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Settlers of Catan looks deceptively simple as a game, but there are many strategies that can lead to victory. The most basic - and perhaps most important - component of strategy for the game takes place during the set up. The placement of settlements determines starting resources, but also the trajectory of the rest of the game.
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Lies, Darn Lies, and Statistics
In Settlers of Catan, resources center around numbers. When a number is rolled on the dice, the areas with those numbers on them produce resources. The number tiles for 6 and 8 are marked with red text in the game because statistically, those two numbers are the most likely to come up on two six-sided die when rolled.
Unfortunately, the above is an oversimplified understanding of the statistics. This simple fact can act as a distraction when it comes to placing settlements, since players often gravitate toward these numbers to the exclusion of others, and will even place multiple initial settlements around a 6 or 8 tile is the opportunity presents itself. This also means that other numbers tend to be ignored.
This distribution of dice rolls is correct, but it's important to keep in mind that these results require:
1) An extremely large sample size, approaching infinite.
2) A completely fair dice set.
With any luck, a Settlers of Catan game will not last an infinite amount of time. And even if dice are not maliciously weighted, there can be small imperfections that cause a die to not roll with complete randomness.
These two factors mean that in a given game, one cannot depend on 6 and 8 to be rolled most often. Those numbers are still important, but don't fixate on them.
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Settlers of Catan Placement Strategies
Generally, since the dice can't be depended on to always produce the numbers they should, there has to be a better strategy. In this case, that means diversifying numbers. At the base of all Settlers of Catan strategies is one simple fact: she who controls the most resources, and of the right types, wins the game. A player with access to nearly every number that can be rolled on two six-sided dice will be almost guaranteed more resources than one that receives resources from only half of the numbers, for example.
Receiving resources almost every turn will guarantee that a player can take action on almost any turn, and if he doesn't have enough of a resource he needs, he will likely be able to trade with other players, a port, or the bank.
With two initial settlements in the set up, a player can begin the game with access to up to six different numbers. Having a good initial spread will make it more likely for a player to get an influx of resources early in the game, which will in turn enable her to build out more settlements and pick up more resources before other players might have the opportunity.
When setting up, there are other strategies that need to be considered as well:
Ports - If a player has positioned herself to pick up a brick monopoly, for example (such as she has a spot of a brick tile with a 6 on it, and an opportunity to quickly build another settlement there once the game starts) then it will be very important for her to have access to a brick port so that she can trade bricks for other resources cheaply.Thus her second settlement might be best placed on a brick port or with a direct path to it.
Cutting off an opponent - Depending on a player's position in the placement order, he may have an opportunity to isolate an opponent to one section of the board, or do so soon after the game begins. Cutting an opponent off from resources or ports will mean less competition on the remaining part of the board and one less challenger to worry about.
Please see the next page for a sample game beginning with four players.
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Sample Game: Round 1
The layout for this game is the "beginner setup" from the Settlers of Catan rule book. The general strategies apply to the more advanced, random set ups as well.
For this sample setup, the player order is: Blue, Green, Red, Orange.
Blue places her settlement first. With the entire board to choose from, she picks a tile that has a red number on it - the brick tile with 8. After that, it is a matter of personal taste. Here, she has chosen to take the stone (5) and sheep (10) tile, rather than going one space down and picking up the wood (3) tile. She does this because 5 is more likely to come up than 3, and she's taking the gamble that she'll be able to pick up wood by trade or (with luck) with her other settlement fairly quickly.
Green places next. He picks up a red number as well - the wood tile with 6 on it. This gives him stone (3) and sheep (9) as well - and also easy access to a 3:1 port with a later settlement. 6 and 9 are both very good numbers, 3 not as much. He also has fairly easy access to another wood tile, and possibly a grain tile with an 8 on it. Green's strategy is likely similar to Blue's - build a monopoly of wood, and hope that he can either trade with the ports or trade with Blue initially if he needs brick.
Red is next with another 8 tile, this one on grain. With his road, he's setting himself up to get to a brick tile as soon as possible. He also may be able to get a grain monopoly going, and is extremely close to a grain port. He's also hoping to be able to get to the brick (5) or even the stone (6). Also, his placement makes it impossible for green to build on the grain (8) without building at least two sections of road, which gives him some control of that region of the board.
Orange has placed to take advantage of the stone (6), and placed so that she will get both wood and brick as her initial resource draw. This will at least allow her to build a section of road almost immediately, which can help her stake a claim to another tile position. 4 and 11 aren't great numbers, but they do contribute to diversity in holdings and will be an asset when coupled with other numbers.
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Sample Game: Round 2
With the second round of settlements, Orange goes first and the other reverses. This is where more advanced strategies - like cutting off one's opponent - come in to play.
Orange's second placement gives her six unique numbers on the board, and also means that she has access to all of the resources with at least one number. Also, since she has two brick tiles - a 4 and a 5 - she is also in a good position to hopefully get some brick early on in the game, which will make her a sought after trading partner.
Red's second settlement gives him access to brick and to a very good stone (6) tile. More importantly, his settlement drives a wedge between the two Orange settlements. This effectively isolates the second orange settlement and limits his opponent's building potential. It's also a step toward preventing Orange from going for the Longest Road.
Green's second settlement also guarantees him access to all of the resources, and six different numbers. More importantly, Green's placement has allowed him to isolate one of the Red settlements, just like Red isolated Orange. And with his settlements only three spaces apart, Blue is unlikely to place a settlement to interfere with his territory. This gives him control of several tiles without any likely challenge.
Blue places her last settlement on the brick port; since she hopes to build a brick monopoly, she doesn't want to risk Green cutting her off from the brick port, particularly since Green has such good control of the region. This also means that Blue has picked up another red number - on wood (6) - but that she only has five unique numbers, and one of those numbers is a 2. This is something of a gamble on her part. The placement of the road shows that she's hoping to expand out from that settlement before Green cuts her off.