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Subject: Opening Theory rss

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Mark Stretch
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Opening strategy in Settlers is very important and can win or ruin your game. This article should give you some pointers about what to do when starting a settlers game. There are various things to consider when deciding where to place your first settlement as follows.

Sixes are more common than twos
When playing settlers you need to know a little probability theory. The nearer the number is to 7, the more likely it is that it will be rolled. Precisely how much more likely is shown by the following table:
Numbers Probability Percentage
2, 12 1 in 36 2.78%
3, 11 2 in 36 5.56%
4, 10 3 in 36 8.33%
5, 9 4 in 36 11.11%
6, 8 5 in 36 13.89%
7 6 in 36 16.67%


If you have the Mayfair edition of the game, this corresponds to the number of spots on the top of the number counters. Thus it is easy to work out how likely a settlement is likely to produce by adding up the spots on the three adjacent numbers.

If everything else is equal choosing starting sites which maximise your production is a good way to decide where to place. However there are various other considerations to think about.

All commodities are not created equal
Each commodity has a different number of hexes on the board and is used for a number of different buildings in differing quantities. Most commodities have a roughly equivalent number of hexes to the amount it is required. There is however one important exception.
There are four sheep hexes (compared to three of most others). However it is only used for development cards and settlements, and then only one sheep at a time. Thus there is normally an over capacity of sheep. The reason for this is that originally ships were going to be included in the basic game (made from wood & sheep) and thus sheep would be used far more. Without ships there are generally too many sheep in the game.

As a result it is usually easy to trade sheep from other players if required. Therefore given an equal choice in where to start choose the one without sheep as you will be trading in strength.

All the other commodities are in roughly the right proportions. However, that will depend on which numbers have come up where. If for example ore was only produced on 2, 10, & 12 then it is likely to be in short supply. Therefore you will want to try to ensure that you produce some if you can by placing one of your initial settlements next to that 10 hex. Otherwise it will be expensive to trade for the ore via other players, the ports or the bank.


Cities & Roads
Some commodities go together well. Wheat and ore fit well (to make cities/development cards) as do wood and brick (to make roads/settlements). Thus it is far better to get on good numbers for both commodities in the pair rather than picking up commodities that do not match.
Of the two, which is better? Wheat/rock will take 5 cards to buy a city and increase production. Wood/brick takes 6 cards to buy a road and settlement for an equivalent increase. Thus on the face of it wheat/ore is better as you can expand quicker. The problem is once you have done that twice. Then the wheat strategy means that you have to build roads to expand which you will not have the material for and you may well be blocked in by that stage.

Ports
Placing a settlement as a port at the start is often a bad idea. The problem is that by definition the settlement is next to only one or two land hexes rather than three and is thus less likely to get as much production as a landlocked location.
The exception to this is getting a 2-1 port where you also expect to produce a lot of the appropriate resource. In this case you can trade away your excess production at the port for whatever you need. The question then is how much production is enough to merit it. That is a moot point, but I would suggest a minimum of a 5 & 6 (or equivalent) and ideally at least 3 hexes. The problem being that if you do well then it is highly likely that the robber will end up there for most of the game. So you really need at least three hexes so that you can cope with the robber being on one.

Tops & Bottoms
It is frequently debated about whether in is better to start on a 6 & 8 or have both settlements on a 6 (or 8). The latter strategy will give more wins and lasts (or tops & bottoms as bridge players would put it). Starting with both settlements on the same number will get you off to a flyer if they come up in the first few rounds or see you do badly if there is a shortage. It is a riskier strategy. Going for one on each means that things will even out more and thus you are more likely to be in the middle.
Which is better depends primarily on the scoring system of the tournament. If you can drop (or halve) your worst score then you will want the riskier strategy. Likewise if it gives a big win bonus. A balanced strategy is better if 2nd & 3rd is as good (or better) that a win & a last place. It will also depend on the stage of the tournament and your position in it. If, say at MiniCon you need anything other than a loss to make the cut, then the balanced strategy is clearly more preferable.

A final thought on riskiness is how you rate your ability compared to that of the other players in your game. If you think you're better than they are and expect to outplay them in the mid & end game then the balanced strategy is better as you can make up the difference to anyone who has had a flying start later on. The converse is true if you are a weaker player. A gamble may be the only way you can get a win.

Regardless, playing both settlements on the same hex is likely to be a mistake, as if you do well the robber is likely to end up there. So I'd suggest that if you are going for a risky strategy that they go for the two different hexes with the same number.

