Sunday, March 04, 2007

Starting points and destinations (More Catan)

Collecting data—in only three games—has had a strange side effect on me; it has become more obvious than ever how difficult it is to get the ten point needed to win without getting extra points with Longest Road, Largest Army, and/or VP cards.* Points “on the board” in the form of cities (2 points) and settlements (1 point) are useful because they produce more resources, but they are often more expensive than the cost of a few road segments or a couple development cards. Buying many development cards or building roads to far-off locations early delays one’s own economy, and means productive capacity will be outstripped by rivals, but trying to win with 4 cities and 2 settlements or 3 cities and 4 settlements is essentially impossible; even getting that many sites is difficult, especially in a four-player game.** Usually, those that try such a strategy lose with about seven or eight points, as others are able to get cheaper but unproductive points more rapidly in the endgame. Thus, knowing when to switch from building up one’s productive capacity to buying the non-productive points is vital in The Settlers of Catan. This has an interesting parallel to how individuals and nations use their own money and economies—how big a focus should be placed on short-term consumption, and how much should be invested toward the future?

This naturally leads to a discussion of the basic placement and play strategies available at the outset of the game. The ultimate beginner’s strategy is to place settlements on the sites that have the most resources available—the tiles surrounding them have a lot of pips. This often means that a player does not get all of the resources they need very often, so making such a strategy work relies on adept trading or poor decisions by other players. (Actually, the ultimate beginner’s strategy is to place settlements completely at random, but that lacks any hallmarks of “strategy.”)

Soon enough, though, players recognize that they need resources that can work in concert with one another, which leads to three plans. The first is to place to get some of each resource: a balanced approach. This allows players to be more self-reliant, which is good for players that are not as adept at trading; they can avoid doing so very often. The drawback to this strategy is that it can be difficult to build up an army or gain longest road this way, and chasing both usually means accomplishing neither, but it does provide a great deal of flexibility, whereas the other strategies are less so. If it becomes evident that no players are pursuing one of the two +2 VP bonuses, a balanced player can take advantage of such a circumstance, and if they move quickly, such a player can sometimes get both.

The first specialized strategy people become interested in is usually “road building,” emphasizing brick and wood. Building long roads and numerous settlements can be a great way to get ahead, especially early in a game. To get to ten points, this strategy requires either one city, five settlements, Longest Road, and a victory point; or two cities, four settlements, and Longest Road. This strategy can often be difficult to get past nine points on, but a player with this strategy does not get “boxed in.” This strategy is often less damaged by the robber, which is good, since it generates fewer soldiers to chase the robber away.

The second specialized strategy is “city building,” emphasizing ore and wheat, and upgrading the initial settlements to cities as soon as possible. This strategy generally requires building to one or two more settlement sites and upgrading those to cities, as well as buying enough development cards to get Largest Army. Winning with this strategy usually entails three or four cities, Largest Army, and possibly 2 Victory Point cards. Having the robber placed on a productive site can be very damaging to someone pursuing this strategy, so building up an army to chase the robber away is important.

Sometimes, the result of the above strategies is an overabundance of another resource. If the port for that resource is in a good location, a player can sometimes place on that port and another good spot to generate the chosen resource. Since sheep are often a plentiful, but less useful commodity, this strategy is often called “Sheep-O-Matic.” Using it for other resources is generally less successful, but I’ve seen wood utilized as well, when most players were pursuing city-building strategies and brick was in short supply. Such a strategy can allow the player to exact a “tax” or “user fee” on their turn, using their port by proxy for another player, at the cost of another resource card.

The final, and riskiest, placement strategy is to seek out the rarest resource—usually brick or ore, as they have only three tiles—and building on the best spots available for that resource. When other players need that resource, it will be possible to get advantageous trade offers. Unfortunately, it may also attract the robber’s attention, as an opponent may try to steal the valued resource.

*Victory Point development cards are worth 1 point each, Longest Road and Largest Army are worth two points each, but come at minimum costs of 5 road segments or 3 soldiers. To take one of these titles away from another player requires building a longer road or a larger army; in the case of a tie, the initial player to build to that size retains the points. This makes Largest Army especially secure; the player with it knows exactly how large each players’ army is, and can buy more development cards when they notice a rival doing the same, and only one development card can be used by a player on any specific turn. Longest Road is harder to keep, since players can build as much road as they can afford on any turn.

**There are only four city and five settlement pieces available to each player, so a five city win is not possible.



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