Derek Johnson Muses

It is my daily goal to make everyone around me better people, thanks be to God.

Why Economist Should Play Settlers of Catan

I was introduced to the game Settlers of Catan at a game night with some friends from church. The game instantly fascinated me, because of its complexity and how resources had the potential for different values based on which numbers were on top of them. I went homeĀ  and downloaded Catan to my iPod and got into it.

In the first game I’d played on the board with people, the experienced players tried to get a settlement on a region for each resource so they wouldn’t have to trade, and I mimicked this strategy in my first couple of computer games I didn’t win a game and walked away frustrated, but I noticed something: the value of a resource changes during the game. Ore, for example, isn’t valued much early the game, because everyone wants to build roads and settlements to avoid getting hemmed into one or two areas, so everyone wants to trade ore for brick and wood. But as the game goes on, players value ore more because they’re trying to get cities.

After I took a break and realized that my initial assessment was comprehensive enough. Trying to get a settlement on each resource was too hard and tiring, and even if you did, it wasn’t worth much if it was on a 2 or an 11 or a 12, numbers that aren’t rolled much.

I considered our present economy: who get the most value for their work? I’m not talking about workaholic lawyers and doctors; although their work is very valuable, they have to put in a lot of time to get that value. No, the most valuable people in our society are consultants, people who can come in and increase the average earning power of workaholics and companies with some tweaking and telling them which markets to pursue. Apply that principal to Catan, and I only needed to control one or two resources to win at the game.

I revised my initial take on how the resources changed throughout the game. When the players choose their first two settlements at the beginning of the game, all of the resources had an equal value. To be successful, I had to choose a place on the board where I would get one resource constantly and could flip that resource into whatever I needed. For example, I would put my first settlement on a port where sheep traded at 2:1, and my second settlement on two sheep regions. It doesn’t matter that the sheep aren’t a critical resource throughout the life of the game; as long as I could flip them at that rate, I could easily convert the sheep into whatever I needed.

So as I’ve played, I don’t bother making long roads across the board; I build more and more on main resource squares, especially if it’s on a 6 or an 8. If I get a city and settlement on one of those numbers, I can pretty much assume I’ll win the game.

There is a second secret I’ve found to succeeding at Catan: take what you’re given. If you end up taking wheat as your main resource and find yourself with two ore and two wheat a couple turns into the game, take an ore if someone else is willing to trade it and build a city. Don’t worry that you only have two settlements; ore’s going to get more expensive as the game goes along. Part of getting value is taking what people are willing to trade when they want to trade it. Say you can trade wood at 2:1 and it’s early in the game. If you don’t have a settlement on a sheep region, you’re better off taking a sheep anytime someone wants to trade it, even if it helps your neighbor at an inconvenient time. The game is about getting value whenever you can.

Any comers?

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5 responses to “Why Economist Should Play Settlers of Catan

  1. Rami August 8, 2012 at 5:59 pm

    I personally really don’t like catan, especially for economics. If you want economics try Power Grid, Container, Age of steam etc. All these games (many of which are not much more complicated than catan to learn) teach the same things but do it with much better mechanics and pacing.

  2. Eric Epson August 10, 2012 at 11:16 pm

    I’ve never played “Settlers of Catan” but it sounds a lot like the “Hunger Games” to me. Except that “Hunger Games” is a movie and not a board game. Maybe it is a board game also, now that the movie is out, but I’m not sure. But given the current Midwestern drought situation, I think this is a real possibility, which seems to jive with the objective of “Settlers of Catan.” Thoughts?

    • Derek Johnson August 11, 2012 at 8:31 am

      I guess there are some similarities to Catan and Hunger Games, the scarcity of resources for example. I’ll consider it further.

  3. Kenny Lasko August 26, 2012 at 7:12 pm

    I have only played Settlers once, under considerable duress, as a favor to a demanding friend celebrating his birthday. I sadly recall being played under the table by a very thin, pale, and annoying engineering student who was bragging that she had constructed a contiguous road system that spanned the gameboard. More like lameboard.

    So, please, sell me on Settlers, but right now, I’m just not buying it.

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