Intro: Catan Strategy Guide
Catan (previously called "Settlers of Catan") is a classic boardgame designed by Klaus Teuber. It's probably the most successful of the Euro-style games, and has spawned numerous expansions. It uses a beautiful and endlessly variable but always familiar board. I've played it off and on for 10 years, and one of my first instructables was a 3D plywood version of the board.
This strategy guide does NOT tell you how to play the game. The rules are described very clearly in the game itself and are freely available online (pdf). This guide is to help those who know how to play already but want to be more competitive, whether in person, online, or even against those pesky 'bots. It's broken into parts: initial setup of settlements and roads, probabilities, development cards, the robber, five strategies to try (Commander, Developer, Producer, Explorer, and Queen of Sheep), the mid and late game, troubleshooting, and a few final words. It's vastly longer than I initially intended and contains a high level of nerdy overanalysis. Feedback welcome.
Step 1: Placing Settlements
Initial setup is crucial in Catan. There are different levels of sophistication here, starting with the obvious and moving to the more subtle. Good players consider all the factors below, and how much weight should be given to each in a particular game is dependent on the exact layout of the tiles and numbers.
1. Get one of everything. You're going to need all of wood, brick, wheat, sheep, and ore, so why not make sure you have them all at the start? Place your first settlement so you get 3 different resources, and pick up the final 2 with your last placement.
2. Maximize pips. Each number has pips on it indicating its probability (out of 36) of being rolled on a given throw of the dice. Place your settlements looking to maximize your probability of getting resource cards (if you're placing numbers according to the recommended spiral convention, the best you can do is 13 pips, e.g. 5/6/9). To maximize pips, you should generally avoid the desert and the coast.
3. Ports. Choosing late in the round often leaves you with poor choices, and coastal options may become appealing if they come with a port (though make sure it is one with 2 hexes adjacent, not one!). Especially good are ports that match nicely with your best resource-gathering tiles.
4. Get a good distribution of numbers. The ideal is to get as many different number placements as possible. This seems a little counter-intuitive, but it is great for experienced players as it keeps them in the game regardless of how the dice shake down. The dream initial placement is something like 4/6/9 and 5/8/10... 2/3 of the time, you will be getting a resource card, and you'll feel involved throughout.
5. Balance resources. Try to get roughly the same number of pips of wood and brick, and similarly for ore and wheat. Paired resources like 9 of wood and 9 of brick will give you an instant road every time a 9 is rolled, and this sort of synergy is powerful.
6. Where to next? You need to consider options for expansion, and this can be a good tie-breaker in your decision making if you feel two placements are essentially equal. See roads, next step.
7. Prioritize ore and wheat. There are highly competitive strategies that need very little brick and wood. But no strategies can do without ore and wheat, so if you don't start with them, you'd better have a plan of how to get them...
Obviously, the order in which you get to go will affect your opportunities. There are no significant advantages inherent in going 1st/2nd/3rd/4th, though players who strongly prefer a particular strategy tend to want to go earlier. I personally prefer to go second or third - there are often three good spots on the board to begin with, but the choices get worse as the board fills up and choosing late can leave you with poor options.
Step 2: Placing Roads
You need to point these towards where you would like to build your next settlement. This will nearly always be towards the outside of the board. Don't bother pointing it at that empty 5/9/10 intersection - someone will occupy it for sure. That 4/9 port? Perfect. Road placement is all about second-guessing your opponents: you basically want to point your road at the (n+1)th best position left on the board where n = the number of settlement placements left. This is tough on round 1 of placements for obvious reasons, but gets easier as further placements are made and if you go first/last it should be a big part of your settlement placement strategy, too - your second placement should be in a decent spot that also allows you to point towards another decent spot AND hopefully inconveniences someone else.
If your strategy doesn't involve the Longest Road, try to point your road towards two open intersections. You'll then be able to fork it and build two more settlements at a cost of 2 roads instead of 3.
