Sunday, April 14, 2013

Carcassonne Review

Carcassonne was released in 2000 and was designed by Klaus-J├╝rgen Wrede. These days it's being published by Z-Man games in America.  I discovered it in 2010, and it was the very first boardgame I bought, right before I got snowed in during a blizzard.  Needless to say, with the power being out and nowhere to go, we got to know this game very well that week.

There are two Carcassonnes.  There is the nice, light, fun, family friend game you can get out from time to time.  It can be a pleasant evening with your significant other.  You could take it to a family get together and a few people might walk away thinking they should look into these new games that are out.  All in all it's a pleasant experience.

Then there is the brutal, no holds barred, cut throat Carcassonne.  The one where every move is challenged. Every feature fought over.  A version of Carcassonne where you will howl with displeasure when your opponent snatches that 30 point city from you.  Farms will be turned into no man's land.  There may be blood.  Correction.  There most certainly will be blood.

The best part is, both versions of Carcassonne come in the same box.

Rule Summary


In Carcassonne players have 8 wooden figures, affectionately called meeples.  One of these figures is placed on the score track, and the other 7 represent a players game pieces.  A bag or box top is filled with the tiles, and a starting tile is laid out.

On their turn, players will blindly draw a tile, and then they must choose where to place it.  The tiles have features on them.  Usually roads, cities and fields, but occasionally cloisters.  The edges of the tile must match the edges of the tiles by which they are placed.  Players then choose whether or not to place one of their meeples on the tile, and on which feature.  A tile may have a multiple roads, fields, and cities, and a meeple can only occupy a single feature.

Meeples can not be placed on features that have already been claimed.  If numerous city tiles are connected, it all counts as a single city.  If a meeple is in that city, you can't place a meeple in it too, just by adding a tile to the city.  You may however sneak your way in by establishing a separate city, and then merging the two cities.

Most features will score points for the player with the most meeples in it once completed.  If two players have the same number of meeples in a feature, they both get the full points.  Cities, roads and cloisters can all be completed during the game.  Farms however are only scored at the end of the game.  Once the tiles run out, there is end game scoring.  At this point you finally score farms, any unfinished roads and cloisters, and get half credit for unfinished cities.  The player with the most points wins.

Timelapse

How accessible is the game to new players?


Carcassonne is one of the quintessential gateway games.  It has had some odd iterations on how farms are scored.  My version of the rules, which I believe to be the final iteration, say that farms will score 3 points per completed city they connect to.  This is certainly the most friendly of the farm rules I've heard of, and I'm glad it was changed from what it used to be.

The beautiful thing that makes Carcassonne so accessible is that you have a single decision to make.  Here is your tile, now what are you going to do with it?  It is simple, direct, uncluttered and uncomplicated.  It is pure in a way.

How does the new player versus old player match up go?


The one thing that will scare a person off from this game is playing against an extremely aggressive and experienced player.  The rules for stealing in this game aren't mind blowing, but they do take some getting used to.  But when a passive player who just wants to grow their cities and roads, which is most new players, crosses with an aggressive "I'm gonna steal all your shit" player, it ends poorly.

Red goes for the steal!

The scoring is absolute.  There is no partial credit.  No sharing.  The player with the most meeples gets all the points, and your meeple was useless.  Now in a 3 or more player game, there can be some motivation to just share points evenly on a feature, if it excludes the 3rd player.  If both players have the same number of meeples in a city, they both get the points.  But in a 2 player game?  You go for everything or you don't bother.  It gets ugly.  Fast.

What could have been done better?


It adds more math to what is otherwise a very light game, but I'd be curious as to how a partial scoring variant would work.  If a city is worth 30 points, and one player has 1 meeple, and the other player has 2 meeples, would it kill the game to have the points be split 10/20?  I feel it would certainly burn new players a lot less.  Nobody wants to feel like a move they made was completely worthless.  Which is precisely what happens when someone steals a feature from you.

What are the feelings the game evokes and why?


Like I said before there are two Carcassonnes.  In one of them you can immerse yourself in the pleasure of growing your landscape.  It mostly revolves around hoping you get a tile that can add points to one of your enormous roads or cities.  Then at the end of the game, you get to sit back and enjoy the view of a sweeping, idyllic French countryside.

The other Carcassonne has you locked in a bitter battle with your opponents.  You may start to sweat.  There will likely be cursing.  There is just something deeply personal about losing a 40 point city to someone.  You spent a lot of time on that city.  Carefully aligning all the tiles just so.  It can really hurt.  The frustration factor is only raised by the fact that you have no control over which tile you pull.  You could need a city piece, any city piece!  And yet you draw nothing but fields and roads for 10 turns straight.  Giving your opponent all the time they need to slowly but surely steal your city.

