Carcassonne: A four-sided game review

Carcassonne in playCarcassonne is a true modern board game classic, designed by Klaus-Jürgen Wrede and released in 2000. The game plays two to five players in about an hour, regardless of player count, while you should be able to find a copy for around £20.

The game comes with 72 tiles, five meeples per player (this was the first game to use the blend of ‘my’ and ‘people’ – meeple – to describe these person-shaped wooden playing pieces), rules and a score track. That’s it – nice and simple, laying the groundwork for its well deserved ‘gateway game’ credentials.

During the game you’ll take it in turns to place tiles on the table to slowly create a map, so you’ll need a decent sized family dining table to play. Sometimes you’ll also place your meeples on the tiles in the hope of completing cities and roads, surrounding monasteries with land or claiming fields – all of which will score you victory points.

While the mediaeval theme is pretty bog standard the colourful tiles are very nicely drawn, while also being pleasingly thick and durable. The four-page rulebook is well written and illustrated (with good examples), meaning you should be up and playing in no time.

Teaching

Carcassonne bitsSet up is wonderfully simple; place the starting tile face-up in the middle of the table, stack the rest of the tiles face down in piles around the edge of the table, and away you go (note: some editions of the game come with a free expansion, The River, which slightly changes the start – but not much).

Gameplay is equally straightforward; players take a face-down tile from the top of a pile, flip it over, then play it to a legal position on the board. A tile simply needs to attach to at least one other orthogonally – with any sides it attaches to needing to share the same attribute (so town to town, road to road etc).

Once you’ve placed a tile, you decide if you want to place a meeple on it. Again, this is simple – if you have a meeple, you may place it on any element of the tile you just placed as long as someone else isn’t already present on that element on an already placed tile (so if you add to a road you can only place your meeple on the road part of the tile if someone else isn’t further down the same road).

This doesn’t mean two people can’t be on the same element; it just means you have to be cunning. If a particular city or field is looking lucrative you’ll need to place a tile near to it, place your meeple on it, then place other tiles to join the high scoring element to yours later – although you can be sure whoever is currently there will try to stop it happening.

Carcassonne meeplesConversely, placing your tile may complete rather than continue a particular element; a road will end at a crossroads or city gate, while a final piece of wall may finish a city. In this situation, any meeples on the completed element will be returned to their owners and the element is scored.

The trick is to always have a meeple in reserve in case of that big scoring opportunity, so you’ll need to recycle your meeples on and off of the board as much as possible – but you can’t take them back when you feel like it, only when they score. This is where the real game lies: both in recycling your own meeples and stranding those of others in impossible to score places.

The four sides

These are me, plus three fictitious amalgams drawn from observing my friends, and their respective quirks and play styles.

  • The writer: I find this totally charming each time I play, as it perfectly balances ease of entry with a little strategic depth. It also boasts short yet meaningful turns, plus the chance for player interaction – all the tropes of a successful gateway game. I personally prefer Carcassonne: Hunters and Gatherers, which is practically the same game but with a couple of bells and whistles. But more importantly it’s not expandable, which helps me resist temptation!
  • The thinker: Carcassonne is a little on the light side for me, but it does still hold some appeal for an occasional play. I definitely approve of the slight variant in which players take their next tile immediately after laying their current one, giving them a whole turn to assess where it will work best. But especially with a higher player count there is far too much chaos to really push my gaming buttons.
  • The trasher: Don’t let the cartoony art and simple mechanism fool you – played properly, this is a nasty area majority style game, which can even feel a bit like a war game. To a good aggressive player, turtling (heavily defensive) players are like lambs to the slaughter; let them build their little empire, then get in on all the good bits with clever play. Despite this, its never a game I ask for – but am still happy to play once in a while.
  • The dabbler: There’s something magical about slowly building up this beautiful visual empire from that one starting tile that makes Carcassonne a joy to play. For me this definitely falls into the ‘experience’ category of board games, where its just nice to sit and chat and watch it evolve – I really don’t mind too much about winning. This can annoy thrashers, who want to feel they’ve vanquished you – not giving them the satisfaction is a win in itself!

