Life lessons from the shores of Catan

Last week, I spent some time in Virginia with my wife’s family, who enjoy board games, but aren’t hobbyists or enthusiasts like we are. We thought Settlers of Catan was a safe choice to bring, as it’s easy to learn, and our 10-year-old nephew would be able to play. We ended up playing a lot while we were there—we played three games on the last day of our trip, including a five-player game, which was a blast.


Not having played a ton of the game before last week, I hadn’t given a whole lot of thought to what it takes to win a game of Settlers. But as we played more, and I spent more time thinking about effective strategies, it started becoming clear that the things you need to do to become the Lord (or Lady) of Catan are really similar to the things you need to do to win in life.

Have a plan, even if it’s not a great one

When you start playing Settlers, it’s easy to just jump in and start buying things, settling where you can, and building some occasional roads. But if you want to win, you need a plan. Maybe you’re going to amass as much brick and wood as possible to get your settlements out quick and go for the longest road bonus. Or maybe you’ll focus on ore and grain so you can get development cards and cities.


Or maybe you’ll try something else. The important thing isn’t that you have the best plan, it’s that you have a plan. Because just settling random hexes and occasionally buying things isn’t going to get you anywhere for long. It’ll work for a while, but once you get away from the novice stage, it’s just not going to get you anywhere.

It’s the same in life. For a while, you can just go with it and react to the situations you’re presented with. But once you get past a certain stage (and everyone is different, but for me it was around the age of 25), you’re going to really benefit from having a plan. Again, it doesn’t need to be the best plan, or an extremely detailed one. It doesn’t even need to include the next dozen steps: just the next couple is enough.

But having a good understanding of where you are in life, as well as a goal for where you’d like to be and how you’re going to get there, will help a lot. If you don’t have one, sit down with a notebook and write for half an hour. You won’t regret it.

Make compromises to boost future prospects

Of course, obsessively sticking to your plan and not being flexible isn’t good either. In Settlers, you often come across situations where you need to make a compromise. You need two ore for your city, but the best trade you can get is an ore and a wood. A lot of the time, it’s going to be a good idea to take that trade.


It might not immediately give you a big benefit, but by developing some good will with other players, you’ll increase the chances of more profitable interactions in the future, and they could pay off big. Not only that, but the compromises you make might open up unforeseen opportunities when you’re not expecting them. Maybe a fortuitous roll will help you turn that wood into a longest road bonus, or an extra settlement that you weren’t expecting.

Being flexible is always a good thing, but striking a balance between flexibility and goal orientation isn’t always easy. With experience, you’ll learn to take advantage of each one without compromising the other.

It’s the same when you’re dealing with other people in life: you’re going to need to make compromises. You never know what opportunities you’ll be opening yourself up to by making them, or what you’ll be missing out on if you don’t. Keep your goal in mind, but remember that very few straight roads actually get you anywhere.

Think carefully about investments

This is important in any game, but I find that Settlers games can contain a lot of deceptive situations: they look like there’s an obvious choice, but that choice can have repercussions that you might not expect. Obviously games that include other players and a lot of social interaction are going to be especially hard to predict, but taking an extra moment to think about what the results of your action will be can be a game-changer.

This is especially true when it comes to initial settlement placement; a good placement will help you get off to a quick start, while a poor one will keep you behind through at least the mid-game, and possibly all throughout. Again, being able to maximize your placements comes with experience, but an extra moment of thought could have a huge effect on the rest of the game.


Similarly, waiting an extra turn or two to build another road to place a settlement one space away can make a huge difference in how the rest of the game plays out. It can change the distribution of resources that you receive and make it easier or harder to stick with your strategy. It can derail your opponents’ plans. It can set you up for good plays with the Robber. Or it can be a split-second decision that sticks you with a bad placement for the rest of the game.

Real-life decisions are the same way. Obviously there are going to be a lot of factors that you can’t take into account—what other people think and do, how chance will play out, and so on—but taking an extra moment to think about your decisions on where to invest time, money, or mental energy can make a big difference. It doesn’t even have to be a major decision: it could be how you’re going to spend your time this afternoon or whether or not you should go for a run tomorrow morning. But an extra moment to think could have long-lasting effects. Don’t skip out on it.

Make the most of every resource

In every game, you’ll be presented with bad situations. Your opponent will get a better roll than you, or capitalize on an opportunity that you missed out on, or just be a little more skilled in strategizing. Although Settlers is a great game for beginners and experts to play together, no matter what the distribution of skill is, you’re going to be put in a bad situation, and you’ll have limited resources.

It can feel like you’re stuck and not able to do anything when you have a hand full of a single resource, or the exact opposite of what you need, but before you panic or get frustrated, remember that Settlers will reward you for a lot of different things. Pursuing the longest road or largest army bonus might not be your initial intent, but if you get stuck with a lot of a single resource, that might be a good way out. Getting a port that lets you trade more efficiently can turn a few bad placements into a winning combination.

While you might think that some resources are just taking up space in your hand and making you more susceptible to a bad 7 roll, there’s almost always something useful you can do with them. Even if it’s just trading them away for something you need.


What resources do you have in your life? You might be thinking about money, investments, real estate, your car, and other material things, but remember that you have a lot more than that at your disposal. Your interests, talents, passions, skills, motivation, and creativity are all fantastic resources. Whenever you’re presented with a situation where you feel like you’re running low on one, remember that one of the others can often help you bounce back.

Don’t have any money? Try making some with one of your skills as a freelancer. Not feeling passionate about anything? Indulge in one of your interests for a while and let your creativity run wild. Feel like you’re not skilled in anything? Develop one of your passions. You have a ton of resources—make the most of them.

Be prepared for surprises

In our final game of the weekend, we played a five-player game: me, my wife, my brother-in-law and his wife, and their 10-year-old son. I had the most experience, followed by my wife and her brother, and I’m an avid gamer, so I have a pretty good idea of how to strategize in euro games. Who do you think won?

The 10-year-old. Seriously. I got to nine points, then he got to nine, and then my brother-in-law got there. It was a three-way tie for first place, with a single point to decide the game, and he got it first. It took me very much by surprise. But you just roll with it—things don’t usually go the way you think they will, whether you’re playing Settlers or planning your biggest life choices.

Having gone through a number of unexpected turns in my own life (from relationships to jobs to travel), I can tell you that being able to go along with whatever comes your way is one of the most valuable skills you can develop.

Rolls in Settlers aren’t going to go your way, and neither are rolls in life. That’s just how it is. But there’s nothing you can do about it, so keep up with your other strategies, keep your eye on your goals, and don’t give up. And if it all ends badly, set it up and play again!

Play Settlers for life

If you’ve never played Settlers of Catan, or you haven’t played in a long time, you should give it a go. Grab a copy on Amazon here. And if you’re looking for something to spice up the game, try the Seafarers expansion!


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