Note that the pictures in this review include components from two expansions that would not be included in the base game.
Carcassonne is a tile-laying worker placement game released in 2000 from designer Klaus-Jürgen Wrede. Over the last 15 years it has become one of the “classics” in modern board gaming, alongside designs such as The Settlers of Catan and Ticket to Ride. Players add tiles to a communal landscape while strategically placing “meeples” in different ways to attempt to score the most points.
At the beginning of the game, a single tile is placed in the center of the table, starting what will grow into a larger medieval landscape. On each turn, a player draws a random tile and adds it to the map, making sure that it matches up with all adjacent tiles: grass must connect to grass, roads to roads, and cities to cities. Once the tile is placed, the player may deploy one of his followers to the tile in one of four ways:
- A Knight – A follower can be placed in a city as a knight. When the city is completed, the knight will score two points for each tile, and an additional two points for each pennant icon.
- A Thief – A follower can be placed on a road as a thief. When the road is completed, the thief will score one point for each tile in the completed road.
- A Monk – A follower can be placed in a cloister as a monk. When the cloister is completely surrounded by other tiles, the monk will score nine points, one for the cloister and each surrounding tile.
- A Farmer – A follower can be placed in a field as a farmer. Unlike the other options, farmers remain on the tile for the entire game and are not returned to the player’s supply. At the end of the game, each completed city will score four points for each player that has the most farmers in fields bordering that city (note that different editions of the game seem to have slight differentiations on farmer scoring).
Meeples are only allowed to be placed on the tile that was just placed, but they also can’t be placed on a road, city, or field that already contains an existing meeple. It is possible that multiple followers could end up in the same section, but only if they were separate and then later connected by additional tiles. Should this happen, the players tied for the most meeples on a completed segment will score the full points. Play continues until all of the tiles have been played, at which point the farmers score for their fields. Then the player with the most points is the winner.
What Is It Like to Play?
Carcassonne is largely a tactical game, as you are completely at the luck of the draw in terms of what tiles you get to place. While there can be some long-term strategy such as trying to develop a large city, you have to be prepared to work with whatever tiles you get. As a result, I find that the game is very relaxing to play. There really aren’t mental calculations to crunch through like other games, nor the need to assemble long-term goals and strategies; you just take each tile one at at time, and make decisions on how to best use them to maximize your points. All of that said, I don’t want to give the impression that the game just comes down to luck. There is a lot of room for skillful play, and experienced players will likely beat new players with consistency. Here is just a sampling of areas of the game where there is room for skill to make a difference:
- Knowing When to Place Farmers – Farmers are interesting because there is a balance between not wanting to lose a piece for the rest of the game and also wanting to get first pick on which fields to place them in. By placing a farmer really early in the game, you may secure a great position and prevent other players from joining in. On the other hand, keeping the piece for more of the game and then sneaking in at the end can many times be a more effective strategy. Skilled players will be able to read the board more effectively to weigh these sorts of tradeoffs.
- Stealing Points – When first playing Carcassonne, it might come off as a very non-confrontational game where players just peacefully try to score their own points. Skilled players know that one of the biggest keys to the game is to sneak into other players’ cities, roads, and fields, in order to either share the points or steal them entirely. It is all too easy for a new player to do all the work building up a city or road, only to have an experienced player join in right before completion to get just as many points.
- Keeping Meeples from Getting Locked – Meeples only return to a player once the segment that they are assigned to is completed. This means that it is very possible for meeples to get stuck if something becomes difficult to complete due to constraints on the map. Skilled players will know how to always keep a flow of meeples coming back to their supply, and conversely, how to place tiles to try and lock other players’ meeples into place.
These subtle tactical and strategic elements, layered on top of the relaxing pacing of casually adding tiles to the map, give Carcassonne the perfect balance to work as a family game, or as a gateway game into the hobby.
Since the game is so tactical, and the tiles come out in a different order every game, there are always fresh decisions to be made with each recurring play. The base game does have the potential for each game to feel somewhat similar due to the repetition of just a few core elements, but this is easily fixed with the addition of a couple expansions, which I will talk about further below.
With fewer players, Carcassonne is a much more strategic experience. Every player gets to play more tiles over the course of the game, and there are less changes to the map between turns. The game still plays well with more players, but it turns into a much more casual affair, with luck playing a much larger role in the outcome. Three players is probably my favorite count, striking a nice balance between interaction between players and each player getting to play the most tiles.
Since the “board” is essentially built throughout the game, setup time just requires the tiles to be shuffled and stacked into draw piles. Later expansions add a cloth bag to draw the tiles from, which makes the setup time even faster.
Carcassonne makes a great introductory game to the hobby, largely because the rules are fairly easy to teach. Really the only rule that might trip new players up is the farmer scoring, but usually a basic understanding is sufficient and any questions can be addressed later in the game. The lack of long term strategy bodes well for new players because all they have to think about is what to do with the single tile they are dealt on any given turn.
