The Philosophy: Make Points That Make Points
In the early game, if I have 4 points that consist of two settlements and a city, while “Jim” has 5 points consisting of three settlements and Longest Road, I am winning, even though Jim has more points.
That may seem strange, but Jim’s Longest Road doesn’t actually do anything. All other things being equal, a city and two settlements will outproduce Jim’s three settlements.
So the goal is to make points that will most help you make new points… to spend your cards in the way that will get you the most cards over time.
1. Make Points That Make Points: Don’t Go For Longest Road
In the above example, Jim’s Longest Road doesn’t help him get more points. AND, since it inflates his point total, it may make him a target. He may get hit by the robber more. People may trade with me instead of him because he has more points! So don’t go for longest road early on. Most importantly, someone will try and take longest road from you, and then you have to waste even more cards to keep your useless points!
More on road building in a minute.
2. Make Points That Make Points: Don’t Buy Development Cards
If on one of your first five turns, you look down and see that you’ve bought two Development Cards, slap yourself. You were only one card away from a city! No two development cards are worth an early city.
Yes, Development Cards do usually generate new cards, but on a very limited basis. A city will get you a lot more cards than a Development Card. (The Monopoly card can be the very rare exception.) So try and save up for cities.
This point is shorter than the others, but not less important. So, for emphasis: build cities, build cities, build cities.
3. Be Efficient With Your Roads
In general, don’t build more roads than you need to build a settlement. This is to prevent three sorts of waste: cards, space, and especially time.
Cards: When you build more roads than necessary, you waste (or use inefficiently) the cards you spent on the extra road. This is actually the least bad form of waste, since you might have built that road later anyways.
Space: This is the most frequent form of waste. Someone is focused on getting to a trading port, and builds three roads to get there, when they could have built 2 roads a settlement, and then 2 more roads and the settlement on the desired port. Yes, the former strategy gets you to the port faster, but the latter approach nets more production, and 2 points instead of 1 point. Don’t take an area that could have help two of your settlements/cities and turn it into a an area which only holds one!
Time: Settlers is really a game of velocity. You make points that make points because that is a faster way of getting to 10 points than other methods. Generally speaking, if you build more roads than necessary, you’re wasting time. Or in physical terms, you are wasting every single card you would have gotten if you had built earlier.
Generally, after the opening setup, there should be a couple of spots available where you can build a single road and then a settlement. Those should usually be your first goals.
The exception to this rule is when you are competing with another player for a port or a really good space. It may be worth building less efficiently if you are able to claim the space instead of losing it entirely.
4. Compete for Space
In the early/mid game, the people with the most points are not your enemies. The people who are able to build settlements where you want to build settlements are your biggest enemies. Hit them with ever robber you roll. Block the resources that they need most to expand. Trade them ore so they focus on a city instead of the settlement space you want. Cut in on their trades with others and offer the other people better deals. To quote You’ve Got Mail, “Go to the mattresses.”
(Just kidding, I know it’s originally from The Godfather.)
After the start of the game, identify any potential spots that could be contested. Pick the best/most contested spot and go for it first. The other spots can wait until later. Robbering the points leader can wait until later. Do what you can to secure your spaces.
The spots with the biggest numbers are likely targets for competition, but also consider what resources your neighbors lack. Obviously, if you don’t have any of a resource (for example: lumber), you may want to focus on a wood hex. But keep in mind that your neighbors will have similar thoughts. They will likely build toward their biggest needs. So cut them off (unless you really need something else).
Another aspect is to build to cut others off from large sections of the board. Especially in 3 and 5 player games, there are often large chunks of unoccupied land. These areas usually have mostly bad numbers. If your initial settlements put you in a good position to do so, consider building roads to cut others off from the space. The numbers may not be great, but you’ll have far more room to expand than your opponents. Unless one of your opponents greatly outpaces you in building cities, you have a very good chance of winning.
5. Assess Your Late-Game Competition
First go after your rivals for settlement space, then assess those who are most likely to win. Count points from settlements and cities (ignore all other points unless they have 7+ points from all sources). Whoever has the most points is probably winning, but also take into account how good their numbers actually are, if they the most city potential, what ports they have, and how much space they have to expand. Target them with the robber and try and get others to do so and to trade with you instead of them.
In the next segment, I’ll talk about trading strategies and in part four, I’ll talk about the end game.