Confessions of a shifty-eyed back-alley Settlers of Catan player: A guide to island domination

Psst! Hey kid, come over here. I’ve got a secret for you. I tell you this because I think you’ve got potential, and its being squandered. What you need is a place of your own. Your own…island, with all the ore, wheat, sheep, brick and lumber your little heart desires! Impossible? No! Impossible is nothing; your entire life has been leading you to this point. Its time for you to conquer the great island of Catan!

All right Einstein, first thing first, count those resource tiles as you set up the board. Equal numbers of each resource, right?


Stay with me here, you’ll never become a Catan master if you aren’t paying attention to the information in front of you!

There are four tiles that yield lumber, wheat and sheep. Ore and brick? Only three tiles!

Keep an eye out for scarcity. Scarce bricks will be valuable early, while scarce ore will be essential in the late game.

Here are some other things to consider while you are analyzing the board:

  • POG. What is POG? Oh, only the greatest tile combination available on a Catan board. Yes, that’s correct, the P(6), O(5), and G(9), otherwise known as the holy trinity, encompass thirteen of thirty (non-robber) possible dice-rolling combinations (represented on the number tiles with dots). Yes, we’re talking about cashing in on better than 43% of all rolls. Now POG doesn’t always appear on a Catan board, but it’s worth noticing when it does.
  • Notice the ports! A wheat port on an 8 or 6 wheat tile can be a valuable thing indeed.
  • Sometimes it’s worth sacrificing up to two dice combinations to ensure your ability to settle on an appropriate port. This is especially true when placing last, you aren’t going to get the best numbers, but you can position yourself to get to ports most quickly. Notice I said most quickly, not immediately. Its much better to place on an intersection of three tiles, and send your road toward the port than sacrifice an entire tiles worth of dice combos to get a port early.
  • Go to the sea young champion! Go to the sea! That is, if you see a candy bar in the middle of the board, it’s probably a mirage. Everyone else sees the candy too, and more than likely someone is going to settle on it before you get the chance. Don’t waste your first road!

HEY! Did you just place your first settlement? Shit, take it back before anyone notices! Are you insane? You don’t even know which strategy you’re playing yet!

There are three basic strategies in the game of Catan, and your campaign is going to be a lot better if you choose one BEFORE you start, and stick with it!

  • Expansion strategy. Get yourself as much wood and brick as you can. If you can score a nice brick spot on a brick-poor board, all the better! You’ll be building roads and expanding quickly, so you will need some settlement building supplies. If you can border wheat on one or both of your initial placements, settling will be considerably easier. On most boards, sheep will be plentiful early in the game, so you should be able to barter for them. Remember that you’ll need to get Ore at some point to move up to cities. If there is no possibility of this, you better get at least a 3-1 port to give you a chance in the late game.
  • D-card and City strategy. Grab the best ore, wheat and sheep tiles on the board! You’ll be citying up early, multiplying your resource production, then purchasing development cards, and choking your opponent’s resource production by controlling the robber’s movements.  Remember that expansion will be tricky early because you won’t have the best brick and lumber production. Try trading your wheat and sheep to expansion players for these precious resources. Ore won’t be very valuable early on in the game, but everyone will be clamoring for it later. Drive a hard bargain.
  • Port strategy. User beware, this strategy is only effective when unique circumstances present themselves! While the above two strategies are viable on most Catan boards, the port strategy is reserved for special circumstances. We’ve all seen it, the 8 and 6 each on lumber, and the lumber port nearby! If you see the perfect combination of resources, and you are confident that you can acquire the port, go for it! Otherwise, this strategy is best reserved as an added bonus to one of the above strategies. If you’re wavering between expansion and city strategy, a well-placed lumber port should sway you towards expansion.

White is playing port strategy. Orange is playing D-cards and Cities. Blue and Red are both playing expansion. Notice who has the power of POG on their side!

