Review of Carcassonne
If you asked me the three best gateway games, I would without hesitation tell you Ticket to Ride, Settlers of Catan, and Carcassonne (Hans im Gluck and Rio Grande, 2000 - Klaus-Jurgen Wrede). Each of the three games has their selling points, and Carcassonne has been one of my favorite games to suck more people into the fold of great board games. More recently, I’ve just begun to use the basic principles of the game to teach my four year old some tactics and strategies. Carcassonne looks fantastic when set up on the table, has a wide range of expansions available, and should be a part of every gamer’s collection.
A player may place a “knight”, a meeple on a city segment of the tile. The knight may only be placed in a city that contains no other meeples, from any color.
A player may place a “thief” on a road segment - again, only on a road that has no other thieves.
A player may place a farmer on any field segment - once again only in a field that has no other meeples. Fields are separated by roads and cities.
A player may place a “monk” on a cloister.
I must say that Wrede’s later Carcassonne works are getting better, as the game now has had the benefit of hundreds of thousands of playings. If you’re not interested in the expandability of the game, then I would highly recommend picking up Ark of the Covenant or Carcassonne: the City. Both of them are slightly simpler and overall a bit superior to Carcassonne when played by itself. But when expansions are added, Carcassonne becomes a different animal, with a huge variety. Better yet, the expansions can be mixed and matched with little or no effect, allowing one to play Carcassonne with the rules of their pleasing. Lately, it has become fashionable to publicly declare disdain for Carcassonne online; yet I will contend that Carcassonne is not only bringing new gamers into the fold but offers fun, tactical depth with a mix of luck.
The base game comes with seventy-two land tiles - one of which is placed in the middle of the table to start the game. The rest are shuffled and placed in stacks near the board (or in a cloth bag - whatever the players prefer). Each player takes eight small wooden people markers (commonly known as “meeples”) of their color. A small board with a scoring track from zero to fifty is placed somewhere on the table, and one meeple from each player is placed on the track as a marker. The youngest player decides who goes first, and then play proceeds clockwise around the table.
On a player’s turn, they draw one tile and must place it adjacent to one of the tiles on the board. Each tile is a combination of roads, city segments, fields, and cloisters. Tiles can only be placed so that the terrain on adjacent tiles matches (field to field, city to city, road to road). All players may offer advice on where to place the tile, and the player may discard the tile if no legal placement is available (quite rare). A player may then place one of their meeples on one part of the tile.
If separate cities, roads, or fields are connected by a tile, then it is possible for two or more meeples to be in the same city, etc.
After the meeples are placed (optional), and completed feature is scored. A completed feature scores points for the player with the most meeples on it (or all players, if a tie occurs). The meeple(s) is removed and returned to the player(s). Fields are not scored until the end of the game, regardless of whether they are finished or not.
A city is completed when the wall around it completely connects. A city scores two points for each tile in the city, unless the city is composed of only two sections, in which case each section is worth only one point. Some city sections have little pennant symbols - these are worth two extra points each.
A road is complete when both ends stop at a crossing, city, or cloister. A road scores one point for each tile forming the road.
A cloister is complete when the tile containing the cloister is completely surrounded by nine tiles. A cloister scores nine points.
When the last tile is placed, the game ends after that player’s turn. Final scoring then takes place.
All incomplete cities score one point per tile, with pennants worth one point.
All incomplete roads score one point per tile.
All incomplete cloisters score one point each, plus one point for each adjacent tile (diagonal or orthogonal).
Each farm is then scored. Farms score four points for players for each completed city that is adjacent to the farm. If a completed city has more than one farm supplying it, then the player with the most farmers in the adjacent farms gets the four points (in case of ties - all involved players score).
After the final scoring, the player with the most points is the winner!
In some versions of the game, the farmers score differently.
In the Rio Grande version, a small “river” expansion is included. I’ve reviewed that expansion separately.
Some comments on the game...
1.) Components: The box is a fairly sturdy box, not too big, but large enough to comfortably house the base game and all expansions (thus far). The tiles are of good quality - the artwork on each is varied; and when placed together, they look really nice on the table. Many people add a cloth bag (which is not included in the game, but is in an expansion) or a tile tower for ease of drawing tiles, but neither is really necessary. The starting tile has a different colored back to allow it to be pulled from the rest. And the meeples are probably the most famous piece of “German” gaming. These little wooden men have become symbols for “Euro” gaming and make much more enjoyable markers than cubes, or wooden disks. The only problem with the components of Carcassonne (and it’s minor) is that the scoreboard goes only to fifty, and scores almost ALWAYS go higher than that. Again, this problem is fixed in a future expansion, with tiles that show when a player has passed “50” or “100”.
