Posted by: thebylog | January 8, 2010

Propaganda, Winning from Ahead, and a Settlers of Catan Classic

I played Settlers of Catan fourteen times in the twelve days we were in Oregon for Christmas, but won only three times.  Disappointing, for sure.

However, there was one memorable episode that can only be described as a classic game of Settlers, complete with dramatic ending and underdog victor.  It also illustrates the comeback ability the game gives players that fall behind early on, which is one of the aspects of the game that I like the most but which, at the same time, can be super frustrating if you’re the one jumping to the early lead.

Before I describe the classic game, I need to talk about another feature that adds to the strategic intrigue of the game: freely flowing propaganda.  In some games (say Rook), “table talk” is off-limits, but in Settlers it is an integral part of the game.  If you are behind and someone is close to winning, I let the rest of the players know so they stop trading with the leader and saddle him/her with the infamous robber.  This will, of course, give you a better chance of coming back to win.

I was playing with Amy (my wife), Justin (brother who’s what, 19?), and Trevin (brother who’s 8 I think).  I jumped out to the early lead and so of course the propaganda level was high from Justin’s corner.  And so they robber and trade freeze themselves back into contention.  Or rather, Amy and Justin appear to be on the verge of completing the comeback victory.  Trevin’s somewhere solid but not close enough to worry about.  I just can’t get what I need to salt away my victory.

So it’s Trevin’s turn and he’s standing on his chair, contemplating a trade with Justin, which I emphatically warn against (something like, “DON’T TRADE WITH HIM, HE HAS NINE POINTS!!!”), but all of the sudden he completes the trade and yells “I WIN!”

We’re like, “No, no, you didn’t win” and we look and he looks and sure enough he didn’t win. But wait.  He thinks and looks some more and insists that yes, he did win. And he did.  He came from out of nowhere and won it while I was beaten down and worrying about Amy and Justin.

Hilarious.  The eight-year old, standing on his chair after an ill-advised trade yelling that he’s won when no one had even given him a chance.

In Settlers, it is often the person that you don’t pay attention to that wins.  And furthermore, the person that is ahead at the beginning doesn’t automatically coast to triumph.  It happened to me twice in the recent run of games in Oregon.  I jump out to a solid lead, enough so that the anti-Byran propaganda swells and eventually the trade freeze goes into effect.  In both cases I lost.

Two of my brothers-in-law argue against the robber because they feel it is arbitrary, unfair, and unnecessary.  They don’t like its equalizing effect.

I disagree. I claim that this is a compelling element of the game.

Early success in Settlers sets a snowball rolling.  With no balancing mechanism, an early run of lucky rolling might ensure someone the victory.  But with the robber and trading freezes, the effect of the early success can be blunted.  I will note that another favorite strategy game, Acquire, has a similar, arbitrary element in that it only allows three stocks to be bought at a time, thus limiting the advantage of someone who finds himself flush with cash.

But an even more compelling reason for the robber is that it adds an additional layer of strategy.  The truth is, I don’t yet know how to effectively fight the problems that come when you jump to a big lead.  My best guess at an effective strategy is to buy lots of development cards early instead of expanding so quickly that it is obvious you are ahead.  This gambit should supply you with Knights/Soldiers to help stave off the robber, but what if you don’t have the right materials to buy these cards?  And in a massive six-person game, you can only play a Knight/Soldier once every six turns.  I’ve never been bold enough to intentionally hold myself back from making productive moves at the beginning of the game, because it seems so foolish in the short-term.  It might work because people don’t suspect you of taking over the game nearly so much if you have about the same amount of settlements/cities as them, even if you do start stacking up development cards.

On the other hand, it’s probably true that more times than not if you jump to a large lead you will end up winning.  So maybe this is overthinking the game a little bit.  If so, all I can say is that overthinking is fun.



  1. Another factor when dealing with the propaganda factor is familiarity between the players. I assume from the outset of every game that we play against each other that you have the best chance of winning (besides me, of course:) ). Therefore, if you, and say Trevin, are doing equally well, I am going throw all kinds of propaganda against you and not worry so much about Trevin.

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  3. Right, Justin. Which just makes the game all the more balanced, unless Trevin’s better and I’m worse than you think.

  4. […] “heart-pounding test” to assess how much I like certain board games, like Settlers of Catan or Acquire. When my heart pounds like crazy at some point during the course of the contest, I know […]

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