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By "building," I refer to those activities such as roads and settlements that are heavy on wood and brick requirements.

By "development," I refer to those activities that require the other three commodities, ore, grain, and wool, such as buying cities and development cards.

Is it possible to be "too good" at the building phase of the game, to the detriment of the development phase of the game? Conversely is it possible to be so focused on development that you fall critically behind in building?

How do you avoid these pitfalls? Is there a transition/balance between building and development, and if so, how do you manage it?

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Your "building" phase is more commonly referred to as "expansion" –  bengoesboom Sep 21 '13 at 5:30
    
This question should really probably be at least 2 questions. –  bengoesboom Sep 22 '13 at 4:08
    
@bengoesboom: "It should be at least 2 questions." Under other circumstances I would agree with you. But this is a comparison/contrast question of the "on one hand,...on the other hand," type. Meaning I want to see "both sides of the coin in one answer." Which you did successfully below. –  Tom Au Sep 22 '13 at 14:11

5 Answers 5

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The most important point to remembers, as explained in another answer, is that it is impossible to win by roads and settlements only. So you have to have some development, and it is not as much "switching" as "morphing" when you gradually increase the priority in getting the "development" resources over the "building" resources through placement of the new settlements, trade, and development cards play such as "Years of plenty" and "Monopoly". One tale-telling sign that you've been building for too long is when you say, "I place a settlement", turn in the four cards, and find that you have used all the five settlement pieces already. OOPS.

As everybody else said, the timing and degree of morphing really depends -- namely, on the map and the initial placement. You need to learn to recognize the strengths and weaknesses of the map, and the strengths and weaknesses of your initial position, which is a learnable skill (hint: add the dots). Typically, you would have "production" locations (the initial two, plus may be another one) that would have 8+ dots total on each of them, while the remaining locations will be "placeholders" that don't produce much, but you would have built them anyway for points, to block other players, for the useful trade ports or for transition from roads to ships if you play with ships.

If you keep playing the standard one big hex map of the basic Settlers, you will know all the strong and weak spots after ten plays. I build my own maps every time we play, and try to balance the resources off. Sometimes, though, you will just have a map which is scarce, say, in ore (by design or by chance), so in your initial placement you would want to get as close to the only ore-8 in play as possible. If you failed that, and you see that other people cut you off from it by building their initial settlements on the perimeter of that hex, you will need to change your strategy from the outset, and play your strong resources. Say if you have wood-6 and wood-9 in your initial settlements (either the map is very rich in wood, or other players got carried away placing around that ore-8), you would want to build towards the wood port and just trade whatever you need 2:1. If you do this quickly enough, you'd be able to successfully convert your "building" phase into the "development" phase.

On the other hand, if you were able to place one of your initial settlements on a three-way corner of ore, grain and wool with at least three dots on each, then you can simply play off that location (and win) to either accumulate the development cards, upgrade your settlements, or trade bricks with other players who would get caught in their building phase for too long. A huge advantage of this location is this sort of versatility, while concentrating on wood and bricks will only get you endless roads. (That's why I try to avoid such locations in my custom-built maps though.)

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"while concentrating on wood and bricks will only get you endless roads." So it is possible to concentrate too much on "building" at the expense of development. –  Tom Au Sep 24 '13 at 23:49

Not for me. At least not in the way that I think you mean.

For me it depends entirely upon the numbers that get rolled.

I've played games where I only have 2 cities and a settlement when I win. Having said this, I've been playing a lot with the same small group and it's possible that their playing styles haven't changed since we started so I've found it easy to play against them.

It really depends on the layout and the resources you have available (in your hand, the ones that other players are willing to trade with you, and those that you can get with the development cards at your disposal).

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It depends

In general, the first few rounds are focused on expanding to a new settlement or two. You start the game with two free roads, but to build a new settlement you need to be a minimum of a hex vertices away. If don't expand your road and build a settlement, these free roads are wasted. It isn't unusual to build roads towards the Harbors so you have favorable trades.

It is possible to win the game by not expanding at all though, although this is rare. With good access to Rock, Grain, and Wool you can buy Development cards and build Cities. There are 5 yellow Victory Point cards and 2 bonus points for the Largest army. Those combined with your starting two Settlements, one of which needs to be upgraded to a City is sufficient to win the game. The reverse is not true, since you can only receive 5 Settlements and a bonus 2 for the Longest Road, you would be 3 points short of winning.

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There are essentially two questions here. I will offer some short answers here, which don't go into too much detail.

1) Is it possible to be "too good" at the building phase of the game, to the detriment of the development phase of the game?

Short answer: Not really. Expanding early gets you better settlements, more resources (via those settlements) and diversifies your numbers. Your opportunities to build cities are not lost.

2) Is it possible to be so focused on development that you fall critically behind in building?

Short answer: Yes. Good expansion settlements will be taken early. If you really over commit, you may end up with no expansion positions and be reduced to one very narrow win condition (2 cities + largest army + all victory point development cards). You may miss out on opportunities to get resources you need and diversify your numbers. You can also be crippled pretty seriously by the robber with this strategy.

The long answer to both of these questions is "It depends", but I can't really go into it without writing a book.

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OK, it seems as if you have a lot of settlements, you have the option of upgrading them to cities, and/or taking a lot of resources from them, but if you start by upgrading your two settlements to cities before building new settlements, that might be a self-limiting strategy. –  Tom Au Sep 22 '13 at 14:09

As others have said, the most important consideration is the numbers.

Having said that, a good principle for strong settlers play is to favour development over expansion.

The reason for this is that Settlers, like Dominion, favours spiky resource acquisition. Soldiers and thieves punish players for the slow accumulation of resources over time. It's much better to have a "jackpot" of four to five resources all flowing in at once than it is to have one or two resources come in each turn. Better to get 4-5 resources in one roll, burn them on your turn than be a constant target for soldiers/thieves by having 2-3 cards that you can't do much with.

As the others have said, there are risks associated with this strategy, however the risks are far outweighed by the rewards in my experience. Development cards are an important hidden resource that can swing a game from a losing position to a winning position and cities help with resource spikes. The extra dev cards will also help keep the thief away from your high yield jackpot numbers. "Builders" end up getting hurt far more by the thief than "developers".

A player who focuses on wheat and ore, with a smaller income of sheep generally seems to win out over players who focus on wood and brick with a smaller focus on the other resources. The wood/brick player is basically dependent on getting great expansion spots with ore/wheat or should be aiming at picking up a 2/1 port to assist them late-game. The problem with both of these strategies is that after the initial placement, the good spots will likely be taken and having a 2/1 trade is not as good as simply acquiring the raw goods that you need.

In all cases, one cannot focus on everything. It's important to pick your strategy with your starting spots and seek to work with your resources to maximise your chances of winning. Whatever you do, don't pick starting spots which will give you jackpots of brick or wood with ore or wheat (and always prioritise sheep last unless you're playing Seafarers). Even if you get good numbers this will likely lose the game for you as players will target you for thieves/soldiers to get whichever one of those resources they're short of and you won't be able to burn your cards in an efficient combination.

Summary

The key to winning settlers is to acquire and burn large amounts of resources. Spiky play is the best way to do that. Focussing on a development strategy is the spikiest way to play and is therefore the strongest path. The numbers are more important than anything else I have said.

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"Spiky resource acquisition." Very good point. –  Tom Au Sep 23 '13 at 12:28

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