up credibility and trust with the other two players by not ever putting the robber on them. This will make them less likely to put the robber on you, which works out pretty well.

So, to sum up, the player on your right is easy to mess with because you can instantly get back at him with a soldier, or a lucky seven roll. The player on your left should be avoided when you roll the robber. You simply can’t afford to get into a soldier war with that player. It will stay on you for three times longer than it stays on him/her. If you’re messing with the player across from you, then it’s a pretty fair fight. I don’t like fair fights, though. I’d rather have the advantage. This strategy works so well for me that no one in my family wants to sit to my right ever. It’s gotten to the point where we roll for both turn order and seat position. How do you know a strategy is good? When people will fight like cats and dogs not to have it used on them.

The important thing to note about messing with the player on your right is not to be a jerk. Always give a reason why you are playing the robber on them. Don’t say, “Well, I read a guide and it said to put in on the player to my right, so that’s what I am doing.” Instead say, “Well, we rolled wheat a couple of turns ago and I really needed one.” That person may come back with – “Well, you just got two wheat.” Just say, “Oh, I was trying to go for a 3 for 1 trade.” If they want to know why you didn’t just steal the actual resource you wanted, play dumb. Most people think that they are great at Settlers since it’s been around so long. The “Aw shucks” attitude really goes a long way. Even if you win all the time, you can just tell people that you’re just really lucky and they’ll believe you. Meanwhile, employ the best strategy for winning and let them think what they want. I have to admit, the “Aw shucks” routine is a little tough for me to pull off these days. After I won the first Catan Cup, folks said, “Man, he sure is lucky.” After the second, it was, “Hey, didn’t that guy win last year? Hmmm….” As for my family? Forget about it. They know what I’m up to. I still work the same strategies, but they make it much tougher on me.

Should you put the robber on a person if they have an unused development card? Definitely. I know that it means that it will probably just get put right back on you, but at least they’ll have to wait two or three rolls to do it. Sometimes you just have to take a punch in the mouth from that soldier to get it played. Who knows, you might discover that the card they are holding isn’t a soldier at all – and wouldn’t that be a valuable piece of information to have?

I like to see all of my opponents development cards face up. The only way to make that happen is to put the robber on them. You may need to convince the other players to put the robber on someone with a dev card, too (especially if it’s the player to your left). I can usually throw something out like, “Man, I wish we could make him use that soldier, then he couldn’t hold it over our heads for the whole game.” The real reason the soldier is valuable isn’t because he can move the robber – it’s because he can threaten to move the robber. Once the soldier has done it, the threat is over and the player has no more protection. By the same token, I love getting one early development card just so I can say, “Well, you could put the robber on my, but I’ll just put it right back. Why don’t you put it on the other guy? He has no protection.” Ah, soldiers. It’s like holding off three bad guys with one bullet. Sure, you can only shoot one of them, but who’s going to volunteer?

Playing the robber well and not getting it played as much yourself is another 25% of this game. Good robber management is probably the hardest part of the game, because it is the one where you have the least direct control. You can only control where a robber goes when you roll a seven or play a robber. It’s impossible to control how people will react to it.


I talk at the table a lot. I talk across the table. I talk to two players trading with each other, even when I’m not involved. I would never tell people not to take a deal that another player offers. If you do that, most of the time, they’re going to make that deal anyway, and then neither one of them will trust you. I try to tell people that they are making good moves, surprising moves, and that they drive a hard bargain when I am trading. Sometimes it’s true, sometimes it’s not. The important thing is that I am being nice.

There is some debate about whether or not talking during a trade is acceptable. According to the Rules Guru at Mayfair games (, it is. Here is a link which goes over this rule: For those of you who don't want to click the link, I will lay out the question and answer here:

Q: Are players allowed to suggest trades when it is not their turn?
A: Yes. The rules state that you may only trade if the player who is taking his turn is included in the trade, but there is no rule that states that you can not negotiate a trade when it is not your turn.
**end of edit**

Some people like to be jerks in this game. Why? Because no one wants to put the robber on a big, whining, complaining, jerk, If you put the robber on a jerk, you’re probably going to have to hear about it for the next 50 minutes. However, the same people that won’t put the robber on a jerk also won’t trade with the jerk unless it is important. They’ll always trade with the nice guy. In fact, even if they have just put the robber on me, they will probably make up for it by trading with me later out of pity. “Well, I did put the robber on you, so I guess I’ll make the trade with you instead of with the other guy.” Again, the “aw shucks” should work like a charm.

