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I've gotten really into Settlers of Catan recently. There are a few people I regularly play with and these games are really fun / intense; however, when any of this group splits off to play "friendly games" with "casual players", the games are really one-sided.

"Playing easy" on purpose isn't fun for anyone involved; is there a more creative way to introduce a handicap? I would prefer something subtle, in which the casual players aren't even aware that a handicap is involved.

An example would be "don't buy any development cards" (development cards are the bread and butter of my current play style), but I'm hoping to get some (more creative / more varied) suggestions.

[Edit] As a disclaimer, I am by no means calling myself "a good player"! I'm just pointing out that I've played a bit more (30+ games?) than most casual players that have only touched the game a few times, and that as a result, I've gotten used to certain strategic ideas that casual players haven't been exposed to yet.

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@dpmattingly In fact, house rules are the OPPOSITE of what I want to do; I would prefer this sort of thing to fly under the radar. –  Elliott Jun 26 '11 at 18:40
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12 Answers

Try using an odd strategy, or handicap your starting position.

For example

  • Both your starting settlements must be on the coast.

or

  • You're going to be the sheep king. Play such that you're maximising the amount of sheep you produce, and still try to win.
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Subtle ways to handicap yourself:

  1. Randomly choose which cards you have to discard when the 7s are rolled and you are over the limit. Can't 'protect' the building you were going to build on your turn.

  2. Limit building to 1 thing per turn. This prevents you from expanding quickly and steamrolling the game when you have good placements/rolls.

  3. Never trade at an advantage for yourself. Trade 1 for 1 or 2 for 1 with other players but never 1 for 2. This limits the number of resources you have available to you.

  4. Do not track cards that are in other player's hands. This makes it so you do not know what another player is likely to do next. Also prevents you from using the robber and monopoly cards to their full potential.

  5. Randomly pick the space to place the robber when you have the chance. This makes it so you do not always place on your opponents best or most strategic hexes.

  6. Randomly choose who to take cards from when you move the robber, when given the choice. Prevents you from selecting a player who you know has cards that you are interested in.

  7. Do not optimize your initial board placements. See the answer by aramis.

  8. Limit the number of trades with other players or the bank you can do each turn.

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If you allow 5 cities and 6 settlements, you increase the possible number of permutations for victory. This gives newbies more chances to win by getting lucky (although the rule is "neutral" on its face so the newbies won't know this.

Yes, it does require more pieces. (You may borrow them from another set, or just "manufacture" them for this one game.) It works like a Monopoly game in which there are unlimited numbers of houses and hotels (and money earned from Free Parking), rather than the regulation numbers. This helps weaker players by increasing the luck factor.

This is in contrast to another proposal for 3 cities and 4 settlements, which helps experienced players (because they are the only ones that can figure out the critical combination).

Another way is to start everyone with two cities instead of two settlements (four victory points instead of two). It's easier to get six more victory points by luck than eight, but again it's neutral on its face.

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Use diplomacy and persuasion. In games I play with a mix of players, players are very fearful of the player(s) known to be expert, and lax towards beginners. This comes into play most especially with trading strategies and the robber. A strong player in the lead is heavily embargoed, offered very lob-sided trades, and/or draws the robber far more frequently than other players.

These actions don't happen by themselves - players strongly discuss with each other how to cooperatively hamper the expert player with 7 or 8 victory points.

A succinct way of saying this is to employ Settler of Catan's normal slow-the-leader-mechanisms but more aggressively against the better players and less aggressively against the beginners.

Of course, to counter this, the expert will employ leap to victory strategies . . .

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The best handicapping is to require the more skilled player to have no 6's nor 8's in their chosen starting spots; a step harder is to also block the 5's and 9's, but that often results in not being able to find a spot to place starting bits.

Commensurately, the biggest problem for casual players is NOT picking at least one common number spot...


An additional option is to restrict the number of cities and settlements for the experienced players. Reducing one each still makes the 10 point win possible ((3x2)+4), but only just.

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+1 Nice one! Playing with suboptimal starting positions sounds like a really interesting challenge to explore. –  Elliott Jun 26 '11 at 18:41
    
OK. Here's the ultimate challenge: (1) you can't put settlements by a 6 or 8 at any point in the game, (2) you can't buy development cards, (3) you're capped at 3 cities and 4 settlements, (4) you're not allowed to take the longest road at any point, and (5) when a 7 is rolled, you must put the robber on the desert. –  Elliott Jun 26 '11 at 20:54
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@Elliott - that sounds like a recipe for just sitting around powerlessly waiting for someone else to win, to me. I upvoted Lance Roberts's answer. What you're proposing is making someone fight a boxing match with both hands tied behind their back. Sounds like fun written down, but it would just be pointless and painful in practice :P –  thesunneversets Jun 26 '11 at 21:43
    
My "ultimate challenge" is mostly a joke. I could never imagine ACTUALLY doing that! But picking one of those once in a while might be an interesting challenge. –  Elliott Jun 26 '11 at 22:02
    
A handicap restricting the number of cities and settlements would hurt less skilled players because they wouldn't know how to get the 10-point win under the new rules. (Unless the idea is to get a lot of drawn games.) It should go the other way, 6 cities and 5 settlements, giving newbies more chances to win by getting lucky. –  Tom Au Sep 14 '13 at 21:33
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Make trades that favor your opponents in the earlygame, delaying your first expansion until your opponents have built their first 1-2 settlements or cities.