Space for expansion
When placing your starting settlements you should already be thinking about where your future developments are going to go. Space is at a premium and you need to ensure that you have the space you need to expand and reach 10 VPs. It is possible to win with just three settlement sites, but it is not easy. In most games to get to 10 VPs you will need 5 sites at least. So you need to ensure that you have that space and don't get blocked in if possible. The best start up sites aren't much use if you can never get past those original two locations.
The placement of your two initial roads should be with this in mind. They should be placed so that you can expand easily. If in doubt (or because you're placing early) it is generally a good idea to place the road pointing towards the edge of the board as other players are less likely to build on the coast and block you in.

Blocking Tactics
Positioning your settlements also has an effect on other players as well as your own. Settlements can not be placed adjacent to another. Thus by placing a settlement opposite to another players means that nobody else can get adjacent to a resource. This is a good way to tie up a valuable commodity.
You can also place so as to steel other player's settlement sites for yourself, though it may make you the target of a robber from them later on. Ending up in a conflict can often be self defeating as you end up harming each other whilst the remaining two players get on with the game and grow.

Final Thoughts
Hopefully the above has given you some thoughts on Settlers opening theory, and will help you win more games. There is a lot more to Settlers than shown above as regards middle and end game strategy, but that will have to be the subject of a later article.
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Chaddyboy
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Re:Opening Theory
Stretchy (#3996),

Wow, I can't believe someone actually took the time to write a Settlers strategy! In my opinion, there isn't much strategy to this game, and what strategy there is is fairly obvious. Build on high probability numbers and build on a decent variety of resources. Even then, the dice can still screw you, so a "good strategy" can be defeated.

My personal trick to winning is to buy lots and lots of development cards. Screw going crazy on buildings and roads. Why nobody else that I play with never attempts to get them very often baffles me. It's an easy two points to get the largest army! Plus, development cards are CHEAP! It only takes one of three different resources to get a development card! In addition, you never have to worry about the robber when doing this, because you nearly always have a soldier. Even if it's not a soldier it's a free point or something else that's good. So yeah, I'd say the strategy, if there is one, is to buy as many development cards as possible. And if you decide you want a city, wallah, the resources used for development cards are also used to build cities (minus the sheep, which can be traded away).

I win over half the Settlers games I play, so this is effective. Either that or I'm very lucky! So yeah, if there even is a strategy, I would say this is it.
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Matthew M
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Re:Opening Theory
chaddyboy_2000 (#6367),

The third possibility is that you have a better grasp on the game than the other people you play with.

There certainly are strategies in SoC, though they are limited in number. Of the two main ones, yours is one. The other is to focus on road and settlement building.

I will refute that buying your points through development cards is inexpensive. In the Mayfair edition of the game the development card deck is about 20% victory points, meaning you need to spend, on average, 15 cards to get that point. Compare this to the 6 cards necessary to build a road and settlement or the 5 cards necessary to upgrade to a city. The cost for buying cards only increases if you need to trade existing resources more than 1:1 to do so. Yes, it also lends itself to getting largest army for another two points, however to get Largest Army requires a minimum of 9 resource cards. Compare this to Longest Road (which goes well with the expansionist looking to settle) which has a minimum cost of 6 resource cards (if that individual links his two starting roads - foolish, but doable).

So let's say you want to win with a development and city strategy. You will need to buy approximately 80% of the deck to get 4 of the 5 VPs, which will also get you Largest Army by a wide margin, and upgrade both settlements into cities. The cards will cost 60 resources and the cities another 10. That's 70 resources, minus 1 for every resource you take from using a soldier and also the potential to make up costs with Year of Plenty and Monopoly (Road Building cards are near useless to this strategy.) After these discounts the costs look to be around 40 - 50 cards.

An expansionist strategy looks for Longest Road, a number of settlements, and will likely upgrade to cities to make up the final points. With Longest Road, building three settlements and upgrading three of them to cities is necessary. The Settlements and Cities will cost 22 total, leaving road costs. At 2 resources per road segment it is reasonable to say that the cost will still be under the 40 - 50 required for the development strategy. The trouble for the expansionist strategy is getting ore to make the final push, so the required resources will likely increase to be comparable to the developer's magic number if trading is necessary. Ports are key for the expansionist.

-MMM
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Mike K
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Re:Opening Theory
Of the two 'basic' strategies, I have seen the ore/wheat (& sheep) strategy just plain WALLOP the road strategy.

One comment: using every resource but ore, one can theoretically sore 7 VPs (5 towns, + LR). By comparison, building only using ore/wheat/sheep can get you 11 (ELEVEN!!!) VPs (2 cities, LA + 5 VP cards). While purely theoretical, it certainly gives one pause.

