Carcassonne



Complexity
Components
Enjoyment
Replay Value
Understandable Rules

Just a note: Carcassonne is an incredibly popular game and has dozens of expansions, but I’m writing this review as if I’ve only played the base game and will add reviews for the expansions later.  There is also a newer version of the base game so my pictures might look different than the version you’re familiar with.

Story
Carcassonne doesn’t have much of a story, but there is a medieval city builder feel to the game as players use tiles to build the landscape with cities, roads, farms, and monasteries.  This might not appeal to all players, but it’s wonderful seeing the area unfold as you play.

Carcassonne references a famous city in the south of France that was a strategic trade point that linked the Atlantic to the Mediterranean Sea.   The city was taken over and fortified multiple times and is still standing today due to some renovations that prevented it from being demolished.  The two outer walls are almost 2 miles long and have over 50 towers!  Now that’s a city I’d love to visit sometime.  It’s a gorgeous city and looking at images of it makes the game art feel more meaningful.

Game Mechanics
Tile placement, area control, city building

Number of Players
2-5 players

Play Time
30-45 minutes, but it can take longer if people are indecisive.

Down Time
The amount of down time depends on how many people are playing the game.  With more people, there will be more down time since you’ll have to wait for everyone to draw a tile and play it before it gets back to your turn.  There isn’t really anything to do on other player’s turns since you can’t even think about where to go without knowing what tile you’re going to draw.

One easy way to lessen down time and speed the game up is to allow the next player to draw their tile while the current player is deciding where to go.  This allows the next player to pre-plan their turn a little bit and makes the game a lot smoother.

How Does it Play
In Carcassonne, you draw a tile a play it.  The simplicity of that concept draws a lot of people in, even if they’re not gamers.   It’s a game that feels welcoming, the kind of game you can sit and have a nice conversation during without tons of pressure, but still have tons of fun and get a sense of accomplishment.

Then there’s the other side of Carcassonne, the side I like to call the friendship-breaker.  With the right players, Carcassonne can be downright vicious.  The peaceful town of Carcassonne turns into a war-torn battlefield where all the players steal their friends’ hard earned points right under their noses and there’s often nothing they can do about it.

Either way you choose to play, friendly or cutthroat, it’ll be a great time.  That versatility is one of the best aspects of Carcassonne and why it’s worth buying to fit different game groups.

Carcassonne starts by placing the start tile in the center of the table and all the rest of the tiles in facedown stacks that are easily reachable by the players.  Sadly, the base game of Carcassonne doesn’t come with a bag to draw the tiles from so these stacks get knocked over sometimes.  They also aren’t as randomized since players will usually draw from the stacks closest to them by instinct, which eliminates all the options of tiles on the other side of the table.

Once a tile is drawn, the player takes some time deciding where the best spot to play it will be since there are often multiple options.  The tiles have road segments, portions of a city, or a monastery on them.  Tiles can be placed anywhere as long as they logically make sense.  For example, roads have to connect to other roads, grassy farm areas have to connect to grassy farm areas, and cities have to connect to cities.

After the tile is placed, the player can claim that feature by placing a meeple on it, which is basically a placeholder for scoring.  Players won’t get that meeple back until the feature scores.

Features don’t score until they’re complete or the game ends, however, so sometimes a meeple can get stuck on a certain tile for a large portion of the game.  That means there’s the potential to run out of meeples if you stretch yourself too thin and aren’t finishing features fast enough.

One strategy to get points, but also keep your meeples, is to score features that will automatically complete when you place your tile so that you can place your meeple, score the points, and get your meeple back all in the same turn.  Nothing awful happens if you run out of meeples though, you might just miss out on a good opportunity for points.  Or you might not be able to defend your feature from another player’s “invasion”.

These invasions are the main way Carcassonne can be cutthroat, but it’s often confusing for new players so early games are usually friendlier.  If there’s an experienced person in a game with new players, it’s polite to either make sure they understand how this concept works or don’t do it often until they do understand.

The player with the most meeples in a feature gets all the points when it scores and if there’s a tie, both players get the same number of points.  It’s inevitable that other players will want to steal those points away from the person who’s been working on the feature, especially if it’s a giant 40 point city or something.  Bigger features lead to more points, which seems great, but it’s very dangerous with certain player types.  Those players will either want to steal the points entirely or at the very least tie so you don’t get ahead of them since high scoring features can be massive game changers.

