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I never buy development cards in the beginning: the Knights are fairly useless, the Largest Army bonus is not a priority, and it's too risky to gamble on drawing a Road Building card.

When is the best time to start buying development cards?

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up vote 23 down vote accepted

Whenever you buy a development card, it increase your options because:

Development Cards solve your problems.

  • Get a resource you couldn't otherwise, with Monopoly, Year of Plenty, or stealing using a Knight.
  • Get more resources by getting the Robber off your land. (Remember you can do this before you roll!)
  • Slow down an opponent by putting the Robber on their land.
  • Build roads quickly to cut someone off or reach a settlement first, with Road Building.

And they don't, on average, actually cost 3 resources. Monopoly, Year of Plenty, and Knight all gain you at least one back, which you can choose (even somewhat when stealing with the knight). Road Building is worth 4 resources. Even if you get a victory point, how many resources do other victory points cost? Settlement is 4, City is 5. Longest Road is a lot.

Because of the low effective cost of development cars, and the gains you get from them, buying development cards actually banks your resources in a fairly fluid way, yet out of your hand so you don't have too many cards.

In short, when should you buy development cards? Anytime you can and you don't have something else you'd rather build THAT TURN. Buying the card means all the better chance of building whatever you want next turn. I buy Development Cards whenever I can.

One last note, if you are richest in sheep, development cards are probably your shortest path to victory (combined with some expansion/cities).

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That's an interesting way to think about them, thanks! –  Michiel de Mare Oct 21 '10 at 21:23
    
Very useful breakdown. I've never thought about how many resources each VP takes, but it's very helpful. –  keithjgrant Dec 21 '10 at 5:03
    
yeah, sheep seem to be the weakest resource, but buying development cards can make it easy to turn them into more valuable things. :D –  Gordon Gustafson Feb 18 '11 at 20:18
    
Focusing too much development card to early is not a good move. When you compare to Colonies and City, development card gave you a lot less resources, except near the end of the game. –  Guillaume Coté Sep 4 '13 at 16:54
    
There are five victory card point out of 25 cards. You will need a average of 15 resources for a victory card. –  Guillaume Coté Sep 4 '13 at 17:02
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I generally buy developments when I have the ore-grain-sheep combination, absolutely nothing else to buy, and I have six or seven cards in my hand.

If I have to pick between losing half my cards or getting a development card.

I've had some games where the robber is on one of my hexes, I've had abysmally bad rolls and can't roll a 7, and I'll buy a development card for a chance at a Soldier.

Development cards can be nice in a larger game when you've been ringed in, and you need the VP cards just for a fighting chance to finish.

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I start buying development cards when I have the resources and I am looking to break out of a stalled position. In the early part of the game, being lucky enough to draw the Year of Plenty card can really help you break out. I also buy development cards when I'm concerned I have two many cards in my hand, and I'm likely to have to discard cards if the robber comes up. If things are going well, and I'm able to keep expanding, I don't buy development cards till the game is coming to the end.

Edit

Expanded what I said to Brian Campbell in comments on his answer, if your trying to focus solely on development cards, your still going to need three settlements upgraded to cities. With only two cities, you would need to draw 4 victory points out of a possible 5, and have largest army. While it's possible, it's not probable. The odds are two much against you.

Biran's strategy of early development card buying is useful, but also emphasizes flexibility. Using developments cards that grant resources to buy more settlements is exactly what I was talking about drawing a year of plenty card early on, and a point I agree on. I personally favor focusing on getting land first, and then building cities and buying development cards. the amount of land of the map is limited, and the more of it you control, the more resources you can generate. On a flip side, the more of the land your control, the less of it your opponents can control. Settlements with low production potentials are of course less desirable, but are still worth points.

Do with what the resources your getting allow you to do. I generally focus more on development cards after the early part of the game, but if have the resources in your hand right then buy a development card. The best strategies in Catan are flexible, and usually involve combining multiple tactics. Since resources are generated by the random roll of the dice, don't be afraid to adjust your strategy based on resource availability.

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So you only switch to a win-with-developments strategy when you can't expand? –  Michiel de Mare Oct 20 '10 at 23:04
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Yes. I only focus on development cards early on cause they can only take you so far. If you focus on development cards to early, your going to be fall behind the other players and they'll get more resources then you in the late game. I'll buy a few in the early part of the game, but in the beginning more land is what I'm after. –  ICodeForCoffee Oct 20 '10 at 23:05
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I'll buy a development card early if I'm ok on grain and sheep (position-wise), and I'm still a road away from the next settlement spot. The real bummer is if you draw a VP card early, any other card will do something for you, but that just slows you down.

It's good to have a soldier card to hold in case the robber gets set on you.

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Yes, but if you're ok on grain, you're only 2 ore away from a city. Don't think I've ever been disappointed with a VP card, BTW. –  Michiel de Mare Oct 20 '10 at 23:01
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@Michiel, in strategy games initiative is everything, the VP card in the beginning can really slow you down. I'm usually focusing on a settlement in the beginning (even if I'm playing an ore/grain strategy) so I don't think so much about the city, but if I was close I'd just hold on. A lot depends on the availability of the resources. Besides if you get a VP card early, every one will figure out you have one. –  Lance Roberts Oct 20 '10 at 23:07
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I agree. Getting an early victory point card is nice, but I usually want something else then. –  ICodeForCoffee Oct 20 '10 at 23:09
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I've seen some people win with a "cities and development cards" strategy. If you have the appropriate combination of resources from your initial settlements (lots of ore and wheat), you can basically spend almost all of your resources on dev cards and cities. Dev cards can help you with the things you're weaker in; road building can help you build roads even if you're short on wood and brick, and other dev cards can help supplement your other resources.