I have won (and seen others win) many a game by just going for those 3 resources, usually grabbing either clay or wood as a bonus, usually not both, and building one, maybe two extra towns, while racking up the cities and cards.

Also remember this: the 'good' spots for buildings are usually gone by the time the dice get rolled, so most new settlements get placed on third-tier spots like '3-4-11' or on the coast. Compare that to a city, which doubles production on 'good' numbers like a '5-8-10' combo.
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Jason Funnell
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Re:Opening Theory
Coyotek4 (#9686),
I must agree that the ore/wheat/sheep strategy is powerful. It did not take us long to figure out that if one player has those resources on decent numbers then the baron must go onto that player first to maintain the balance. After they have been stymied for a bit then they can play
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Chris Camfield
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Re:Opening Theory
JasonF (#9694),
I agree that having good access to ore/wheat/sheep can be very powerful. Of course such people often end up with the first city, and the robber naturally wanders over there.

Why I don't like the "all-development card" strategy, per se, is that investing in development cards may be cheap but early on, the resources spent buying them are not improving your production. The wheat & ore you need for two development cards are almost enough to upgrade a settlement to a city.
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Blorb Plorbst
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Not every board is conducive to to a single strategy. Road+Stlmt can't fly when bricks are tough to get. City+Cards suffers equally on bad ore. I win frequently with a diversity strategy when the board is tough or sometimes a "corner the market strategy" Creating a tough board for other players (though you need certain board conditions for this to work).

To be a successful player, you need to understand the basic strategies and use the one that best fits the conditions. During the opening, your play position will greatly influence the strategies that are available to you. First player will be able to get the best producing intersection but his later choices will be greatly limited. Middle placers are often the ones who end up having a strategy forced on them. Last place (my favorite) has the advantage of guaranteeing that his 2 stlmts will work together well.

Always anticipate where your opponents will go and be prepared to change tactics.

First road placement is just as important as stlmt placement too. My advice is to head for the coasts where it is less likely that people will build, making that road useless. Also, head for a good 3:1 port as soon as you can. BTW 2:1 ore ports are the least useful ports in the game (generally speaking -- remember, play the board).
1: If you're producing a lot of ore, you'll find that others are not and you can easily trade with them for exactly what you want, often 2:1.
2: Later in the game, you'll want your ore for cities and cards and the port becomes less used.

The wood port on the other hand can be very useful. Wood is more plentiful and later in the game when you want ore or wheat it's there for all that excess wood you have.

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Scott Roberts
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Mark: Outstanding article. Thanks!
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Jon Ivar T.
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For those of us that play with cities and knights expansion the use of the term "commodities" are misleading, it should be "resources"
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I'm siding with Camfield on this one. The player following this strategy must hope to quickly get what they need because the road/settlement players will soon start producing more resources and will catch up and pull away if the game continues for too long.
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Mike Lee
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Can you actually put one of your opening settlements on a port? I thought that all cities must start in the centre section of the board??
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Me Notyou
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MikeyMike79 wrote:
Can you actually put one of your opening settlements on a port? I thought that all cities must start in the center section of the board??


Put 'em anywhere you want, even on a desert/ocean. Rules don't limit placement at all.
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Coyotek4 wrote:
Of the two 'basic' strategies, I have seen the ore/wheat (& sheep) strategy just plain WALLOP the road strategy.

One comment: using every resource but ore, one can theoretically sore 7 VPs (5 towns, + LR). By comparison, building only using ore/wheat/sheep can get you 11 (ELEVEN!!!) VPs (2 cities, LA + 5 VP cards). While purely theoretical, it certainly gives one pause.

I have won (and seen others win) many a game by just going for those 3 resources, usually grabbing either clay or wood as a bonus, usually not both, and building one, maybe two extra towns, while racking up the cities and cards.


Wheat/ore is powerful, but like with everything else in this game, doesn't always work out. The thing with buying dev cards is they add ANOTHER layer of luck to the game. 1st and foremost is where ppl place their initial settlements. This isn't TOO heavily luck based as u can usually anticipate where they'll put their 1st and 2nd init setts as others go. Sometimes it's up for grabs if a player has multiple spots that seem good for the player. 2nd would be luck of the dice.

Having dev cards means you're at the mercy of more luck. You may end up with 3 VPs at the beginning when a progress card would've been much more beneficial, or get 7 soldier cards in a row where 3 or 4 would've been sufficient for LA and to keep the robber off.

