Catan Strategy: 8 Different Ways To Start
Catan (also known as Settlers of Catan) has come a long way since its conception in 1995. Designed by Klaus Teuber, the family friendly, entry-level Eurogame is responsible for having brought joy to thousands upon thousands of people across the globe. It is widely accepted as one of the flagships of this modern board game renaissance we are now a part of. For that we, as gamers, can be incredibly grateful.
Of course, with the boom in modern gaming there has also been a boom in modern board game strategy. This has grown in popularity, with some people spending hours and hours analysing games. I, for one, am amongst that number. We love picking games apart and searching for the best way to start the game.
There are now hundreds of articles out there about Catan strategy. Everyone from Buzzfeed to the amazing community at Board Game Geek have had their say. One of my all time favourite strategy articles is by Board Game Analysis, where they have analysed the 100+ ways of winning a game of Catan. It’s amazing, and I recommend everyone has a read.
In the past I too have written guides about Catan, especially talking about general principles behind Catan placement and different ways to play the Robber. Today though, we are going to get more technical. Today we are going to look more in depth at the different ways to start in Catan based on how you want to play the game.
Catan Strategy: 8 Different Ways to Start
Before we begin exploring the strategy behind the first couple of placements in Catan a few things need to be pointed out. The diagrams in the article were made on Powerpoint, and it mimics the exact start up recommendation in the Catan rules. These placements are my own suggestions, although obviously you are going to need to adapt them as you randomise the board. I will go through the basic idea of each one, and why it has been suggested the way it has before moving onto the next.
Of course, there are thousands of different ways of placing to begin a game – so we will only be scraping the surface today; however, hopefully the theory may inspire a few ideas.
Next, since it is literally just coloured blocks, this is the key for this article. As you can see, the normal hexagons are fairly standard; however, I had to get a bit creative with the harbours. By creative…I mean…they’re just triangles.
I know – it’s revolutionary.
Finally, the below doesn’t take competitors or other players into account when placing unless they directly relate to your placement of your pieces. If, for instance, a diagram only shows one or two colours, it is because the rest aren’t relevant for the theory.
Over the next few sections we are going to explore eight different basic ways of starting, the logic behind them, and how they can help with the game. Let’s do this!
The Balanced Resource Strategy
Cover as many types of resource as you can, on the best numbers that you can, at the start of the game.
The Balanced Resource Catan strategy uses the mentality that, in order to win, in the majority of games you will need the majority of resources. It is because of this that the starting placement should cover as many resources as possible.
In the above image, Blue, White, and Red are all across all resources. This kind of strategy doesn’t usually allow for the most likely numbers (with the most pips) to be optimised for; however, it allows for scope of resource collection. White and Red in the above image also have a spread of numbers as well, meaning that they are likely to gain resources in more rolls than Blue. White is on two likely numbers, both 8 and 6.
Road direction doesn’t hugely matter; so long as it is towards resources or harbours, and won’t likely block the road in.
The Longest Road Strategy
Create one large route, monopolising wood and brick.
This is a personal favourite of mine. One of the great things about the starting Catan layout is that it is possible to sit on both the brick (6) and lumber (8) at the same time, connecting the two. Not only does this put you in a strong position for building roads, but it also allows you to cover most of the grain in the game as well.
From there, it is a fairly easy journey to either go north or east across the board to gain Ore, giving you a large amount of resource. What this does is make you a trading force to be reckoned with, with your road hopefully taking you through sheep territory in due course. That’s the idea at least. You are in an incredibly strong place for expansion.
Of course, the board may not always (in fact the odds are – it isn’t) be set up like this. In which case, the task is to find the most likely brick and the most likely wood. If they are close together, great, build there. If they are far apart, build with that in mind. Angle your roads towards each other. Consider calculating how and where you can build settlements along the way. Then, your goal in the game could be to join those two points up.
The City Up Strategy
Build your empire on ore and wheat, putting yourself in a strong position for development cards and trade in the late game.
One idea for a strategy, especially if you are in one of the least opportune places for placement in the player order, is to consider a City Up style of strategy. What this means is that, although there are lots of players on the board, you don’t need all that much space in order to win. Instead, you build cities and buy development cards.
Using this strategy it can be difficult to build the couple of settlements you do need due to monopolising on two later-in-the-game resources. With the basic starting board, it is easier to get those resources by building on the stone/grain junction, and the stone/lumber/brick junction. After this, making a move to the sheep will ensure resources for precious development cards (think about the Monopoly card, as well as victory points).
In other games, it may be harder to gain all the resources; in which case sit on the most likely wheat and the most likely ore. Wheat is a highly important early game resource as well, and one that can frequently be used for trades.
It is also worth pointing out that if you city up early, you get double the resources. These can then also mean trades at harbours, with other players, or with the bank – providing another route in for the resources you lack thanks to the precise placement.
The Development Card/Largest Army
Build an army and your empire through development cards. Trade wheat, ore, and sheep. City up.
Very similar to the City Up strategy, the Development Card/Largest Army strategy focuses on just three resources – sheep, ore, and grain. With a slight shift it in placement on the basic board, it is possible to optimise for those resources.
