The First 4 Catanments — Settlers of Catan Initial Placement Strategy

This is the first entry in a series on the 10 Catanments

The first four Catanments must be important right? I mean, they’re the first and all. I grouped these four together because they all play off one another when trying to determine initial placement, which, as we all know, is one of the most important components of the game. They are:

1. Produce all 5 resources
2. Balance your compatible resources
3. Plan your expansions carefully
4. Bet high on Wheat and Ore

Let’s take them one at a time —

1. Produce all 5 resources
Reason: Self-sufficiency, Reduced reliance on trading, Harder to be limited by blocking

Why is getting on all 5 resources so important in a game with trading? Isn’t it better just to take whatever the best numbers are, and then trade for what I need?

In theory, sure. But, this means you are dependent on both A. Others having the resource you need available to trade, and B. Others being willing to trade. Both of these are wildly unpredictable. Say, for instance, you decided to forgo brick with the expectation you will be able to trade for it. All it takes is a few early rolls that give players lumber, and poof, all the brick that is produced gets spent as soon as it comes in. Early imbalances in the rolls can really swing the demand for resources, even if brick is much more abundant than wood on the board. Plus, if you’re too reliant on trading — particularly as the game goes on — other players may just decide to let you sit and anguish. Don’t forget that other players know what you can’t produce, and may force you to pay handsomely for it — or just refuse to trade you that resource at all. After all, that’s one less person they have to beat.

Moreover, producing everything is just more efficient. If you placed on a 6 sheep with your first settlement, do you really need that spot with the 9 sheep? Even if it’s statistically the ‘best’ spot left on the board, you’re probably much better off aiming for something you can’t yet produce, an 11 ore, for example– as it will prove much more useful during the course of the game (and not to mention give you one to start the game with). A 9 Sheep has 4 pips, meaning it will be rolled, on average twice as much as the 11 (2 pips). But, if you need to trade 4:1 for that ore you need, you’ll need the 9 to roll 4 times as much to make it worth it — which means you were probably just better off placing on that 11 in the first place. I will also note the excess “waste” cards also clog up your hand, which means you’ll likely have to discard on 7s much more often.

So, in general, being on all resource should be marginally preferred over better numbers of resources you don’t need. That being said, you should always strive for better numbers over worse ones.

Of course, it’s often not possible to get on every resource to begin the game. In this case, you want to place carefully so you can do 1 of 3 things:

  1. Build toward the 5th resource and build on it with your 1st expansion
  2. Build toward a useful port so you can port for the resource you need
  3. Place on large amounts of wheat, ore, and sheep so you can use development cards to acquire the resources you need.

These will be reiterated when we talk about Catanment 4 (Plan your expansions carefully), but first, a related idea.

2. Balance your compatible resources
Reason: Ability to spend resources efficiently, fewer costly trades, 7-out less often, self-sufficiency

Though being able to produce all 5 resources is important, it’s only half the battle. Balance is as important as diversity. Good balance means far fewer 4:1 and even 3:1 trades (if on the port), as well as fewer discards on a 7, and the ability to build quicker and more efficiently.

What do I mean by balance? Let’s examine the building costs card —

What resources always pair together? You’ll notice you never need a wood without a brick, ore and sheep always need wheat, and in general wheat is the most commonly used resource (the universal donor, I call it). It’s objectively way more important than sheep, because it’s used in all the same things but is also used twice to build a city.

What other conclusions can we draw from by simply examining the building costs card? Well, the first takeaway is that we will never need any more wood than we have brick, or vice versa. A lot of brick doesn’t do us much unless we have a lot of lumber to pair with it. When placing your initial settlements, is the spot with the 8 brick really that good, if it’s unlikely I will be able to get on much wood with my 2nd settlement? On overabundance of brick will just clog up your hand, and cause you to 7 out more often, so unless I am going to get on a brick port or 3:1 port really quickly, I might want to keep looking before I place.

Likewise, if you have a lot of ore, you’ll always want to be on plenty of wheat, since ore is never used without it. When placing your initial settlements, keep in mind the balance of your spots, and use this to inform the value you place on initial placement locations.

3. Plan your expansions carefully
Reason: Helps achieve balance, Harder to be limited by blocking, Sets player up for victory

Building for balance is a big strategic key. Your primary goal early in the game is to find a way to produce all 5 resources. Like we talked about, this could mean 1 of 3 things:

  1. Build toward the 5th resource and build on it with your 1st expansion
  2. Build toward a useful port so you can port for the resource you need
  3. Place on large amounts of wheat, ore, and sheep so you can use development cards to acquire the resources you need.

For now I will focus on the first 2 points, Building toward resource you need, and building toward ports.

