Carcasssonne: Hunters and Gatherers
is a standalone game that uses the same core game system as Klaus-Jurgen Wrede's original, medieval Carcassonne game. This time around, you're wandering the Neolithic plains thousands of years before the city of Carcassonne was built. You must hunt, gather, and fish in order to feed your tribe.
Time: 1 hour
Complexity: 2 (of 10)
Since this game is a totally standalone variant of Carcassonne, this review attempts to be too.
This is a rewrite and expansion of a review of Carcassonne: Hunters and Gatherers that I originally published in January 2003.
Hunters and Gatherers comes with a small set of high quality components. These include:
- 79 land tiles
- 12 bonus tiles
- 1 scoring track
- 5 scoring tiles
- 30 tribe members in 5 colors
- 10 huts in 5 colors
- 10 green wooden discs
- 1 rulebook
Tiles: The land tiles are simple, square tiles featuring pictures of rivers, fish, forests, gold nuggets, meadows, food animals, and sabre tooth tigers.
The bonus tiles are more of the same, but used for a specific purpose in game. They're all printed on very solid, nicely textured cardboard.
Scoring Track & Tiles: The scoring track is a big, solid chunk of cardboard labeled 0 to 49 in a circular track. Each player places one of his 6 tribe members on the scoring track to keep track of how he's doing.
The scoring tiles are similar in shape, size, and manufacture to the land and bonus tiles. They're marked 50 on one side and 100 on the other and are used for when players "lap" the scoring track. It's mildly annoying to have these pieces separate from the actual track, but they do their job.
Wooden Pieces: The tribe members are little people cut from wood in 5 colors. Each player gets 6: one of which goes on the score track and five of which are available for play. The huts are also painted wooden pieces that are nicely cut & evocative. There's two for each player.
The 10 green discs are solely used for scoring at end game, and are unfortunately a bit too close in color to the green players' pieces. In a few games of Hunters & Gatherers that I've played, the green player tried to grab the green scoring discs too. The discs, as it happens, aren't tremendously useful either, but it's nice they're included in case anyone really needs them.
Rules: The rule booklet is short, clear, and illustrated with full-color pictures of the game pieces.
All of the components are very high quality, well above the standards you'd expect for a $20 game, earning Hunters & Gatherers a "5" out of "5" in Style.
The Game Play
At heart Hunters & Gatherers is a "pipe" game. Each turn a player draws a tile, then places it on the table connected to other tiles. In addition he lays out various followers which earn him points depending on connected terrain.
The order of play is as follows:
- Draw and place a land tile.
- Choose whether to place a follower on the new land tile.
- Score any points earned for completing forests or rivers.
- Draw and place a bonus tile, if eligible.
Draw and Place a Land Tile: Each tile is square, with four edges, and each edge can have one of three features on it:
- a meadow
- a forest
- a river
A tile must be placed adjacent (not diagonal) to at least one other tile on the board, and the sides of the tile have to match up with the sides of any existing tiles.
Choose Whether to Place a Follower: Once a tile has been placed the player may choose to place one of his tribe members or huts on the tile that he just played. A tribe member can be placed in a forest, on a river, or in a meadow, provided that there isn't already a tribe member (belonging to any player) already in that same, connected terrain. A hut can be placed on a river system (which is a series of all interconnected rivers) provided that there isn't already a hut in that river system; they coexist fine with fishermen. Early in the game, most placement tends to be of occur on rivers and in forests, since these pieces can be recovered, as described below.
Score Any Points: After a player has placed a tile, then optional placed a follower, all gatherers and fishermen in completed terrain are scored.
A tribe member in a forest is called a gatherer. A player earns points for a gatherer when the forest he is in is "closed", meaning that the forest is self-contained and not running off any edges. A forest is worth 2 points per forest segment, plus 2 points per mushroom clearing. If a forest is not "closed" by the end of the game, the gatherer is removed and not scored. Other players, besides the one with a gatherer in a forest, are also encouraged to close larger forests. Most forest pieces have special gold nuggets in them, which offer a bonus to the player closing that forest, as described below.