If someone wants to trade something and you are the only one offering, try to get them to wait until your turn to trade it. Trading another player on his turn benefits him greatly because he can use his new cards right away. Trading with someone on your turn will benefit you more than them for the same reason. You may need to make up an excuse like, “Oh, man, if I have the card you need, but I need it to. If I get the roll I am looking for, I can trade it. Just let me roll first.” If they can live with that, you’ve done very well for yourself, and haven’t benefited them too much, because you’ve made them wait a turn to employ their strategy. To sum up, it’s better to trade on your turn than on someone else’s turn.

I would also encourage you to trade a lot. You may even want to make neutral trades that don’t help you that much if there is more than one person involved. Let’s say you are player 1. Player two wants to give a sheep in exchange for a wood. You don’t really need a sheep. Player 3 pipes up and says, “I’ll do it.” At that point, you may want to jump in. If the wood isn’t vital to what you’re trying to do, then just make the trade. If you allow two other players to trade with each other, chances are good that they both got stronger. Meanwhile, you stayed the same. I sometimes even make trades that are disadvantageous to me (breaking up a wood/brick, or a wheat/sheep/ore to take something else) just to prevent two other players from both becoming stronger. Knowing when to just keep trading and when to let other people trade with each other is more of an art than a science. It takes time to know when you should jump in and when you should let it go. Just remember – when a trade happens that you aren’t involved in, two other people just got a little better, and you didn’t.

You may also want to altogether interrupt trades on someone else’s turn. As a warning, this can make them angry if you do it too often. An interrupt is when you encourage people not to trade with the player who currently holds the dice and instead to wait for your turn. In exchange for waiting for your turn, perhaps you sweeten the deal, or give them the card they really want instead of a substitute. If you’re interrupting someone’s trade turn, you may want to make it the guy on your right. After all, you’re probably robbing the heck out him and he’s probably already mad enough at you that irking him a little more won’t matter.

If you’re going to hold resources hostage, don’t lord that fact over people. If you’re the only one on a decent Brick number, that doesn’t mean you can start demanding things. That will probably just anger people and make you the target of a lot of robbers. If people offer me only one resource for my valuable brick, I always say things like, “Yeah, I know these have been tough to get. But I’m having trouble getting both wood and wheat, so I guess I’ll just hold off trading this brick until I have some extra and I can get both wood and wheat.” If the situation is desperate enough that they will trade two resources, they will offer two resources. If they aren’t willing to part with two, then that thought will never cross their mind. Don’t EVER ask for two resources in exchange for your one. People will immediately think you’re trying to get the best of them. If you need two resources for say one wheat, then just hold up the wheat and say, “Anybody have anything for this?” The first offer will be, “I’ll give you a wood.” Another player might say, “I’ll give you an ore.” Just keep playing the “Gee, I don’t know…” card until someone offers two resources. When you come right out and ask for a two for one, people think you’re a shark. Let them come to you and there won’t be any bad feelings when the trade is done. If no one is willing to offer two resources for your one, then it wasn’t going to happen anyway. Specifically asking for a 2 for 1 wouldn’t have made it happen for you, but it would have blown your cover as a shark. It is perfectly acceptable to offer two resources to get one back. Remember, don’t sound shark-ish. Don’t make them coax the second resource out of you. If you know you want to offer two, just offer two right off the bat.

I can’t stress it enough: Be nice. Another 25% of this game is won with good negotiation. If you aren’t nice, people won’t trade with you when you need it most. If people won’t trade with you, you’ll lose.


Knowing when and how to play these cards is the final 25% of winning the game. A single well-played and timely development card can turn your fortunes from hopeless to victorious.


Well, the card you are most often going to see is the soldier. I only have a couple of rules of thumb about a soldier. I always like to have at least one soldier in front of me. I like to get one as early in the game as possible – sometimes trading even an early road to get one. Having the threat of that soldier can keep the robber off of you for around half the game. At worst, it can still thwart one attempt to take out your best number.

By the time two more more players have reached six victory points, you probably can’t afford to leave more than one robber face down. Remember, you can only play one development card per turn. If the end sneaks up on you and you need to make largest army, you may not have enough time to keep flipping over soldiers. Not to mention that if you have to use a soldier, you can’t use one of the other great cards in the deck.

