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Motivation: I once had one surplus card on my hand, and knew the robbers would come soon. So I gave it to someone for free, to avoid losing more cards when they hit.
I was surprised by how badly this was received. Two of the three other players (the hosts of the game) acted upset, like I had tried to cheat. I had to take the card back, get robbed the next turn and 'giving cards away for free' was banned immediately. (Oh, how I hate mid-game additions to the rules. But that's beside the point.)

So now the question: Is this really illegal in Settlers of Catan? Is it generally considered underhanded in any way? If so, why?

My reasoning was like this:

Consider players A and B.
A wants to give B a sheep.
A trades a sheep and one rock to B, in exchange for wheat.
A trades the received wheat for the (formerly his) rock.
A and B now both have the same resources they had in the beginning, only the sheep has moved from A to B.

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Can you clarify when you are giving away cards – is this during a normal trade portion of the turn? Also, what do you mean by "knew the robbers would come soon"? You only discard down to half when a 7 is rolled and you have > 7 resource cards. Dice rolls can be assumed to be independent, so the likelihood of a 7 occurring next doesn't change over the course of a game... – Hao Ye Dec 17 '14 at 1:11
The reasoning scenario you provided is different from giving away resources because each player starts and ends with the same number of resources so it is completely different from giving away resources for the purpose of having less cards. – still_dreaming_1 May 31 at 18:09
up vote 25 down vote accepted

Contrary to what manufacturer has stated, there is an official rule against this practice:

You may trade with another player between your turns, but only if it is his turn and he elects to trade with you. You cannot trade with the bank during another player’s turn. You may not give away cards.

(from the Almanac section of the rulebook, near the top of p14)

I understand that you can "effectively" give away cards by cunning sequences of "legitimate" trades, but it seems clear that this isn't really in the spirit of the game, and players should feel free to frown upon such sharp practice!

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Yeah, thanks! This helped. When I asked the game hosts whether this was forbidden by the rules, they said that probably no, not explicitly, but then I'd avoid the robber. That was their main problem, which didn't sound very legit. – ver Jan 5 '12 at 11:11
My mistake! Thanks for pointing it out, it's been a while since I read the rulebook and I remembered it wrongly. Very interesting. – mafu Jan 5 '12 at 13:53
@ver, While you can't give away cards, you could easily do a trade that may be slightly against your favor (normally) to end up with one less card in your hand. I can't see anything against the spirit in that. – user606723 Jan 5 '12 at 15:47
I absolutely would not expect anyone to frown upon this - it's perfectly valid. As is changing your mind after the first trade and leaving the asking player stuffed. The best way to do this is to trade 2 sheep for 1 sheep, or similar. – xorsyst Dec 19 '14 at 13:06
@xorsyst Trading 2 sheep for 1 sheep is also explicity forbidden in the rules. It is in the same section. "You may not trade like resources (e.g., 2 wool for 1 wool)." But of course you can offer any valid trade, they cannot make a rule on motive or strategy. So your goal might be to get a certain player to have more cards or certain cards even if you are getting something worse or end up with a lot less cards than you started with. – still_dreaming_1 May 31 at 17:56

This question is answered in the official Settlers of Catan FAQ:

Trade - Can I give away resources or buy services with them, for example, to avoid being bothered by the robber?

No. On Catan, a trade always involves a give and take of resources. Consequently, Catan’s trade law does not contain a “trade” of something for nothing or for immaterial goods such as services.

Although you could get around this by doing the 2:1 then 1:1 trades, it violates the spirit of the rules and would be looked down upon by your fellow players.

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You don't even need to go to the FAQ for this, it is explicitly forbidden in the rulebook! You are right though that it's hard to see how to stop getting around the rule by sneaky sequences of trades: I would suggest that, following the 2:1 trade, it is permitted for one of the players to renege on doing the 1:1 trade. This might makes players think twice before trying to "game" the rules in this way! – thesunneversets Jan 5 '12 at 11:03
Right. I was pretty sure it was in the core rules, but I didn't have them to hand to check! I remembered seeing it in the FAQ, though, so I used that as a source and citation. – Aether Jan 5 '12 at 11:06
Catan's trade law?!?! So this island has not only already been settled, but its inhabitants have their own laws and just happen to be letting us invade their terriory?!?! :D ;) – Gordon Gustafson Jan 8 '12 at 0:43

There (edit) is an 'official' rule against this idea, since one player is unfairly favored over the others, and it may create trouble in practice.

In my games, we usually avoid this issue by trading 2:1 (with a player) to a resource you need anyway. If you got any 2:1 ports to reduce your number of cards, use those instead as it is fair to everyone.

Example: Assume you intend to build a city, but have two extra sheep you don't need and lack a wheat. Your number of cards adds up to 8. Simply trade the sheep 2:1 with someone to wheat and you'll not only avoid the robber, you'll also make progress towards your goal.

Either way, this pretty much only applies in the early game when you're unlikely to get many resources per turn. Later, when you've already got a number of towns built, you'll get new cards almost every turn so giving away one of them is less important.

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