2.) Rules: The rules are short and simple - taking up only four pages, with full colored illustrations. I’ve found the game very easy to teach, and players pick up on it right away. It often appeals to those who like puzzles, as the concept of matching like sections is enjoyable for them. The rules fall naturally into place, and only two need to be explained in any detail: the fact that meeples can only coexist if a tile is placed that merges two cities, etc.; and farmers.
3.) Farmers: Farmers are confusing to beginners; but when I teach a game, I take an extra minute to explain them in detail. Beginners usually don’t realize how powerful a farmer can be - an unchecked one can win a player the game. The expansions do cut down on how powerful a farmer can be, but they still cannot be ignored. The tile mix in Carcassonne is good, but the tile mixes in Carcassonne: Hunters and Gatherers and Ark of the Covenant are better, as they tend to check farmers more. Then, there is the confusion over which farmer-scoring rules are used. I’ve seen long debates over which rule set to use on the internet, but I’m perfectly content with those in the Rio Grande version - they may not be as simple as other variations, but they work for me. Farmers are only complicated if a player chooses to make them so.
4.) Tile draw: I often hear two complaints about Carcassonne: how lucky the tile draw is and analysis paralysis. There is a fair amount of luck in what players draw, to be sure. When you’re trying to finish a city, and all the tiles you draw have nothing but roads, it can be a bit frustrating. But I do believe that the luck evens out through the game. When playing with players who are more strategic in nature (i.e. they don’t like randomness that much), I play with an optional rule that gives each player a hand of three tiles - thus increasing their options. Of course, this increases the other problem - that of a player taking an inordinately long amount of time on their turn. I’ve found the best way to avoid this problem is to allow players to draw a tile as soon as they finish their turn, giving them a longer time to think upon their next action. This has caused my Carcassonne games to move at a quick clip.
5.) Strategy: Knowing how many meeples to put into farms is quite important; it’s important to put some in (farms can’t be ignored), but one doesn’t want to tie up all their meeples. A player’s playing style in the game can be one of opportunity (merely trying to increase their cities and roads), or one of attack (trying to muscle their way into large cities, or deliberately placing tiles that make it hard for a player to increase their cities and roads). Cities are certainly a keystone of the game, but roads allow a player some quick points.
6.) Fun Factor: Much of the fun comes from the building of the land of Carcassonne. Many times, after a game, players will sigh in satisfaction, looking at the cool map that has been built. Scoring a large city/road/farm also brings a smile to one’s face. On the flip side, an aggressive opponent can knock down the fun for some people, as well as bad tile draws. While the majority of people I’ve introduced the game to have enjoyed it, there are a few who really hate it. These are mostly people who just don’t enjoy luck much at all and make up a (vocal) minority. I’ve found that Carcassonne is at it’s finest, and most fun, when introduced to “casual gamers.”
7.) Expansions: I’ve stated above that I prefer one of the later Carcassonne evolutions when playing a “vanilla” game, but Carcassonne is still the king when it comes to expansions. I’ve included all of them in my games, and enjoy them all, although I’d never introduce them all at once to a new gamer. There isn’t one of the lot that I dislike, although Builders and Traders is probably my current favorite. They all add to the tile mix and add in some more strategic options. If someone doesn’t like Carcassonne because of the “lack of strategy”, they still might like it with one or more of the expansions added. (I’ve reviewed each expansion separately.)
Mr. Wrede certainly designed a classic game when he came up with Carcassonne. There are some that dislike it (mostly hard-core gamers), but most people I’ve introduced it to have enjoyed it greatly. Not only does it play well in multiplayer (up to five, six with the expansion), but it also makes a tremendous two-player game (though not as good as Carcassonne: the Castle). It’s simple, easy, and fun; and most people have asked me to try it again. I enjoy it, and with its expansions I find it one of the most fun games I own. It certainly would be one of the last I’d get rid of. Five years after it’s release Carcassonne still has expansions coming out and is rising in popularity. This is for good reason - if you haven’t played the game yet, check it out!
“Real men play board games.”