Catan Strategy: The Five Personalities of the Robber
Love him or hate him the robber pops up about once every six turns in a game of Catan. He pops up, designed to make the players’ lives difficult and challenging. This means knowing what to do with him is a core requirement for the player who wishes to maximise his or her chances.
So you’ve rolled a seven. Eight would have got you half a forest, four or nine a ton of bricks, and even a ten would have brought you a flock of woolly chums – but you rolled a seven nonetheless, and now the robber’s knocking on your door, asking for his orders. It’s easy to see his presence as malign, a way to hinder your collection of resources and a waste of a turn you could be using to build your latest city by-pass to grab two points for the longest road. However, before you throw your coffee cup at the dog and take a bite out of the cardboard box in sheer frustration take a breath – you’re probably going to see the robber a couple of times each game so you may as well make a friend of him.
So what can you do with your new associate in the criminal underworld? It turns out he’s a man of many talents and many different personalities.
The Highwayman: Using the Robber to get resources.
The first thing the robber is good for is stealing resources. The clue’s in his name if you think about it. With a dice roll you’re not guaranteed any resources and even if you do get lucky you can find yourself wondering what to do with your forty-sixth sheep.
We’ve all had turns where we’ve rolled a number and gratefully hoovered up a single resource only to find that another player has two cities on the other hexagon with the same number and is rolling in wealth. Your dice roll, another player’s gain. The advantage the robber gives you is that not only do you get a chance to deplete another player’s resource pile but nobody else gets any resources either. In fact, they may lose a considerable stash of resources if they’ve got a lot of cards in their hand.
Now the sneaky bit… you can use the robber to increase the chances of getting a resource you want. Let’s assume you are in dire need of grain. Ethel on the other side of the board has two cities sitting on a grain hexagon and is knee-deep in the stuff. Her hand is likely to contain a lot of grain resources so by robbing her you can maximise your chance of getting the grain you need. True you might be unlucky and pull the one wood card out of the grain but that’s probably going to cramp Ethel’s game more.
The Economist: Restrict someone who’s doing better than you.
The ability to parachute the robber into any hexagon and render it unproductive is a great way to inhibit another player’s game. We’ve already met Ethel and her two cities on the same grain hexagon…which judicious placing of the robber can effectively turn into stubble overnight. Cutting the grain supply may not have much short-term impact on Ethel but it does stop her getting four grain each time her number comes up. This then stops her swapping it for any resource she wants with the bank.
It makes more sense to place the robber in some hexagons than others. Blocking the “12” hexagon isn’t going to have anything like the impact of blocking a “6” hexagon (for example), simply because (on average) the “6” hexagon will come up five times more often than the “12”. That being said, automatically blocking the hexagons which have a higher chance of coming up isn’t always necessarily the best option.
You don’t really want to block your own resource sources unless you have to. Less obviously, you also don’t want to block a resource if you’ve got a compelling need to trade it. For example, if you’re sitting in the late game with several settlements you want to turn into cities, you will need ore and grain. Ethel, with her two cities in the centre of rolling fields of corn, may be your best supply of grain, especially if she’s happy to trade for your surplus of ore. A non-productive Ethel will have a knock-on effect on your urbanization plans so may not be in your best interests.
It’s quite easy to bog a game down by blocking the wrong hexagon, especially early in the game. Suppose there’s a wood hexagon with a value of “8” and the other wood hexagons are all on much less common numbers. It is likely that, in the setup, there will be two or maybe even three players round the easiest supply of wood. Blocking this hexagon could dry up wood for everyone – no roads, no settlements and a game that relies almost totally on action cards because that’s all anyone can build.
This is, for those who like their political science and money sciences, the equivalent to crippling the Catan economy.
The Enforcer: Use the Robber to irritate someone.
Of course, it goes without saying, you can restrict a player who’s not doing as well as you. This presents less strategic gain but does irritate the bejeezus out of them. That idea brings us nicely on to the metagaming associated with the robber.