One of my favorite sayings about initial placement in Catan is “it’s not about where you start, it’s about where you end up.” Often times, in order to get on the amount of wheat and ore I want, or to balance my brick and wood well, I might have to forgo getting on sheep to start the game. Sheep is probably the most common resource I forgo, then brick and wood, then ore, and finally wheat. Ore comes in as just slightly less detrimental than wheat to go without because you can at least expand and build on an ore hex without one, whereas you you cannot as easily do the opposite without a wheat.

But, if you are forced to forgo a resource, ALWAYS place your roads such that you can find a way to efficiently produce it. Obviously, the best thing is to build towards the resource itself, but you can’t get too greedy especially when there are still a few people left to place. Pay attention to where your opponents want to build, what resources they still need to get on, and how likely they are to place on the spot (or the one adjacent to it) you’ve pointed your road towards.

The alternative is building to a port, which most often will be a 3:1 port. It may seem like you’re only saving 1 card when you’re trading to the back, but 3:1 ports have some added benefits I will discuss in my analysis of the “Port” Catanment in the next entry. If you’re going to get on a 2:1 port, it’s best if that port is not for the resource that complements the resource you don’t have (i.e. a wheat port if you need ore), unless you have a strict overabundance of it. This is because it will be difficult to both port for and spend the resource on the same turn if you’re porting what you need to pair with it. That being said, if you have wood but not brick and are heading towards the wood port, you might be best off just porting that wood for what you need to build cities and buy development cards and not worry about your lack of brick, using the final way to get the resources you need: Development Cards.

Which leads us to–

4. Bet high on Wheat and Ore
Reason: Makes best spots more productive, ability to utilize development cards to stay unblocked and gain resources

I just spent all this time talking about how being on everything is important, and here I am telling you that wheat and ore are the most important. But the truth is, if you’re going to be on a lot of anything, you want to be on a lot of wheat and ore. Play one game where you’re unable to produce wheat, and enjoy struggling to do much of anything all game, let alone win. For this reason, your number one priority when placing your initial settlement should be locking up a source of wheat. If it looks like there’s not going to be left when it’s your turn to place again, you better think very carefully before placing on any spot without it.

Ore, of course, is Wheat’s natural complement. And it’s crucial for two big reasons:

Cities are incredibly powerful because they double the production of your best spots. In a 4 player game, the likelihood of there being very many good spots to expand to is limited, which means making the most out of your initial placements is crucial.

The other benefit is that cities can beget more cities. Unless you have a huge overabundance of wheat or ore, your first city should generally go one of these resources — whichever one is going to let you build more cities quicker — or both if they share a spot.

Now, if you’re going to be on a lot of wheat and ore, you’re also going to want an adequate source of sheep (usually a 5 or 9 suffices just fine, especially since it’s likely to quickly become ‘citied’). Development cards are as important as what you have on the board. How you manage your soldiers and other cards can give or take a win just as much as a poorly placed road, city, or settlement can. Controlling the robber is a crucial part of the game, and Largest Army is one of the strongest ways to victory in a game — it has the effect of both keeping your key spots protected, blocking the spots others need to accumulate points, AND is much more difficult to lose when compared to the Longest Road. I’ll leave it at that for now, and say that buying a development card is almost always the right thing to do, especially once you have your initial settlement core established (usually 1 or 2 expansions). More development card strategy will come when I discuss the next 3 Catanments in the next post.

That’s the 1st 4 Catanments. To boil it down to a few take away strategy points, I would say:

Being able to produce all 5 resources is key. Always ensure you’re on a strong source of Wheat. Bet highly on Cities and Development Cards to protect those spots. Try to maintain good resource balance and plan your expansions. All of these will help you remain self-sufficient and make you difficult to block which will allow you to accumulate points quickly.

The next port will detail the next 3 Catanments which deal primarily with mid-game strategy:

5. Get maximum value out of your Development Cards

6. Know your opponents’ resource needs and use the robber well

7. Use ports methodically

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One Response to The First 4 Catanments — Settlers of Catan Initial Placement Strategy

  1. Saucery says:

    In terms of protecting your territory, being self-sufficient is absolutely more important when you’re in the lead. What this means is that:
    1. Being behind usually means other players are more likely to trade with you, and not having a certain resource is less important.
    2. If you’re about to take the lead, you should be ready to be blocked. This means have enough resources/ports to deal with a blocked resource, and/or have knights ready to deal with the incoming attacks.

    If you time taking the lead correctly you should have enough momentum to reach the finish line. A lot of times a settling player will hit 5 settlements and longest road to take the lead, but have no knights or no viable ore income to progress forward. They end up getting brutalized by attacks and by the time someone else takes the lead its too late to catch up.

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