Key observations

Carcassonne tilesIt’s fair to say that as you add more players to a game of Carcassonne the chaos level ramps up exponentially. If you’re largely playing for fun this isn’t a problem, but if you’re wanting a strategic game experience it goes out of the window beyond perhaps three.

There’s an interesting comparison here to the other gateway behemoths, Ticket to Ride and Settlers of Catan. Both arguably play better at three to five players, which may be why some people step away from Carcassonne earlier than the other two. This was certainly my experience, but I do still enjoy an occasional game and it certainly doesn’t preclude it from being a gateway classic all the same – especially at its low price point.

Playing ‘pick one, play one’ also leads to some unavoidable rotten luck situations. While this is fair comment, it is easily remedied by using one of the many suggested variants; for example, players have two or three tiles at all times, playing one each turn. While potentially slowing things down a little, this can also add depth for strategic players.

Conclusion

Carcassonne boxCarcassonne was one of my first buys and it enthralled me for months. It was a large part of drawing me back to the hobby, so for that alone it was worth its weight in gold. But if you’re already past the gateway stage, and don’t see yourself trying to encourage others into the hobby, the days of this being a ‘must have’ may be behind you.

I got Ticket to Ride around the same time, but the latter has seen more than twice the table time in the five years since. I also rate TtR slightly higher, an 8 to a 7.5, largely because I feel it scales better. If I could only have one of the two games on my shelf, I’d choose the trains over the meeples. 

But this is in no way a negative review. I’ve still notched around 50 plays, which offers fantastic value for a £20 game – and I’m still always up for it if it gets suggested. Add to this the huge number of small expansions available and you have a game with a lot going for it.

If you are getting back into board games, I’d still put Carcassonne in the top 10 list of ‘must try’ games (now there’s an idea for a blog post…) – its also still just about hanging in the BGG Top 100 list (February 2014) after well over a decade on the market and deserves the massive amount of respect it receives. A true classic.

Getting back into board and card games: helpful links

I’ve put a new ‘page’ up, where I’ll be linking a series of posts about how to get back into the board and card game hobby. I’ve posted it here.

Over the coming weeks I’ll be linking a group of posts to it, which I’ve listed by title below. I’m also adding a few links here now so that if you find this post before I’ve got round to writing the full article for each section, you’ve got a head start.

  • Where to buy (on and offline)
    Online, my first port of call tends to be Board Game Guru. I will also check Amazon, mainly for special offers, and The Works as it has had some fine games at crazy cheap prices of late (but also some tat – check reviews first!).
  • Websites (to play on)
    My absolute favourite is Yucata, a play-by-mail style site where you take your turns in as many games as it’s your turn in, then log off again (or you can stay online and try to play someone real time, if they hang around long enough). Boite Jeux does the same thing just as well, but with less games and a slightly less friendly interface. Both are FREE and I’m ‘hairyarsenal’ on both.
  • Websites (for research)
    There is one ahead of al others in terms of depth of content and that’s the not helpfully titled Board Game Geek. However, it’s ridiculously daunting for a new visitor and not very user friendly (there is  revamp of the site ongoing though – fingers crossed).
  • Podcasts
    There is a surprisingly large amount of good board game podcasts, but I think two stand out for newer gamers because they tend to talk a lot about simpler and popular/newer titles in an accessible way. These are The Dice Tower and The Spiel. Both are also on iTunes.
  • Smartphone, console and tablet apps
    Some of the bigger games that are great for getting people back into playing tabletop games have amazing online versions and apps. Whatever your console, phone or home computer you should be able to find Settles of CatanCarcassonne, or Ticket to Ride. All on on Xbox, Apple and Android devices for a small fee, while Catan and Carcassonne are both on BlackBerry too.
  • Video channels
    Definitely check out the new premium (but free) YouTube show TableTop, with Wil Wheaton. For individual game reviews, once again The Dice Tower is great has it seems to review the most games; but my favourite are the reviews of UvulaBob are my favourite, as they’re always genuinely funny.
  • A great game to start with per genre
    I won’t go here yet, although the three titles above under ‘Smartphone, console and tablet apps’ are a good starting point for the hobby in general: they’re really big sellers, have stood the test of time and I’d expect the majority of board gamers had one of these help them get back into the hobby.