It goes without saying that, no matter what you do, using the robber is probably going to upset someone a little bit. When the person “picked on” is clearly in the lead, the upset is far less than that associated with robbing a player with a less obvious gaming advantage. If you keep picking on the same player every time you have the robber you’re going to irritate them. The greater the irritation the easier the player is to beat.
You can also metagame allies. If Ethel has just robbed Fred and you then rob Ethel, you could be looked on more favourably by Fred. If that happens you should be able to trade with him more easily than with Ethel. The more often you pick on Ethel and she picks on Fred the stronger this association is likely to become.
Personally, I think this kind of “keep picking on Ethel to see what she’ll do” metagaming is a bit of a rubbish thing to do, and it may be that, in the interests of player harmony, you don’t keep picking on the same person with the robber – even if that is actually the logical thing to do. At the end of the day, it depends on if you game with people who are going to cite Catan as the reason for their divorce…or are likely to let your tyres down because you beat them three times in one evening…or alternatively, if they will laugh, shrug, and brush it off. If they are the latter then gaming this way is still rubbish, but it’s less rubbish than it would be otherwise.
The Politician: Rack up the political favours.
The opposite way to play the robber is to become “Mr Nice Guy”. If you always banish the robber back to the desert when you can, or place him in hexagons which are unlikely to be used, and around which there are no settlements, you can quickly rack up brownie points with the other players with metagaming benefits. Players who can see you’re making every effort to minimise the robber’s impact are unlikely to go grumpy even if they are affected, which is a nice way to steal resources from them without upsetting them.
This is always a great way to use the Knight development card if you don’t want to be aggressive.
The Mob Boss: Intimidate someone.
Some players may not like this, but it doesn’t say you can’t threaten players in the Catan rules. “Give me two wood resources or I’ll put the robber onto that grain hexagon and wipe out the source of your wealth the next time I roll a seven or with my next knight” may not be to every gaming group’s liking, or in the nature of the game, but it is legal.
THAT BEING SAID, just because it is legal, that doesn’t mean it should be done. Realistically that violates the well-known rule of gaming: “Don’t be a d*ck”. It is a horrible way to play, and if you do play that way, then you probably deserve everything coming to you. This would most likely be the wrath of the rest of the table and the cessation of invites to play games. May the mice of a thousand wheat bales infest your armpits and all that jazz.
Remember what goes around comes around…
One final point to remember about the robber is that (on the average) he moves around every six turns, not taking knights into account. You may be commanding him this turn but soon he’ll have switched allegiance to someone else and you may be on the receiving end of his devious ways. If you play like an arse, then expect someone to be an arse back. If you are nice then…well still expect someone to be an arse. All is fair in love and Catan after all.
So, what do you think? How do you like to play the robber? Are you more of a politician or an economist? Are you an enforcer or a mob boss? Do you change what you do on a regular basis or do you tend to play one way? Let us know in the comments below.
I like the mob boss one, lol. I probably wouldn’t do this with certain people I game with, but then there are others it where it would be fun. I guess as you say, with such things you have to play to your group’s preferences.
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I agree that the Mob Boss style can be totally okay for some groups who yearn for more direct interaction and confrontation and yet play Catan (maybe as a filler between an eight-hour game of Diplomacy and an even longer game of Twilight Imperium).
Personally, I think the robber has great potential as an Enforcer against a leader. There is only so much you can do to hinder somebody – fighting them for juicy settlement spots can be geographically impossible, monopoly cards are rare, trade boycotts are not so effective in the late game against a developed, self-sufficient economy. But the robber (with the help of some knights, maybe) provides a somewhat-reliable method to slow down a leader (and hopefully give yourself the necessary time to catch up).
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To be honest, I think that’s exactly how the Robber is meant to be played. I think the Robber is really designed as a catch-up mechanic in case one player is really lucky and runs away with the game. What do you think?
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Oh yes, if you game with a group who will take it all in their stride then go for it 🙂 but it’s always best to judge things by your gaming group.
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HATE the mob boss one. We banned that particular practice in our games because it got way out of hand. Good article!
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It can do! It’s a bit more meta, and can cause problems – but you need to do what your group is comfortable with 🙂
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