Time: ~20 minutes
Times Played: ~50
Simple. Pure. Elegant.
Since its release in 2000, Carcassonne has stood the test of time and not only seen countless expansions released to bolster the game, but also a slew of stand alone editions as well as a re-release with updated artwork and graphics. It is one of a handful of games that helped usher in the renaissance of modern board gaming and still stands the test of time almost two decades later.
It’s a game that can be played as a friendly tile-laying experience between players or a downright vicious cage match between opponents. Carcassonne is the epitome of what board gaming can be, acting as a bridge from the world of Sorry! and Monopoly to the modern board gaming era. It is incredibly easy to teach, has minimal set-up and upkeep, and most importantly, has clear rewards for players related to their decision making.
The base Carcassonne game comes with seventy-two (72) tiles that are made of thick cardboard. Our Carcassonne has been played over fifty times (and honestly, probably much more than that) and has traveled to multiple homes and events. While the box is showing some wear, the tiles themselves look just like they did when I purchased the game nearly a decade ago.
The standard component of Carcassonne is the wooden meeple. The iconic shape is familiar to many games but if I ever had to say which game was its home, it would be Carcassonne.
The basis of Carcassonne is that it’s a tile-laying game with aspects of area control and influence. For the basis of this review, I am looking at the 2000 released edition of the game. The newer edition has updated art work and a more concise rulebook.
The mechanic of tile-laying is simple yet exciting. It may not look interesting with the drab colors and artwork but I find a sense of adventure as I draw my new tile and try to find where it will either best help me or best hinder my opponent. The set-up of the game is minimal and the creation of the map ensures an interesting piece of eye-candy when the game concludes.
Each turn, the active player will draw a tile at random and then place that tile onto the existing landscape. The tile must be placed adjacently to an existing tile and it must continue what has already been played. For example, you cannot place a road going into an empty field. It must connect to a road.
After the tile has been placed, the active player has the option of placing one of their meeples on the tile that was just placed. When placing a meeple, they can either belong to a road, a cloister, a city, or a field. The only caveat here is that the meeple cannot be placed onto anything that already has a meeple on it. For example, if you make your opponents castle larger, you will not be able to place your meeple on the tile you just placed as they already have their own meeple on it. Tiles can eventually be connected that result in opposing meeples sharing the same feature. When placing a meeple on a road, cloister, or city, they are stood upright and once completed, will return to the player. When playing on a field, the meeple is laid down and will remain there until final scoring.
After the option of placing your meeple, any scoring that occurred due to the placement of the tile must occur. That could be scoring for the active player or an opponent(s). It’s possible for multiple instances of scoring to occur due to one tile.
A road is scored when both ends of the road are closed. Closings can occur at villages, monastery’s, cities, or other roads. Each road tile grants the scoring player one point per tile.
Completing a city, which means that the city itself is completely surrounded by walls, will net the player two points per city tile. For each city tile with a coat of arms, an additional two points is added.
Cloisters need to be completely surrounded by tiles, including diagonally. Eight tiles will surround the Cloister and the player will score nine points for a complete one.
After scoring, the next player will select a tile and repeat the process.
Play will commence until the last tile is played and then final scoring will occur.
For final scoring, fields grant three points for each completed adjacent cities.
The rulebook is fairly straight forward and in the older editions, there was some ambiguity with the field scoring but the newer rulebooks have cleared that up. The rulebook is short and provides visual cues for turn taking and scoring.
The beauty of Carcassonne is that it has incredible replayability. Games are fast and easy to set-up. You can explain the rules in a few minutes to anyone. For such a simple concept, there is depth and strategy for the decisions you have to make. Carcassonne allows players to play the game the way they want to and due to that, there is much more to the game than what initially meets the eye. The randomness helps keep the game interesting as it doesn’t allow players to get comfortable with a certain strategy.
Bushnell’s law applies to Carcassonne as it’s truly easy to learn yet difficult to master. I’ve taught this game to young children and non-gamers with ease. After a first play, players “get” what they’re attempting to do and endless strategies appear before them.
It has also some great interaction between players. Similar to Ticket to Ride, another gateway game, Carcassonne forces players to be aware of other players turns. There isn’t too much to keep track of so you can try and gauge what each player is trying to accomplish fairly evenly. For actual gameplay, there is also the decision of what a player will do regarding their opponents choices. Do they close a city so it scores fewer points? Do they detour a road into a hard to find tile combination? There are many possibilities that open up a lot of strategy for Carcassonne.
