Stay On Your Game: Lessons From The Settlers of Catan

There are only two games that I regularly play on my computer or mobile devices. The first is FreeCell, which I love because you can (almost) always win. The second is The Settlers of Catan.

Settlers is a multi-player board game that was first introduced to me about a year ago. It requires at least 3 players but no more than 4 unless you have an extension pack. This restriction makes it a hard game to play with humanoids.

"Jean" is my preferred Catanian avatar.

Luckily, we live in the age of artificial intelligence. The game is available for mobile devices of all sorts for around $5. I have the android version on my ASUS Transformer Prime tablet and it plays rather beautifully with anywhere from 1-4 people. The remaining fill-in players are tough, computer-driven competitors with names like Candamir, Marianne, Vincent, and Hildegard.

I won’t bore you with the in depth rules and strategies of the game, but if you’re interested you can learn all about it here.

[Skip to “SKIP HERE” if you’re already intimately acquainted with the rules of Settlers.]

What you need to know for the purpose of this post is:

  • There are 4 “Settlers” competing to become the Lord of the island, “Catan.”
  • The layout of the board changes every time a new game starts.
  • At the beginning of the game, each player selects a location for two initial settlements. Strategy and success later in the game depends heavily on these initial placements.
  • 10 points are needed to win.

There are five ways in which points can be awarded toward the 10 point total:

  1. Each settlement: 1 point.
  2. Each city built on a settlement: 1 additional point.
  3. Victory Point cards (1 point per card).
  4. Largest Army: 2 points.
  5. Longest Road: 2 points.

Resources needed to build roads, settlements, cities, and buy development (bonus) cards are doled out depending on the roll of the dice. Which resources are abundant or scarce during any given game depends on the board layout and the luck of the roll.


Whew, I’m glad we’re all on the same page now. So why should you care about a silly board game I play when I should be working? Because I’m constantly learning from it. There are valuable lessons in the game that apply to succeeding both in life and business. Let’s dive into some of the major points.

Simplify and Diversify

Only five settlements can be built at a time, but even if you could build more, it would be imprudent to run around the board attempting to win the game by building 10 settlements. Similarly, it would be a poor strategy to spend all resources buying bonus cards instead of ever building settlements.

You can’t win by trying only one thing. It’s also impossible to win by simultaneously attacking all five ways to get points. You will never win by trying to win at everything.

In life and business, it’s important to monitor for both under and over-extension. Are your resources spread too thin, over too many goals? Or are they hoarded away with mistaken thoughts of safety? Find a good balance between simplifying efforts and diversifying risk. 

Offense First, Defense Second

Defense can play a big part in Catan. One of the most obvious defensive moves is building a road solely to block another player from building in the same spot.

I recently played a game where the yellow player used this tactic. As the red player, I was clearly working my way towards building the longest road by connecting my two smaller roads. The yellow player spent valuable resources blocking me from completing my road. I eventually won the game anyway and the yellow player finished with four points.

Don't spend too much time focusing on your enemies.

At best he gave another player a better opportunity to beat me, but he would never have won the game himself. He put defense first in the worst possible way. If you’re chasing the winner, you’ve already lost. 

Play to Your Strengths

I’m blatantly stealing these next two from Harry Potter (see quote on right and notice immediate increase in my nerd-factor).

Due to genetics, education, family circumstances, and other factors we are all strong in some areas and weak in others. In Catan, it is impossible to always depend on the same strategy because strengths change every time the board is reset.

In life, the board is also constantly being reset. Some days you may be all ore and wheat, while on others you’re stocked full of wood and brick. Open your eyes to your strengths and put your best foot forward.

Get What You Need

As sure as we have strengths, we have weaknesses. Fortunately in Catan there are opportunities to trade resources with other players and with the “bank.” My usual strategy is to settle at least one of my first two settlements on a useful port (for easier trading). If possible, I settle the second one on a 6 or 8 piece (higher roll probability) with the resource I can trade out of that port.

In the game pictured below, I started out with access to 4/5 resources. I built seven lengths of road and several settlements without ever having direct access to brick. My strengths included access to other scarce resources, access to ports, and an open space to build my road. All of these things enabled me to get what I needed.

In life and business, our weaknesses are not always so clearly presented. If you know you are a bad coder, marketer, or accountant, find access to someone who has the skills you need.

If you are continually failing but don’t know why, find people who will provide true feedback about your performance. Honestly test yourself against experts in different areas to find out where you can improve. There is no failure in admitting weakness and filling gaps. There is failure in pretending your weaknesses do not exist.  

Don’t Be Your Own Enemy

Prepare to be shocked: I don’t win every time I play Settlers of Catan. I haven’t tracked my win rate, but I probably lose at least one out of every four games. The worst part about losing is that oftentimes, I beat myself.

"I'll get you!" "No, I'll get you!"

An obvious way to do this is to give up too soon. If a game isn’t going my way towards the beginning, I sometimes sulk just enough to miss opportunities. In life, business, and Catan, the fates can quickly change their minds and swing fortune your direction. Keep your eyes open – it ain’t over till it’s over.

The second way I beat myself is by failing to make adjustments to my plan. I’ve wasted many resources and turns trying to win the way I planned to win from the beginning instead of winning in the most obvious way at the time. I *could* win by building a city, but I *want* to win by having the longest road. And sometimes in my pursuit of the way I *want* to win, someone else beats me to the crown.

We all know what they say about the best laid plans. Don’t stick to one specific aspect of your business plan at the expense of creating a successful company. Don’t get too set on seeing things unfold in one perfect way. Life is messy- make adjustments.

Have Fun!

After all, it’s only a game, right? Take everything you do seriously enough, but not so seriously that you can’t enjoy the ride. In the end, it actually is over.

You might live on in infamy as the Lord of Catan or the genius behind Apple. Or you might be that guy that tried his best but couldn’t quite get there. Either way, do it with a smile.