Review of Carcassonne

Review Summary
Playtest Review
Written Review

October 1, 2003


by: Shannon Appelcline


Style: 5 (Excellent!)
Substance: 4 (Meaty)

A great tile-laying game that's simple, yet strategic.

Shannon Appelcline has written 681 reviews (including 358 board/tactical game reviews), with average style of 4.03 and average substance of 3.85. The reviewer's previous review was of Attack! Expansion.

This review has been read 35265 times.

 
Product Summary
Name: Carcassonne
Publisher: Rio Grande Games
Line: Carcassonne
Author: Klaus-Jurgen Wrede
Category: Board/Tactical Game

Cost: $19.95
Pages: N/A
Year: 2000

SKU: RG-170
ISBN: 1-892081-69-5


Review of Carcassonne
Carcassonne is a tile-laying game set against a background of Medieval France. Itís quick to play, yet it combines simplicity and strategy in good combination.

Players: 2-5
Playing Time: 30-60 minutes
Difficulty: 2 (of 10)

This game was originally produced by Hans im Gluck in Germany.

This is a rewrite and expansion of a review of Carcassonne originally published in August 2002.

The Components

Carcassonne comes with a small set of high quality components, including:

Tiles: The land tiles are printed in four colors on heavy cardboard. They depict cities, roads, cloisters, and fields--the four core locales of the game. The drawings are attractive, appropriate to the Medieval period that the game evokes, and fit together well.

Scoring Track: The scoring board is about 7"x10", printed in four-color on the same heavy cardboard as the tiles. The numbers on the scoring board (0-49) each have a very thin border around them, that is sometimes broken; this made it hard for one of our playtesters to read, but over about a dozen games have proven untroublesome otherwise.

Wooden Pieces: The followers are made out of sturdy painted wood, fairly standard for a European game import. They come in red, green, yellow, blue, and black--all distinctive colors that are easy to distinguish. These followers are also called "meeples"; as noted under The Gameplay, they can act as knights, thieves, monks, or farmers, depending on where they're placed in game.

Rules: The rules are also four-color, printed on glossy paper that's a little too flimsy. My copy has already been dinged, banged, and bent from usage. The rules use a very large number of pictures as examples, which make them very easy to understand.

Missing from The Components is something like a bag to draw the tiles from. They can be flipped upside down, and drawn from stacks, but this seems somehow inelegant. During playtests of this basic game, we typically held the box with all the tiles above our heads to draw.

The River Components

The most recent printing of Carcassonne also includes "the river expansion". This set of 12 tiles was originally offered as a free promotion before it was incorporated into the game. I'd considered reviewing them separately, as one of many Carcassonne expansions now in print, but instead decided to simply break out the discussion of these tiles within this review.

More Tiles: The river tiles are identical in quality to the rest of the land tiles, but with a river running through them.

Overall, the components of Carcassonne are very nice and a pleasure to play with. They exceed my expectations for a $20 game by a fair amount, and thus earn the game a "5" rating in Style.

The Game Play

The goal in Carcassonne is to gather as many points as possible, through the placement of followers to control large cities, roads, and fields, as well as cloisters.

Game play begins with the placement of a special starting tiles which includes a corner of a city, a straight road segment, and fields on either side of the road.

After that each player, in turn, takes the following actions:

  1. Draw and place a land tile.
  2. Choose whether to place a follower on the new land tile.
  3. Score any points earned for completing cloisters, road, or cities.

Following are additional explanation of each of these steps.

Draw and Place a Land Tile: The tiles are the heart of the game. Each one has some combination of cities, roads, and cloisters on them. Cloisters are singular buildings which sit in the middle of a tile, while roads and cities can connect to similar terrains off-tile. Running along the edges of all the roads, cities, and cloisters are fields. On-tile they can be divided up by cities and roads, while off-tile they'll connect to other fields too.

In order to place a tile, you must lay it down next to another tile with a matching edge. The edges are very simple; each one only has one of three elements: a full-length city; one road; or a field. Thus placement is very simple.

Because of this simplicity, there's almost always a legal placement for a tile. In the dozen or so games of Carcassonne that I've played we've only once drawn a tile which could not be legally placed (in which case, according to the rules, it was set aside).

If you wish a more strategic variant of Carcassonne, a possible variant is to maintain a hand of 3 tiles. Draw a new tile each turn, then play the tile of your choice. This allows you more potential to plan ahead.

