[Not sure any of my regular readers are going to be interested in this. If not, feel free to skip it. ;-) Otherwise, it's just in here for folks to (maybe) find via Google. And for me to write it because I thought it.]
I've gotten a little more into Settlers since I bought the online version that I can play on my laptop against 3 computer opponents. Being able to play these quick and easy games against easy opponents has helped me to get a better grip on the dynamics of the game.
To get even geekier about all of this, I started looking around at a few strategy guides. And I wanted to write up the strategy approach that I think is most important for SoC. Plenty, maybe even all, of the strategy guides touch on it. But they tend to list lots of factors. Let me boil it down, to start with, to two main emphases.
BoardGameGeek has the best introduction to Settlers of Catan strategy (begun by Mark Stretch) that I have read so far. It inspired me to write this post. There are lots of great pointers over there.
What is the secret to SoC's replayability? What is its genius?
Simple: the board changes every time. The mechanics are basic. It's the changing board, made up of shuffle-able hexes, that makes the game fresh each time.
So what is the key to winning consistently going to be?
All together now: analyzing the unique layout before the game and adapting your tactics thereto.
Of the posts in that thread, Bob Probst's comes closest to this priority.
How plentiful will each resource be, based on probability?
A simple tool will suffice here. The Mayfair version of the game has dots to represent probability. 6s and 8s get 5 dots. 5s and 9s get 4 dots, etc. For a quick and dirty assessment of an intersection, add up the dots.
Same deal with pregame analysis of resources. How many probability dots for wool, lumber, brick, ore, and grain?
Only then will you BEGIN to be able to determine your best strategy for victory. (My point being, if you always want to play the ore/grain/city strategy detailed below, whether it's best or not, you can certainly choose that.)
The next major determiner of tactics will be your position of initial setup. First move doesn't have a lot of choice: Pick the best spot on the board, build your road toward the coast where it MIGHT not get stumped, and wait and see what you've got 6 (in a 4-player game) plays later. Fourth and fifth move has the most choice and can work her placements together.
So, what are you going to do?
The most basic strategy is try to get some of each resource with an early emphasis on brick and lumber to build more roads and settlements. This approach will often try to grab Longest Road. If more than one person is using this strategy, beware the Neverending Longest Road Battle. That's a great way to lose.
Something to remember: in non-expanded SoC, wool is the least valuable resource. You use 1 for a settlement and 1 for a development card. Otherwise, generally speaking, unless you're going to have a 3:1 port or a 2:1 wool port, you don't want to emphasize wool production.
The other basic strategy is to emphasize ore and grain production thereby upgrading to cities. With an occasional wool, you can buy Development Cards. The strategy guides worry that you'll attract the robber this way, but that's one of the reasons you're buying Development Cards. You chase off the robber and grow your army toward Largest at the same time. Conservatively, let's say that gets you to 4VPs for cities, + 2 for Largest Army, + 1 or 2 for miscellaneous VPs from Development Cards. That puts you in the neighborhood of 8, within striking distance of victory.
An even better strategy, if you can work it, is to grab 1 or 2 more good intersections for settlements early on. You might have to do some trading to get enough lumber and brick (at least 2 of each per segment of road and settlement and assuming you're not worrying about joining your roads), which will delay city upgrades, but it may be worth it.
I think this second strategy is more fun, especially if you're playing with people who don't play a lot. While they're duking it out for lumber and brick, you can be cruising. Plus, it's fun to get Development Cards.
But, again, to bring this full circle, you don't want to go for this strategy (if you want to win) if ore and/or grain are going to be scarce.
There. That's a start. Do you feel more educated? ;-)