Leadership hacks from a coach who plays too much Settlers of Catan

Originally published on Medium.com on October, 7, 2020

During quarantine I did one of those things I always planned on doing at some point during my life. I decided to get really good at Settlers of Catan.

Since being introduced to this game at parties in undergrad (note the cool undergrad parties I was going to) I’ve craved achieving mastery. The game theory of where to build… the collaboration between players while trading… the strategy behind building on ports or getting Longest Road…

In early-May I was delighted to discover Catan Universe on Steam (we won’t talk about how many hours I’ve played since then…). Turns out I’m not the only one finding solace in this world of development cards and building roads. NPR published an article in August sharing that game sales increased by 144% between January and May, presumably from bored quantiners like myself. I was also delighted to discover in this article that apparently the game is popular among famous entrepreneurs and even shows up as a tool in venture capital deals. (Game on Reid Hoffman!)

The island at the beginning of the game. Each player has gotten to place \ two initial settlements for resources and now we shift the part of the game we roll the dice to gather resources.

A quick primer if you’ve never played: The game (requiring at least 3 people) features an island full of resources with numbers on top of them. If you build a settlement touching a wheat field with an 8 on it, that means when an 8 is rolled you receive a wheat. You can upgrade your settlement to a city and then you get two wheat for every 8. There are a variety of resources available and you combine them to do things like build roads to get to new areas of the board (or block competitors), build settlements to get more resources when numbers are rolled, or buy Development Cards that give you points or bonus tools to use. You gain points for building cities and settlements and the first player to 10 points wins.

Being who I am, I saw parallels to leadership as soon as I started playing. So, whether you want to be a beast at Catan or if you’re looking for some new ways to think about leadership, read on for some leadership hacks from Settlers of Catan.

1. Always start by getting a lay of the land and having a plan

The game starts with each player deciding where they want to build their first two settlements. Important things to note here: In Catan, wood and brick are critical resources, especially at the beginning of the game and dice rolling follows standard distribution (aka with two dice, 7 will be the most commonly rolled number, and then 6 and 8, 5 and 9, etc). I always start the game by assessing where there are brick and wood, and where there are 6s and 8s. Basically, if there is a 6 or 8 of wood or brick, you can safely bet on where I’m building. (Guess which color I am in the picture above) In my life, I view this as looking at the most critical resources for me in the moment. In my case as an entrepreneur, these have been community and clarity.

So, just like I want to get lots of wood and brick in Catan, I want to get lots of community and clarity in my life. So, what do I do? I put myself in close proximity to them, and invite them into my life by “building” there.

I also like to have a general direction for my next move “Build toward that intersection to get better access to sheep”, “Build on the wood port” (So I can trade my wood for other resources), “Buy a development card” (Hopefully to get a knight to defend my settlements). By having a plan, I know what resources I need to acquire. Exactly like in business, if my next step is “Launch a podcast”, I know what resources I need to start accumulating.

So, just like I want to get lots of wood and brick in Catan, I want to get lots of community and clarity in my life.

2. When it comes to trading, know what you have and what you need

Since I tend to capitalize building on wood and brick, I often find myself a bit scarce in other resources during the game. I may only get sheep (necessary to build more settlements) every time a 3 is rolled (which is preeeetty infrequently). This means I want to leverage trading and/or build toward places I have better access to this resource (aka, inviting it into my life). Maybe one of the other players is built on a 8/sheep and has tons in their hand to part with. I remember that I’m playing this game in conjunction with others.

When I have a plan (like I mentioned before) I know whether or not a trade is beneficial. I’m not just winging it like “Oh, yeah I guess I can part with this sheep to get some ore” because I know that sheep are a scarce resource to me. I’m not likely to get more sheep in my hand any time soon, so I want to hang on to that to build. (Aka, if I know my time is a scarce resource, I’m not about to just trade that for anything)