If you found a particular game or resource helped get you back into the hobby, I’d love to hear about it.

A guide to gateway games: Great ways to get back into card and board games (Top 5, part 2)

Below you’ll find the conclusion to my top five gateway board and card games, which includes my top two choices as well as several near misses that almost made the list.

It was pointed out to me that I may be using a few terms that are unfamiliar if you’ve not played many board and card games before – which must be particularly annoying if you’re looking to get into the hobby (sorry). If so, let me know what they are and I’ll put them together in a future glossary post (and answer any questions).

For now though, here are some more great board games that you should have no problem playing straight out of the box, even if your only previous experience is of basics such as Monopoly or Connect 4. They’re also a whole lot better, with a lot more fun on offer for everyone involved.

I should also note here that both my number one and two picks below are now available on iOS for your iPad, iPhone or iPod touch (they’re really good implementations too).Carcassonneis also available on Android. Playing in person is way better, but these apps can be a good, cheap way to try the games out before taking the plunge and getting them in their ‘proper’ format.

2) Carcassonne

In second spot is this classic tile laying game. I actually saw Carcassonne in Waterstones over Christmas, which was great news, although it seems to have disappeared again now (someone needs to tell them that, just like puppies, games aren’t just for Christmas!).

The game consists of a big pile of cardboard tiles (which are about two-inch square) and several sets of small wooden people (called ‘meeples’) in various colours, one for each player (the game plays equally well with two to five players). There is also a small board that acts purely as a scoring track.

Once each player has chosen a colour and taken their meeples, you stack all the tiles face down in piles away from the centre of the table. The starting tile is then placed in the middle of the table and the game begins.

Each tile has a combination of mediaeval roads, farmland, cloisters and castles that will be placed together to form a large map out from that starting tile, a bit like a jigsaw. Each player takes it in turns to flip over and then places a tile (as long as the sides match – road to road, farmland to farmland etc), before deciding whether to place one of their meeples on top of it to try and earn some points (the highest total score once all tiles have been placed wins).

Some meeples will stay on their tile throughout the game, scoring at the end, while others will be returned to you on the completion of a road, cloister or castle their tile was part of. As you have a finite number of meeples, managing them can be tricky. And as you gain experience, you’ll find cunning ways to gain points from castles, farms and roads other players thought they were going to keep to themselves.

Carcassonneplays in under an hour, has very quick turns and everything is out in the open. It works particularly well for new players as you’ve literally nothing to hide – you turn over a tile on your turn and anyone can chip in with ideas about where you should place it (or, once you start to get more cunning, where you can stick it!). New players will just enjoy learning the game, while more experienced players find a deep level of strategy keeps them coming back for more. It looks gorgeous too, while coming in at a great price point (less than £20).

As one of the most popular board games around (well, that isn’t routinely in WHSmith and ToysRus anyway),Carcassonne also comes in all kinds of different styles and there are various bits you can add later if you like it. There are also several variants, but I would certainly advise the standard set as a great starting point to any games collection.

1) Ticket to Ride

For me though, as for many others, Ticket to Ride is the classic gateway game. It just edges out Carcassonne as although I’ve had both games for a long time now, and really enjoy both, it is more often than not Ticket to Ride that hits the table.

The game features a large board showing a map of America with cities connected via coloured tracks; there are also bags of plastic trains and a whole bunch of cards. During the game, players will score points for completing the coloured tracks between the cities and by completing route cards they keep hidden from the other players; the player who ends with the most points wins.

Each player takes a set of plastic carriages in one colour, four random coloured carriage cards from the top of the draw pile and three route cards. They then choose which route cards to keep or discard (you must keep one, but can keep two or three if you like) before beginning the game.

