Winning Tactics for Settlers of Catan

by JoHarrington

Anyone who plays for long enough will develop strategies for winning Settlers of Catan games. Let me guide you through some of my Catan tactics for victory.

'Settlers of Catan' can be played free online. That's where I and my friends congregate most evenings. There are also paid expansions to be explored.

Before any of this, the puzzle and strategy game was made popular in physical form. The board game is where many people discovered it for the first time.

There are dozens of ways (and combinations of ways) to win at Catan. Discover a few of them here.

How to Win a Game of Settlers of Catan

This one is easy - reach 10 points before any of your opponents! It's the execution of that which can be the difficult part.

There is something so satisfying about finishing your turn, in the full knowledge that you have ten points.

An instant later, your friends learn that you have out-foxed them with your Catan tactics and/or luck has been on your side.

I recently did that with nobody seeing it coming. Their gasps of shock were beautiful. All three had been scoring points off each other, mentally dismissing me as a serious rival, because I was apparently too far behind to be a threat.

They didn't know about the three victory points hidden in my inventory.

Tip number one then, never underestimate anyone in your game. You don't know what they know, and that could be a game-changing element.

Before anybody can form a successful Settlers of Catan strategy for winning games, they first need to know what delivers points. Ten points equates to victory, however they are achieved. So what awards points in Catan:

  • Build a town - one point.
  • Build a city - two points.
  • Have the longest road - two points.
  • Have the largest army - two points.
  • Hold a victory point card - one point each.

Your Settlers of Catan winning strategy will take two forms - gaining those points for yourself, while hindering the ability of your opponents to do the same.

Positioning your Catan Settlements for Resources Every Time

Players aim to colonize hexagons whose numbers have a high likelihood of being rolled. But what if you had ALL the numbers?
Image: Good selection of numbers in Settlers of Catan
Image: Good selection of numbers in Settlers of Catan

In Settlers of Catan, resources are the key to doing anything. We need them to build and to buy development cards. They are our stockpile to trade.

This is why players, when setting up their board, will look for initial settlements that maximize their ability to gain resources. The six and eight hexagons are highlighted in red, because they are the numbers most often rolled (along with seven) with two dice.

But Mike (the blue player above) is an engineering geek and he doesn't like to leave such things to chance. Hence his Catan winning strategy often involves getting a settlement alongside every single number on the board!

In the image above, he's missing just the number 2. Whatever dice are rolled - unless it's the extremely rare double one - he's going to get resources.

A good spread of numbers can be a very effective way to secure a Catan victory. Except in this instance he was out-stripped by Robin (orange), who was playing wheat and ore to maximize the end game.

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Placing Catan Settlements to Maximize the End Game

The blue player's initial placements around wheat and ore hexagons paid dividends once the game was underway.
Image: Settlements around wheat and ore
Image: Settlements around wheat and ore
Image: Colonizing the wheat and ore
Image: Colonizing the wheat and ore

The above configuration is known in our circles as the Jelmer Move.

(At least it will be after this article is out. What it's currently called changes daily and involves learning ever more vile things to say in Dutch, to ensure that he's got the message after he's once again employed this strategy to win at Settlers of Catan.)

Where you place your initial settlements can determine the game from the outset. In this case, the blue player (Jelmer...) has chosen spots which favor wheat and ore resources. They are the two needed to build cities.

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It's hardly surprising then that one of his first achievements was building a city on the 5, 8 and 10 spot.

Suddenly, he had a lot of wood, which helped with his meandering road across the center of the board. That road not only severely limited the expansion plans of every other player, but allowed him to dominate all wheat resources.

A slow beginning, but one with devastating results for everyone else when, during the game's second half, wheat becomes all important. 

He monopolized the cross-player trade market, hence he could name his price. "One wheat for a clay, wood and wool. No less!  Ok, I'll do you a wheat for two ore."

All of that was a lucky bonus, permitted by his forward thinking coupled with this map's configuration.

The important Catan tactic here was that he concentrated on ore and wheat. Cities mean more resources. More resources equate with more ways to win the game. You will always be able to build at least two cities, as your initial settlements are there to upgrade. Just use them as your springboard into constructing more!

It's a major strategy towards victory in Settlers of Catan. Just ask Jelmer.

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We play it online, but Catan was made famous as a board game. Pick one of those up here.

Using Robbers as a Tactic in Catan

This move works two-fold: it allows a resource to be stolen from another player, and blocks opponents from receiving any resource from that hexagon.
Image: Using robbers in Catan
Image: Using robbers in Catan

Whenever a seven is thrown, the player who cast it is forced to move the robbers. This can (and usually is) used tactically.

In the example above, Jrady shifted the robbers onto a hexagon providing wheat whenever a six is thrown. It was a good choice.

Six, seven and eight are the numbers most likely to be cast by two dice. Hence that area probably produced a lot of wheat for the players whose settlements surrounded it.

In this case, he'd thwarted TWO opponents, as both the red and orange players had focused upon that hexagon. They would be unable to receive wheat, as long as the robbers were there.