You will need to build at least one more settlement, but you can probably trade for the resources needed for that (or get them through dev cards). And if you buy dev cards early and often, you can rack up a few secret VPs, get the largest army and get rid of the robber to help you produce more of that vital ore and wheat. In this strategy, you generally want to buy at least one city before you start buying dev cards, but after that, alternate between dev cards and cities, with just enough emphasis on your extra road and settlement to make sure it doesn't get blocked.

When you use this strategy, you don't depend on the exact outcome of two VPs, largest army, and 3 cities. You need to be flexible based on what you draw; if you draw lots of development cards that give you resources, you build out more, possibly getting 4 cities, or you might just wind up with lots of VPs and not even need the third city.

And if you draw lots of soldiers, the person I knew who played this way most often would use them to extort good trades out of people; threaten to put the robber on their best producing tiles, unless they gave him very favorable trades (he used to demand that they simply give him resources, until we noticed the rule that a trade must involve both players giving the other something). Thus, there are two paths to victory; one by VP/largest army, and one by generating lots of resources through dev cards (plus largest army; this strategy pretty much guarantees you that).

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You hit the nail on the head that you need a third settlement location. With 3 cities and largest army, your counting on drawing two victory points. With 5 development cards out of 25, your looking at having to buy an average of 10 development cards in order to pull those two victory points. (Fate would have to be against you not to have largest army at this point) Your turning ~30 resources into 4 victory points. Two build two more settlements and turn them into cities, is only 18 resources. Your resource diversity needed is less but the number of resources needed is more. –  ICodeForCoffee Oct 21 '10 at 16:43
    
Since my last comment is rather long, I'll also say that cap of 4 cities does make my analysis a little off. If I have 3 cities now, I can only build one more. Assuming if I build only 1 city and two more settlements, you would need only 17 resource cards, and three more total locations to get to 10 points. –  ICodeForCoffee Oct 21 '10 at 16:49
    
@ICodeForCoffee I responded to you in a comment, then decided to expand on that a bit and so just edited the comment into the answer. The basic gist is that you're not just buying the dev cards for the VPs; you need to use all of the dev cards effectively to make this strategy work. –  Brian Campbell Oct 21 '10 at 17:32
    
+1 up vote. I don't completely agree with your play style, but I'm sure you a tough opponent. –  ICodeForCoffee Oct 21 '10 at 17:58
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No no no, I meant your play style, not your friends. Your more focused on building up then building out earlier then me I am it seems. Since I focus on building out and then up, I think it would be a good game. Your friend's play style is likely to cause the other players to gang up against him, and I see games becoming, "As long as he doesn't win, we've all won!" –  ICodeForCoffee Oct 21 '10 at 21:20
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The benefit of development card are constant during the game, the benefit of cities and colonies diminish each turn. Generally, I tend to favor more colonies in the beginning of the game and cities in the middle and development card at the end. Of course, depending of which number are played.

If you use your resources for many development card at the beginning, your colonies will probably be in least interesting place that if you have build them at the beginning. Other players will take the best spots.

That being said, when the dice give you what you need for a development card and you don't have the possibility to trade to be able to build a colony, you are generally better to take the card. But in the beginning, trade focusing on colonies.

There is a special case, when the wood or brick all have extreme number (2,3, 11 or 12), it will be hard for all player to get road and colonies. Investing early in several development cards can give you quick start.

Also, when you have a stop that attract the robber. Getting a few card to have a reserve of knight can be a good thing. Then you let people know that whoever steal who will get the robber back on their best spot next turn. And you do it. I you successfully deter some player to rob you, it is a worthy investment.

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Buy a dev card when you want a knight. Getting something else is usually good too, notably except an early vp. It is good to dev when you're ahead because the robber will be played on you, or anytime you are very vulnerable to the robber. And when pursuing army.

Also, a time not to dev is when it will prevent you from getting a critical settlement or city. When the choice is between deving and ending your turn with 8+ cards, usually dev.

When you have no more important cities and settlements to place, deving becomes a priority if you have a chance to get army.

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Buying development cards is a "slow but steady" way to win the game. It is best done when your progress has slowed to a crawl.

Early in the game, you might not want to do this, because the impact of other early moves such as founding settlements, building roads, or upgrading settlements to cities will last you the whole game. So the value of a victory point (or other "get") might be less than than doing other things.

But if you have reached an impasse, buying development cards might represent the "biggest bang for the buck" (or resources). At this stage of the game, the victory points are useful, and if you don't get one, the other help that you get (knights for the largest army, two road pieces toward longest road, year of plenty or monopoly cards, might be worth a victory point (or two).

In short, look at development cards at a de-bottlenecking tool, to be used when you reach a bottleneck.

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