Step 3: Resources
The resources are not created equally. There are 19 tiles:
3 Brick | 3 Ore | 4 Sheep | 4 Wheat | 4 Wood | 1 Desert (0 production)
The last 4 photos show what you need to build roads, settlements, cities and development cards. Wheat is uniquely a part of 3 different builds, so is the one resource everyone should make sure they have. Ore always needs wheat in order to be played. Wood and brick are always used together in even amounts, so try to balance these. If you end up with a big excess of a resource over something it pairs with, your plans had better include a port. The fact that the same amount of brick and wood are needed in every game, but that there is one more wood tile than brick means that brick is more highly valued due to scarcity. There is a surplus of sheep in the basic game, so it is the easiest to trade for. Ore is the most powerful resource and it is tough to win without a decent supply of it; try to get at least as much wheat to go with it.
Step 4: Probabilities
Throwing two six-sided dice produces one of 36 different outcomes, but because Catan uses the sum, the resulting totals from 2-12 have different probabilities of occurring, as shown above. There is only one way to roll a 2, but 5 different ways of rolling a 6. In the game, the numbers have one to five pips on them, and these represent the chance in 36 of that particular resource being produced in a given roll. However, a typical game involves a finite number of rolls, and the distribution is not going to match the above perfectly. Sometimes, there will be deviations from the averages that will outrage players. More 12s than 6s in a game? No 5s in an entire game? You'll see these and worse. The second picture shows 9 simulations of 72 rolls (a fairly average number for a game), with the red dots showing the predicted distribution and the blue bars the observed values (made using Excel using RANDBETWEEN and COUNTIF functions. This simple spreadsheet is appended to the end of this step if you want to play around with it; just hit "save" if you want a new distribution). All sorts of deviations are seen; as examples, the "game" at top left features 2 being rolled as often as or more than 3, 5, 9, 10, 11 and 12. The one at bottom right has 10 being rolled more than 6 and 8 put together. The one in the middle has the robber turning up only 6 times in the entire game.
In a small sample size deviations like these are typical. Your job is to mitigate luck as much as possible, and you can do this by playing the odds (maximizing pips and getting a good distribution of numbers) as best you can when you're placing your settlements.
Step 5: Development Cards
The development card (25) distribution is as follows:
- 14 Knights (56%)
- 5 Victory Points (20%)
- 2 Monopoly (8%)
- 2 Road Building (8%)
- 2 Year of Plenty (8%)
Regardless of what you draw, representing it as a knight while it's sitting in front of you is a good idea. You don't want the robber sitting on your tiles, and if you can ward it off with a victory point card, all the better.
Knight: Knights are powerful - they protect your most valuable tiles, block other player's most valuable tiles, give you a free card (so you effectively only spent two cards, and denied an opponent one!), and get you in the race for Largest Army. If the robber is on one of your tiles, it's nearly always correct to play a knight *before* rolling unless you have 7 cards (robbing someone will give you 8 cards, so if you then roll a seven, you'll lose half your cards). Recommendations for placing the robber are in the next step; they follow regardless of whether you move it on a roll of 7 or by playing a knight.
Victory points: Someone with lots of unplayed development cards in front of them is a dangerous opponent - they've either got lots of firepower up their sleeve or are much closer to victory than they look.
Monopoly: here's where keeping track of cards played becomes even more important. Catan is a near perfect information game - it is possible to know exactly what cards are out there, if not exactly who has got what - but in practice only real card-counting sharks can do this. But you should pay extra attention to dice rolls when you have a monopoly card. Alternatively, peek at the stacks of resource cards - if one is getting low, hit that. A sneaky trick is to trade away cards you plan to monopolize later in your turn. Most powerful in the end game, monopoly cards are probably more important to damage your opponents than they are to get you usable resources, so play them accordingly.
Road Building: try to play this when you have a settlement ready to go at the end of it. A favorite hand of mine is 2W, 2B, 1Wh, 1S and a RB card - building 3 roads then plopping a settlement on the end is a great surprise way to destroy another player's carefully laid plans for expansion.
Year of Plenty: This card is a bit of a raw deal (you've spent 3 resource cards to get 2!), but in the early game it can be handy when certain resources are hard to come by. Any hand can be built from when you can add two wildcards to it, and you can effectively hold a 9 card hand safely with it. Good for getting the first city to get you in the production lead. Less useful later, but you can always use it to help buy another development card.
