Carcassonne: The Computer Game
is a high-quality adaptation of the SdJ-award-winning Carcassonne
tile game by Koch Media for Windows PCs.
Playing Time: 10-15 minutes
Difficulty: 2 (of 10)
This computer game is currently available only in Germany. There's an informational site at carcassonne-online.de and you can purchase a downloadable copy at softunity.com. You will have to struggle through lots of German pages, but I was able to with the help of babelfish. After figuring out how to pay, the download went smoothly (if slowly). After you've started up the game once, a carcassonne.cfg file will appear in the game's directory, and you just need to edit that, changing the line that reads language=2 to language=1, and then everything of any importance in the game will appear in English.
For the most part, I'm assuming you're familiar with the original Carcassonne game in this review.
Since the version of Carcassonne that I'm reviewing is a download, there were no other components. The game is apparently also available in CD form, but not on this side of the Atlantic.
Graphics & UI
Graphics: The graphics of Carcassonne center around the tabletop game's tiles, but you'll be able to see them in a variety of ways. For a start you can either use a top-down view or an isomorphic view. By default the views both show the original tiles (& original meeples), exactly as they appear in the Carcassonne board game, but there are a wide variety of other options. There are 4 different versions of each of the isomorphic and top-down tiles, each with slight varieties in contrast and brightness. There's also a 3D graphical version of the tiles (and followers). I find a lot of the extras distracting, but some might enjoy them, and in any case having the variations of the tiles so that you can choose the one most visible on your own computer is very nice.
You can resize the whole board up or down to about 4 different sizes. At the largest size, the tiles are extremely easy to read; at the smallest size I sometimes have to squint a bit, but they're pretty good, and you can usually fit the whole board on one screen.
The game has an attractive Celtic-influenced skin, which provides some nice texture and color to all of the various buttons and boxes in the game.
Audio: The game uses a set of three different songs as background music, and as far as I can tell randomly flips between them (fairly seamlessly); it looks like you can add in your own music too, if you so desire. The music that comes with the game is nice enough for me.
There's also sound effects for all the important actions, such as placing tiles and followers. They're generally nice, other than the sound effect for game end, which scares the hell out of me as often as not, because it's so loud and shrill.
User Interface: Carcassonne has a simple, well-done user interface. You get a tile, and you can flip it with the right-mouse button and place it with the left-mouse button. The view of the gameboard also helpfully depicts all the legal places that you can place your tile. After you've placed, little stars show up to mark anywhere you could place a follower. You either click on one of those or else click on the end turn button.
It's also easy to scroll around and decrease and increase the size of the graphics, all with the mouse.
When your opponents go, the tile they place highlights in their color, then leaves behind a ring of their color until their next turn. The animation of the highlight is usually good enough to get your attention, and if not you can just scan for the tile in their color; it's well done.
Player Helpers: One of the places that the Carcassonne computer game really shines is in the various player helpers that show up on the game screen. Most importantly, there's a list of all the players in a box, and it shows both their current score and the score that they'd earn if the game ended right now. Thus it's easy to see how everyone is doing in a way that would never be possible in a tabletop game. There's also a handy list of all the tiles left in the game that you can pop up, though some might consider that cheating. Finally, all places on the board where there's no remaining place that a tile could be played are shown in red (or some other color, depending on the graphical options you choose); this is another great feature, because you know what terrains not to hook up to, and when you're never going to get a meeple back.
Overall, the graphics in Carcassonne are attractive, and the inclusion of several optional ways to view the tiles is nice. Beyond that the UI and player helpers are absolutely great; the game is easier to play on the computer than on the tabletop as a result, and thus it earns a top rating of "5" out of "5" for Style.
The Game Play
For the full gameplay of Carcassonne, please see my review of the tabletop game.
In short, each turn you draw a random tile from a deck of ~80, then place it on the board so that it matches adjacent tiles. You then have an opportunity to place one of a limited number of followers (cities, cloisters, roads, or fields) in various structures on the tile you just placed, then you score any cities, cloisers, or roads which were completed, which more importantly gives you back your followers in those structurse. At the end of the game, all the fields are scored, as are any open cities, roads, or cloisters--though cities are less valuable at this point.
