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Experienced Settlers of Catan players know that the answer to this question will vary based on many board setup factors such as resource productivity, 2:1 ports, whether you can corner the market for one resource and thus trade for the resource you lack, etc. For the purposes of this question, let's exclude such factors, and consider the middle case where there are no obvious 2:1 port setups, nobody can corner a market, and the distribution of production is a middling 10 dots each for the brick and ore, 13 dots each for wood and grain, and 12 dots for sheep.

Which of the 5 resources in Settlers of Catan is most important? Why?

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    @Ian: You've only played Settlers ONE TIME?!?! At least get some practice on BSW ... :) – The Chaz 2.0 Jan 30 '12 at 22:54
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This will depend tremendously on the situation, but it's worth learning some generalities:

If you are playing with just the base set:

  • brick and wood are completely identical as everything that needs one wood also needs one brick (roads and settlements).
  • Wheat is completely superior to wool/sheep as it is also needed for cities in addition to everything wool is needed for.
  • Wheat and Ore are about tied as you need 1 wheat and no ore for a settlement, and 3 ore and 2 wheat for a city. My experience is that wheat is slightly better as the ability to continue building settlements is usually worthy a slightly diminished city building capacity caused by an increase in wheat and decrease in your ore.

Anyone who has played 4+ games of Settlers knows that you need a variety of resources to win, although there are widely differing ways to get them, so there's no such thing as 'the best' resource as the distribution is so situational to the island layout, what other players have, what development cards and resources you have, and what everybody needs. However, wheat is essential to virtually any strategy, ore is needed for a city/development card strategy, wood and brick are necessary in at least small amounts for any expansion via new settlements and roads, and wool is overall probably least useful.

That is, until nobody goes for wool but you, making you the one who can build settlements faster and extort ridiculous prices from your adversaries for it until you take an early 3 point lead for a decisive win. As I said, it's all relative. :D

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    Your answer is quite good though I would suggest one small change: brick and wood are NOT completely identical because there are 4 wood hexes and 3 brick hexes. Brick (10 dots) is more valuable than wood (13 dots) from the scarcity/trading perspective in the median scenario. Your comments about wheat are terrific, and are further bolstered when you consider having a large bunch (say, 12) identical cards in your hand and what you can do with them on your turn, with or without a 3:1 port. A reasonable argument can be made that ore is more valuable than wheat (scarcity) but I don't agree with it. – Joe Golton Jan 26 '12 at 22:58
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    Really good answer, and coupled with Joe's comment there it becomes an amazing answer! Lots of things I hadn't really thought about before. – thesunneversets Jan 27 '12 at 11:16
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The value of resources depends on the stage of the game, and your strategy. A very typical strategy is to expand early until you have 3 or 4 settlements, and then focus on upgrading to cities while continuing to expand only when convenient. If this is your goal, brick and wood will be important in the beginning, and ore important in the late game, with wool and wheat somewhere in between throughout. On the other hand, it's possible to play a strong game without much emphasis on expansion, by focusing instead on cities and development cards, and only expanding when convenient. The most important things are to have a strategy and make choices consistent with your strategy, however there is no "best strategy" and thus no "best resource".

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If you are going for a one resource strategy(a 2:1 port and multiple good hexes), then Ore is definitely the best. With only one resource, settlements/roads will be expensive to build. This leaves cities as your main early game expansion option. Since you need 3 ore to 2 corn, ore is the better choice.

If you are just going for a general game, then you want all the resources, but sheep is definitely less important than corn. (As it is not required for cities.) You can make do without sheep by trading for it when you need a settlement, while wood/bricks are needed in large numbers for roads/settlements and corn/ore are needed for cities and development cards in large amounts.

Note that you can win a game without wood/bricks (2 cities, largest army and 4 VP cards) But you cannot win a game without ore. (5 settlements and longest road=7VP)

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    @TheChaz "Corn" is a synonym for "grain" in the U.K.; what U.S. residents call "corn," they call "maize." It's another term for wheat, I imagine. – Jadasc Jun 8 '12 at 1:21
  • @TheChaz Yes, wheat and corn are interchangeable in the UK. Maize is called sweetcorn. – Nick Jun 8 '12 at 8:08
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In general, ore is the most valuable resource, followed by brick (with obvious caveats about this not being true in all situations).

