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Settlers of Catan Strategy Guide

By: Geeb
On: March 26, 2012

Since starting my job at ARS Interactive, I was quickly introduced to the underground board game, The Settlers of Catan. As a once hardcore gamer and Civilization enthusiast, I was excited to find out about a turn based strategy board game. Needless to say, I became addicted to Catan after my first game. It requires constant awareness, strategy, and a little luck of the die. Any Catan veteran knows, dice rolls can be brutal. It is easy to pick-up, fun to teach, and doesn’t require as much time as Monopoly.  One of its most memorable qualities is its unique look.  Enough pumping up the game, let’s move on to the real point of this post.

More and more of my friends are purchasing the game, which means I’ll be playing more. To keep myself sharp and just to be fair (I tend to win alot), I wanted to share my strategies.  Before getting too far into this, I should mention that I like to play with the Harbor Master Card and the Fishermen of Catan scenario. This adds a simple alternative to the base game that I find most new players enjoy.  Compared to other scenarios and expansions, this pairing tends to make the game shorter and more exciting.

After a couple months of play and dozens of games later, I bring you my Settlers of Catan strategy guide.

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The Initial Placement Round

General Setup

As we all know, Catan boards start semi-random. This is one of the big perks of the game. I always opt for complete random placement, even when placing number roll tokens. Before placing the tokens, be sure to shuffle them. Start on a tile in the outer ring of the board, place tokens around this ring in a clock-wsie motion. Do so until you reach the middle. To keep the game fair, I never place two red tokens next to each other. If this happens move the currently placed red token back in counter-clockwise motion to replace the first black numbered token. Following these rules tend to keep the game fair and more competitive. Now that we have a proper setup, let’s go over strategies.

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Placement Strategy

As you already know, roll tokens have dots on them. The more dots a token has, the higher percentage that tile has in being rolled. The dots actually signify the number of total roll combinations two dice can make in rolling the facing number. So what else should you remember?

  1. On any intersection, count the total number of dots from all surrounding tokens.  Generally, the intersection with the highest number of total dots is the best place to start.  However, an over-saturation of a particular resource (with no harbor) might prompt you to choose a different spot.
  2. Starting on a harbor gives you one less resource to start, and gives you one less roll token (less dots total).  If no other good land-locked intersections are available choose these.  Try to build close to the coast so that your next settlement takes advantage of the harbor.  So, try not to start on the coast.
  3. I generally do not recommend taking a high roll resource and the corresponding harbor.  Good players will block you all game.  No one likes to sit at a table for an hour and accomplish nothing.
  4. Place roads towards harbors first.  Grab them before other players do.  If you always have to trade with other players to make a trade (not with the bank or via the harbors), you will find yourself being ripped off more frequently.
  5. Grabbing the harbor master card usually means you’ll keep it all game.  It is almost impossible for another player to build 4 settlements on harbors.
  6. Find ways to block other players in with roads and settlements.  Remember, you can still build a settlement in between another players roads.  This will disrupt their chances at the longest road.
  7. Brick and ore are the most rare resources in the game.  They are the only resource with one less tile in comparison to the others.  This tends to make them more likely to have low roll tokens (less dots).  Ore is the best late game, and brick for the beginning, expansive phase.
  8. Arguably, brick is the most valuable resource in the game.  Players need to expand.  Two cities will not win a game and therefore, some may argue that ore only works if you have brick first.  If you have this golden resource, hold onto it and force players to make expensive trades in your favor.
  9. Unfortunately, being the only player with these resources tends to make you the likely target of a knight/robber.  Try to have a knight development card handy to move the robber when the time comes.  You don’t always have to use the knight the turn after you get it.  Playing with fish allows you to move the robber for only 2 fish.  I actually hate how cheap this move is.

Gameplay Styles

After the first round, your settlement placements, whether you like it or not, decide your strategy.  Never go into a game saying, “I have my strategy on lock.”  Starting locations and starting resources dictate how you should play. Trading them away to play a different strategy always puts you at a huge disadvantage. Trades are never 1:1 unless with another player and you shouldn’t be doing that in the first place.  Always bargain for a better deal while never revealing what you actually have.  Openly flaunting a bad hand might keep other players from attacking you, and will also make them feel more comfortable trading with you.

The realization for the Settlers of Catan is that starting location is 60% of the game.  Choose wisely.

The following strategies are in order of easiest victory to hardest.

The Expansive Settler (Brick, Wood and Wheat)

This setup tends to generate quick expansion on the board. Use roads to close off players and grab harbors first. Your strength will be control via road building and multiple 2:1 trade ratios. Always go for the longest road card.  Try to stay 2-3 roads ahead of other players.  This means they will have to build 3-4 to take the longest road card from you.  Build settlements as fast as possible and if possible grab 3 harbors before all other players. Building a settlement on four harbors is almost impossible and therefore, the person who gets the harbor master card usually keeps it all game.

Late game will be a struggle.  Steal ore and wheat when you can, and stockpile them.  Generally you will be the target in the early game, but will be forgotten in the late.  Your best chance of winning is to end the game before the late game goes into fill swing.  Try to hold on to special point cards and use fish if you have them.  This strategy is all about speed and control.

The Metropolitan (Ore, Wheat, and Sheep)

If you start with Ore and Wheat (Sheep is always secondary in any build) you will be building cities first followed by development cards.  Use knight cards to slow down other players so you have more of a chance to get to the late game.  This is where you will flourish.  Use fish to trade or steal resources that would allow you to build roads and settlements (not ore or wheat).  Expand after building one city, and try to grab an open port to help feed this expansion (the best port would be 2:1 on ore).  In the very late game, try to hold the largest army card with this play style.  Chances are, you cannot obtain the harbor or longest road bonus cards, so getting the largest army may be your last-ditch-effort.  If all else fails, be the Catan’s most wasteful architect and keep building.