Road Building:

The road building card is my personal favorite development card. You should use it ONLY when you are prepared to build a settlement at the END of it. If you just need one road to build your settlement, then I’d hold off until later in the game to use road building. The key to building a settlement is to make sure you get use out of BOTH roads. If you use one, then just jut the other one off into nowhere, you’ve really wasted the power of this card.

If you already make great wood and bricks, you may just want to hold this until near the end of the game. At that point, you could come from behind and take the longest road with one fell swoop. Also, at that point in the game, most people will have figured that it is a single victory point, not that you’d be able to get two with it.


This card allows you to choose any two resources you want. I would only use this card to upgrade a settlement to a city. The real advantage here is that you basically get to hold two cards over your hand limit with impunity. It can be tough to build a city without having to hold to many cards. If you are in a pinch, you could also use it for a road. I can only recommend this if you are fighting for position with another player, or if you risk getting boxed in without enough room for growth. The point of the non-soldier development cards is to score some points. If you aren’t scoring points with the non-soldier cards, you’re wasting them.


Great card. However tempting it may be to use this to build a city, resist the urge. This card should ONLY be used at the end of the game. If you get it on turn one, you should hold it all the way until the end. This card is a big finisher card. This is the one you use to come out of nowhere and seal the deal. If you hold onto one of these sufficiently long, you can fool people into thinking it is a single victory point. With this card, you should be able to score at least two victory points, if not three. If you aren’t getting two victory points or more with this card, wait longer. This one, more than any other, burns a hole in peoples pockets. They know they have it and they’re just itching to use it. Patience, patience, patience. When you use this card, you’re going to build up some ill will. If the game is over (or practically over) when you use it, then it doesn’t matter.

What should you take with Monopoly? Well, basically, whatever there is a ton of. I like to keep my eye on the supply pile. If any supply pile is particularly low, I know that there is a ton of that resource out on the table. It is better to take lots of something you don’t need rather than one or two of something you need desperately, especially if you can trade your newfound cards at a port.

There is a dirty trick that some people play with this card. That is, if you have lots of wheat, lets say, you trade it all away to the other players. At that point, you pull out the monopoly and take back all the wheat you just gave out. This is way, way, way, dirty. This single maneuver is so filthy that it will never ever be forgotten by anyone who experienced it, saw it, or heard about it. Even though you arguably get the same number of cards as just stealing a bunch of something else, people will really, really, hate this one. It just feels wrong. Don’t get me wrong, this is a powerful play, but if you do it, you’ll have a hard time ever convincing anyone that you’re a “nice guy” ever again. If you’re in a tournament and you want to pull this move, you’d better wait until the final table at near the end of the game. I’ve seen a guy pull this trick earlier than the final and he got shut out of the rest of the games. If you pull this move, people will you as a shark from then on out. There will be no more “aw shucks” after you do this, so be warned. I would never pull this move at a Con or a tournament. I always try to break this out on my family. Why? Well, they already know I’m a shark, so I don’t really take a big ding to my reputation when I pull this maneuver.

Victory Point:

Whenever I pull a soldier, I let people know it’s a soldier if they ask. Again, the intimidation faction of unplayed soldiers is great. No matter what other type of development card I pull, if someone asks me what I got, I tell them “It’s a victory point.” Why? Because I don’t want them to know about my a road building, monopoly, or discovery that I plan to pull out later. Any of those other cards might make them less likely to trade with me. I never bluff and say that I have a soldier I don’t have. That makes me look like a liar right away. As soon as the robber is put on me and I can’t do anything about it, they know I’m a shark. Cover blown. My cover will eventually be blown when I show them that the card is actually a monopoly instead of a VP, but hopefully by then I can win. Remember, if your cover is blown on the last turn, people pat you on the back and say, “Well played.” If they catch you in the middle, they won’t let you get that far. A good deal of this game is about bluffing. If you’ve ever played poker, though, you know that if you bluff a lot, you lose a lot. If you’re going to bluff, make sure it’s going to help you win.


So there it is. Thanks for getting all the way through it. If you think that the Settlers gods have cursed you and that you simply can’t win, try some of these ideas. I think you’ll see your “luck” change before your eyes.

Credit: Brad Cooper

Last edited on 2007-08-21 11:08:42 CST (Total Number of Edits: 1)