The tricky part about this concept is that you can never place a meeple in a feature that already has a meeple, even if it’s your own.  That means players have to get a bit sneaky and place tiles with their meeple close to the feature they want and hope they get connected.

For example, if red had a meeple in a city that blue also wanted a meeple in, the blue player could place a city tile nearby that didn’t quite connect to red’s city and place their meeple on it.  In order to finish red’s city, red might be forced to place a tile that connects to blue’s tile, meaning they’d have an equal number of meeples in the same feature and they’d both get the same points for it when it scored.  Red doesn’t have to connect the city tiles, but blue might draw the connecting tile themselves and play it anyway.

In a two player game, this strategy almost makes the completed feature meaningless since both players would still be the same number of points away from each other.  This can be a game changing strategy with more players, however.  Maybe two players team up to finish a high point city while the other players get left far behind.  Or maybe everyone left one poor innocent player to build a fantastic, giant city the entire game only to sneak their meeples into it, stealing all of their hard earned points.  See what I mean about vicious?

A lot of players just don’t like playing cutthroat though, which is perfectly fine.  I usually match my play style to whoever I’m playing with and greatly enjoy both versions of Carcassonne.  I actually love that it’s a diverse enough game that it can feel so different depending on who I’m playing with.  There is a down side though, since if passive, friendly players are matched with some extremely cutthroat players, it can end up being a bad game for them.  Some of the friendlier players I’ve seen have really disliked the game just because of the cutthroat players they were playing with, but then loved it when everyone was less intense.  It’s something to keep in mind, but usually everyone has fun.

Another tricky aspect to Carcassonne is scoring.  Scoring happens so often throughout the game that it’s a real shame there’s no cheat sheet or player reference card to help everyone remember how scoring works.  For the first half or more of the game, players have to constantly ask how many points features are worth and how that gets calculated.  Usually, it’s easiest if the most experienced players just score everything out loud so the other players gradually learn and remember how it works.  Most features score during the game when they get completed, but others don’t get scored at all until the end.

Monastery tiles score when the tile is surrounded on all sides by other tiles, but it will also get partial points at the end if it’s not fully surrounded.  This makes where to place a monastery tile very important.  Generally, placing a monastery in a location already surrounded by a lot of tiles is the best, but it’s also a good strategy to place the tile next to another player’s feature since they’ll inevitably surround part of your monastery for you as they complete their own feature.  This will save you time and stop you from having to use as many of your own tiles to surround it.  It also means monasteries often get placed by other monasteries, creating a very religious section of Carcassonne.

Cities are considered complete when there aren’t any openings left inside and the outside wall goes all the way around.  They score points for every tile in the completed city and extra bonus points for every shield (coat of arms) on those tiles.  If they aren’t completed at the end of the game, they still score partial points though.

One strategy for getting quick points with cities is to create them using endcap tiles.  By doing this, you can create a city with only two tiles, which doesn’t get you a lot of points, but those points slowly add up.  Plus you get your meeple back fast instead of leaving it stranded in a larger city.

Roads are considered complete when they have a beginning and an end, like when they stop because of a city or a road end feature.  They score points for every tile in the completed road, but they’re worth less points than completed city tiles.  They actually score the exact same amount of points whether the road is finished or incomplete at the end of the game.  This gives players no incentive to ever actually complete a road, since they’ll get the same points either way.  I usually try to keep one long, never ending road under my control for the entire game since it’s inevitable that I’ll draw road tiles at some point.

People tend to groan a bit when they draw road tiles since they’re viewed as fairly useless, but as long as you have one road with your meeple on it at least you’ll score some points.  Since they’re not worth much, it does get tiring to draw road tile after road tile after road tile though, but they have a lot of strategic value that players often don’t realize.

For example, that road tile could get placed close to another player’s unfinished city in a way that makes it more difficult for them to complete their city.  City tiles with roads attached are a bit rare, so that’s a sneaky way to use roads.  Roads can also be a great way to sneak into another player’s farm or just start your own farm.

Farms are one of the trickiest aspects in Carcassonne and even after multiple plays, a lot of people still don’t understand the concept well.  Basically, farms are the green field portion of the tiles and each section of connected green tiles is its own farm.  If a player lays a meeple down on the farm, that meeple stays there until the end of the game and scores points based on how many completed cities are in that connected green farm area.  The best farms have the most completed cities in them, but people often don’t realize which ones those are until the second half of the game.  If you farm too many areas, you will run out of meeples quickly and won’t be able to score other features during the game.