The Beach Bum (Fish with Traders and Barbarians)

The Beach Bum is the player that starts with placements on the coasts away from all the action. Being away from the core of Catan allows you to sneak victories and grab special victory points more easily. Try to build around the edges of the board securing harbors and fish tiles if playing with the Traders and Barbarians Expansion. The longest road and Harbor Master cards are more easily won this way.  Use your supply of fish to steal cards from the leaders of the pack.  Think about targeting those around you, or those who may have the resources you need to expand. Being the loner tends to put you out of sight of the robber, and fish attacks. This player tends to expand at the slowest pace, but again, is usually not the target of knights and robbers during most of the game.

First, build settlements followed by roads and development cards. Try to steal cards you need by using fish. You will only win by securing two special victory point cards. Go for Harbor Master and Longest Road first. Again, being on the outskirts of the board tends to help you achieve this.  In my opinion, using fish to steal cards from other players for the cost of only 3 fish is much more valuable than paying 4 to take one from the bank.  If you pay attention you already know what your odds are at stealing a resource.  Instead of getting +1 resource, stealing puts you at +1 and another player at -1 (or +2 for you).  Who knows, that one stolen resource could have made all the difference on the next turn.  If all else fails, steal from the person on your left.  They have been planning for their turn for a couple rolls and stealing from them may make them waste it.

Remember, building a settlement on four harbors is almost impossible and therefore, the person who gets the harbor master card usually keeps it all game.


  1. Almost never settle for a 1:1 trade.  Never trade 1:1 off of your turn and never trade 1:1 with the player in the lead.
  2. Always try to come up on top after a trade.
  3. Try and trade with the person in last first.
  4. If you cannot trade with the last place person, trade with the person whose turn is furthest away.  If it is your turn, this will be the person to your right.  This will give them more time to have that resource taken away from them and disrupt their ability to build on their next turn.
  5. Based on number 4, try to trade on your turn or as close to it as possible.
  6. Always disrupt trades with the top players in the game.  Sometimes even when you don’t need the resources.  This will ruin their turn and force them to pass the dice having done nothing productive.  Also, remember the “more than 7 cards” discard rule.  Doing this strategy could help you keep you hand low and get rid of cards you don’t need anyways.  Think smart and keep people guessing.
  7. (Traders and Barbarians only) If you have a lot of fish (3, 6, 9), make trades with a player with the fewest cards in his hand.  After the trading is over, steal those cards back at 3 fish per steal.  It works best when this player is on your right (furthest away).  This will give that player a few turns to forget about your devilish move.  If that person has none, try to disrupt the person who goes next.


  1. Use “fake” trading to keep tabs on which resources everyone has.  Activate the robber and steal from players who have resources you need.
  2. Keep your hand low, don’t stockpile resources.  Rolling a 7 will bite you in the ass and players with a lot of cards tend to be targeted more with the robber (unless someone has under 4 cards and the selection is obvious).
  3. Use the robber to slow down the player in the lead.  Block his most valuable tile.  This tends to be the resource tile which feeds a 2:1 harbor and/or has cities.
  4. On a block, go for 8,6,9,5 tokens first.
  5. Look for high token values, multi-player tiles to block.  Picking on a single player usually leads to frivolous retaliation.
  6. If you are in first, try to save a knight as a backup.  You will tend to always be the target of a robber attack.  Saving a knight allows you to quickly remove the robber from your token.  Besides, try to grab the largest army card only while able to flip over VP cards to win.
  7. Try to steal from the person to your left.  Over the last few rolls and trades they may have amassed the right resources to build.  Let’s ruin their plans, shall we?
  8. If all else fails (left is not an option) and you are not sure who to block or steal from, pick the person to your right.  This is usually the person whose turn is furthest away from the current turn.  This will give them time to forget about you.
  9. Never place the robber on an empty tile.

Other Development Cards

  1. Remember, you can only play one development card a turn, but you can buy as many as you want.  The only exception to this rule is playing VP cards on a winning turn.
  2. Before playing Monopoly, use “fake trading” to figure out which resource is in abundance.  Always play it near the end of a game to help secure a victory.  After all, once a player has 7-8 points, the game’s pace goes in hyper-speed.
  3. Think about using road building to steal the longest road card at the end of a game.  This works best when you have a lot of wood and brick in your hand, too.  Never make your plans obvious and try to stay about 2-3 roads behind the current card holder.  If you are too close they will probably just make the road longer.  Sneak attack the longest road.
  4.  Remember, you don’t have to play single victory point cards.  Always keep all of them face down for your final turn. These are the only dev cards that can all be played in one turn with no limit.

New Additions

  1. Catan is as much about control as it is expansion.  Most of the time, these two go hand-in-hand.  Sometimes the best move is the one that places other players at a huge disadvantage.  Try to make other players have “lame-duck” turns while always being productive on yours.
  2.  7′s could ruin your turns over-and-over again. Keep your hand low, even if it means trading to someone at a slight disadvantage.
  3. Try your best to buy development cards mid to late game.  Buying them early could stifle expansion.
  4. Keep a watchful eye on rolls and remember the last few numbers.  You don’t need to remember every resource someone draws, just remember the numbers.  The cheat sheet is sitting right on the board.
  5. If you have an abundance of fish, don’t be afraid to use all of them on steals.  Imagine the first place player’s hand being reduced to 0 for his next turn.  Fish can be devastating.

That does is for my Settlers of Catan Strategy Guide.  Please feel free to post questions and comments below.  Thanks for stopping by.


New expansion for Settlers of Catan to be released on February.