Step 6: The Robber
Using the robber well is crucial - on average, the robber will turn up once in every six rolls and it also gets moved when playing a knight.
- use it on the person in the strongest position (not necessarily the open points leader). Count unplayed development cards in someone's hand as points. Someone who gets Longest Road early is rarely a threat in the long term.
- use the robber exclusively on your strongest opponent. Avoid motivating more than one of your opponents to seek revenge!
- block what that opponent needs, rather than their highest producing tile. Their city on the 8 of ore just got hit twice - tempting target, right? Wrong. Block their 4 of wheat instead.
- if your opponents are all similarly positioned, hitting the person to your right (on a tile that they exclusively benefit from) will ensure the robber sits there for as long as possible without retaliation. If they try to get you back you may be able to respond immediately.
- if you are lacking a resource, don't place the robber on it. You want there to be lots of it in the game so people will trade it to you. Instead, place it on a resource that you have a lot of so you can increase your probability of trading for what you need.
Step 7: Commander
This strategy aims first to build two cities before attempting to build roads or settlements. Players who like this strategy look for rich placements on ore and wheat and don't worry much about brick and wood. They collect lots of development cards and a typical winning combination will involve 3 cities, 2 victory point cards and largest army. Road building is most often done with the appropriate development card. It's quite possible to win this way without producing a single brick or wood in the entire game (by using trading and/or Road Building/Year of Plenty cards to get the wood+brick for your additional settlement(s)).
Good when at least one of the following is true:
- board is ore-rich
- you monopolize ore (i.e. the ore is clustered together and/or you own the biggest supply)
- you have a great supply of ore, wheat and sheep
- everyone else is going for another strategy
- everything you can to get your first city. Liberally trade away sheep/brick/wood to do so.
- encourage other players to compete for longest road.
- make sure you leave at least one spot open for building a settlement. It is possible to win with 2 cities, largest army and 4 victory point cards, but you'd have to play well and get very lucky.
- not get distracted by all that road- and settlement-building. Get those cities out.
- hog the ore. Your strategy relies on you having the cities, and the best way to do that is slow down the supply of ore to other players to a trickle.
- secure approximately twice as much wheat and ore as sheep, and twice as many sheep as wood or brick.
- stay in the race to Largest Army.
Step 8: Developer
This strategy focuses on development cards, building other things only as an aside when development and resource cards dictate it. They'll usually end up with the Largest Army card and the lion's share of the victory point cards, and generally make a fabulous nuisance of themselves. This is a great strategy if you have good ore/wheat/sheep balance, but is always fun to play, especially because you'll be dropping the robber all over the place but your board position will appear sufficiently weak that you're not always the most obvious target yourself. It's not at all unusual for the Developer to pick up 3 or 4 victory point cards and Largest Army, so they often only need to build a couple of settlements/cities to go out. This is surprisingly easy to do with Road Building, Monopoly and/or Year of Plenty cards to help.
Good when the following are true:
- your starting position gives you an even supply of wheat, ore and sheep
- you enjoy playing in a style that really messes with your opponents
- everyone else is going for another strategy
- keep your options open. This strategy and the Commander are only subtly different, and if you have 3 ore, 2 wheat and 2 sheep early, you might just want to build that city instead of buying two development cards.
- secure about same amount of ore as wheat, and 2/3 of this amount of sheep. You really don’t need any brick or wood to speak of when playing this strategy - you'll get all you need from development cards and robbing other players.
Step 9: Producer
This strategy aims to collect more resources than anyone else, and use the sheer weight of production volume to overwhelm your competitors. It makes no special attempt at either Longest Road or Largest Army until a powerful engine based on 6-8 points of cities and settlements is in place, at which point resources are rolling in at a furious pace and you coast to victory. However, it is likely the more focused strategies will shut you out of both of the bonus cards unless you are really crushing them with production, and it will be impossible for your opponents to ignore your wealth and you'll get hit with the robber a lot. Another problem with this strategy is often balance - in the end game you may be getting tons of cards, but if they're not combining well with each other you'll be left trading with the bank very inefficiently. It's hard to win as Producer without getting a least one good port.
