A game where nice people learn to become ruthless manipulators and aggressive negotiators.
It never occurred to me before yesterday to write a strategy guide for The Settlers of Catan. Catan stands at the perfect midpoint between games easy to conquer (ex. tic-tac-toe, Nim) and games that couldn’t be mastered in a lifetime (ex. Chess, Bridge). Oh yeah, and it’s fun for the whole family.
Why Settlers of Catan can be played virtually perfectly, but is still worth the effort to work at, is because it requires a combination of both “hard” math-y skills and “soft” interpersonal skills. I can assume if you’re reading this you’re familiar with not only the rules (if not, ….here) but the basic probabilities that guide decisions. For example, since an 8 is rolled 2.5x as often as an 11, it is worth roughly 2.5x as much to you to settle there, and if you end your turn with more than seven cards in a game with three people, you’ll make it back to your turn without the robber ruining your day about 58% (5/6 x 5/6 x 5/6) of the time. However, the hard skills are not why I thought to write a strategy guide for Settlers, as that’s rather dry. I’m writing this to explain the social elements of Settlers of Catan, and I believe my background in game theory, bschool-style communications (BCOMMMM) and my sincere love for taking games to their logical extremes may help.
(Not to mention I’ve played likely upwards of 50 games with close friends DeRelle and Jen, and have watched my intangible advantage get gradually whittled away over the years as they get increasingly sharp and ruthless themselves. So, I might as well spill the secrets on my own terms)
So, without further ado…
Rule 1: Be Someone Who Other Players Would Be Satisfied Losing To
The rules of decency don’t always contradict the rules of good play. Saying you are the greatest Settlers player to walk the Earth is not only annoying, but terrible play. In a game like Monopoly, there aren’t ways to team up to stop the leader, except unfair trades, but in Settlers we have robbing, blocking and trade embargoes, so make sure your opponents like you! When opponents are playing sub-optimally just to undercut you, or consider you a threat even when you’re behind, you’re probably going to lose. I have suffered from this plenty of times, and this rule was probably the last I picked up.
If you’re goal is to win*, let your play speak for itself. If you’re robbing someone or cutting them, savor it internally, but be outwardly sympathetic. Give praise where it is due; if the red menace makes a speedy play for the best expansion, acknowledge it. Being a decent human being will help when you’re crushing your opponents later with the rest of these suggestions.
Rule 2: Be Non-Confrontational Not Just In Tone, But In Action
Usually, actions speak louder than words. Building your roads into uncharted territory, even if it’s not the most prized spot, means you’ll piss off opponents less later on, expand at your own pace, and maybe even be seen as magnanimous for not picking fights.
If you can gain the impression of making decisions “for fun”, “randomly” or “out of fairness”, you minimize retaliation. I remember a contestant on the very first season of the reality competition Survivor (Shaun, if you’re wondering) was completely random in his votes to eliminate others. Due in part to his perception of harmlessness, he didn’t receive a single vote for elimination until he was the last member of his original tribe. You can do the same (or be seen this way) with robbing. No one can fault you for promising to alternate your looting, unless one player is “just too far ahead, so we have to” (even if they are not).
Rule 3: You Are Not Winning, He Is Winning
Never admit your strength out loud. So you got triple clay? Take the cards and shut up. No one needs to know, and will probably figure it out for themselves. I’ve started embargoes on another player who has fewer points or overall prospects than me, purely by calling attention to his strengths and playing down my own.
Highlight your weaknesses. “Ugh, even though I have double your settlements, I still can’t do anything without wheat!” Put on a show and call attention to a run of bad luck to be seen as less dangerous*.
When convenient, build in a way that is less scary to opponents. A huge length of road attracts retaliation even though is it worth at most 2 points. 5 settlements alone won’t win you the game, but will sure get you embargoed. Cities are worth just as much (or more if they're on a great spot) as two settlements, but tend to intimidate players less than 2 settlements. Development cards are the best ways of hiding strength, as opponents never know your exact victory point count. Plus, you get to choose the right time to reveal your large army. One of the best compliments I’ve received playing a negotiating game is “Jordan always seems to be under the radar and come out of nowhere”. Sure, there probably were signs I was getting closer, but if I can help it, I won’t show them to you.
Find part 2, with advice on managing the flow of knowledge, resources, and the game, as well as building alliances and breaking up your opponents’, here!
*Clearly there are limits to competition, especially among friends, but we will disregard them for this article. When you’re done reading, feel free to check out my epilogue on playing to win, respectfully.