This strategy also covers a lot of numbers, as well as putting you, as the player, in a strong position for ore and grain. You are less likely to get sheep, due to the numbers, but you have two settlements on the pastures to ensure a higher chance overall.
The only resource you won’t have access to is brick. Wood is difficult as well. Luckily, you will have ore and wheat to trade for those who want them, making you a valuable ally.
The “Game Theory” Placement…Sort Of
Place in positions that make it awkward for your opponents, whilst freeing as much space up for your own expansion as possible.
Of course, there are two mentalities needed to win a game of Catan. Firstly, you need to act fast and in favour of your own growth. You need to gather resources, and you need to build. That being said, you often need to slow your opponents down. This is why the robber is such a good balancing mechanic; however, it is also possible to slow opponents down with placement.
Note, that you can’t really do this if you go last; however, if you place in first, second or third position you can, depending on where your opponents place.
In the below diagram – the opponent you want to block is yellow. You are red.
So, this is not a pleasant strategy to play; however, it can be quite good at limiting your opponents. Again, this will need adapting based on the state of the board you are playing.
Essentially, the idea is to box your opponent in by being close to where they are. If you look at the above diagram, you can see that Red has access to the entire south side of the board. It may not be like this once the third player (potentially fourth) is taken into account, but theoretically the concept is sound. Red has access to grow into the majority of the board.
That being said, Red has also made life difficult for Yellow. To get past Red, Yellow has to either go the long way around, or is funnelled down the side of the desert. Neither are opportune strategies. Meanwhile, Red can gather and build with more strategic options open to them.
It’s a strategy, especially if you find yourself playing with more experienced players, to try and box them in. It may not work, as the opponent needs to place their second one before you do and close to their first (hence why being last to place won’t work as you place both settlements at the same time). That being said, it is also possible to box in more than one opponent if they place close enough. It’ll usually result in less-than-perfect placement for you, but it is even worse for them from a growth perspective.
If you find this idea interesting, I actually wrote an article about Game Theory and Catan when I first started this blog.
Divide the board.
This Catan placement strategy, which I have named “Desert Storm” looks really daft on the offset and, to be honest, it really is. It is not an easy starting position. Even if rotated, both threes, and both fours, are on the outside of the board. In fact, the only decent thing on the outside is the brick (6).
The thing to bring up though, is that in the majority of games the tiles will be shuffled. The odds are a different tile will be in the middle, which is when this strategy could work.
Essentially, the idea is to divide the board and make life difficult for your opponents whilst giving you the most room for expansion.
Central placement offers a few benefits in Catan, especially the settlements are set up like the above. If the central tile isn’t the desert then placement on either side locks it off from anyone else building there. This means settlements can’t be placed down the side of it.
What this placement also does is gives a lot of scope for expansion on opposing sides of the board. It is difficult to stop a player, who has played a central block like the above, from expanding. It is also difficult to stop them connecting the two settlements with a road.
It may look stupid with the current board layout (it is), but when the board gets rearranged, if the desert isn’t in the centre, it can be a strategic move.
Port Dominance I
Dominate a specific resource, and trade it in for what you need at the harbour.
One final set of strategies to explore in this article is the idea of port dominance in the early game. What this means is taking control of a harbour.
The triangles on the above map represent harbours. The colours represent the resource, with black being a 3:1 port.
To dominate a port, you want to find a resource that is close to the port of its kind. In the suggested map, there is only one resource that fulfils this criteria – wool/sheep. This allows for easy expansion.
The next task is to dominate that resource, without completely closing off other resources as you do. This is because, if you only need one or two resources, it is better than needing four out of five. As you can see by the above – brick, wood, and grain will still be accessible, no matter how unlikely. A small chance is better than none.
Try and cover as many hexagons of that resource as possible. If it is sheep, try and cover at least three of the wool/sheep/pasture hexagons. If it is brick or ore then try to cover two if not three. This gives you a stable foothold with specific resources.
Then, as you gain resources, build the harbour you need and then start city-ing up the settlements on the resource you are dominating. This will put you in a powerful position as both player, playing your own game, but also as a trading partner.
Port Dominance II
Become a trading Catan mogul.
Finally, one brief little strategy change to the Port Dominance I idea. Rather than just focus on one resource, it is possible to focus on two if you can get in a decent position with the second placement.
This is a slower way of building resources as, in the above image, the second sheep will only come with the harbour; however, this may differ depending on how the board is laid out.
As you can see though – the idea is sound. Neither settlement is more than one settlement space (two edges) away from a port, making it easier to expand to the port. More resources are also covered, meaning it is possible to play a more balanced game. In the starting layout all five resources are available this way.
That being said, it needs to adapt based on the layout of the board.
Catan Strategy: Placements Concluded
So there we have it. Eight different ways of changing how you place at the start of the game, and how those placements can influence your strategy. As I have said several times throughout the above, how you adapt your Catan strategy will differ depending on how the board is laid out; however, the theory is the same.
So, there we have it – what do you think? What is your favourite Catan strategy? Do you like to play the game in a different way each time, or is there a specific approach you like to take? As I said, these are strategies I have noticed; however, it’s far from a completed list – what other strategies have I missed out? Let me know in the comments below.