The theme of the game is fine by board game standards. It’s not going to blow anyone away (besides those possible living in and near Carcassonne) but it’s also not going to offend anyone either. It’s neutral like a train game
The creation of the landscape also creates a sense of achievement for players as they complete a sprawling city or are able to connect their farm to another section of cities. It’s a small aspect of the game that can get overlooked but it just feels good to complete something. The inverse is also true though. Frustration can mount when the piece you’re pining for doesn’t come up turn after turn. It creates an instant gratification that I find enjoyable. Sure, building an engine in Viticulture to create some truly remarkable wine or capturing a planet with some cunning in Twilight Imperium 4 is nice thanks to the payoff, but I would argue that Carcassonne offers a similar sentiment, although on a lesser scale.
While Carcassonne can fit additional players, I feel like it excels as a two-player game. There is direct interaction as you can impact your opponents plans and scoring opportunities, either by cutting them off, stealing them, or forcing them into positions where they’ll receive a fraction of the points available.
That isn’t to say that Carcassonne is a bad game to play with more players (quite the opposite, in fact). I just find it to be a superb two-player game. There’s a depth of strategy that changes each game thanks to the draw of the tiles, it plays incredibly quickly, and the gameplay allows you to play as mean or nice as you want. With two-players, there is little to no downtime between turns. When adding more players, you’re adding more idle time.
Scores tend to be pretty close, even when adding or removing players, thanks to the random tile draw. No one ever feels truly out of a game and personally, the only large discrepancies have been when a player is playing Carcassonne for the first time against experienced players. By their second game, they’re finishing within striking distance or winning outright.
Two-player strategy can be seen as a direct attack against one another whereas more players will tend to try to block their opponents. With more players, I tend to find players try to stick to their seating arrangement and make neat little countrysides and castles instead of expanding out and taking from their opponents. Any direct interaction results in an equal or greater reaction, which tends to shy players away from contact as it will allow the other players to gain a leg up as they are not being interacted with. Two-player games of Carcassonne however don’t have that issue. Right from the gates, players come out with the knowledge that they will be confronted and it’s not a matter of if but a matter of when.
I also tend to find the strategy of meeple placement much greater in two-player games than it is in higher player counts. With more players, I’m seeing less tiles so I’m much less picky with the meeples I plop down on the tiles I’ve played. I want to get points and the ability to do so is somewhat limited by the fact that I’ll be placing less tiles than a two-player game. In a two-player game, I feel much more selective as I know I’ll be seeing more tiles and the ability to control the growth of the game board rests more in my power than it does otherwise. In a multiplayer game, I shy away from Cloisters as it requires too much of a reliance on my opponents to get it completed whereas in a two-player game, I can make that a focal point of my building.
I don’t want to dive too deep into this benefit (as I;ll save it for future reviews) but one of the best aspects of Carcassonne is the amount of content available for the game. There are so many expansions that can be mixed and matched to fit the type of game you want to play. Adding an expansion adds an easy twenty-five or more plays and that’s before adding an expansion to an expansion.
Is everything perfect? No. I find the base Carcassonne to be boring. It was great at first but at this stage in my playing career, I need more options. Throwing three or four expansions into the game is the base game for us now. Thankfully, Carcassonne offers those in droves.
The base game asks players to lay a tile and then before their next turn, draw a new one. We’ve replaced that completely by having players draw their tile as soon as they place their current one. That speeds up the game as it allows players to focus on their strategy for longer. I’ve also heard of gamers drawing a hand of three tiles and choosing from those each round as a way to add more variety to the game.
The randomness of the draw of tiles can also cause some frustration for players. While your opponents are building grand cities and castles, you’re left extending and closing roads for minimal points. Personally, Carcassonne plays so quickly that I don’t mind the randomness. If I have a bad game, I’m just as likely to have a great one the next time we play. Also, playing at two-players (which is the way I’ve played this game the most) gives players more than enough opportunities to right the wrongs that the randomness bestowed upon them.
As a stand alone base game, I think it’s definitely great and still holds up. The decision making and variety, while great for what it is, doesn’t appeal to me anymore. In the same way that I loved Ticket to Ride and have logged hundreds of plays on it, it doesn’t hit the rotation anymore unless I’m playing with more modules.
Lastly, I hate the scoring track. After so many years, it has become incredibly warped and as it only scores to fifty, there are additional chits needed for players as they pass those scores (which is frequent in a two-player game). I wished they would release a neoprene scoring mat.
Since its release, there have been countless games that imitate and implement the elements that make Carcassonne so great and with each new release, Carcassonne gets a little stronger. It has lasted a long time and will continue to last a long time. It can appeal to a multitude of gamers (new, serious, etc.) and feels like riding a bike; you never really forget how to play the game.
For us, this is a game that will never leave the shelf. It may sit there for a few months but once we bring it out, we remember why we love it and ensure it sees the table thirty or so times before it finds itself back on the shelf. I can’t recommend Carcassonne enough. It might be the only game that I advise buying an expansion for before deciding if it’s not for you. My only regret involving the game is not being able to get the expansions when they were available for my edition.