Carcassonne: The Princess & The Dragon
Time: ~40 minutes
Times Played: ~15
The third expansion to Carcassonne is The Princess & The Dragon.
This expansion offers thirty new tiles to the game, which is more than either of the previous expansions. There are twelve dragon tiles, six volcano tiles, six princess tiles, and six magical portal tiles.
The Dragon tiles are used to move the wooden dragon around the landscape. When a dragon tile is placed and a meeple is added to the tile (or not), the game pauses so that the dragon can move. The dragon has a movement base of six tiles during this phase.
To begin movement, the active player moves the dragon to a new adjacent tile from where the dragon currently resides. For adjacency, orthogonal tiles are the only ones available so diagonal moves are out. Once the active player moves the dragon one tile, the next player in clockwise order takes their turn and moves the dragon. This continues until the dragon has moved six spaces or boxes itself in as it cannot double-back and move to a tile it has already been on this movement phase. It is possible that a player moves the dragon more than one time during this phase as well.
It’s also important to note that the dragon can only move if it is currently on the board. The dragon will not spawn until the first Volcano is placed so it’s entirely possible that several dragon tiles are placed without activating the tile.
Speaking of Volcano tiles, their placement follows normal Carcassonne rules with the exception that no meeple can be placed on it. When a Volcano tile is placed, the Dragon will be placed on the tile and this is how the Dragon is first introduced to the landscape. With each new Volcano placement, the Dragon will relocate around the board.
The Dragon introduces a new mechanic to Carcassonne that has previously been unseen: meeple removal. The Dragon can remove meeples from Roads, Cloisters, Farms, and Cities just by landing on the tile. This can impact control of Fields and Cities and be a powerful tool in the quest to score points and keep your opponents from scoring. Farms in-particular are vulnerable as the fixed state of the meeple creates an inviting target for the Dragon.
The interesting aspect of the Dragon is that its movements are controlled by all players; not just the active player that activated the Dragon. This means the active player needs to think of the possible routes the Dragon may take and what other players are capable of doing.
The movement ability and proximity of the Dragon also plays a large role in how features are constructed now. In our games, features tend to be smaller and completed quicker as the threat of the Dragon looms. They would rather score what points they can rather than lose out completely.
Cloisters, unless placed with the possibility of completing them almost immediately, have become almost unfeasible as they’re just sitting ducks and easy locations to typically reach with a Dragon. We’ve found that our normal automatic placement of a meeple on a Cloister is now a debatable decision that now tends to fall under the “not this time” edict.
The physical wooden Dragon is a great addition as well as it has such a presence on the Carcassonne landscape. The wooden figure takes up an entire tile and the red color (at least for my Dragon) stands out against the Carcassonne color pallet. I would have preferred a color that wasn’t already in play however. It’s easy to see that the Dragon is large and different from the other meeples on the board, but why did it have to be the color of an already in use player color?
The Volcano tiles can greatly impact the game as well as they offer the ability to move a Dragon far distances instantaneously. The Dragon can be placed next to opponents or just away from your own meeples. The tile also doesn’t allow the placement of a meeple on it which means players are offered the opportunity to move the Fairy figure (more on that next).
The Fairy meeple is available to any player when they place a tile and do not place a meeple on it. This allows them to move the Fairy from wherever it is to wherever they currently have a meeple. The Fairy is important as it offers several benefits. First, the Dragon can never enter a tile that contains the Fairy. This creates an invulnerable position that could mean the difference between scoring or being wiped out. Second, each time that a player begins their turn with the Fairy in their possession (on a tile with their meeple) they will earn one point. Third and finally, any time the Fairy is on a feature that is scored that feature will net an additional three points.
The Fairy can be looked at in two ways: to protect points or to score them. Either way, they need to be passed around among the different players as one playing hoarding the Fairy will result in a much easier path for that player.
The Fairy introduces an interesting strategy where you are rewarded for not placing your meeple on the active tile. This creates a dynamic where it may be more beneficial to move the Fairy around the board as opposed to starting a new City or lengthening a Road.
When using this expansion with the previous ones, games can become incredibly tight and cutthroat and the possibility of scoring three additional points when completing a feature might be just enough to ensure a players victory.
The other name on the marquee, the Princess, has major implications tied to City control. If a Princess tile is added to a City, the active player must return a meeple located in that City to that players supply. The keyword here is must. If the active player removes a meeple from a City, they cannot add their own meeple. If they add the tile to an unclaimed or new City though, they can add a meeple.
From the title of the expansion, most players would suspect that the Dragon is the fearsome addition to the world of Carcassonne but I think the Princess is the one with the teeth. The Princess changes the way players handle Cities. Before, players knew the basic premise of how to protect their Cities from being invaded. The Princess now turns that on its head as it straight kicks players out of Cities. It may not necessarily result in the other playing scoring but it does take points away. In fact, one of the stronger strategies I’ve seen is players placing Princess tiles in Cities that they have no stake in and ensuring no one has a lead in it.