Choose Whether to Place a Follower: Each player has 8 followers. One of those is put on the scoring board to keep track of points, and thus each player has 7 more avialable to place on the board. After you place each tile you may choose to place a follower on that tile, if you wish.

In order to place a follower, you must select one of the terrain segments on a tile. You can place a follower in one of four places: in a city; on a road; in a field; or in a cloister. With most tiles you'll have 2-4 options as to where to place your follower. For example, if you placed a tile with road running down the middle, you could choose to place a follower on the road or on either of the two field segments. As a convention, Carcassonne has a different name for each type of follower placement. A follower in a city is a knight, a follower on a road is a thief, a follower in a field is a farmer, and a follower in a cloister is a monk.

There's one limitation: you can't place a follower within a terrain that already contains a follower. Thus if you placed a tile with a city segment that connected up to an existing city, you could only place a knight there if there was not already a knight in the city. There are ways to share a specific terrain; you simply must place a follower in a disconnected part of the terrain, and then connect it.

One type of land tile warrants a special comment: some city tiles have pennants on them--little blue & white shields. These are extra-valuable city tiles which are worth increased points when scored.

Score Any Points: Cities, cloisters, and roads can all be "completed", allowing you to immediately score their points. Each of the terrains has a simple rule for how to complete it:

Fields cannot be completed during the game; even if a field is totally closed off during the game, the points are not scored and the follower is not retrieved.

Before a city, cloister, or road can be scored, it must first be determined who owns it, because there can be multiple followers in a single completed location, as already noted. The player with the most followers in the terrains scores all the points; in case of a tie, each player scores all the points.

It's important to complete cities, roads, and cloisters for two reasons: first, you get to take your follower back into your hand, which is vital because you have many less followers than turns in a game. Second, closed cities earn more points than open cities. All the scores are listed below, in the End Game section.

End Game: The game ends when all the tiles have been placed. At this point all uncompleted roads, cities, and cloisters are scored. Cities score less if they're incomplete, but the other two types do not.

Afterward, fields are scored. Inevitably lots of fields have ended up with multiple farmers as the game has expanded. The normal rules for majority are used to determine who's in control of the field. Each farmer then earns points for each completed city he's adjacent too.

Here's a chart of all the point scoring:

Follower Complete Incomplete
City Knight 2/tile + 2/pennant 1/tile + 1/pennant
Road Thief 1/tile 1/tile
Cloister Monk 1 + 1/adj. tile 1 + 1/adj. tile
Field Farmer N/A 4/completed city adjoining

The scoring above is based partially upon errata that's been released in the original German. The rules as published in the Rio Grande edition have slightly different mechanics for how to score farmers (wherein you determine majority on a per-city rather than the simpler per-field method, and also where multiple farmers can't feed the same city), and also penalize 2-tile cities. The rules presented above are official and better due to their simplicity, in my opinion.

The River Gameplay

The River expansion for Carcassonne allows for a different starting setup. Rather than beginning with the standard start piece, instead the players lay out the 12 river tiles to begin, starting with the river source and ending with the lake.

The tiles are placed one at a time; after each placement, the player who placed the tile can choose to play a follower, as normal. Some of the various river tiles have cities, roads, or both. The river itself doesn't have any effect, except to act as another divider of fields.

Relationships to Other Games

Although Carcassonne is always referred to as a tile-laying game, it's really closest in style to the traditional "pipe-laying" games, and thus ultimately derives from the "Dominos" family of game design.

Because of the success of Carcassonne, a number of supplements have been printed. Carcassonne: The River was originally a free giveaway, before being bundled with this edition of Carcassonne. Two larger supplements have also appeared: Carcassonne: Inns & Cathedrals and Carcassonne: Traders & Builders. These each add more tiles, more meeples, and other items to the game. A very small supplement called Carcassonne: King & Scout is also planned for later this year.

One other game has been built using the same system: Carcassonne: Hunters and Gatherers. This prehistoric game has some slight rules variations to support the closure of cities (forests), and overall works a tiny bit better than this core game, but is not as well supported by supplements A third standalone Carcassonne game, Carcassonne: The Castle, is also due out this year; it's to be a two-player only game.

The Game Design

Overall, the game design of Carcassonne is superb. The game draws you in from your first tile placement and remains fun to the end, even if you're running behind--because building the lands of Carcassonne is fun in and of itself.