Jrady was also able to steal a random resource from the inventory of Merch Gwyar (me), as my settlements bordered that area.

He would have had the choice between targeting myself (orange) or Jethraw (red).  So why did he pick on me?

As much as I'd like to say that it was because Jrady is pure evil incarnate, he was actually playing tactically to win Catan.

I was winning at the time.  I had more points than anyone else in the game.

By stealing from me, he hoped to a) hinder me in building something more that might see me reach ten points, and b) stop me receiving future resources for the same reason.

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Wheat is an important resource in the later stages of the game. It is a major component in building a city. Therefore Jrady factored in three considerations:

  • Targeted the winning player.
  • Reduced their access to the most sought after resource.
  • Did so on a highly rolled number.

Suddenly he seems more sensible than evil. Though, of course, he's in trouble the next time I roll a seven or grab a knight card!

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Using Development Cards to Win Settlers of Catan

Development cards may be purchased during a player's turn. There are a variety of random cards each costing one wool, wheat and ore.
Image: Victory Point Cards in Catan
Image: Victory Point Cards in Catan

If I know Jrady - and I do - then he hadn't even thrown a seven, in order to move the robbers that thwarted me. He'd pulled a knight card, which allowed him to act as if he had.

The fact that I introduced this by recalling how I won a game with three victory points provides another hint. Development cards are important. They're an often under-used element to the game, which can easily be your ticket to winning in Catan.

So what are they and how can they lead you to victory?

  1. Victory Point card - awards you a secret extra point each. Opponents may guess that you own one, particularly if you don't play your stored development card, but they won't know for certain.
  2. Road Building card - allows you to build two extra roads without the materials usually needed to do so. Great way to beat an opponent to a port or resource rich spot; boost your chances of achieving longest road; or block off an opponent's road-building efforts.
  3. Knight card - acts as if you had just rolled a seven. You may use it to position the robbers, in order to steal from an opponent's inventory and block a hexagon from delivering resources to your rival(s). Using the knight card is also your ticket to gaining largest army. Do it three times to enter the running, then ensure that you're always ahead of your opponents in number of knight cards deployed. That's one point right there.
  4. Inventory card - lets you produce two resources of your choice. Perfect for those moments when the resources aren't just dropping into your lap.
  5. Monopoly card - lifts all iterations of a single resource from your opponents' inventories and plonks them into your own. This not only gives you a potentially mega stockpile of that resource, but stops your rivals having access to their own. Used correctly, it can be like deploying an atomic bomb over your opponents' plans.  My friend Ember is freaking brilliant at this. She waits several turns between acquiring and using it. That time is spent actively working out what resources are plentiful in everyone else's inventories. In that way, she activates maximum destruction, when she pulls that resource into her own inventory.

The downside of development cards is that you never know which one you'll receive for your wheat, wool and ore payment. The upside is that none of your rivals know precisely which card you possess. They can't effectively defend against it.

People like Jrady and Ember have refined their Catan strategies using development cards, turning their winning tactics into an art form. I always worry, when I see that either of them have such a card unused. It's bound to end badly for me!

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Using Longest Road to Win Games of Catan

It costs one wood and one clay to build a road. The longest consecutive road in the game gains two points for its player.
Image: Longest Road in Settlers of Catan
Image: Longest Road in Settlers of Catan

There was an almighty battle for longest road taking place in the game pictured above. The white player (Ember) and the red player (myself) passed the accolade back and forth between us, until one of us reigned supreme.

Constructing the longest road in Catan awards that player with two points, which can mean victory.

The road has to be unbroken. In the image above, the orange roads around the number two wood count only as three. Two branch off, hence aren't included in the tally. But the game will opt for the farthest reach. For example, that blue road in the center would count as five, as that is its longest route. The branch between the six and eleven would be discounted.

Longest road can be one of the easiest ways to gain a couple of points, but it's not always wise to attempt it.

Committing your resources to building routes means that they aren't being used elsewhere. You can see that situation playing out in the same picture.

My red road weaves between two clay and two wood hexagons. I had the resources on hand to build roads. Ember's white route only has one of each. She was more likely to use her plentiful wheat resources in her wheat port, to convert two at a time into the wood and clay needed.

Hence she 'wasted' resources that I just had to hand. I was able to afford cities, while she had nothing to spare in order to upgrade her settlements.

In short, opting for longest road - in this instance - had a detrimental effect on the rest of her game.

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Moreover, it's also a dangerous gambit, as those are points which can be taken off you. All that has to happen is another player building a longer road, and those points are gone.

Alternatively, a rival could deliberately break your route by building a settlement at an exposed juncture. This too would rob you of your longest road points in Catan.

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Strategic Road Building in Settlers of Catan

This was an extremely aggressive game of Catan! Three players slogged it out for supremacy of the board and its routes.
Image: Cutting Across Roads in Catan
Image: Cutting Across Roads in Catan

To an experienced Settlers of Catan player, this map looks downright bloody!  Three separate skirmishes can be discerned along the white route (mine).