Things to Like
The rules are easy to teach, and yet Carcassonne provides an experience very different than any other “mainstream” games that most everyone is familiar with. New players can quickly feel like they are doing well, but there is still enough depth to explore and provide interesting decisions. It works well at a variety of player counts and with a variety of ages.
There is something that is very enjoyable about seeing a single tile slowly turn into a branching map across the table. It is a nice change of pace from the more traditional “board” used in games.
If there is one thing that Carcassonne has in spades (almost to a fault), it is a multitude of expansions. I will cover what I consider to be the two essential expansions below, but I do believe it is a big strength of the game that you can use the base game as a taster to see if you enjoy it, and then you can very easily bump it up to the next level with some simple additions.
Things to Dislike
This could be seen as a strength depending on the crowd, but it certainly can be frustrating to simply not draw the pieces you need to complete a certain element on the game board. For the most part, the effects of the blind draws can be mitigated through skillful play, but you might not be feeling too happy about it when you end up not finishing a city simply because you went eight straight turns without drawing a city piece.
Am I a hypocrite to say this is both a strength and a downside? I really think that Carcassonne is at its best with a few expansions mixed in. That said, you can easily fall down the slippery slope of buying more and more expansions for the game, and it starts to give diminishing returns and ultimately hurting the balance of the game, as well as the ease of teaching it to new players. It can be tempting to keep buying new content when you like a game, but I think it is important to remember that it does not always make the gaming experience better.
I have mentioned it several times now, but Carcassonne has more expansions than almost any other game I can think of. In my opinion, I think there are two expansions that stand heads above the rest, and I consider my personal copy to be “complete” with the addition of both of them. The first is the Inns and Cathedrals expansion. This expansion adds several outstanding additions:
- Inns – There are now roads that are neighbored by small lakeside inns. These introduce a “double or nothing” element: you get double the points for completing it, but if it is unfinished at the end of the game, you don’t score anything at all. These add a great little “push your luck” mechanic as you try to decide on the best time to finish off a road.
- Cathedrals – Essentially the exact same concept as the inns, but for cities. Completing a city with a Cathedral will bring in big points, but left incomplete, it will lose all the points you would have scored.
- Big Meeple – Each player now gets one follower that is larger than the rest. It can be used just like any other meeple, but whenever you are resolving ties between players, a big meeple counts as two meeples. This adds even more strategy into trying to steal points from other players.
- More Tile Variety – More interesting tiles that allow for extra variety in how your boards develop.
If you are still enjoying the game after adding Inns and Cathedrals and are wanting more, the Traders and Builders expansion adds another batch of excellent game mechanics:
- Good Collection – Now there are city tiles that contain icons for either wheat, cloth, or wine (as seen in some of the images in this post). Whenever completing a city, the player that played the last tile collects tokens for each good icon in the city. At the end of the game, the player with the most of each type of good will gain ten points. This is very interesting because players now have an incentive to complete an opponent’s city, simply to take the bonus goods. In addition, players may go out of their way to try and acquire goods based on their positioning moving towards the endgame.
- Builders – Each player now has a “builder” piece. A builder can be played instead of a meeple, but only on a road or city where you already have a meeple. Once the meeple is out on the map, every additional tile that the player adds to that segment will allow them to take an extra turn right away (limit once per turn). This adds for more strategy as good use of a builder can allow a player to play more tiles over the course of the game than other players. In addition, players can have even more incentive to try and lock other players’ builders in place, so they can’t return them to their supply.
- Pigs – A somewhat trivial addition, but mentioned for completeness. Each player receives a pig which they can add to a field where they have a farmer. This allows that farmer to score an extra point for each city it supplies.
- Even More Tile Variety! – Enough said, more interesting pieces make for more interesting layouts.
With both of these expansions added in, it really elevates Carcassonne to a game that I am happy to keep in my collection. Despite the additional rules they add, I find that I can throw in close to all of it even with new players without a problem. It also extends the game length to provide a more satisfying experience, while still keeping the game under an hour.
Game Design Perspective
I have a lot of respect for the game designs that really ushered in a new era in modern board game design. Carcassonne really broke the mold of what elements typically make up a game, as it eliminated a central game board and replaced it with a dynamic board built by the players. The ruleset is very elegant and streamlined, and most of the strategic play is what I consider “emergent;” it isn’t baked into the ruleset itself but rather comes into play as the different rules interact with each other in action. I also really like the beauty of a design that allows for such room for creative expansion. It becomes a gold mine of design as you brainstorm more cool additions to add into the basic formula. It certainly shows some age after 15+ years, but that is largely because so many games were able to use its design as a blueprint for modern board game design.
Carcassonne is without a doubt one of the best introductory games to the hobby of modern board gaming. That said, I think it really can hold a strong position even in seasoned gamers’ collections, especially with a couple of expansions. The subtle strategic depth and relaxing pacing help it to deliver a unique and satisfying experience, even amongst the waves of new games that have arrived since its release.
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