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Catan Strategy Guide: Tips to Help You Win

by: Shawn Drew ; edited by: Simon Hill ; updated: 6/7/2012 • Leave a comment

A brief review of the Catan game, available for the iPhone and Android devices. The article also touches on some general Catan strategy, and specific map strategies for all the available maps.

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    Catan is a game application, available for both the iPhone and Android devices, based on the award-winning “The Settlers of Catan" board game. The rules of the game are few and simple, but the complexity runs deep as you try and secure the most victory points and establish your rule over the game board. The app also contains elements of the “Seafarers of Catan" board game expansion, and the rules that you will use will depend on which game board you decide to play.

    Before we get too far into the Catan strategy guide, you should probably understand what this game is not. While this is supposed to be based on a board game, there is no currently available online multiplayer. There is a hot-seat multiplayer, but if you are hanging around in a room with your friends and want to play Catan, why wouldn’t you just bring out the board game, instead of passing around a smartphone with the game board on it?

    Additionally, there is a campaign option on the game’s home screen, and a large number of maps visible, the campaign mode and about half the maps are only available if you buy the “Seafarers" full expansion from the in-app store. Charging $3.99 for a game, when much more advanced games are free with ad support these days, and then locking half the features behind a paywall, is just ridiculous. More than anything else, these two huge drawbacks will prevent this game from achieving any serious popularity.

    Catan controls   The game itself is fairly well done, with good looking graphics and animations. The game also runs smoothly enough that you will rarely find a delay between clicking a button and getting a response. Since the multiplayer is a joke, you will spend most of your time playing against computer opponents. The AI is passable, but experienced Catan players might not find much of a challenge. During testing, my win rate against three random computer opponents was around 90 percent (and in true Catan tradition, I fully blame my losses on the dice outcomes!).

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    Catan Controls

    Catan Variables   Most of the buttons and commands are fairly intuitive, and experienced Catan players should have no trouble playing the game. Select “Custom Game" from the main menu to get things started. Drag the computer icon to the empty boxes for each player you want to add. You can also drag and release the icon from a player box to reduce the number of players. Then choose a game map, using the arrows on the screen to scroll through your available options. Any map that has a padlock over the image requires that you purchase the expansion.

    There are a number of options that you can adjust before the game starts. These include whether the map is random, whether to protect early game players from the robber, whether to use random dice rolls or select numbers from a list, whether to start with a settlement or city, how many victory points it will take to win and whether to give bonus resources to players who go five rounds without gathering.

    Once the game starts, the controls get even easier. Just tap the board to place a settlement, city, ship or road and tap the check to confirm your selection. When it is your turn, you can tap the arrow on the right side of the screen to open up the menu. From the menu you can build, buy or use development cards or initiate trades. To trade with players just drag up the resource that you want to give, and drag down the resource that you want to receive, then tap the check icon to see if anyone wants to trade. To trade with the bank or use a port, tap the chest at the top of the screen, and then complete the process in the same way as you would trade with other players.

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    General Strategy

    Catan Dice   In general, Catan strategy will be the same as it is for the board game, with a few caveats due to the fact that you will be playing against a computer. The first of two major strategies is a stone/wheat build that looks to upgrade to cities early and then focus on development cards. The second strategy is to pair a single resource with a strong port settlement that matches that resource.


    Stone, sometimes called ore, becomes the major focus of this build since there are only three stone spaces, and generally one or two of them wind up with a poor number. Statistically, there will be no better upgrade than to bring your starting settlements up to cities, so this build focuses on getting a city early, although you should consider branching out to a third settlement first if you find yourself flush with brick and wood. Once you get one or two cities, switch your focus to development cards. If you cornered the stone market you’ll lock the largest army and will probably pick up at least one victory point card, meaning you’ll just need three cities and a settlement to win.


    This strategy revolves around getting a settlement on two or three of a single resource, with all of them on decent numbers, and pairing that with a settlement on a port for that resource. For this strategy it is imperative that you get the opening placement right, with one settlement securing your resource and your second securing the port. If the port doesn’t sit on two good numbers, choose a placement that is two road lengths away, so you can quickly build to your port without giving up too much on your second settlement. This strategy will use a healthy mix of horizontal and vertical building, combined with development cards, as necessary.

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    Gameplay Tips

    Regardless of your overall strategy, there are a few tips that can help you out when playing against the computer. The AI in the game is generally pretty good, but it does have some issues. The computer players will stop trading with you if you get too close to winning, but they don’t seem to be able to factor in a push for victory. The easiest way to accomplish this is to set yourself up with a road just as long as the longest road. This lets you sit around six or seven points, but still be just a wood and brick away from capturing two quick VPs and the game if you pair it with another upgrade in the same turn. The computer player who currently has the longest road never seems to continue to build it to protect the victory points.

    The only other big tip is to always try to upgrade to a city early. You may make yourself a robber target, but by the end of the game the extra resources will more than make up for any temporary hardships.