Good when the following are true:
- your starting position gives you a good range of resources with high probability
- you have options for building good settlements
- you have a useful port available to you
- everyone else is going for another strategy
- start road, settlement, road, settlement. One of the settlements should be a port, ideally 3:1. These 4 settlements will be your engine of production. Now look to upgrade to cities (unless hand management and/or other opportunities dictate otherwise). Upgrade to cities before building settlements IF your settlement locations are secure.
- It's often easier for the Producer to steal the Longest Road from the Explorer than it is to steal the Largest Army from the Commander or Developer.
- win those races to juicy intersections if you want to win the production battle.
- secure a balanced lineup of resources, with fairly similar requirements for wood, brick, wheat and ore (and at least some sheep).
Step 10: Explorer
This strategy focuses on sprawling across the board, building a long road and settlements along it. Players who like this strategy look for lots of wood and brick in their initial placements. A typical winning combination will involve 2 cities, 4 settlements and longest road. This strategy looks stronger than it is, because it typically lets you race to 7 points (5 settlements + longest road) but stalls catastrophically in the end game when you desperately need ore and everyone is pounding you with the robber and refusing to trade with you because you're in the points lead.
Good when the following are true:
- you can secure a strong supply of brick and wood
- you can see a way to get the ore you need for your cities late in the game
- you can get to a port to get late-game ore/wheat when wood/brick is less valuable
- everyone else is going for another strategy
- build settlements along your road. Nothing worse than having the longest road as the lynch pin of your strategy, only to have someone build a settlement in the middle of it!
- secure approximately twice as much wood and brick as wheat, and approximately twice as much wheat as sheep and ore.
Step 11: Queen of Sheep
This is the weakest and most set-up dependent strategy but can lead to glorious victory on the right board. Basically, you throw all thoughts of balance out the window and gamble on a single resource for which you also have the matching port. Any time I've seen a pure port strategy of this type win has been for sheep, because the other resources are valued more highly and you won't be able to sweep them all up in the same way. Also, who's going to rob you when they know they'll just get a sheep? Amongst the people I game with, this strategy is known as "The Queen of Sheep", the title self-awarded to the person who first pulled this off.
Good ONLY when ALL the following are true:
- the board is sheep rich
- the sheep are clustered together and can be monopolized
- you have the sheep port
- everyone else is going for another strategy
- the board is ore-poor and/or badly imbalanced between ore/wheat and wood/brick (this will slow down everyone else enough to give you time to win)
- haplessly try to trade sheep all the time "Someone must have wood for my sheep!". Your opponents might actually fall for it occasionally (especially if you've done a good job of monopolizing sheep), and when they don't, grumble loudly about how unreasonable they are and trade away quietly at 2:1 with your port. Obviously, you will never have to trade unfavorably, because you can always use your port.
- go for Commander as your secondary strategy. You want more sheep so cities are a good idea.
- secure the lion's share of the sheep plus at least some of the 4 remaining resources. If you have to trade for more than one or two resources you're probably going to lose.
Step 12: Which Is Best?
It very much depends on the board and on how your opponents are playing. The figure above sums the cards needed in the following example situations:
Commander: buys 6 development cards to get Largest Army and a victory point, builds 2 roads, 2 settlements and 3 cities.
Developer: buys 12 development cards to get Largest Army and 2 victory points, builds 1 settlement and 3 cities.
Producer: builds 6 roads, 4 settlements and 4 cities.
Explorer: builds 10 roads to get Longest Road, 4 settlements, and 2 cities.
Queen of Sheep: replaces all ore needs with sheep, plays Commander, buys 6 development cards to get Largest Army and a victory point, builds 2 roads, 2 settlements and 3 cities.
I've assumed that 6 development cards will get you 3 knights, a victory point, and 6 cards from the knights + Year of Plenty/Road Building/Monopoly cards, and subtracted these from the required production. YMMV.