Justification

This conclusion is based first and foremost on the trade ratios I've observed over dozens of games. Ore and brick are most likely to command multiple resources in trades from other people and least likely to be used in trades with the bank. Using a 2:1 ore port is so rare that there should be an achievement for it.

For a more quantitative angle, we can put relative prices on the various resources by means of a supply and demand analysis. Supply is simple: count the pips. You already have that in your question: 13 for wood and wheat, 12 for sheep, and 10 for brick and ore. This is fairly representative of the average supply, as there are only 3 brick and wheat tiles but 4 of the other three, though supply can deviate substantially from this in a random map.

In order to get numbers for demand, we have to know what resources people want. There are two typical strategies that will win in base Catan: wide and tall. Wide means building a bunch of roads and settlements; the strategy wins with something like longest road, two cities, and four settlements although there are plenty of other variations (a single VP objective card helps a lot, especially if you can't get longest road). Tall means focusing on cities and development cards; this typically wins with 3 cities, and four more points from some mix of largest army, VP development cards, and a fourth settlement/city.

To get hard demand numbers, we need to make a few assumptions. Let's assume we have three players, with two of the players going wide and one going tall (the reason for three players is that 2:1 is a fairly typical ratio of wide vs tall strategies in my experience). The wide players each want to build 7 roads, 4 settlements, 2 cities, and 1 development card. The tall player wants to build 2 roads, 2 settlements, 3 cities, and 6 development cards. Thus, the wide players each want 11 brick, 11 wood, 9 wheat, 7 ore, and 5 sheep, and the tall player wants 4 brick, 4 wood, 14 wheat, 15 ore, and 8 sheep.

This gives us the following:

Resource Supply Demand Demand / Supply Price
Ore 10 29 2.9 1.9 Sheep
Brick 10 26 2.6 1.7 Sheep
Wheat 13 32 2.46 1.6 Sheep
Wood 13 26 2.0 1.3 Sheep
Sheep 12 18 1.5 1.0 Sheep

Situationality

Obviously the value of resources is situational; if you are at 9 points and are just missing a sheep to build a final settlement and win, then sheep is the most important resource to you. Different boards and players can also change the values, both in changing the numbers in the supply column (which is straightforward), but also in changing the demand column based on the strategies players are pursuing. These numbers are meant to be illustrative of what resources are "typcially" worth; a baseline price if you will. It's easy to see that the price a player would pay in a particular situation can deviate from the baseline price because no resource is worth more than twice as any other at baseline, but players regularly use 2:1 and 3:1 ports throughout the game.

The value of resources also changes throughout the game. Brick and wood are more valuable early game than late game because in the early game is when you may be racing other players to claim key road or settlement spots. Meanwhile, wheat and ore are more valuable late game, because uprgading your main cities (and keeping the robber off of key tiles) is better for your production than builing in one of the remaining marginal settlement spots. Here again, player preferences and the board can change things. One of my favorite openings is to take a high value ore spot with a starting settlement and have my first purchase be a city upgrade (as the starting settlement spots are almost always the most productive spots in the game), but this play only works on some boards.

Unintuitive Nature of Results

The value of ore is often surprising to new players because you don't "need" it at first. You can play the opening, getting purely roads and settlements, without any ore. Thus, there is a temptation to go for starting locations that give you a good spread of non-ore resources, under the thinking that you can pick up ore later. The problem is you can't win without ore; you can get at most 7 points (5 settlements and 2 for longest road) since you can't build more than five settlements without upgrading some to cities.

Cities in particular are massively ore intensive; getting shut out of good ore production is almost always fatal in the late game, as even with a great 2:1 port setup, you're going to be missing out on key trade opportunities with other players who are hungry for ore and willing to trade at quite favorable rates for it later.

Ignoring a high-value (5 pip) ore tile in the opening can be catastrophically expensive later. If someone else can build the easy settlement spot on that tile as a starting settlement or beat you in the race to that tile, your recourse is usually to build several extra roads just to get on the tile at all (usually in a worse settlement spot) or to settle for a less productive (2 or 3 pip) ore tile.

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