Ok future conqueror, the game has begun and you’ve put yourself in the drivers seat with superior placement skills. You are already better off than most of the riff-raff I run into. Now it is time to go into battle! I mean, um…diplomacy.

Here are some rules to get the better end of all your trades in the game of Catan:

  • Never make a trade that doesn’t immediately benefit you. Especially not on an opponents turn! Catan is a game of exponential growth. If you give your opponent the edge early because you had an extra sheep in your hand that you felt like getting rid of, you’ve already lost my respect. If the trade doesn’t set you up to build what you need on your next turn, don’t trade at all. The one exception to this rule is making a defensive trade. That is, when a weaker player is about to offer the game leader a city on a platter, you should sweep in and make a preventative trade, so long as it doesn’t disadvantage you.
  • Field all trading offers on your turn! I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen some poor sap take the first trade that’s offered to them when another opponent would’ve given more for the same card. Make sure you know all of the players who want your resources, and drive a hard bargain. If two people want the same resource of yours, ask them to sweeten the deal.
  • Trade preferentially with players who are losing. If your lowly three-victory point neighbor is in a race with the six-victory point juggernaut across the table, deal with the less threatening player. That’s not to say that you should be kind to them. A player who is falling behind early is often willing to make excellent trades to prevent the final nail in their coffin. If they can’t afford to give you more than one card, demand future resources. If you help them build a city on a port, demand that they allow you to “use their port” through a trade later in the game.
  • On your turn, trade preferentially with the player who went before you. All things being equal, they are the most likely to be a victim of the robber before their next turn, therefore they receive the least potential benefit from your trade.
  • Get creative with trades! Don’t stick to one-for-one deals. Demand two for one, demand protection from the robber the next time they roll seven, demand future resources. Tell them what you want, not what you need. Remember, you can always make a lesser deal if they absolutely refuse.
  • If you have eight cards in hand, try making a two for one trade in a (weaker) opponents favor to protect yourself from a seven being rolled.

So, you’ve been trading like a boss and the resources in your hand are so good that some ass-hat is trying to rob you. What do you do?!

  • Bribe them! Offer them a free resource (or if your opponents don’t allow gifts, offer them a resource for a card of their choice) in exchange for specifically putting the robber an opponent’s tile.  This is great because instead of losing a random resource, you lose a specific one of your choice and essentially get to control the robber’s placement. Make sure the terms of the deal do not allow your opponent to bribe the robber back to you, bidding wars turn ugly, and disproportionately benefit the robbing player.


  • If your opponent must put the robber on you, ask them which resource they want. If they want a resource you can spare, point to it. This is a win-win because they get a resource that they want, and you don’t lose a resource that you need. This strategy is doubly effective, because in the end game you can lie about which card is which, and allow them to claim an “ore” that’s actually a sheep.
  • Appeal to reason. Remind them that another opponent is actually the current victory point leader, or they will be very soon if allowed to continue unchecked. Don’t they want to prevent that player from getting longest road? Get creative and repeat this mantra: I am not a threat, I am your friend, our mutual opponents are winning. If that doesn’t work:
  • Make threats! If you are holding a development card, let them know how hard the knight is going to come down on them next turn if they dare rob you.
  • When you control the robber, solicit bribes. Set up a minimum payment of one resource for anyone who doesn’t want to be robbed. This is especially effective early on when there is no one who clearly needs to be robbed.
  • If you have a knight card, use it BEFORE you roll to get the robber off of your tiles!
  • Ask people what they have before you use one of your knights. Often people will be happy tell you about their valuable hands when they think a nice trade is imminent. Get the goods!

Ok, so you’ve gone through the game robber-free, but your numbers just aren’t landing. You’ve fallen behind. At what point is it time to panic?