Farms are separated by roads, cities, and the edges of the board, but it’s usually pretty difficult to spot those boundaries.  Sometimes it seems like the entire board is one big farm.  This is why farms are tricky, since you can’t place a meeple in a farm that already has a meeple in it.  To get your meeple into a farm that already has a meeple in it, you’ll have to place a tile nearby and lay your meeple down on it.  Then you’ll have to place more green tiles until you’ve connected your meeple to the farm you wanted to enter.

Farms are tricky for new gamers and experienced gamers alike, but it’s one of those things that sneaks up on you when the game is getting towards the end.  Ignoring farmers is often a deadly mistake and the closer the game gets to the end, the more difficult it can be to sneak into a farm since multiple people are probably already fighting over it.

It’s almost impossible for players to know for sure who’s winning during a game of Carcassonne until that final scoring is done.  For example, some well placed farmers could have the last place person jump to first place suddenly.  There are also large point jumps during the game due to players spending lots of turns finishing one large city, but when they finally do, they jump ahead on the score track.

Carcassonne doesn’t have a big build up to some great end game, it just ends when all the tiles have been used.  Final scoring usually takes a while to do since there are a lot of different aspects that score at the end.  I usually go through the entire board scoring one feature, like incomplete cities, removing the meeples from those features as I score them so I don’t accidentally score one twice.  Then I go through the entire board again scoring incomplete roads and so on until every meeple is off the board.  This could be boring for some people, but as long as the person is good at scoring it shouldn’t take too overly long.

Complexity
The basic rules of Carcassonne are very simple so it’s easy for new or younger players to learn.  There’s a beauty to the simplicity of just drawing a tile and placing it, which makes it very approachable for new players.  There are a few rules however, like how farmers work, that are more complex so the rulebook recommends holding off on those rules until after the first play.  Scoring is also a bit tricky, but as long as one person understands how it works they can score for everyone.

Once players are familiar with the game, various strategies start coming into play which is where the real complexity lies.  Carcassonne has enough depth in strategy to keep experienced gamers loving the game as much as new gamers.

Game Components
The meeples (player tokens) come in various colors and are of good quality.  One of them is set aside for keeping track of the player’s score.

The score track is a nice size, but it only goes to 50 points which isn’t nearly enough.  Players sometimes do three laps around the track and there isn’t any way to show that.  The rules suggest laying the player’s meeple down to show that they went around once, but then you have to stand the meeple back up to signify the player went around twice and it gets confusing.

The game tiles are made of nice thick cardboard so they’ve held up well to numerous plays of the game.  I prefer this art style, but it’s the old version of the game unfortunately.  The updated version is a lot more colorful with red and blue towers along the walls, which looks cluttered to me.

One tile has a darker colored back, which means it’s the start tile.  It’s a bit difficult to keep track of this one tile since it usually gets accidentally put with the other ones, but that’s not a big issue.

The game box is far larger than the base game requires, which is good if you’re going to be adding expansions.  I left the box insert in mine and still fit the base game, two large expansions, and a few of the mini expansion too.  The insert could get removed to fit even more though.  I’m not sure if the new version of the game has a different box or not, so the one pictured might be incorrect.

Theme
Even though Carcassonne doesn’t have some grand story driving the game, the theme still shines in the sense of building a medieval landscape.  It is extremely satisfying to watch as the board grows larger and larger as you build crazy shaped cities and roads looping around everything.  At the end of the game it’s great to see the completed “city” that you helped build.

Admittedly, the theme is still technically tacked on and could be replaced with many other themes.  Carcassonne has a few different standalone versions that proves this, actually.

Replay Value
Carcassonne has a very high replay value and is actually the most replayed game in my collection.  Not only are the tiles randomized, but there are so many different strategies to use that it feels like a fresh game every time.  Additionally, your play style can change dramatically depending on who you’re playing with.

Plus, Carcassonne is constantly expanding so you can tailor your base game to fit any play style you want by looking into the expansions.

