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Settlers of Catan fits the family holiday to a "T"

 Bancroft family Settlers game gets underway with intensity.

There are board games and then there is “Settlers of Catan”.  Settlers of Catan is a game that takes previous generations of board games like Monopoly to a new level.  Developed in Germany, it has a deceptively simple premise – each player assembles resources to build settlements and, eventually, cities.  The player with the best balance of resources among roads, settlements, and cities eventually wins.  However, it is never easy or pre-ordained.  There are an infinite number of strategies that could win.  Often the outcome is in doubt right up to the moment when the winning player achieves the necessary ten points that crowns him or her Lord of Catan, an honor that draws bows of obeisance from all other players.


Settlers of Catan has become our family’s preferred game, particularly at extended family gatherings over Thanksgiving and Christmas.  Sally and I are just back from spending Christmas week with our two daughters and their spouses in Bend, Oregon.  We had expected lots of cross-country skiing, but global warming prevailed.  The weather was mild. We had plenty of time for Settlers.


In our many Settler’s games, no one won more than one contest.  In only one of the games did the person who seemed to be leading ultimately prevail.  These were all close contests in which at least three of the five or six players involved could have prevailed.  It was exciting stuff.  Our younger daughter Emily won the last game we played- seemingly coming out of nowhere to produce a victory.  The game has just enough mystery built in beyond one’s obvious board positioning to allow this kind of stealth win.  Moreover, a stealthy strategy is good because there are ways to make the perceived front-runner’s position more difficult.


Emily’s victory was much discussed in a breakfast post-mortem that also included commentary on key points in the game when one or another of us had just missed opportunities to significantly strengthen our position.  The good-natured back and forth mostly focused on why certain players had felt opponents had singled them out for blocking.  It should also be noted that the game has lots of opportunity for cooperating as well.  In fact, Settlers often brings out the best in our cooperative instincts, but there are moments of tension when self-interest prevails.


Let me go out on a limb and suggest a few potential winning Settlers’ strategies, at least ones that I am partial to.  But first, one must understand the basic set-up:


The Board is set out with a random array of the five resource tiles (wood, brick, sheep, wheat, and ore) necessary, in various combinations, for all settlement building.  On each of the resource tiles is a number from 1 – 12 placed in a pre-described order.  Typically, each number is represented on at least two different resource tiles.  A player gets a resource card (matching the resource tile) when the dice roll that initiates each round matches the number on the resource tile on which that player has a settlement or a city.  For example, if an 8 is rolled, all players with a settlement on resource tiles that have an 8 on them get one of those resources (or two of them if the player has a city on the resource).


Here then are a few of the many potential winning strategies:


  1. Focus on the 8’s and 6’s:  8’s and 6’s have the highest probability of being rolled (except for 7’s and 7’s are a special roll that is often not advantageous).  Therefore, having settlements on 8’s and 6’s is a high probability play.
  2. Focus on having settlements on as many different numbers as is feasible:  While opting for 8 and 6 coverage, a complimentary strategy is to be sure that you are positioned on a range of relatively favorable numbers.  It is often surprising that in any given game a relatively low probability number seems to come up often – proving something about the randomness of things.
  3. Focus on “Development Cards”:  Development cards can be obtained with a certain mix of resource cards.  These cards may give outright victory points, allow a player to take certain resource cards from other players, or provide a number of other options.  Thus they can be valuable.  However, they take resources that could be deployed for additional settlements or cities so most players view Development cards as an opportunistic move.
  4. Build more cities:  Cities are worth two victory points (a settlement is worth one).  As a result, a city-focused strategy is often the quickest road to victory.  However, the resource mix needed for cities is not easy to achieve.


There are several other strategies, but these are perhaps the most popular.  They give you an idea of the interesting complexity of the game.  Of course, to get the full effect, one has to give this game a try.  If you take the time to learn it, you will be rewarded with many hours of exciting “Settling”.  Who knows, you may even get that unique experience – being crowned Lord of Catan.