Thursday, August 1, 2013

Settlers of Catan Advanced Strategy Guide: The Social Game (#6a)

The Settlers of Catan is a game where nice people learn to become ruthless manipulators and aggressive negotiators.  It stands at the perfect midpoint between games easy to master and those that couldn't be mastered in a lifetime (looking at you, Bridge).  And it's fun for the whole family.
Catan can be played virtually perfectly, but is still worth the effort to work at, 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 a 9 is rolled 2x as often as an 11, it is worth roughly 2x 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 a little over half (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.  I might as well spill the secrets on my own terms as my friends get more ruthless and start to catch up.

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. Settlers has mechanisms to hurt whoever's leading, such as 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

If you’re goal is to win*, let your play speak for itself.  If you’re robbing someone or cutting them off, 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.  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.

“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.


  1. The only thing I might disagree with is the "give them impression you are making moves 'for fun' or 'randomly'".

    My wife and I play 2-3 times a week with a number of couples. One of the girls is just not that into it and will 'randomly' or 'for fun' do things to upset the balance (usually in favorable trades with her husband) or in some other way detract from the competitiveness. Another friend is the typical 'nerd girl' who prides herself on her nerdiness and references of memes but couldn't jump paper mario out of a paper bag with a gameshark if she tried. She giggles and 'randomly' does nothing in Catan placing things in stupid places hardly thinking. It is incredibly annoying and definitely violates rule #1. I hate everything about these players and do not want to see them win.

    The ONLY thing I can appreciate an opponent doing if they want to be a person others will want to lose to is the last thing you mention. 'Out of fairness' or competitiveness.

    If you place the robber on someone else's 5 of brick when I have a 5 of gold, I am going to call you out on it unless you can make some kind of argument that it makes sense for some reason (you are fighting with him for a longest road or something) otherwise I am going to think less of you and not want you to be the person I lose to because you aren't making 'correct' choices to try to win. I don't mean I have to agree with every decision you make every time, but I do have to think you are trying and have a rationale for the moves and not just 'randomly' or 'for fun' placing things down. If I want to lose to someone 'randomly' or 'for fun' making decisions then it doesn't just ruin my impression of you but Catan in general.

  2. Well I guess when I am playing with you, Anonymous, I will have to balance getting your guard down with making myself known as deserving of winning. Social science is hardly exact science. :)

  3. Moves 'for fun' don't really exist in catan unless you're coming from the "I'm interested as to how this little experiment will go..." direction. Its not quite on the Agricola level of "screw the points, my farm *looks* amazing (with super secret card combo for tons ofpointss)" in terms of strategy, though.

    Also I hate "oh I'm definitely losing, X is winning" claims two turns before a victory. We can all see the table, you're either stupid, lying or trying desperately to look magnanimous. Hate hate hate.

  4. Simon,

    One can't virtually assure victory in Settlers with superior planning like in Agricola. The only way to give yourself an edge is to craft a narrative favorable to you. I agree this doesn't mean you can make ridiculous lies, but it is possible slightly filter even good player's perception of the game, and delay your getting embargoed or blocked.

    Looks like your more of an Agricola guy than Settlers anyway though!

  5. Jordan - just to say, this is the most important Catan guide I have found so far. If we are being honest, the technical analysis of Catan is not terribly difficult (I find most players reach a decent competency threshold after 4/5 games), but the soft skills element is key. It is where I fail at every time!