Settlers of Catan is coming to the 360 later this year so I expect there will be a lot of new people learning the game. I decided to take this opportunity to write down some of the strategy I use when playing. I'd love to hear feedback if you disagree or have additions to my list. It is by no means complete or authoritative. My strategy is still evolving but this current list seems to work well.
There are 25 victory cards: 14 soldiers, 5 victory points, and 6 other cards (monopoly, year of plenty, road building etc.) You'll waste away trying to win buying victory cards to get the points. Buy victory cards and assume you are getting a soldier. If you get something else consider yourself lucky. Also, when you pick up a victory card, be sure to spend the same amount of time reading the card no matter what it is. With new players you can tell what card they picked up by how long they read it: soldiers are immediately placed face down on the table, victory points take a bit longer, and the other cards are studied intensely.
I've seen people so focused on the longest road that they use up all their resources to defend it. They end up way out of contention and never have a chance to win. I don't specifically try to get the longest road but mid to late in the game I'll go for it if I think it's an easy deal. It's an especially nice move if you can build two or three roads at once and steal the longest road to boost yourself to 10 points.
The largest army is more expensive than the longest road (each soldier is 3 cards vs 2 for a each road.) Remember there are only 14 soldiers total so you never need more than 7 to keep the card. The same thing applies as for the road, don't forget that the largest army is worth only 2 points. Those 2 points might be cheaper to get elsewhere. Don't get into a largest road/army battle early in the game. You'll both end up wasting your cards and the other player(s) will win.
Sometimes you can get some sympathy by placing the robber on a dead card when you roll the 7. You're not making anyone mad by stealing their resources so maybe when they roll a 7 they won't put it on your cards. You can also try to use the robber placement to get cards. "If somebody gives me a brick and a sheep I won't put the robber on their card." Also, avoid being a robber target. If you are going to build heavy resource cards (3 or more cards per roll) make sure you have at least 2 (or preferrably 3) of these cards so that a robber on one of them does not cripple you. It's nice to have a knight in your hand to move the robber early in the game. A well placed robber early in the game can destroy an opponent. Later in the game it's not as big of a deal.
Wood and bricks. Wood and bricks. Wood and bricks. Unless you're an advanced player, you absolutely must be on lots of wood and lots of bricks at the beginning of the game. They are fundamental to get through the first half of the game. You use them to expand your territory and build crucial settlements.
There are two very distinct phases of the game. The first half (up to about 6 or 7 points) is focused on building roads an settlements. Start on wood and bricks and expand towards wheat and rocks. You absolutely must get yourself firmly set in the first half of the game. Get yourself on a lot of numbers, protect against the robber by diversifying, and build enough settlements to get those resources. In the second half of the game, you have hopefully established a good resource gathering base and you can start replacing your settlements with cities. Do that a few times and you've won the game. There's no need for largest army/road unless you grabbed it cheaply along the way in the course of the game.
Value of Resources:
Sheep are worthless. You only need one per settlement so in the course of a game you probably only need 4 or 5 sheep plus one for every development card you choose to buy. Bricks are crucial in the first half of the game and there are only 3 brick cards on the board. If you can move the robber onto bricks of your opponent you stand a good chance at crippling them early.
The most economical way to build settlements is to use three roads and three settlements. The three roads all expand from a central junction and give you the most bang for your buck. Do this a couple times and you'll quickly get a large resource base without expending many resources. You'll be in the second half of the game before the rest of the table knows what happened.
Trades should definitely be avoided. The only reason somebody is going to trade is if it benefits them. Why do you want to help move other players along in the game? If you're going to trade, trade with people who are clearly losing and are the least threat to you. Trade early rather than late. Remember that the first part of the game is all about production so it might be worth helping someone else out a bit to get your resources flowing. Also, if you have to trade, do it on the turn before you roll. If you trade earlier, you might end up acquiring that resource through normal means and then you just wasted a trade.
It's difficult to gain a monpoly on one resource because others can see what you're doing and get in on the fun. But very often you can get two people to control one resource (like bricks or rock.) Done effectively this can narrow the competition down significantly since the other player(s) won't be able to get started in the game. Now you can focus on beating your cartel partner.
It's easy to get in a bad mood when you are losing, but stick with some basic sportsmanship and make it a pleasant experience for everyone else.
- When you are done with your turn, pick up the dice and place them in front of the next player. This signifies the end of your turn and makes it easy for the next player to start their turn.
- When somebody takes a card from you via the robber, it's ok to give the cards a quick shuffle but hold them out for the other player to take. Don't set them on the table in a clump. It just slows the game down and frustrates the robber.
- Announce your moves before you start putting cards into the bank. This allows other players to watch and make sure you are paying the right amount. What you are building may not be immediately obvious if you are using ports to trade for other resources.
Keep track of how many points the other players have (remember hidden development cards may be points.) Hide your desire for largest army/longest road until you have 8 points and then spring the trap to get those extra two points.
If you see a particular resource clumped in one area adjacent to that resource's port, consider placing all your settlements just on that one resource. You can build on the port to convert your resource into everything you need. The key here is to spread out as much as possible among three or four different cards for that resource. Build multiple settlements/cities on each card of that type and have soldiers handy to move the robber away when it lands on your spaces.