I’ve been playing a lot of Settlers of Catan recently, and although I progress consistently in most strategy games, with Settlers, I’ve actually been losing more as I play. I think the reason is that Settlers of Catan is as much a game of hard skills (math, logic, statistics) as it is soft skills (communication, negotiation, image monitoring), and that is where I face my biggest obstacle. I can play a game perfectly to my limits, but if I forget the interpersonal side and people start stealing my cards and blocking me, winning becomes almost improbable. Here are some not-so-obvious ways of upping your Settlers game.
1. When in doubt, always choose the less visible path to victory. For instance, building many roads is great. It sets you up for a longest road victory and gives you many areas to settle. However, it is the most visible form of victory and has many social downsides. A person with the most roads will be subject to the most “flak” because they appear to be winning. Most people do not invest as much time analyzing your situation as they do their own. Roads, which represent expansion, give off a stronger signal during a cursory glance than settlements or even cities. Because of this, other paths to victory have a clear advantage. For example, buying development cards is often strategically better. You can hide your knight cards until you want to force a victory with biggest army along with victory point cards. When faced with the prospect of expanding your roads, make sure such a decision will not put you visibly in first, and if it does, think long and hard about whether or not the costs outweigh the benefits.
2. Be conscious of how others perceive you. Are you constantly placing the robber on one player’s tile? If so, there’s a good chance that player has some animosity towards you, and will take vengeful actions later even if those actions are not in their favor. The solution? Spread negative actions and be plentiful with positives. For example, it may be better to steal cards from a different person each time, as to not focus on one. Likewise, it pays to help other players, whether discussing potential moves with them, allowing them an expansion, or even just complimenting their moves. Generally, put yourself in their shoes and be as fair as possible, This will give you an image of a benevolent, fun-seeking player and reduce the antipathy towards you.
3. Play as neutrally as possible. Settlers is interesting because although there isn’t direct combat, there are many sources of conflict. Often in the beginning of the game, two players are scrambling for a good expansion, trying to block each other in the process. This is a high risk, high reward move. If they make it, they will be in great shape economically. If they don’t, they will be crippled for the rest of the game. Either way, they will develop a deep-seated rivalry that may last beyond the current game. Sometimes it is worth engaging in this conflict, but more often than not, it should be avoided altogether. Why not take an early port and let others duke it out? The cost of their conflict can be great, and playing passively put you ahead as a result.
4. Invest in the future. Settlers is a game where you have to time your victory. Early settlements and roads are great, but you cannot win with just those. Eventually you’ll need cities if you want to win. For this reason, starting on mainly wood and brick is a great early game strategy, but is risky in the long run. On the other hand, investing in wheat and ore is a great late game strategy. Wheat is perhaps the most underrated resource because it is required in everything but roads. Ore is also important because you need a large quantity for cities, but is only available on three tiles. Because of this, going heavy on wheat and ore is a great investment that not only deflects attention from you early on, but gives you a lot of strength later when cities become crucial.
5. Be self-sufficient. Do not depend on others to win, and in fact, pretend like they are never there to help you. What do I mean by this? Be able to get every resource without trades, and avoid having one resource able to be completely cut off by robbers. Other players are never consistently dependable. They are watching out for their own interests. Never be in a position where you have to trade with a player to get a resource. Seek out multiple sources of the five resources, and utilize ports effectively to get what you need. By doing this, you will decrease your chances of hitting a wall where you can’t build an essential building, road, or card. Diversify as much as possible, and seek out ports that complement those resources (2:1 for heavy, 3:1 for balance).
I hope these tips helped. Try them out in-game and let me know if they were useful. And remember to learn the hard skills first. Good luck!