Here's some of the best game design elements:

Multiple Strategies: After many games, I'm still not sure of the best strategies. You can try and get cheap points every turn by instantly closing stuff off; or you can build existing cities, roads, and cloisters toward completion; or you try and get the best field positions for end game scoring. If you do cooperate with others, you have to carefully judge who you're cooperating with, and try not to cooperate with the same person too often, lest you two end up tied; cooperating with a bunch of different people at once is much more personally beneficial. If anything there's too much potential for strategy in Carcassonne, which can bog things down if you have members of your gaming group who tend to play board games slowly.

All Players Always Thinking: In most strategy games you take your turn, try and make your best guess at what you're going to do next, then wait impatiently for your turn to come around again. However, in Carcassonne, each player's draw is visible because he's going to immediately play it. Thus, this encourages every player to look at every tile and think about where it should be placed. Our games are usually full of advice about where to place each and every piece, and thus it always feels like it's your turn.

Cooperation is Encouraged: I play strategy games for the competition, but I also believe that encouraging some cooperation greatly increases the fun of a game--because you have a whole new level of social interactivity. Carcassonne encourages this exact type of play. If you can work together with someone else to build a city (e.g., they place a city piece with one follower, and then you place a city piece with one follower, very nearby, so that the cities could connect), then you'll both score many more points. One of the playtest games we played was very notable for how much it encouraged cooperation--out of 5 players the two best cooperators came in first and second, and the two worst competitors (which included me) came in fourth and fifth.

Competition is Allowed: There still are ways to solidly and definitively hurt another player. You can purposefully place a tile to block a city or road they're building; or you can take over one of their cities, roads, or fields with stronger follower numbers.

Good with Many Player Numbers: I've played Carcassonne mostly with the maximum number of players. However, the gameplay dynamics are such that I can see that you could drop down to the minimum number of players (2) and still have it work very nicely. For that matter, I'm sure you could come up with a nice solitaire variant. Also, it would be very easy to add additional players, probably up to 7 or 8, without ruining the game. You'd just need to get a set of 8 unique counters for each new player--coins, Settlers of Catan pieces, whatever.

Randomness is Well Controlled: The variance each turn is very high, because you draw one of 72 different pieces. However, it's well controlled because a player can always benefit from just about any tile he draws in some way. Didn't draw a piece to expand your city? Then add that piece on to one of your roads, or use it to connect your field with a city complex or help encircle your cloister. This aspect of game design works because you can have up to 7 followers out there on the board, and thus be simultaneously working toward several goals. (Though with all that said, I'll admit that singular road pieces can be a drag and still feel a little like a wasted turn.)

Here's some of the few flaws:

Unbalanced Tile: Although other players disagree, I personally feel that the cloister tile is unbalanced. Whenever you draw it, you have a guaranteed 5-9 points without doing much work. The only balance is that it's a bit harder to recover your follower than from a city or a road, because more tiles need to be played, on average.

Overimportant Fields: THe fields in this game can become an absolute obsession, because the tile distribution is such that they don't break up very well. In many games there's just one central fields, and whomever controls it can win the game.

Underimportant Roads: Conversely, because of the lowered valuing of the roads versus cities, they can often feel like wasted tiles when they're drawn.

Tough Pattern Matching: For some reason about 1 out of 5 players I've played with have a tough time doing the visual pattern matching required for the game--understanding what road/city connection will need to be made if a tile is in different orientations. This didn't adversely affect any of our games, but seemed like a potential problem in the making.

The River Game Design

The River seems to serve only one purpose in the game. Because it offers a fairly dramatically different setup position, it can make games very different, and thus ultimately increases the replayability of the game. It also adds 12 tiles, and thus makes the game take about 15% longer to play.

Beyond that, it doesn't seem to remarkably change how the game works. I think in the dozen or so games of Carcassonne I've played, we only used The River once, but I'd be glad to have it if I played the game enough to get bored.

Overall, the gameplay of Carcassonne is fast, fun, and the flaws are not immediately obvious to a casual gamer. It's a game that I'm willing to play pretty much whenever it's offered. However, it does have a few glitches which are improved on by the supplements and also by the standalones games, thus I give it an above average "4" out of "5" for Substance.

Conclusion

If you've looked down at Carcassonne because it's a very short game, don't. I actually found it very refreshing to find a very strategically complex game that could be played in such a short time. The superb components and low price point combine to make this one of the best games you could buy if you have a spare twenty-spot sitting around.

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