For example, on a clay-light wood-heavy board, sell clay for 1-2 wood. You'll come out behind, but bad players won't notice.

Once your opponents get a production advantage, you can safely take off the kid gloves.

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Set a limit to how many cards in your hand you can use on a turn. Say for example 50% rounding up or down.

So let's say you decide to handicap yourself 50% rounding up and you have 5 cards in your hand. This would mean you could only use 3 of the 5 cards on this turn. This will put you more at risk with the robber as to build a city, you'd need to have 10 cards in your hand.

Not sure how'd this would play out, just trying to think of something that would fit your requirements.

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You do not need any handicaps. After just a few games, you will automatically get handicapped when other players unite against you (no trades, using all cards against you, blocking roads etc) so that you do not win.

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Change the # of victory points required to win. Instead of required 10 victory points to win. Have victory point total be 8 or 9 for the less skilled players while keeping the 10 point victory condition for yourself.

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This is very reasonable, but unfortunately it doesn't satisfy the condition of "it will go undetected by the casual players". –  Elliott Jun 28 '11 at 22:48
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For a handicap, I'd probably just boost all the other players up instead of tearing down the skilled player. Give all of the weaker players an extra development card and/or resource of their choice at the beginning. You could also give the skilled player slightly inferior drafts of initial settlements, like getting the third one and the last one and play the game normally.

If you yourself are the good player, I sometimes advise the other players a bit more than normal if they are going to make a bad decision. Occasionally when they accept my trade, I'll even tell them not to do it because I'm getting the better end of the deal and let them think it over again. but usually only once per game. Making your opponents better is always the best way to level the playing field! :D

Personally, I'm not a fan of making the skilled player need more VPs to win or have less settlements/cities because it's really obvious that there's a handicap being used. My ideal conception of a handicap is something that levels the players' chances of winning without making it obvious that game modifications were required to do so. "I win because I have 9 victory points and we modified the game so I only need 9" is much less fun that "I win with 10 VPs! (even though I happened to get an extra development card at the beginning, but everyone's forgotten about that, so my victory is untainted)".

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I would not recommend handicapping anyone. The best way the casual gamers will learn is by playing good players playing optimally. It actually handicaps the good players to play with casual players, since the casual players will do stuff no good player could predict and the game will change arbitrarily.

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2 things: (1) what if you're playing someone who's not seeking to improve, and just "wants to have fun" (whatever that means), and (2) if "doing stuff no good player could predict" is so good, why don't strong players do it more often? –  Elliott Jun 26 '11 at 20:33
    
@Elliot, I think fun is relative to the players playing and the social experience, not whether you win or lose. The not predictable stuff usually aren't good moves, but will sometimes hose a player not expecting it. I get hosed by computer players sometimes because they do random crappy stuff. –  Lance Roberts Jun 26 '11 at 20:36
    
I agree wholeheartedly that "fun" is different for different people. For me, I have the most fun when everyone is trying their hardest to win, everyone has a shot at winning, and it's an intense fight till the end (to put it another way, I equate fun with an intense game; I don't have to win, but I have to be trying my hardest to win). For this reason, I'd like to make games with casual players (e.g. people who have played less than 3 games total) more "fun" for myself by imposing challenges like "I won't put my starting settlements by a 6 or 8". –  Elliott Jun 26 '11 at 20:40
    
Also, can you please give me an example of the "not predictable stuff" you're referring to? I'd like to explore such tactics, because something that hoses a player (even if it requires that they're not expecting it) can't be all that bad! –  Elliott Jun 26 '11 at 20:41
    
@Elliot, in Settlers you might have roads go to places that no one would ever build a road to, or settlements built in uncommon places, or the robber placed strangely. –  Lance Roberts Jun 26 '11 at 20:42
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Here is a rule for you:

At the end of a player's turn, he or she can put a card from his/her hand in front of another player. This person won't be allowed to trade this resource (either way). The cards are removed at the end of a turn as welland thrown away.

This rule will make people "attack" the strong ones. If you're not strong, it may be simplier for you.

I just made up this rule, I didn't test it. ut if you do, your feedback will be apreciated! :o)

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This sounds really interesting, and I'd like to try it out sometime. On the other hand, I don't know if it's much of a "handicap" (because I also have the ability to block trading, and I can try to convince others to attack someone else). In general, I think I'd prefer not to change the rules at all; instead, I'd rather look for secret, "personal" handicaps. –  Elliott Jun 26 '11 at 18:18
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