    Also, to save yourself some time, if you know that you don’t want to make any trades until it is your turn again, there is a button on the left side of the trade screen that you can press. That way, the computer players won’t bother you with trade requests and their turns will go by much quicker.

    Continue to the second page for a breakdown of all seven game maps.

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    Game Maps

    The First Island

    This is the original map from the board game, which features 18 game spaces plus the desert, with the whole map surrounded by water. The map uses the standard Catan rules, and not the Seafarers rules. Both major strategies apply here, with very few wrinkles in the game.

    Catan Ore for Wool   Ore for Wool

    This map is the same as the original map and the basic Settlers of Catan rules are in play. The twist to this map is that stone, which is also called ore, is placed on three of the poorest numbers on the board, to make it extra scarce. Additionally, wool is generally placed on some very good numbers. This setup makes a strong ore strategy fairly impossible, so it is best to go for a port strategy. If you are able to grab the wool port on good numbers, this is probably the best opening placement. Otherwise, just try and find any 2:1 port and pair it with at least two strong numbers on that resource.

    Catan Harbormaster   The Harbormaster

    This map is the same as the standard board game and uses the standard Settlers of Catan rules, except a victory occurs at 11 points, instead of 10. The twist here is that each harbor you control is worth one “harbor point" and the first player to get three harbor points will get two extra victory points. The AI kind of makes this one simple, as the computer will go out of its way to grab ports, leaving the middle of the map wide open for conquest. Grab a good stone number and plan on expanding in to the island, instead of on the edges. Ignore the extra harbor points and cruise your way to an easy victory.

    Catan Treasure Islands   The Treasure Islands

    The center of this map is the same as the standard game, but surrounding the island are 50 additional sea spaces that you can explore. The map uses the rules for the Seafarers of Catan, which allow you to build ships to explore the ocean. The sea spaces will contain treasure, which will give you minor bonuses, and islands, which will give you a resource when you find them. You will also gain an extra two victory points for each island you build a settlement on.

    For this map, a shift to a wood/sheep strategy might be your best bet, as you can quickly build a long train of ships to explore the open water, reap the rewards, and have two of the necessary resources for building settlements on the islands. Of course, if the computer players get too enamored with exploration, you can conquer the center of the large island to create a resource generating machine. Basically, if you go first, aim for a wood/sheep build. If you don’t, position yourself where the computer player isn’t placing settlements.

    Catan Four Islands   The Four Islands 1

    The game map features four small islands and the Seafarer rules are in effect. The first time a player builds a settlement on an island that they didn’t start on, they will get two additional victory points. Play this board much like you would a standard Catan board, with a stone focus or a port focus, depending on what the game gives you. There are a few ports that are just two or three ships away from being able to build on another island, so grab these with your second placement as long as the numbers on the port are good. Aim to build up to cities and then out to an additional settlement or two, and only concern yourself with the extra victory points if the opportunity presents itself.

    Catan Oceania 2   Oceania 2

    The board is split into two large islands with a stretch of hidden sea spaces running between them. The board uses the Seafarers rules. Choose one island over the other and place both your settlements, giving you a possibility of eventually making an easy longest road. Only ignore this if you can find two really high numbered spots like (8-9-5) on the different islands. If you build on the inner edge of your island, ensure that you have a presence on wood and sheep so that you can quickly send out ships to capture the free resources from discovering the islands in the middle of the map. Otherwise, it’s just a normal game.

    Catan Greater 1   Greater Catan 1

    This is the most unique map that the game has to offer. It uses the Seafarers rules and takes 18 victory points to win. Additionally, players can build up to 8 cities. Gameplay starts on the main island, which is just a bit smaller than the normal main island. The island is surrounded by five smaller islands. As players discover the hexes on the smaller islands, the hex will be given a number from the unused supply. After the fourth hex on the small islands is discovered, the supply is exhausted and the player must choose a number from the main island instead. This number will move to the small island, leaving the resource on the main island barren (it no longer produces anything).

    There are a few rules to this number movement. The numbers six and eight cannot be placed adjacent to each other, the player must have a settlement or city adjacent to that number and each settlement on the main island needs to have access to at least one resource with a number on it.

    This twist makes for an interesting game as the main island becomes depleted and the cities/settlements on that island become worthless (or close to it). The best strategy is to stick with wood and sheep, which will allow you to expand to the outer islands quickly. Build settlement and cities on the best available resources there, as these will not deplete over time. Build only reluctantly on the main island, and only upgrade to cities on spots where you are fairly sure someone won’t move a number (like a six or eight).

    A counter strategy is to ignore the islands, allowing the main island to remain more powerful as it will take longer for the computer players to find the islands without your help. Make a race to build cities as fast as you can, and then hope you don’t lose too much when the numbers start moving to the outer islands. I’ve found success with both strategies, but I believe it may have been because the computer wasn’t playing as smart as it should have been.

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    References and Image Credit

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