The other new tile set is the Magic Portal. When placing a Magic Portal, normal rules apply but the tile allows the active player to place their meeple on any tile already in play. There are some caveats to that rule however. The normal restrictions apply and a meeple cannot be added to a feature that is already controlled by a meeple nor can they be placed in already finished features.
The Magic Portal is the most straight forward and easiest to process addition. With the Dragon roaming the landscape and the Princess booting meeples from Cities, this tile can help players score features that were all but abandoned. It’s a great final implementation that works in tandem with everything else this box introduced (besides maybe the Fairy).
Lastly, there are the unique tiles. Unlike past expansions, there is not a separate set of tiles this time. Every tile has a feature that relates to the expansion but there is the addition of a Cloister that resides inside a City and a tunnel, which results in a continuous road going under a City.
One of the biggest impacts that this expansion makes can be found in relation to Farms. Farms are already a great way to score points but they are likely to be even more valuable as players tend to complete Cities much quicker due to the threat of the Dragon. This results in more Cities littering the landscape which adds values to Farms. But the risk/reward is strong as I mentioned earlier as Farms are inviting targets for players to sic their Dragon on. This impact on Farms results in less of an early scramble for Farm land and more of a wait-and-see approach. It’s comparable to a Fantasy Football draft where no one takes a kicker but once they do, everyone does.
The Princess & The Dragon takes Carcassonne on a forward pace as it works to distinguish itself from the base game and the expansions that came after it. Like those that came before it, it’s completely new and the mechanics mesh well with the base version. More importantly, it meshes most well with itself. Previous expansions (Ins & Cathedrals, Traders & Builders) felt like separate modules that could be added or removed without much affect on one another. That’s not a bad thing but I could easily use the Builder and Pig without utilizing the trade Goods.
The Princess & The Dragon doesn’t feel like that. Each separate aspect that this expansion offers is directly intertwined with one another. The Dragon causes mayhem while the Fairy protects from it. The Volcano moves the Dragon and allows easy decision of using the Fairy. The Princess jettisons meeples from Cities whereas the Magic Portals allow players to enter those now abandoned locales. It’s a beautiful inter-connectivity of ideas that works, whether you like what they offer or not.
So what isn’t good?
More than any other expansion before it, I think The Princess & The Dragon adds the most time to base Carcassonne due to players trying to consider all the possible routes the Dragon may take on the board and how each player might possibly move said Dragon. Coupled with the other expansions creates a game that can easily last over an hour and I question if this expansion is good enough to combine with the others to spend that much time playing. In fact, The Princess & The Dragon seems to be more interested in playing with itself than it is of playing with previous expansions. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing but it doesn’t feel as interconnected as the others. If anything, the only real interconnection is between the Fairy’s ability to shield meeples and the importance of previous meeples the Builder, the Pig, and the larger meeple.
Like all Carcassonne and particularly, Traders & Builders, the randomized tile draw can again create swings in one players direction. Finally moving a Dragon across the landscape with a Volcano only to have them return the very next turn can be demoralizing. Same with placing a Princess tile that completes a City while kicking out the only player residing there or being the player that constantly draws Magic Portals and is able to reap what work the Dragon and Princess have done.
In addition to the randomness, there are also weird games where the Dragon doesn’t come out until too late in the game or it spends several turns in a row moving to no avail.
If you go into the game aware of the randomness, it’s a fine issue that is a necessary evil of playing Carcassonne. Knowing that it exists doesn’t help mitigate the problem though. It can become incredibly troublesome at two-players if a player is routinely on the receiving end of good luck.
With the introduction of this meeple elimination, Kingmaking can become prevalent at the higher player counts whether players intend to do that or not. While the Dragon is moved by all players, a majority can easily influence the only direction it can move.
Speaking of the Dragon, it loses its luster in two-player games as players tend to be able to control the route much easier as it passes back and forth between them. Routinely the Dragon will find itself in a dead end and waiting for an opportunity to cause havoc that will never arise.
I like The Princess & The Dragon but I don’t love it. I play with it more often than not but it’s by no means an auto-include that expansions 1 and 2. I enjoy the direct interaction and conflict that the Dragon and the Princess create but the randomness is incredibly frustrating, especially in a two-player game where things don’t go your way. It feels like the strategical design of Carcassonne has been removed when randomness rears its ugly head.
Overall, I would recommend this expansion if you’re looking for some more direct conflict but I would preface that with saying this isn’t something you should play with every time. It can be and I do enjoy the visual of the large Dragon stalking the countryside but it’s not making the base game better, like the prior two expansions did, but instead it’s creating a different experience to pair with the base game.