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In a two person game, one should try to make the "best moves." (If your opponent doesn't, you'll crush him unless the dice or other luck factors go very much against you.) That's not always true in a multiperson game.

In Diplomacy (which I know better), the player that goes from three to six cities in the first year becomes an obvious target. (Russia, which goes from four to six is the most frequent winner, but the second most frequent loser.) So in the beginning it's better to keep a low profile, do good but not great, let other players fight it out for half to two two-thirds of the game, and make a "run" toward the end.

Could a similar dynamic be at work in Settlers of Catan? That is, you want to do well enough in the beginning to "keep up with the pack," and yet not so well that other players see you as a threat and gang up on you? Is it even possible that bad play (or bad dice) in the beginning will generate a "sympathy" or "no threat" factor that will cause other players to treat you well later on? And is one way is to get ahead quietly by accumulating good cards instead of good hexes?

It's impossible to pre-arrange this, but if I could, I'd arrange to have all my bad die rolls in the beginning and the good ones at the end so I could be "non-threatening in the beginning, and make a surge at the end. Are there other ways to accomplish this in the game?

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up vote 8 down vote accepted

I often write that it depends on the group, but I think that's especially applicable here. If you are playing against computer AIs for instance, of course you want to maximize your VPs at every step.

In general, though, I don't think it's wise to sandbag in Catan--or to inwardly cheer bad luck. In the worst case scenario, aggressive Robber usage and trade embargos will hold you back until someone catches up with you. At that point, you can earnestly point out that you are no longer winning. Even if you're the obvious leader, as long as you have no more than 6-7 VPs, you can often arrange a mutually beneficial trade with someone desperate enough for what you have to break the opponents' embargo.

Additionally, having a powerful position gives extra resources, which can help you forge ahead or expand a lead, even if the other players are trying to stop you. If you plan to take an early lead, I think it's definitely better to go for cities and settlements, not Longest Road. Definitely avoid going for the Longest Road early in the game, until you either actually need the road, or the 2 VP are close to mattering to decide the winner. Having the card paints a target on you as a leader, and distracts attention from other possible leaders, but doesn't help you generate any more resources. Another worry is getting two cities off the gate (maybe with an early ore/grain settlement placement) but being hemmed in without a decent third building site opportunity.

I've seen players try to stay at 7 VP and hoarding resources until they can make a big break by taking Longest Road and building 1 VP worth of stuff in the same turn. It's sometimes worked, but sometimes fallen flat as savvy opponents can look at the resources you've been gathering and guess what your opportunities are. And isn't the point of pondering strategy to prepare for savvy opponents?

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One thing to bear in mind is, even if you are in the lead, will an opponent want to place the robber on your hexes? One way to avoid this is to try to share hexes with other players. A city on an 8 ore is a good robber target, but if 2 other players are also on that ore they aren't going to want to place the robber there.

Cards like largest army/longest road can be counter-productive if they get you a large point lead, but you lack cities/settlements to keep up with the other player's production. Getting early settlements are never a bad idea though; better to have 2/3 hexes from a new settlement with 1 blocked from the robber than 0/3 from not having it and no robber!

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