I once had someone get so mad at losing one of their best cities that they drank all my beer.  The beer that was supposed to last me all week.  Because of the blizzard.  But that's what friends are for right?

What could have been done to make the game more enjoyable?


So here is the thing.  The light and friendly Carcassonne?  That gets boring quickly.  Sooner or later, players will find themselves wandering into the hardcore Carcassonne.  The Carcassonne where you tie your wrist together and whip out switchblades.  Because that is where the meat of the game is.

I'm not entirely sure the game that is left is pleasant necessarily, but it is rewarding.  For a European style game, cutthroat Carcassonne has a distinctly American feel to it.  The players who are doing well seem to just get further and further ahead, and will feel on top of the world.  The players who get everything stolen from them always leave the game a bit roughed up.  It's a game where feelings can get hurt, despite it's light theme.  If this game had elimination it would be up there with the rest of the old school American style games.

Blue's city has a sign on it's back
saying "STEAL ME!"
The other thing which bothers people is that you don't have any control over which tile you draw.  But I know many people play with a variant where they have a hand of tiles and play one per turn then draw back up.

I once again feel like getting partial points for your stake in a completed feature would go a huge ways towards bringing some pleasantness back to this game.  Instead of being miserable that someone stole 40 points from you, you can console yourself that you still got 13 points out of it.  At least it was something.

Of course, from a players perspective, the best thing to do is simply not invest in anything worth a game changing number of points.  It just paints a bulls eye on your back.  But if I can move along to the next topic before getting into that...

Long term strategy, short term tactics, both or neither?


I feel that Carcassonne is actually much more of a strategic game than a tactical one.  Playing with a vicious opponent, any nearsightedness will get you crushed.  Carelessly placing meeples can result in them being trapped in unfinishable cities and roads.  Building too recklessly opens yourself up to theft.  Having any city worth more than 10 points seems to invite people to try to steal it from you, often successfully.  Even though all you are doing is drawing a tile from the bag and placing it, there is a shocking amount of long term planning that you need to do lest disaster befall you.

Really it's the stealing that makes this game so strategic.  Without stealing, it hardly matters what you place where, and the entire game becomes about who has the largest city and farm.  Things get a bit tight about the midway point where the tiles you need to complete your cities may not exist to be drawn any longer.  But that's not a huge deal.  Unfinished cities are still worth half points at the end of the game.

No, it's the possibility of losing that city completely which urges you to finished it as soon as possible.  It's the fear of wasting a dozen turns growing a metropolis for naught that causes you to branch out and focus on roads, or get excited when you draw a cloister.  They aren't worth as many points, but they are safer!

The farms are especially brutal as well, with large farms being worth 30 or 40 points on average.  Although it's the players own fault if farms actually get to be that large.  Just in general, large features become more of a liability than an asset as the game goes on.

This is always worth at least 4 points.
It will be your best friend
That isn't to say there are no tactical decisions.  Knowing when to grab a quick 2 or 4 points off an unclaimed road or city that you can immediately finish and score can be the difference between winning and losing.  Not to mention throwing awkward tiles next to your opponents features to slow him down or tie up a meeple.  And perhaps precisely how you go about defending your features turn after turn falls under tactics as well.  But I still feel the game is mostly strategic.  Someone playing with no consideration of the future consequences of their actions will get annihilated at Carcassonne.  However I have seen people handily win Carcassonne completely ignoring the short game and focusing on long term goals.

Are the dilemmas the player is presented with of sufficient quality?


For such a seemingly light game, I find the dilemmas a player will face surprisingly complex.  Players will constantly be checking their gut feeling concerning the tiles they think are left in the bag.  They will weigh this gut feeling against how easy it will be for them to finish their features.  They will also weigh it against how easy their opponents might steal it from them.  There is also a surprising amount of min-maxing involved in trying to figure out which feature on a tile to claim.  Especially whether to take the farm or something else, and often times which farm when a road divides it in two.

I think what makes the dilemmas in this game especially poignant is the finality of them.  Despite what I said about sharing points earlier, it's the winner take all aspect of this game which will really get you to invest in the game emotionally and intellectually.  Perhaps a bit too much emotionally.  Knowing that you have a huge number of points riding on the next tile draw can be thrilling.  I find it unfortunate that this dynamic, which imposes finality and weight on your decisions, can erode the enjoyment a player may find in the game.  It's a perfect example of a game being pulled in two directions, and I see little hope of compromise.