Commander is unquestionably strong, but what if the board is ore-poor? Or someone else is playing Developer and locks up Largest Army? Or the ore-rich spots are taken before you get to place your settlement(s)? Or the Producer gets the Longest Road? Or the Explorer grabs all the lucrative spots? Or the highest probability tiles are sheep? Better have a back-up plan for when your opportunities don't match your favorite strategy...
If you play against the Catan AI (I only have experience with the iOS app, but I suspect it is similar on other platforms) on the hardest level, games often finish with the development cards sold out. If this never happens in your games, you're probably playing a relatively friendly style of game.
Step 13: Midgame
Your overall strategy will dictate what your goals are, but there are some more general things you can be looking to do:
- go for a port. The 3:1 ports are more valuable than they may appear, because with one you can always build something with any hand of 8 cards or more. This is critical to dodge the robber and to stay productive.
- if you're missing a resource, keep a close eye on who has the most of it. Card tracking will allow you to target the robber most effectively.
- trade before you build. If you need wood for a road and sheep for a settlement, trade for both before placing the road - your opponents may be less inclined to trade you that sheep when they see where you're going to put the settlement!
- try to avoid trading down to just a few cards with the bank and being stuck unable to build. Chances are, you're doing so for a resource you're finding hard to get and therefore other players will know they can disproportionately hurt you with the robber if they steal it.
- preserve juicy settlement locations with judicious road placement. Lock up that port that's critical to your strategy early. Nothing more infuriating than having an opponent beat you to it.
- consider taking a less productive site close to an opponent than a better spot away from everyone, especially if they don't have great options elsewhere. You can then pick up the other spot at your leisure while their plans are badly damaged.
- Try to achieve self-sufficiency before the endgame, by diversifying your resources and/or by securing a useful port. Trading between players slows a lot in the endgame, and clear leaders will be blacklisted entirely.
- if you have more than seven cards in your hand at the end of your turn, there is a 52% (1 - 5/6*5/6*5/6*5/6) chance of you being robbed before you can play cards again. The chance is 42% if playing with 3 players instead of 4. Buy something!
- be flexible. Your hand may develop in such a way that allows you to take advantage of an opportunity to secure territory, grab a port, bolster your defense or build cities, even when that deviates from your primary goals.
- the Commander is an ore whore and the best way to stop them is denying them early cities by blocking those tiles and refusing to trade them what they crave.
- encroach on the Developer and strangle their productivity. Try not to trade them ore/wheat/sheep - if you let them buy a card every turn, they're going to win.
- steal relentlessly from the Producer and work to unbalance their hand by clever blocking. It may seem pointless because they get so many cards, but if you can stem the flow of a key resource you can leave them burning many cards to the robber and the bank and struggling to finish.
- the Explorer strategy is the most easily disrupted through blocking, but unless the board is well set up for them it's a weak strategy anyway. Careful that building a settlement in the middle of their longest road doesn't hand the victory to someone else! Often, you want the Explorer to keep the Longest Road - it is a good way of keeping other players in check and forcing them to go out the hard way.
- Queen of Sheep usually ends up with a crazy tile that hauls in 5 sheep (which = a development card with their sheep port) when rolled. You need to shut it down.
- Catan is NOT multiplayer solitaire, and much of the banter around the table involves dissecting other players' strategies and why they are a wolf in sheep's clothing and how you are barely hanging in there, not a threat to anyone, and should be dealt with fairly. Consistently being an ass is a good way to get beat up on.
- having two opponents pursuing the same strategy as each other often removes both of those players from contention. You can encourage this in various ways, ranging from manipulative banter to strategic card-trading.
Step 14: Late Game
The strategies all kind of blend together in the late game when everyone has multiple cities/settlements/roads/cards, trading is mostly happening with the bank/ports for fear of letting someone else go out on their turn, battle will be fierce for the bonus cards, and development cards are disappearing at a furious rate. Don't stress over settlement positioning in the late game - put them anywhere you can, they're victory points rather than production sources.