The computer game matches the gameplay of the tabletop game pretty precisely. You can even choose which scoring methods you want to use for fields and for 2-tile cities. (There have been three different editions of the rules.)
Also included in the gameplay of this Carcassonne package is the river, which allows you to layout a river, and slightly change the setup position for the core game. You can choose to turn the river on or off for any individual game.
Ways to Play Carcassonne
The Carcassonne computer game provides four different ways to play: AI, hotseat, hosted, and online.
AI: The game has a stunning ten different levels of AI, rated 1-10. I've played about 50 games at this point, and I can pretty reliably beat the level 2 AI, but the level 1 AI still gives me problems because he's really aggressive for taking over fields, and I'm very reluctant to commit followers there too early. The higher levels of AI are even better, which means any player will have some challenge, though the top couple of AIs (9 & 10) are slightly slow because they do depth searches when they're making decisions. (They're probably no slower than a somewhat analytical player, but you expect things to go faster when you're playing against a computer.)
There's also a system so that you can create your own AIs by choosing a general model, then deciding what types of features they consider important. I haven't looked at this too much because there are no (English) docs.
Overall, the AIs are superb, and you'll be perfectly happy with this game even if you play against just the computer.
Hotseat: Besides have 0-4 AIs in a local game, you can also have 1-5 real people. The hotseat implementation also has the nice effect of changing the interface when it gets to each real player, using their preferences for graphics and interface, which is very nicely done.
Hosted, Online: In hosted play, you can set up a game on an IP address, and in the online game you can connect up to a central server. I've never used either of these variations, since I buy games like this for private play, but it's worth commenting that the online game seems to generally have critical mass of other players.
Another nice element in all of the types of games is rankings. For local plays you can see your rating rise and drop against other players on the same machine and all the AIs, which is really cool. (You can even have the AIs play each other in "bot duels" to adjust their ratings.) In online play you'll instead be rated against other online players.
Relationships to Other Games
This computer game is an adaptation of Carcassonne, including the river expansion. it doesn't include any of the other expansions, though all the expansions up to King & Scout are available in separate online packages.
The Game Design
The computer adaptation of Carcassonne works pretty much like the original game, and thus shares its virtues and flaws.
On the good side, it's simple, allows good strategy, encourages cooperation (though that's a bit less important in a computer game), and controls its innate randomness.
On the bad side, I think that this computer version of Carcassonne shows off the game's rough edges even more than the tabletop game because it's easy to play many more games much more quickly. I've never quite realized how easy it was to block placement of tiles in the original Carcassonne, because the basic set of tiles is so constrained, but it becomes really obvious when you can explicitly see impossible placements as big red "X"s. It's also a lot easier to see the imbalance of the tile types when the points are being relentlessly counted by the computers: as I'd always imagined, the players who get the cloisters are at a serious advantage, and fields are overly powerful in this original release of the game.
Don't get me wrong, I think Carcassonne is a great game, it just has some flaws and they're more obvious if you play a dozen computer games than 1 or 2 tabletop plays. I'm happy with my purchase of this computer game, and I'm looking forward to picking up the computer supplements, as I know they fix some of these problems.
This computer version of Carcassonne does improve the gameplay in two notable ways, both related to the interface. Seeing where pieces can and can't go relieves problems that some players have with pattern matching. Likewise the constant tallying of both scored and unscored points makes it much more obvious who's a threat and who isn't. On the downside, these same interfaces make some of the flaws of the original game more obvious, and thus more frustrating, while some of the cooperative elements of the original game are somewhat lost when playing against a computer. On the whole that all averages out and I'd give the computer version of Carcassonne the same Substance rating that I gave the original game: "4" out of "5".
Carcassonne: The Computer Game is a superb adaptation of Klaus-Jurgen Wrede's original tile-laying board game. It has a great interface, great AIs, and is supremely cheap. Despite the annoyance of having to go through a German site to buy it, there's no excuse for any Carcassonne fan with a Windows computer not to buy this.
I mean, it's 5 Euros. That's about 6 bucks.