Settlers of Catan - Set-Up Strategy Guide

Settlers of Catan front cover
Perhaps the most important part of a game of Settlers of Catan is the initial set-up stage. The choices made during this phase will influence a player's overall strategy for the rest of the game, and truly bad choices can put a player out of contention for the win.

Key Factors

To start, let's highlight some important factors that have a big impact on the set-up and later stages. These include turn order, the distribution of resources on the map, the probability of collecting a particular resource, and the order in which you place initial settlements.



Turn Order

Turn order is not something you can control, but it does affect the placement of your initial settlements. During setup, it's best to go either first or last. As the first player, you get first pick of the best spot; as the last player, you place settlements twice in a row, as turn order reverses direction after the first settlement. This lets you get 2 locations of average value, while the first player will usually end up with one great location, and one terrible one. Because of this, some players prefer going last.

Resources

Building Costs reference card There are five types of resources in Settlers of Catan: brick, wood, stone, wheat and sheep (wool). Each of these resources is most important at different stages of the game and, since it's unlikely that each player will have access to all of them from the start, players must decide which ones they need most.

Wood and brick are the most important at the beginning of the game, as being able to build a road and expand to a third settlement can be a strong starting advantage. Later on, wheat and stone will start to dominate, as players upgrade their settlements to cities. Of the five tile types, pastures (which provide sheep) are the most plentiful; however, sheep are only used to create settlements (1 required) or buy Development Cards (again, 1 required). Their combination of large supply and low usefulness makes sheep the least valuable resource in the game--though they cannot be ignored entirely.

Probability

Settlers of Catan is a game of probability: players roll dice to decide which hexes produce resources that turn. It's possible to roll any number from 2 to 12, with 7 being the most likely to appear (1/6 odds). This is why 7 is the thief's number, and the thief can be expected to turn up quite often. The next most common numbers are 6 and 8 (equal probability), followed by 5 and 9, etc. 2s and 12s only have a 1 in 36 chance of occurring, and so are the worst numbers to build on.

Most Catan versions provide a quick and easy reference for this – 6s and 8s are highlighted in red, and the probability of a number coming up is indicated by the dots at the bottom of each number token. The more dots, the more likely that number is to be rolled.

Second Settlement Placement

It's important to remember that whichever settlement is placed last gives you your initial hand of resources. So a placement intersecting brick and wood hexes with mediocre numbers (e.g. 4 and 5) might be better for quick development than one intersecting two wheat and one sheep with two mediocre numbers and one bad one (e.g. 9, 10 and 12), since wood and brick play a crucial role in the first part of the game.


The Map and Settlement Placements

When looking at a newly set-up map of Catan for placement, you will need to consider all the above factors to develop a good strategy. Here are a few questions to ask yourself:

  • Where are the 6s and 8s? Is there good expansion potential near them?
  • Which resources are going to be scarce? Abundant? How much do these resources matter?
  • Are there clusters of resources (e.g. three wood hexes all intersecting)? Can I create a monopoly?
  • Where are the ports? Are they close to relevant resource hexes?
  • What are my odds of actually collecting the resources I've chosen?

Here's an example of some reasoning. In a game where a lot of sheep are present (i.e. the 6s and 8s are on pasture hexes), the other resources will all be rather scarce. This could be a real opportunity if you position yourself next to the sheep port and the pasture hexes. You can trade at a favourable rate (2 sheep for 1 other resource with the sheep port, or 3 for 1 with a general port), coming out with a net gain. A monopoly also lets you 'starve' other players if necessary.

Blue chooses a sheep monopoly strategy by taking 2 pastures and the sheep port

Blue should be able to create an effective monopoly by controlling these two pastures, and can gain other resources with help from the 2:1 sheep port.


You could instead try to focus on the other resources, with the ports as a backup. Taking control of the sheep port even if you don't have the monopoly blocks other players from using it, while having another port type will allow you to get sheep anyway, even if you can't get onto a pasture hex.

Remember that your ability to take control of your chosen resources will depend on turn order: if you choose late, everyone else may already have control of the sheep, forcing you to focus on locking the port in and looking for other resources instead. It's very important to have a few solid strategies in mind, so that you can adapt based on which ones your opponents choose.

Red spreads out across a range of resources, and takes a port as well

Red has chosen to spread out among a broader range of resources, using ports to make up for any potential shortfall of sheep.


In a 4 player game of Settlers of Catan, the map gets crowded very quickly. Because of this, it is often worthwhile to place settlements off the beaten track in less competitive areas. Though you won't get the richest resources, less crowding may allow you to expand more quickly.

Finally, be very careful about limiting yourself to only a few numbers. While this seems great if your number comes up frequently, it is usually better to be spread across a few different numbers, as Lady Luck may never bring out those 8s. Overproducing resources as a result of building heavily on a valuable hex (e.g. having 2 cities on an 8) can make you fall prey to the 7s and have to discard half of your hand, as well as making you a prime target for the robber. If having a single hex blocked would cripple your production, it's time to spread out your settlements.

Orange put too many cities on a productive hex, and has been crippled by the robber

While Orange had the potential to collect 4 sheep every time the 8 was rolled, this over-exploited hex proved too tempting a target for the robber, and they are now in trouble.


What's Next?

This has been an initial discussion of strategy for placing your first settlements at the start of a game of Settlers of Catan. In the next article on strategy for Settlers, we'll provide a detailed discussion of in-game tactical options that flow from the decisions made here.