3 lessons I learned about planning from the Settlers of Catan

Three lessons I learned about planning from the Settlers of Catan

With only two shakes of the dice to go before my turn and the right resource cards in my hand to earn that one last settlement that would secure me victory, what could go wrong? Well the unthinkable happened and one of the other players threw a seven which entitled them to raid my resource cards and earn another settlement, making them the winner and me the nearly man.

For those who have never played The Settlers of Catan, here’s a quick overview. Players start out with basic settlements and roads and choose their placements according to what they think will be most advantageous. Then, to expand their empires, they must obtain resources to build more roads, settlements, and cities. But under the rules of the game, settlements have to be separated by two lengths of road, so the timing is fairly critical. So too is negotiation, as players can trade resource cards.

The game was launched in 1995, but seems to have been a slow burner, only breaking into the mainstream in the last few years. I must admit I’ve been a complete laggard in coming to the game, but I’m glad I did. Every time we play, I get new insights into how to become a better player. And I can’t imagine ever tiring of the game as there are so many different ways to lay the board out, and extra add-ons, that no two games are ever the same.

Old school board games might seem an anachronism today, but anyone who has played The Settlers of Catan will know that although there is an element of chance involved, success depends on having a sound strategy, good execution, a realistic assessment of risk, and being adept at reformulating a new game plan to counter threats and make the most of opportunities. That sounds a lot like running a business, doesn’t it? In fact, I’ve found that playing the game can actually teach you a few important lessons about effective business planning.

Lesson 1: Analyze all the data

Because the board layout is different each time, it is important to choose good spots for your first settlements where you stand the best chance of winning the resource cards needed for expansion. Ideally that means choosing spots with a good mix of resources, covered by numbers that have a high probability of coming up on the dice. So while everyone else is chatting around the table, take time to identify a few hot spots on the board and just hope no one selects them before your turn comes around.

Lesson 2: Neutralize the opposition sooner rather than later

Once play starts, players tend to focus on executing their own strategy; building roads and settlements, getting out to the islands to secure bonus points, or whatever. In my experience, they rarely pay much attention to how other players are doing early in the game. And even when they finally notice that someone is beginning to pull ahead, the typical response is just to use the “robber” to block one of their top resource-generating hexagons and slow down their progress for a while.

But by then, it’s normally too late. And regardless of this temporary harassment, the player goes on to win. A far more successful approach is to anticipate the strategies of other players early on, and attempt to neutralize any potentially advantageous positions as soon as possible. This may entail the other players working together and being prepared to defer the development of their own settlements for a while. But unless you take incisive action early on, it’s a lost cause. So pay attention to what opportunities others have to develop their settlements from the outset rather than getting too enamoured with your own game plan.

Lesson 3: Understand what your strategy can deliver

Players that are not able to secure a presence on the obvious hot spots on the board have two choices. 1) They can set themselves up at less advantageous positions adjacent to the main hot-spots or 2) they can follow a high risk/high return strategy elsewhere on the board, such as rolling out settlements on the islands. Both are valid choices, but it is vital to assess if the chosen strategy can actually deliver sufficient points to win the game, and whether it could be compromised by the inability to access the resources need to implement it. Sales planning is exactly the same; if you are going to hit quota, there needs to be sufficient activity in the pipeline and the appropriate amount of sales resource.

The three points above are all important elements of good planning, but there are plenty more lessons to be learned from playing the game. If you’re a Catan player, please share some of the ploys that have been successful for you as my next win is long overdue.

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