Many people say that the most important move in Catan happens before any player even takes a turn. And I don’t speak of the pre-game staredown or the poisoning of your opponent’s drink with iocane powder.
Laying those first two settlements and roads is key. I’ve seen players mess this up to the extent that I know before the dice even rattle that they will come in last. I want to write a short piece of strategy advice here that should help novices come up to speed.
There are two competing rules of thumb for laying your pieces that you should be able to remember: The Numbers Gambit and The Resources Gambit.
The Resources Gambit basically boils down to: place your settlement on resources that you will need to build your first point. It requires you to decide what you want your first point to be, a settlement (so lay down next to some Bricks and Wood, maybe with a splash of Sheep as well), or a city (Ore and Wheat). With this gambit, you are committing to that path to your first point, so try to think about how others can block you from it. It’s especially good to be the 4th player when using this gambit, due to less interference.
The Numbers Gambit is better suited to the long game. It’s also the easiest to remember. It’s probably the simplest tactic to learn to be competitive in Catan. Catan is one of those games where the dice decide the winner. To win you need to adapt to changing luck and also to maximize your chances of getting resources. Many players don’t know this when I point it out, but the little dots on the pips (in the Mayfair 4th edition) represent how many ways two dice can be rolled to result in the printed number. A “6” pip has 5 little dots on it — there are 5 ways to roll a “6” with the dice. The next thing to realize is that you can simply add up the little dots to determine how well a settlement will perform at getting resources.
Look at the example pictured above. When you add up the little dots, the white settlement scores an 11, whereas the orage scores an 8. For any dice roll, the white settlement has 11/36 odds of generating a resource, versus 8/36 odds for the orange settlement.
I tend to use the Numbers Gambit exclusively, even to the extent of ignoring the types of resources my big numbers will generate. I figure if I have too much of one thing, I can always trade it away.