A tribe member on a river is called a fisherman. A player receives points for his fisherman when the river he is on is "closed", meaning that both sides of it end in either a spring or a lake (rivers also tend to flow out of lakes in other directions, but those are considered separate rivers). A river is worth 1 point per river square plus one point per fish in an immediately connected lake. If a river is not "closed" by the end of the game, the fisherman is removed and not scored.
(A Note: for all scoring, including these fishermen and gatherers and later huts and hunters, it's possible to end up with multiple figures on the same terrain. This tends to happen when you put a tribe member or hut on two terrains that are originally separated, and they're later connected through the play of tiles. If there's a tie for total number of tribe members or huts in a terrain, each player scores the total amount for the terrain; if one player has an advantage in numbers only he scores.)
Gatherers and fisherman are the "in-game" tribe members. You get them back as soon as their terrain closes and thus may play them again. This is quite necessary as the game progresses. On the other hand hunters, which are played on meadows, and huts, which are played on river systems, only earn points at the end of the game and can't be recovered once they're played ...
Draw and Place a Bonus Tile: A player that closes a forest with a gold nugget in it gets a bonus. After choosing whether or not to place a tribe member and scoring he then gets to randomly pick a special bonus tile, place that tile, and then gets a second opportunity to place a tribe member. The mere fact of getting to place a second tile is a pretty nice plus. However, the bonus tiles also tend to be relatively good tiles with mushroomy forests, extra food animals, and fishful lakes; there are even a few "special power" bonus tiles.
End Game: The game ends when the last land tile (not bonus tile) is placed. At this point huts and hunters are scored.
A tribe member in a meadow is called a hunter At the end of the game, the meadow he is in is examined. It might contain food animals (deer, mammoths, or aurochs) and sabretooth tigers. Each sabretooth tiger in a meadow eats one deer, if there is one. (The green wooden scoring disks are there to cover up pairs of tigers and deers if needed for clarity.) After deer kills are recorded, a hunter scores 2 points for each surviving deer, mammoth, and auroch in his meadow. Note that it's irrelevent if a meadow is closed.
Finally, we come to huts, which are placed on river systems. Remember that river systems can contain lots of different rivers, all connected by lakes. Like meadows, river systems only are scored at the end of the game, and don't have to be closed. A hut earns 1 point per fish in its river system.
Here's a chart of all scoring:
||2/tile + 2/mushroom
||0/tile + 0/mushroom
||1/tile + 1/fish
||0/tile + 0/fish
||2/prey - ~2/tiger
The player with the most points (often 100+ or even 150+ in a two-player game) is the winner.
Relationships to Other Games
This game is a variant of the original Carcassonne. It uses a slightly more mature game system that better encourages cooperative play, but other than that, much of the correlation between the two games is one-to-one.
||H & G
||Unlike cities, forests are worthless if left incomplete. Also, forests are slightly less valuable than cities because bonus mushrooms are much less common than bonus pennants. Also, incentive is provided to close other players' forests (with gold nuggets), something absent from the original Carcassonne's cities until the second expansion introduced trade goods.
||Unlike roads, rivers are worthless if left incomplete. Also, rivers are much more valuable than roads because of extra scoring for fish. Also rivers tend to be shorter due to tile distribution.
||Scoring is totally different. Field scoring was based on cities, while meadow scoring is instead self-sufficient, based on animals in the meadows.
||This is no analogy for cloisters in Carcassonne, probably because many people thought them unbalanced. Conversely the introduction of a new figure type, the hut, in Hunters and Gatherers is non-analogous to the original game
In addition, one supplement to Hunters and Gatherers has been announced. Carcassonne: King & Scout will include 5 new tiles for Hunters and Gatherers (and 7 for the original game). It's due out any day at the writing of this review.
Also of note: it's vaguely possible to integrate this game with some of Carcassonne: Inns & Cathedrals (the first supplement for the original Carcassonne) if you so wish. You can use the gray tokens from that set to allow for a sixth player (though you'll need to use coins for the extra huts). Alternatively you can use the "big people" from the expansion to add a little bit of variety to a game. (Essentially, big people count as 2 figures and so dramatically increase the competition in the game.)