Favorite Part
I love seeing the game board get created, especially when it gets huge and has some crazy cities in it.  The large scale can be a down side since where you want to play a tile might be literally off the table, but that’s part of the fun.  Finishing cities and other features gives such a nice sense of accomplishment and it’s just fantastic watching everyone’s cities all come together to build one giant map.

Least Favorite Part
In the end, Carcassonne is a game about blindly drawing tiles, which means you’re reliant on the luck of the draw.  In the beginning that’s not as important, but towards the end when there aren’t many tiles left, it can get a bit aggravating especially if you draw five road tiles in a row.  Sometimes you could be waiting almost the entire game for one specific tile to finish your feature and just never draw it.

Experienced players start to know which tiles are available and which ones aren’t, which can help them make decisions easier.  The base game of Carcassonne does have instances where the tile you need just plain doesn’t exist, as well, which can get frustrating.  Many of the expansions come with unique tiles to alleviate this issue though.

Games Like Carcassonne

Alhambra is another tile laying game, but players are building individual boards instead of one massive board.  There’s also an auction element for gaining tiles instead of drawing them randomly.


Castles of Mad King Ludwig is also a tile laying game where players buy the tiles instead of drawing them randomly.  Building all the different crazy rooms in the castles is so much fun and ends with a great looking castle.

Expansions
Carcassonne has far too many expansions to list and even if I did, the list would be quickly out of date.  Some are just mini expansions that add a small element to the game, while others are large expansions that offer lots of extra tiles and new rules.  Those extra tiles are a big deal since they give you more options, which provides more replay value to the game.  It also makes the game larger and longer since you play until the tiles are all gone.  Adding too many expansions at once can get pretty crazy, often not in a good way, so it’s advisable to only play a couple at a time to fit what game style you want.

There are two expansions that are so good, I never play without them so you should look into those first if you’re not sure which expansions to start with.  The expansions are Inns and Cathedrals and Traders and Builders.  Between those two expansions you’ll get a bag to draw tiles from, scoring tiles to show how many times around the board you’ve gone, new meeples that have fantastic new rules, new tiles that make roads more valuable, and best of all the meeples for a sixth player!

The Bottom Line
Carcassonne is great for new players, but has enough strategic depth for experienced gamers too.  It’s the most popular tile laying game for a reason and it never gets old.

Rule Clarifications
Most of the rules in Carcassonne are fairly straight forward, except when it comes to scoring.  There’s a discrepancy between first edition rules and third edition rules on how to score farms and two tile cities.  Depending on who you play with, they could have learned different scoring rules even though it’s the same game.  To avoid this, decide how you’re going to score these features before you start playing.  If you’re not sure which rules to choose, go with third edition rules since they’re the most current and work with the expansions.

2 tile cities (footballs):  The first edition rules state that two tile cities are only worth one point per tile instead of two points like other city tiles are.  That means a completed two tile city is only worth two points instead of four points like you’d expect.  This rule discourages the creation of two tile cities.

The third edition rules removed that rule, however, and let two tile cities be worth four points.  This made scoring easier since any completed city is now worth two points per tile, no matter the size.  This rule change made smaller cities more common, which also made farmers more important since they could get a lot of two tile cities in their farm and get tons of points.  Players could still do that with first edition rules, but they wouldn’t get as many points initially for the completed city.

Scoring farms: Scoring farms is the major difference between first edition and third edition rules, but the majority of people use third edition rules now.  There’s actually a little used second edition rule change as well for farms.

In the first edition rules, players choose a city and count the number of meeples in any farm touching it.  The player with the most meeples gets four points for that city.  Continue scoring each city that way.

In the third edition rules, players choose a farm and count the number of meeples in that one farm.  The player with the most meeples gets three points per completed city touching that farm.  Then every other farm is scored the same way.

The second edition rules are the same as the third edition, except each city can only score once.  This seems really confusing to me since I’m not sure what would happen to the players in a different farm touching the same city if the city can only score once.

Can you use a meeple you just picked up: No, the turn order is place a tile, then place a meeple on that tile, and then finally score features.  Since scoring features happens at the end of the turn, you wouldn’t get the meeple back in time to actually use it.

Features on the same tile twice (ex. roads that loop around): You score each distinct tile only once.  Even if a feature is on one tile twice, as long as it’s part of the same feature it only gets scored once.

Tiles that literally can’t be placed anywhere: If a tile can’t be placed anywhere, that tile gets put back in the box and a new tile is drawn.

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