So you don't have any control over the tile you draw.  But you can try your best to mitigate the risk that causes, by maximizing the number of tiles which will work, and diversifying your risk.  And that is the crux of the dilemmas in this game.  Placing tiles so as to reduce your opponent's options and keep yours as open as possible.

What could have improved the dilemmas?


As I said before, making the game more friendly I do think would detract from the amount of thought you invest in your tile placements.  As it stands, while the game can be extremely hostile, the dilemmas are sufficiently deep for even a hardcore gamer.  The base game has a very tight balance, with enough rare tiles that can get you out of rather exotic situations if you are lucky, as well as situations for which there is no tile.  It also does a good job of keeping the point swings to a reasonable number.

Up top, a meeple.  Down below?
All the ways I can break the game.
Now I usually don't talk about expansions, but I feel the need to mention them here.  There are a lot of expansions for Carcassonne.  I don't even know how many there are anymore.  But many of them substantially alter the character of the game.  They also tend to degrade the fine balance that the base game has.

More and more exotic tiles get added to the game.  More and more ways exist to steal from one another.  Many tiles and pieces make features worth even more points, causing larger point swings.  All these additions have a detrimental effect on the tight strategy of Carcassonne.  It becomes impossible to strategize at all.  More or less anything becomes possible.  A game that already had a substantial amount of luck in the tile draw becomes even more random, less predictable, and with even bigger point swings.

If you insist on using expansions, and there are some good ones, I would suggest playing Alhambra style.  Add just one or two parts of an expansion at a time.  I find these games to be much more interesting than just throwing everything in the pot.  It becomes more about who can adapt their play style to one or two twists on the standard rules.

Physical component design and limitations?


I have two major gripes with Carcassonne component wise.  The scoring track is only 50 points long, which you will very quickly blow past.  There is also no bag for the tiles.  When I first got Carcassonne we were pulling the tiles out of the box top, after attempting to mix them up without accidentally flipping them over.  It was a pain.  This is a game that needs a bag.

What could have been better?


It's not all bad news.  The first expansion contains some of those extra score tracking tokens you will desperately need.  And the second expansion has the bag you know you'll want!  I don't think it's because of the added gameplay that most people claim the first and second expansions are required for this game.  Now for anyone buying the big box, this won't be an issue at all.

Still, the game should have come with a bag and the scoring tokens.  Period.  But bags aren't hard to come by, and scoring tokens aren't a huge issue.  People can use anything as 50 point tokens to represent lapping the score track.  But still, it does take away from the game a bit that these weren't included in it from the get go.

Long term prospects?


I have played Carcassonne way too much.  Easily over 50 times.  Sadly in my new found boardgame enthusiasm of 2010 I bought too many expansions and killed it.  That, and frequently people thought we were playing a nice and friendly game when we really weren't.  I find it unfortunate that the game's double lives can frustrate players out of giving it a chance.

But it is still a game I greatly enjoy going back to from time to time.  Like visiting an old friend.  It's remarkable how easy it is to jump right back into Carcassonne without reading the rules or anything.  Like any great old friend, it's like no time has passed at all.

My favorite way to play is a friendly 2 player game, or a vicious game with 3 or 4 players.  I've long since abandoned any notion of playing with all the expansions since it's just not fun.  But like I said, playing with 1 or 2 elements from the various expansions at a time can be a blast.  Tile laying games have come a long ways since Carcassonne.  Usually they get more elaborate, or mix tile laying with other gameplay mechanics.  But Carcassonne is a pure tile laying game, and it explores that design space amazingly well.  This one will always stay off my trade pile.

5 comments:

  1. >>This is always worth at least 4 points.
    >>It will be your best friend
    You only score 1 point per city tile if there are only 2 city tiles in the city - so this would be worth 2 points in this case.

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    Replies
    1. Fascinating. That must be a different version of the rules from mine. I have a Rio Grande copy, and it even has a 2 tile city worth 4 points as an example.

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  2. The points you get from 2 tiles cities is different in different versions. It's either 2 or 4 depending on the one you have

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  3. Excellent Review of one my favorite games! Like you Carcassonne was my gateway to Boardgames and then I bought Dominion Intrigue. Excellent Review! One of my favorite

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  4. In my version unfinished stuff is worth ZERO points...

    I think this otherwise great game is ruined by the overcomplex scoring... there's already at least three versions of farmer scoring...

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