Ah, we call it the rule of seven. That is, if a player has seven victory points without controlling longest road or largest army, that player is a genuine threat to win the game. I said earlier that Catan is a game of exponential growth. That means the more cities and settlements you have, the faster you can get even more. If longest road and largest army are within sight of someone holding seven victory points, they could easily win at any time. This calls for a full embargo! That means its up to you to convince the rest of the table to completely refrain from trading with this person. Remember, no one can benefit from a trade that loses him or her the game.

I said the rule of seven applies to an opponent who doesn’t yet have longest road or largest army. If they do already control one of these, then the point of panic becomes eight victory points. While longest road and largest army are nice, they don’t generate resources and therefore don’t increase the speed that a player may draw the winning hand.

All right genius, you are almost ready for the big leagues. You just need a little bit more miscellaneous strategy tips:

  • It’s almost always a good idea to spend resources on your turn. The player that ends their turn with no resources in hand is using their resources efficiently, and moving their game forward.
  • Remember, slowing down your opponents, especially the leaders, is almost as good as advancing yourself. Use your “extra” resources to creatively to prevent leaders from building settlements and cities. Offer weaker opponents sweetheart deals in exchange for not supplying the leaders with the resources they crave.
  • Keep in mind that you will need at least four settlements (most of which will need to become cities) to win. It is very difficult to win with less than four settlements, so even the hardest core “D-card and cities” strategy player must build at least two roads!
  • Don’t forget to buy development cards. They are often over-looked and play a critical roll both early and late in the game.
  • Put your cards on the table when you are unwilling to make a trade, and encourage others to do the same, forcing a player with a large hand to make four to one trades to the bank, or be stuck with too many cards in hand.
  • Play mind games. Appoint yourself informal referee and score keeper, be a fair referee, but a biased score keeper, noting emphatically which opponent has the most victory points while ignoring your own success.
  • Pass the dice to the next player during contentious trade negotiations, rushing the players to finish.
  • Visually incentivize your trades. That is, when someone says they’ll give you a brick for a sheep, hand them a sheep. Often they will make the trade before considering a better deal elsewhere. Place your trade on the board in front of them and pass the dice to the next player. “Your call.”
  • The Monopoly card: a card so devious it deserves its own bullet point. One monopoly strategy: Tell people you are interested in a certain resource, see if you can get everyone to tell you how much of that resource they can spare. You’ll get a good idea of how many of each resource players around you have. Alternately, just count as the dice are rolled. A second strategy: Wait until you have lots of one resource in your hand. Trade it all away for various resources, offer two to one deals, even three to ones if you get stonewalled. Make sure you get what you want, then monopoly your resource back. Some people wait to use the monopoly card until late in the game when they are most likely to get a large payoff. I prefer to use it as soon as I know it can help me to build a settlement or city. An Extra settlement or city in the early game is the equivalent of collecting lots of resources later in the game.

Ok future president and/or astronaut; I’ve taken you as far as I can. Now its up to you. Go forth and claim your island!

And remember, I was never here.

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3 Responses to Confessions of a shifty-eyed back-alley Settlers of Catan player: A guide to island domination

  1. I don’t think you go nearly far enough in your discussion of trade manipulation. When someone asks me if I want to trade, and it’s something I can afford to give up, I figure out what they want to build, look at what resources they need to build it, and ask for everything else.

    There was one fantastic game where I was playing with my brother, and I twice demanded a six-for-one or something trade from him in the course of the game. Then he manages to reach the point where he will win on his next turn no matter what, and I am going the turn before him.

    I try to trade everything I have with him so that I can build one settlement. He, sitting in his position of power, enjoys making me squirm while I am several points from victory, and takes everything except what I need to make a settlement.

    I then promptly build the settlement, play a soldier card to take largest army, reveal two victory point cards, and win.

    I make fun of him for that game to this day.

    • Nice. I love beating people on the turn before they win. I once won by building five roads in a single turn to steal longest road. I could go on and on about trade strategy. That sounds like a pretty epic win! We should play Catan sometime when I’m in next in Philly!

  2. Pingback: So you want to be rich? The magic of compounding interest: | Always Hungry

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