The Game Design
The game design of Hunters and Gatherers is very robust. It's a lot of fun to play, but also allows for a decent amount of strategy. Some of the best points are:
Limited Randomness: There is randomness in Carcassonne in that you're drawing from an arbitrary set of 79 tiles. However, randomness is balanced by the fact that you have 7 different tokens you can play (5 tribe members and 2 huts). That means that an intelligent player will be simultaneously working on a good forest, a good meadow, and a good river, and thus any tile he draws will tend to be of some use. The possibilities for competition, noted below, also mean that if a tile is totally worthless to you, you can at least hurt another player. Finally, you might be able to close someone else's forest to earn a bonus tile if there aren't other possibilities. The proliferation of possible uses for every tile dramatically reduces the chance to get a totally bad draw.
Good Cooperation: I believe that almost any strategic game can be improved by allowing some degree of cooperation and interaction between the players. In Hunters and Gatherers, because players can scheme to put themselves into the same terrains, they can end up working together to complete those terrains (and, in fact, the winning players tend to be those that cooperated best). In addition, players with huts and fishermen on the same river are encouraged to cooperate to some extent, while all players are encouraged to complete forests for other players. These last two designs, besides encouraging cooperation, also decrease the frustration in the game, because players gets to see their terrains completed, their points scored, and their tribe members recovered.
Good Competition: Complementing good cooperation is the fact that players in Hunters and Gatherers can somewhat impede each other. The most obvious thing you can do is a place a sabre-tooth tiger in another player's hunting meadow. You can also place tiles near forests or rivers that a player is trying to complete that really hem them in, and lower the number of possible tiles that can be used to complete that terrain (see the above pics for some squares that got hemmed in by nasty other players).
Hidden Victory Points: The victory points in Hunters & Gatherers are partially hidden by the complexity of the design. Sure, you always know generally how people are doing through their accumulated points from gatherers and fishermen. However, huts and hunters can represent a somewhat unknown quantity (though still heavily based on the skill in a player's playing the pieces), and so most players will feel like they're "in" the game all the way to the end.
Good Complexity: Hunters and Gatherers makes very good use of some complexity by neatly dividing up different choices. You can help out one of your existing terrains. OR you can close a forest to get a bonus tile. You can place a gatherer or a fisherman if you need your token back. OR you can place a hunter. OR you can place a hut. Depending on the piece that you draw and the remaining wood pieces that you have, your choices are often constrained, but overall there's a fairly rich pallette to draw from.
Good Balance: The different uses you can put your tribe members to (notably fishing and gathering) are quite nicely balanced in points, so you always feel like they're all valid choices to make, and none of them ever seems like a "bum deal".
And, I really don't have anything bad to say about the design of Hunters and Gatherers, which is why it earns the game a "5" out of "5" for substance.
Carcassonne: Hunters and Gatherers is a damned fine game. It's easy, it's fun, it's strategic, and it takes about an hour to play. Matching up all those criteria is darned rare in strategic games. If you've never played a Carcassonne game, go buy this one now.
I also find some of the assumed antropological ideas about caloric intake annoying.
I'd also note that Hunters and Gatherers plays a fair amount better than the original Carcassonne. The gameplay has been streamlined a tiny bit, and this version of the game balances the different terrain types dramatically better than the original did. Finally, the increased incentives to cooperate, and the accompanying decreased frustration levels all around make this game a winner. (Some of these same goals have been met by the two supplements for the original Carcassone, but by that point you're getting to a somewhat complex game.) Though the background doesn't feel quite as evocative as Carcassonne's medieval tiles, that's my only complaint, and that's not a reason to buy the original Carcassonne instead of this game.
I'd be a bit harder set to recommend buying this in addition to the original Carcassonne. Though the kinks are all worked out in this edition, beyond that the gameplay is mostly the same, and thus you're probably not going to be doubling the replayability of your game. But, hey, it's only $20 and you should get a lot of fun games out of it.