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The question is about the base game. I'm interested in whether any of the expansions affect this rule in any way.

My family recently bought Catan, and we're having a dispute over how the maritime trade rule is supposed to be interpreted. We went through the relevant rule:

b) Maritime Trade

You can also trade without the other players! During your turn, you can always trade at 4:1 by putting 4 identical resource cards back in their stack and taking any 1 resource card of your choice for it. If you have a settlement or city on a harbor Y, you can trade with the bank more favorably: at either a 3:1 ratio or, in certain harbors, at 2:1 (trading the resource type shown). Important: The 4:1 trade is always possible, even if you do not have a settlement on a harbor.

The disupute is over the "settlement on a harbor" part. The two interpretations are as follows:

  1. You can 4:1 trade with the bank if you have a settlement on the shore, but it doesn't have to be on one of the harbors.

The reasoning behind this is that the bank is not on the island of Catan, so the trade happens by ship - that's why it's called the maritime trade. You need to have a settlement on the shore so the ship has a place to go to make the exchange of resources.

  1. You can always 4:1 trade with the bank, period. The shoreside settlements are, in this regard, no different from those not on the shore.

The above reasoning is nice, but it's just fluff - the rules-as-written say "always", not "if you have an exit to the sea".

Which interpretation is the correct one?

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    The quoted rule passage literally says you can always trade at 4:1 by putting 4 identical resource cards back in their stack and taking any 1 resource card of your choice for it, and also Important: The 4:1 trade is always possible. Seems crystal clear to me! Jan 15, 2023 at 0:28
  • It does seem crystal clear, but 1/3 of my boardgaming group interpreted it the other way, which is why I felt the need to ask this question.
    – weenko
    Jan 15, 2023 at 9:05
  • I've played Catan but I am certainly not an expert, but coming from my yugioh background, "you can" is optional Jan 16, 2023 at 9:33
  • IOW, your friends think that flavor trumps the plain language of the rules. Since that seems to be the issue, you can give them the argument of "Why does it cost 4:1 no matter which way I trade (e.g. you can trade 4 wood for 1 ore, but you can't trade 1 ore for 4 wood)? Clearly there are very high shipping costs." Jan 16, 2023 at 23:34
  • In the video game I play, you can always trade 4:1 (if not a more favorable deal) in Settlers of Catan, Seafarers, Cities and Knights, and Cities and Knights with Seafarers. Feb 4 at 2:45

4 Answers 4

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From the Rules and Almanac download:

MARITIME TRADE

On your turn, you can trade resources using maritime trade during the trade phase even without involving another player.
The most basic (and unfavorable) exchange rate is 4:1. You may trade 4 identical resource cards to the supply in exchange for 1 resource card of your choice. You do not need a harbor Y (settlement at a harbor location) to trade at 4:1, so when nobody wants to trade…

Example: Benny returns 4 ore cards to the supply and takes 1 lumber card in exchange. Normally, he should first try a more favorable trade with the other players (domestic trade).

If you have built a settlement or city at a harbor Y location, you can trade more effectively.
[Emphasis mine]

Notice, in the description of the most basic rules and in the example, there is no mention of requiring a settlement or city anywhere.

Think of it this way, if you buy a large TV at a local store. That TV was likley made far away over water. Shipped to a settlement or city on the water and trucked to your settlement or city. The extra expense of moving it over land from a harbor is represented by the additional cost (4⮕1 vs 3⮕1).

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    Great point about there not being a single mention of settlements, either on the shore or anywhere else! I presented an argument similar to your TV example today and it went over great. Thanks!
    – weenko
    Jan 14, 2023 at 18:27
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Reading rules can be a bit of a learned skill.

The basic principles are, in general:

  • There is no hidden rules.
  • Rules often have a generic case and exception cases.

So, decomposing the paragraph given into sentences:

You can also trade without the other players!

More "introduction" than rule.

During your turn, you can always trade at 4:1 by putting 4 identical resource cards back in their stack and taking any 1 resource card of your choice for it.

A rule in itself: 4:1 trade.

If you have a settlement or city on a harbor Y, you can trade with the bank more favorably: at either a 3:1 ratio or, in certain harbors, at 2:1 (trading the resource type shown).

In specific circumstances, you may get a better ratio. This does not affect the more general circumstances.

Important: The 4:1 trade is always possible, even if you do not have a settlement on a harbor.

A precision that the 4:1 does not require a settlement on a harbor -- likely there because "maritime" could otherwise be construed to require a harbor.

What this precision does NOT say is that a settlement is at all required.

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Interpretation (b) is correct. You can always trade 4:1 with the bank regardless of where your settlements are placed.

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    While I do agree (and will most likely continue to play this way), I was hoping for an answer backed up by some official source if possible. I'll leave this open until tomorrow, and if nobody comes along with an authoritative source by then, I'll accept your answer. Thanks.
    – weenko
    Jan 14, 2023 at 12:54
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The rules of a board game are whatever it says in the rulebook. What the rulebook says is that you can always trade at 4:1. Therefore, the rule is that you can always trade at 4:1.

You asked for "an answer backed up by some official source." The rulebook is an official source, so there you have it.

Of course, if they want to, your family can refuse to play according to the rules. They can decide that they don't want to play in a way that's at odds with what seems to make sense. But if they do decide to follow the rules, then the rule is totally unambiguous.

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  • I'm well aware that the rulebook is as official as it gets. I thought there might be some clarification in some other published material that doesn't get shipped with the game (like there is, for example, for Betrayal at House on the Hill).
    – weenko
    Jan 15, 2023 at 9:13
  • @weenko Yeah, that's a good point. And it looks like you were right about that, too. Jan 15, 2023 at 14:12

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