European board games are earning a lot of respect these days, particularly German games. I first became aware of this trend playing Settlers of Catan, having previously only played English and American board and card games with any regularity. As a result I've started keeping an eye on new board and card game releases from the continent. This game was acually a gift from a friend and was new to me. I had heard of its predecessor Carcassonne, I had not previously played either.
The game is published in the US by Rio Grande Games, and that's the edition I own.
Carcassonne: Hunters and Gatherers ('Hunters and Gatherers' from now on) comes in a sturdy game box. Inside you get a 6 page rules leaflet, 91 land tiles, 30 wooden tribesmen, 10 wooden huts, 10 wooden disks, 1 scoring track and 5 scoring cards. A game usually takes from 45 minutes to just over an hour.
Physically the game is very attractive with sturdy, colourful components. The box is well constructed of stiff card, as are the land tiles, scoring track and scoring cards. The tribesmen and huts are painted in 5 colours, acomodating up to 5 players. Overall the component quality is high. The artwork has a rather rough and ready appearance, apparently in a faux-primitive style, although there is no attempt to actually emulate stone age cave painting art.
While the original Carcassonne game had a medieval setting, Hunters and Gatherers is set in the stone age. The players control rival primitive tribes exploring and settling the grasslands, rivers, lakes and forests of the region. There is no combat in Hunters and Gatherers, instead each tribe scores points by exploiting the natural resources of the region as they discover them. Tribesmen can be deployed as hunters in grasslands, gatherers in forests and fishermen along lakes and rivers, scoring points as they go.
Game setup consists of shuffling and organising the land tiles into piles. There are three kinds of land tiles: 79 ordinary tiles, 12 bonus tiles and the starting tile which begins the game face up, in the centre of the playing area. Each player also puts one tribesman on the scoring track.
The game has a strict turn sequence. Nobody can act during another player's turn, although they may occasionally score points. On their turn each player draws an ordinary land tile, and may place it face up on the playing area. The tile must share at least one edge with a tile that has already been placed, and the terrain depicted on the tiles limit how they may be arranged relative to each other. For example rivers may enter or leave a tile across the middle of one or more sides, and must match up with rivers on adjacent tiles - they can't be cut off at the edge between two tiles. Similarly forest edges must connect to forests on the edges of adjacent tiles. The result is that the game map grows naturally into a rich mosaic of grasslands, rivers, lakes and forests, each spread across several tiles.
Once a tile has been placed, the player may place a tribesman or a hut on that tile, and only that tile. Tiles contain regions of grassland, and may also contain regions of forest, a lake and stretches of river. Tribesmen may be placed on a grassland, on a forest or along a river. Huts may only be placed along rivers. Tribesmen placed on forests or rivers score points for their player when (if) their forest or river is completed, with no remaining 'open' edges. Tribesmen placed on grasslands score for each game animal depicted on that span of grassland at the end of the game, as do huts placed on river systems. This means you have to be more conservative placing them in this way early on in the game, since it means you have fewer pieces to play with for the rest of the game. There are a few additional rules affecting points scored, but these are the basics. When you score points you move your man along the scoring track, which wraps around after 50 points. Each time you pass the 50 mark you draw a 50 point scoring card, or flip one over to the 100 point side.
Strategy and Tactics
Game strategy is necesarily opportunistic, since it depends on the tile you draw and how it might fit with the existing landscape of tiles. Nevertheless there are often several possible ways to place any given tile. Do you try to score points quickly by completing smaller forests and river segments, or do you try to occupy and build up large forest zones or river systems and score more points in the long term? Forests are highly attractive in the early game because they are relatively easy to complete, and will often allow you to draw a bonus tile, effectively giving you a free turn. Bonus tiles often also have desirable special effects such as double points for a forest tile, or an opportunity to guarantee you exclusive control of a hunting area.
There are still plenty of ways you can stitch up your rivals. If a player has placed a tribesman in a forest, perhaps you can arrange river tiles near it, such that it is unlikely your opponent will draw a piece that will satisfy all the placement conditions and complete the forest. You can also place a tribesman or hut on a separate river or forest area and then link it to an opponent's river or forest, forcing them to share it's points with you.
The fact that tiles are drawn randomly means that sometimes you can suffer from a run of bad luck. Even when that happens, you still get plenty of tactical and strategic options throughout the game. Even after a dozen or more games we have still found ourselves discovering new tricks and tactics.
I have mostly played Hunters and Gatherers as a two player game, and my wife and I are addicted to it. I have played it as a three player game, but no more than that. With more players, the competition seems to become much more direct, with more incentive to place tiles so that opponents can't complete their rivers or forests, or have to share them with you. The size of the playing area also affects game play. On a big table the tiles often spread out in various directions and it's usually easy to find a good place to put your tiles. On a more restricted playing area you can quickly reach the edge. It becomes increasingly more difficult to score well towards the end, and your tile placement choices are more likely to affect the other players subsequent options. We like that, and often choose to play on a restricted playing area (actualy the back of a Monopoly board).
Overall the game is a lot of fun to play. I haven't played the original Carcassonne game, so I can't realy comment on how similar they are, or whether they are different enough that owners of one of them would still find sufficient variation between them to make the other a worthwhile purchase. I am quite happy with Hunters and Gatherers, but will certainly have a look at it's predecessor when I get the chance.
We recently played a game on a train table, to the fascination of a little girl sitting opposite us. The way the landscape unfolds through the game is a joy to watch, aside from the fun of the game itself.
I gave Hunters and Gatherers 4 for Style and 5 for Substance. I love the look of the game, but the art does have an unfinished feel. In terms of playability and fun I can't fault it. I've probably played the game about 4 times a week for the past 2 months, with no sign that we'll stop any time soon. The game components are also very tough, and so far they don't show any signs of wear.