.

with just sheep/wh/ore, there's about a 20% chance of getting a VP card (5 VP dev cards in total deck of 25 cards). Theoretical max points IS indeed 5, but the "high-end likely probability" is 3VP, (only time I got 5VP cards was in a Seafarers Greater Catan IV game). 2 is quite likely. 3 is kinda stretching it, but not so muich that it hardly ever happens

of course, with sheep/wh/ore, other dev cards may get u other resources like Road Building and YoP.

with all but ore, u have better power to cut others off

MikeyMike79 wrote:
Can you actually put one of your opening settlements on a port? I thought that all cities must start in the centre section of the board??
u certainly MAY do that. It's generally NOT preferred, but some circimstances could make it worth the while.

1st sett on 3 good tiles of good pips (5-6-9). 2nd sett on 3 low pipped spots (12-2-3).. OR, on a 3:1 port and 2 tiles of 8-10.
With the latter, u get more diverse rsrc, good # of pips, AND the 3:1 port will come in handy when u have 3 of some rsrc type, but no1 is willing to trade w/u. Don't have to run the risk of not bieng able to do anything with those rsrc on that turn and losing rsrc on a 7-roll for the next round of turns.

Also, if placing on a port gets u easy access (but more difficult acess to other players) to a better spot, then go for it. Securing uncontested expansion spots is always nice to have
 
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Josh Knipp
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Want to thank Mark Stretch for his insights. I have used many of these strategies before and I was wondering if anyone had written them down. To anyone who says that there is no strategy or only limited strategy to Catan they should re-assess. I Want to point out one small omission by Mark, yes there are 4 hexes of sheep, but as well there are 4 hexes of wheat and wood, And only 3 hexes of brick and rock. Therefore I think resources should be valued as thus:
3. Starting with the least Valuable is Sheep (Mark addressed this well in his post)
2. Then Wheat and Wood
1. Some might argue Brick is less valuable then rock but it is hard to say.
Feel free to argue otherwise.

I generally play in a 4 person game group, so expansion is tight and new spots are key, if you sit back and build cities with no thought to expanding at least to two more spots you will likely lose. I don’t recall ever seeing anyone win with just two spots and no expansions. So in that regard rock and wheat/sheep are not the end all be all as some might say. The optimum strategy is to focus on getting two starting spots that will cover all your 5 resource needs with high probabilities, if that is not possible, and most often it is not, then you must look for one, or two resources to start without. I always do a quick overview of the board after it has been set and see which resources got the worst numbers. On rare occasions a resource might get a 12, a 11, and a 4. Now people might not think a 4 is that great but if it is the only decent probability number of that type of resource in my eyes its value has just gone up. Think of it as the only decent grocery store in town, because it has no competition its going be valued higher even if it is not as nice as the shoe store down the street, Settlers is often about simple supply and demand. And the dice rolls are like fluctuations of the market.

I think having a game plan that is flexible is important. Assess all aspects of the board from your starting position to the layout of resources. What is the proximity of certain resources to their aligning ports? What is the likelihood of a nearby spot being taken in the setup round. How does this effect your plans of expansion? (as Mark said you should alwaays have plans for expansion from the get go) What strategy might you attempt with the spots you have in mind? I think the arguments over only two strategies are unfounded there is more to the game then chosing weather to build up or out, i think you will have to do both to win. I find that a blend of strategies is most important, what is the most direct route to 10 points? Is it worth chasing after the longest road? Or are my resources better spent building a city?


I was hoping someone could somehow mathematically quantify the value of diversity of resources vs. the probability of resources. But with all the mitigating factors it may be a pointless task.


Another aspect of winning I think that was not fully addressed is the psychology of settlers. For those of us who only play the game in an Online setting this may not be a big factor. But for those who get together with friends face to face I think this plays an important role. Don't be afraid to paint your opponent as just a few moves from winning, keeping the robber off your spots and the good trades coming may get you that win.

People should logically attack the person in the lead with the robber. (Often in my play group if someone nears 8-9 points there is an across the board embargo on this person.) But what about the times when a 7 is rolled and the robber must be placed, with no clear leader who does someone pick? sometimes old grudges or recent affronts come into play. Susie took my spot that I had been eyeing I am going to hit her with the robber! I am not suggesting the Robber is a game breaker or that it will destroy all of your hopes of winning. But in games when the winner has only a small lead over his opponents it can be important.

Also there is the strategy of trading. My philosophy is to make something work with whatever cards I have in my hand. People might not be willing to trade 1:1 but perhaps you can sweeten the deal. If it can be helped never pass the dice with two many cards don’t get hit with a 7 when you could’ve at least spent your resources on something. Try to trade for a card that you already have 3 of so you can make a 4:1 trade to the bank. Be creative, you would be surprised some of things you can cook up when you make the right deal to a player.
 
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