Turns are simple; you either draw a couple of cards (there are five face up for you to choose from, or you can take blind from the draw pile) or place you plastic carriages on the map to claim whole routes between cities. Alternatively, if you’re feeling brave, you can draw more route cards.

A route can be between two cities quite close together, or on complete opposite sides of the map. The further you have to go, the more points you’ll get for completing that route before the game ends; but then again, if you don’t complete a route, you’ll instead be docked that number of points. There is also a bonus for the player who makes the longest unbroken route around the map.

To claim a track between two cities, you need to have collected the same amount of coloured carriage cards as there are tracks on the board; so you’re collecting sets, rummy style, to complete this objective.

The tricksy part is that other people are bound to want to go across some of the same areas as you, which can play havoc with your plans as once someone has claimed a route, it’s gone (although some cities have two tracks running between them, each of which can be taken by a separate player). And, of course, if you telegraph your plans, someone might just block you to spite you…

Ticket to Ride plays in under two hours and everyone will ‘get it’ by about the middle of their first play (if not sooner). It will set you back around £30, but the components are top quality and its well worth the investment. The original version plays best with four or five, although other maps (Switzerland, for example, which you can add for just over £20) play really well with two or three players (there is also now a six-player pairs map available).

Again, turns are fast and there is a certain element of ‘screw you’ – which is even better when you’re usually doing it by accident! There’s a bit of thinking between turns, but as your hopes can easily be dashed by the time it gets back to you, you’re normally better spending the time getting another drink, smack talking etc.

Close, but no cigar…

There are a few games that nearly made the list that I’ll briefly mention here, as they’re all a little different from the others and may suit particular tastes:

Settlers of Catan: This would actually be many people’s favourite gateway game, but it’s not on my list because it has fallen flat with my main group. The game heavily involves negotiation between players – if that’s something you think will work with your group, then this is a cracking game that is easy to learn and fun to play. If not, avoid; if people aren’t going to trade, it will drag for ages and you’ll wonder where the last three hours went.

Revolution: This simple game combines blind bidding with area control. Each player bids secretly on a board split into 16 sections; sections give influence in areas of the city; victory points; actions, and/or tokens to bid with in the next round. When everyone is ready, reveal the bids – the winner in each of the 16 section gets to do it. Once all the areas of the game board are fully influenced, the person with the most of their counters in each area gets bonus points and the game ends.

Ra: Auction and bidding games aren’t everyone’s cup of tea, but if you think it might be the genre for you I can’t recommend Ra highly enough. There are agonising decisions to make as the pile of booty gets bigger the more tiles are drawn from a bag; when will you call ‘Ra!’ to start the bidding on the tiles available? Too soon and you may be stuck with rubbish; too late and you may hand someone else a great set of tiles.

Thebes: If you love randomness, this is a really fun board game. As an Indiana Jones type, you’ll be scooting around Europe collecting knowledge from cities before heading off on digs to collect loot from ancient sites. When you get their, you’ll get more picks from the bag of that site the more knowledge you have – but there’s plenty of blank tiles to drive you nuts. Really good fun, but not one for deep strategists!

Ingenious and Blokus: These are games you may well have seen in the likes of John Lewis and WHSmith. Both are fantastic abstract games with clever rules and lovely tactile pieces. They are games I’m glad to have in my collection and that I’d recommend to anyone, but as gateway games abstract games don’t tend to fair so well – a good theme seems to trump nice coloured chunks every time. However, if you think abstract will work better than trains or archaeology, try these!

So there you have it – a top five blog post that went on for two blogs and ended up listing 15 board and card games. Hey, at least you can’t say you don’t get value for money here.

Even now, I’m reading back and wanting to add bits here and there – it’s so hard to do these games justice in a few paragraphs. That said, if you want more information on any of these games, feel free to drop me a line or comment below. Alternatively, head to Board Game Geek where you’ll find more information than you’ll know what to do with.

Also, if you have your own recommendations, please add them below. I could always do with a few more games….