Obvious leads make you a target. Longest Road in particular should be picked up as late as possible. Joining up two separate road segments with a big road-building push and unveiling 2 victory point cards can give you the win from 6 points. Largest Army on the other hand needs to be more openly competed for, because of the play-only-one-development-card-per-turn rule. Victory point cards are great to have because they create uncertainty in your opponents (is it a VP or a monopoly card?).
The best games of Catan have all players at the table in with a shot of winning late in the game, and if this guide helps you get to that position more often, it's done its job. Have fun!
Step 15: Troubleshooting
You lose a lot because:
1. No one trades with you
You *have* to trade in Catan, especially early on when the cards roll in slow and it is hard to get what you want. Worry less about other people taking advantage of you and focus on what you need. So what if it cost you 3 brick for that lousy sheep? If it let you build an early settlement, you're still ahead - far better than waiting another round and risking the same scenario or getting robbed. Generally, the people benefiting in a trade are the two involved, so you can accumulate net benefit by trading more often than your opponents. Neutral trades can engender goodwill, and are therefore often worth it if you feel that player is in a weak position. They might just rob someone else down the line instead of you...
2. The dice hate you
You're probably placing your settlements without considering getting a good distribution and/or high probability numbers, i.e. you're ignoring setup guidelines and not practicing them when you expand. Alternatively, you're simply the sort of person who remembers slights more than successes. Catan would be not be as fun if the best player always won, and the dice inject some welcome chaos into the game without it descending into a mindless luck-fest.
3. You're always getting burned by the robber
The simple answer is to build more and to trade more. The more cautious you are, the more susceptible you are to overloading your hand. You may also need to do a better job of building for balance - perhaps you're raking in tons of wheat but have no ore or no port to use it with.
4. You always get hemmed in
Chances are, you're not pointing your roads in smart directions to begin with, you're building your settlements too close together, or you're not building roads soon enough. It's also possible you're playing people who all like the Explorer strategy, in which case you should try the Commander or Developer instead. You'll crush them.
5. You get close but no cigar
Pay attention to what the other players need to win. Someone about to unveil a knight or a victory point card to win the game? Build a settlement in the middle of their longest road. Don't trade with others when they're close to going out, even if it is great for you - no one remembers who came second. Someone hemmed in but otherwise strong? Compete with them for Largest Army. Someone holding the longest road about to go out? Trade wood and brick favorably with someone who can take it off them (assuming that won't put them out, of course!). You may also be losing thanks to a fundamentally weaker strategy (Explorer is particularly prone to early leads and agonizingly slow finishes) or because your resources are unbalanced and you're easily blocked from what you need to go out. Try in particular to secure multiple sources of wheat, because being blocked on that in the late game will shut you down.
6. Everyone gangs up on you
If you are leading, so they should. If not, you must have a reputation for being (a) good (b) dirty or (c) both. Enjoy the challenge; the wins will be that much sweeter.
7. Someone else has an unbeatable strategy that always works
No, someone else has a strategy that you're letting them get away with. Determine what the key to their playing style is and deny them that. Or beat them at their own game! However, if their unbeatable strategy changes game to game, they're probably just a lot better at Catan than you are...
8. Everyone is so mean
Maybe you play really slowly, in which case you deserve it.
Seriously though: yes. Yes they are. There are tons of great games out there in which the meanness is hidden better. Try Ticket To Ride (route building with trains), Carcassonne (tile-laying), Agricola (worker placement), 7 Wonders (deck building), or one of many other great modern boardgames out there.
Step 16: Expansions
Catan has numerous expansions - one enables 5-6 players, and others include Seafarers, Cities & Knights, and Traders & Barbarians. Most of the advice I've given still largely holds, though many subtleties creep in and interesting additional mechanisms are brought into play. However, you should master the basic game before moving on - the expansions are for people who really like the game and want it to last (often much) longer and provide deeper gameplay. There is even a Star Trek Catan if you'd rather trade dilithium than sheep...
This guide was based on a combination of my own observations and reading around. Boardgamegeek is a useful resource in this respect. While writing this guide, I also found a site authored by a high level player who lists 10 "Catanments" and a golden rule ("be unblockable"). Special thanks to friends F&B who introduced me to the game and critiqued & improved this guide.