Beginning at the top, there's a random road sneaking between the twelve and five. This could have been an early, abortive attempt to reach the rich resource potential of that number six wool (as indeed it was).

But it could also have been a defensive road. If the white player was aiming for longest road, then the blue player (Tabt) could easily have thwarted it by building her own route there and creating a settlement on the 12, 5 and 9 spot.

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If I hadn't got the resources to preemptively take the spot myself, I could have held her off with that rogue road. She couldn't get near to take it then.

An example of how that didn't work so well for me is right down at the other end.

The orange player (Jethraw) exploited a vulnerable spot (2,6,9) to bisect my road with his own settlement.

I'd already been through, as you can't build roads through another player's town. I'd been so focused on reaching the port below that I'd not secured that intersection.

It was a good one too. Look how rich Jethraw was able to become, as evidenced by all of his cities, by NOT worrying about longest road.

Meanwhile, I too acted aggressively by cutting straight across Tabt's blue route at the bottom. It blocked her in, giving her nowhere to expand there, thus robbing her of potential access to resources.

Incidentally, Jethraw (orange) won this game, which shows how building small but big can be the winning strategy for Catan.

Clever Trading for Victory in Settlers of Catan

Players may swop resources in any amount, as long as they're exchanging something. This is the big moment to thwart players the Capitalist way!

Ember is the Queen of this Catan winning tactic. She consistently uses trades to force the result that she wants on the board.  Unable to see the strategy?  Let me run you through a few uses for trade as a Catan winner.

  • Exchange one of your resources for something else.  This is the bog standard trade and good for a quick fix. Hopefully the wool you just swopped for a wheat didn't buy someone a settlement.
  • Exchange one of your resources for two or more items. This is where Ember gets serious. She works out what's in high demand (clay and wood at the beginning; wool throughout; ore and wheat at the end), then demands a high price.
  • Charge for using your resource port. A player can give you three resources and that would still be cheaper than the four demanded by the bank. So offer your port as an amenity, and add on a tax.
  • Trade materials to a resourceless player in a position to exploit a vulnerability in a winning player's longest road, or able to cut off access to a wool port for a player whose settlements are surrounded by wool hexagons. What you lose in resources here is worth the price of hobbling a third player's potentially dangerous advantage.
  • Trade as a Kingmaker.  This is when two or three players gang up against a fourth.  (Three of us once held poor Robin off for an hour, when he was on nine points, by pooling resources in this way!) This is traditionally done to stop a winner, well, winning.  But it can also be revenge.
  • Kingmaking as revenge. This is employed when a player decides that they really can't win, or simply determines that they'll throw their game to punish an opponent for whatever reason. It's never going to be a winning strategy in this game, but it'll make people think twice about acting aggressively against you in later games!
  • Stopping trading.  This generally happens when someone is winning. They'll suddenly discover that nobody is about to trade them anything at all. Why help them gain those extra two or three winning points?

Trade can most definitely become part of your winning strategy in Settlers of Catan, so don't overlook its inherent possibilities!

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Updated: 05/10/2014, JoHarrington
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J on 11/15/2016

Not sure I'd use the words "winning strategy" insomuch as "tips for the intermediate player"

Advanced strategy is far more in-depth than what's given above. These ideas are still solid to playing well.

JoHarrington on 04/28/2014

Yes, indeed it is. Now you can hit the floor running with strategies too.

And thank you!

JoHarrington on 04/28/2014

Well I hope to be an inspiration now. Leave aside all work, housework and finance balancing and devote your time to playing Catan. It has life skills! Once you've mastered it, you'll know EXACTLY how to collect wheat, rock, wool and clay, and that's all you need to live on! :D

I'm possibly a bad influence...

Frogger is indeed fun, but play Tetris, quick!

JoHarrington on 04/27/2014

Darla Sue - You're very welcome. I think I've been lucky with my gaming then, because every time I've been completely stuck, there's a guide somewhere online.

What game are your lot playing? Perhaps we can sort out a guide for it. :D

JoHarrington on 04/27/2014

Emma - Time does that, but I've always found some spare time to play with whenever any friend offers me a game of Catan. I have my priorities sorted like that. I can always do the laundry another day, or eat tomorrow, Catan now!

I'd forgotten about Frogger! That was a fun game. *re-reads* You've never played Tetris?! Wow! Is that legal?

Darla Sue Dollman on 04/26/2014

I think someone should write guides like this for every online game. It drives me nuts to find a game all my friends are playing, then realize I cannot figure it out at all! Thanks for the detailed explanation!

JoHarrington on 04/26/2014

LOL Yes, you do suddenly stop being the lovely lady that you are in 'real' life, and turn into a scary settler. Oh! I should have included psyching people out as a Catan tactic!

Ember on 04/25/2014

I was unsure about your implication of me being the queen of a capitalist tactic in Catan, until I remembered that I behave quite evilly in the game...And now I see it fitting quite well.

heee hee :D

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