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A Beginner's Guide To Catan Strategy

We're gonna need a bigger board.

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I was in my third year of college when I bought Settlers of Catan. Weary from too many games of Risk and the feelings of hostility they fostered amongst my friends, I stopped at a Target on my way home from school and bought the game (now simply titled Catan) with my credit card. My friends and I immediately went down the rabbit hole. Upon the completion of our inaugural game, certain that there were many more to be played, we started a ledger to keep track of our wins and losses.

I have played a little more than one hundred games of Catan to date. My win percentage through these hundred games has hovered around .400%, a number formed by numerous long winning streaks and extended winless droughts. While I’m not a bonafide Catan world champion, or anywhere close to one, here are some things I learned throughout my time playing.

-Pragmatism is the only winning strategy. Remember that old saying about “the best laid plans of mice and men?” There’s a lot of truth behind it. While you should always have a strategy at the beginning of each game, you should never expect to dogmatically stick to that strategy. Numbers may or may not be rolled, robbers may or may not steal your resources, and the gods of fate may not hold you in high esteem. It happens. For this reason adaptation is the most powerful tool on the island of Catan. For example, if you planned to start the game by building a city on your first settlement but you can’t acquire any ore, you have to move on. While there is a fair amount of waiting in Catan, it’s irresponsible to wait around until dice rolls start to go your way. Not only that, but by hoarding cards you are essentially begging for a visit from the robber. Whatever strategy yields the win is the only strategy that matters.

-Know when to play against the cards and know when to play against your opponents. Unlike Risk and more conventional board games, Catan is not inherently played against other players. In fact, I’ve played entire games that have been perfectly amicable from start to finish. Don’t be afraid to make mutually beneficial trades in the early stages of the game. While the presence of the robber (and Monopoly cards) prevent the game from being a wholly cooperative experience, it’s often prudent to be on good terms with opponents who have access to resources that you don’t. On the other hand, it’s important to know when to be aggressive. Don’t let friendliness stop you from blocking a crucial hexagon with the robber or using a Monopoly card when victory is in your crosshairs.

-Looking for a quick start? Go for clay and lumber. Worried that your opponents will get to desirable ports or hexagons before you do? Starting out with strong clay and lumber numbers will pretty much guarantee a quick start to the game. Use that powerful start to map out areas of the board that you want for yourself and to divide the other players.

-Beware the Gambler’s Fallacy. Dwelling too much on what numbers have already been rolled is a recipe for disaster. Remember that every time the dice are rolled their probability resets. Don’t go far out of your way to build settlements on hexagons with improbable numbers solely because they were rolled frequently at one point in the game. While it’s true that each game has its own unique rhythm, trust by the end of the game all of the dice rolls will ultimately reflect the mathematical probability of each respective number.

-Beware the Sunken Cost Fallacy. Keeping in line with the last tip, it’s usually a bad idea to continue to waste resources when events don’t pan out how you expect them. While it’s disheartening to spend copious amounts of clay and lumber on Longest Road just to see an opponent run away with it, it’s important to know when to leave your old plans behind and explore other avenues of victory. This is particularly hard if you were relying on the bonus victory points for Longest Road or Largest Army, but try to remain focused on the positive aspects of the resources you used. For example, building a long network of roads remains to be useful without Longest Road because it opens up the board to you and cuts off your opponents from occupying certain hexagons.

-Always protect your Longest Road or Largest Army before seeking additional victory points. More often than not neglecting your longest road or largest army for an extended period of time will come back to haunt you. Keep a close eye on what resources your opponents are holding on to and/or refusing to trade. Coming out of the woodwork to claim Longest Road or fish for knight cards to claim Largest Army is a common and easy way to win the game. While the idea of racking up additional victory points is always tempting, you may want to reinforce your existing road/army if you sense that other players are plotting to take

-Don’t be afraid to lie. While Catan isn’t a game built on deceit, lying is a powerful tool in any player's’ toolbox. By doing something as simple as pretending that your Victory Point development card is a Knight you can keep your opponents disoriented and mislead them. Once I coerced another player into trading me one ore under the guise that if they wouldn’t trade I would use a Monopoly card (that I didn’t have) to take all of their ore.

-Embrace mental math. There are twenty five development cards in Catan, fourteen of which are knight cards. This means, at the beginning of the game, you have a 56% chance of drawing a knight card from the development card deck. By keeping tabs on the amount of knight cards that your opponents have revealed you can deduce a mathematical outline of what cards your opponents are hiding and which cards remain in the deck.

-Understand the power of the robber. Do your opponents have a stronghold on Largest Army? Do you have a feeling that the development card deck has run dry of victory points? It doesn’t matter — you should still be fishing for knights regardless. Although it initially may seem odd to spend three cards just to gain one card from an opponent, it’s imperative to understand that the robber is the only means you have to alter your opponents production, and in turn, the production of the entire game. If poor dice rolls grant one player with a monopoly on a specific resource, it’s in your best interest to block that resource with the robber. Not only does this move equal the playing field, but it also stops your opponents from trades that could otherwise involve you.

-Play Moneyball. Instead of going on a long, self-serving rant about baseball (!) and sabremetrics (!!), I’m going to try my best to keep this one simple. Moneyball is a managerial baseball strategy based around the idea that a player who can simply get on base is more valuable (and often cheaper) than a player who can hit for power. I’ve read a lot of speculation about the value of each particular resource in Catan, with the most common belief being that wheat is the most valuable resource and wool is the least valuable resource. While it’s true that you can build more things with wheat than wool (most notably cities), the value of each resource isn’t determined by the resource itself, rather, the dice roll needed to acquire the resource. For example, if you’re playing a game where both 8 number tiles are on a wheat hexagon and each player has a settlement on one of these hexagons, wheat as a commodity ceases to be valuable even though it’s still useful. Having a resource is always better than not having a resource.

-The Hail Mary. This is definitely a bad tip in general, but it has worked for me on occasion in the past. If you find yourself stuck with nine victory points, unable to seal the deal for whatever reason, try fishing in the development card deck. As per Catan rules, the drawn victory point instantly comes into effect and you immediately win the game.

How have you fared on the island of Catan? Feel free to share your tips, victories, and defeats below.

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