Carcassonne: Game Review

In the middle of a game of CarcassonneThis is my first review and I thought I would use one of my first gateway games to get my reviews started. It also happens to be the case that Carcassonne is an all around brilliantly designed game. I put a lot of stock in a game that is designed simply enough that it can be fun your first time, and a game that has enough complexity and strategy to be fun on your on you 25th, 50th or 100th time playing. Carcassonne is one of these games. To a first time player it is a creative puzzle, to a more seasoned veteran Carcassonne is a strategic game of knights, thieves and farmers; The player who controls the growing map will win the game.

The Premise

Carcassonne is played with one inch square tiles that feature pictures of cities, roads or fields. Different tiles are arranged differently so that the road, city or field is touching different edged of the tile. On your turn you draw a random tile and place it touching the edge of at least one other tile provided road touches road, city touches city and filed touches field. That way the game feels like building a giant puzzle where there are no rules concerning where each puzzle piece should go. The player is then able to play a “follower” represented by a small wooden person called a meeple. The meeple can only be played on the tile just played. Followers can be thieves if they are located on the road, knights if they are in the city and farmers if they are in the field. Followers score the player points either when the city or road are completed (city walls surround the entire city, roads end in stop points eg. villiage, city) or in the case of farmers, at the end of the game and depending on how many cities farms support. In this way players score points and the most points win the game. Note: there is actually one more type of tile called the cloister which has its own rules.

That’s really the gist of the game. At the very basic level, just building a big city or a long road with random tiles has a certain appeal to it. I still find myself getting a pleasure out of completing a map without any holes. As you get a little experience playing you will find ways to get your followers in the right positions to steal cities away from your opponents and find ways to play tiles that make finishing a city or connecting two farms impossible for your opponent.

My Experience with the Game

I was first introduced to the game by my regular gaming group when we were between D&D campaigns. The first game I played was a 4 player match where two of us had not ever seen the game before. The two new players actually tied for the win in that game. The ease of entry and the speed at which new players are able to be competitive makes the game really strong and I saw it in my first game. I almost immediately bought a copy of the game for myself and my wife. Now, my wife likes games, but had been hesitant to play D&D or Small World due to sort of a perceived level of nerdom from which she tries to keep her distance. I knew instantly that Carcassonne would be a game I could use as a gateway to get my wife playing games with me. I was right, the easy entry and rate at which she was able to become competitive made the game a perfect way to get her involved and get her to trust future games I brought home.

Since that first game I have played the game with my nephew’s, family, friends and coworkers. All have enjoyed the game, all have been able to see what fun a well designed board game can be. Frequently the biggest hurdle in introducing a new game is getting past the monopoly stigma where new or infrequent board game players fear a complicated or long-winded game that could ultimately end in a flipped table and a binge on comfort food. Carcassonne is perfect for this challenge.

Critical Review

Though I think it is important to share the basics of the game and my experiences with it, I think I do a disservice as a self-titled reviewer to not critically diagnose what makes the game successful or not. I decided the best way to review and ultimately rank games is on a set of criteria that could be used for any game. The areas I will rate games on and discuss are as follows:

  • Point of entry – The ability for new players to get involved. This also will take into account the rate at which a new and experienced player will become competitive.
  • Mechanics - The stuff that makes the game work. The way the game flows, the turns pass and how the board or structure is organized all factor in.
  • Replay-ability - The ability to play the game many times with enough variety of play and competition to ensure many more enjoyable plays.
  • What comes in the box – The tactile game pieces, the box organization, the art style and the way which they compliment the game.
  • Fun factor – Is this game fun to play? What makes it fun, who will most enjoy it and when it is best played.

Point of entry. As I mentioned before, the point of entry on Carcassonne felt very low to me. And as I have used the game on both my (at the time) skeptic wife and 12 year old nephew that any level of player can quickly get into a game and start preforming tactics in an attempt to win. Carcassonne excels here. The game is heralded as a “gateway” in the gaming community and the heralding is deserved  Almost anyone can understand this game quickly and begin having fun right away. Score 10/10.

Mechanics. Carcassonne has two basic mechanics and they are simple ones. Drawing random tiles to play on the community tile-base and playing a meeple on the tiles you just played. This concept, though simple is complimented by the variety of tiles that can be drawn, the sheer number of possibilities a player has when placing the tile and the options that the player has for placing his/her meeples. A simple concept mechanically is complimented by pieces that, by their square nature, are designed so it is easy to see what to do with the tile you drew — road connects to road, city to city, etc.The game also has a very obvious end point that no player need wonder when it will come. The game is finished when tiles are used up and the remaining meeples are scored to announce a winner. My one slight knock, and it is a small issue, is that the base game comes with a score board to 50 and there is no strong design element that allows you to keep track of circuits around the 50 square scoring board. In later expansions, 50 point chips are provided which helps a little but still feels a little awkward. The last point of contention that I don’t love about games is having some uncertainty about when a turn is over, at the end of a turn in Carcassonne there is an optional mechanic of playing a follower on city, road or farm. This can lead to slight confusion with faster play and newcomers, but, small detail ultimately. Score 9/10.

Replay-ability: A game that has a lot of replay value usually has a good mix between random happenings and player interaction which usually results in something along the lines of strategy. To note, I have played the game upwards of 25 to 30 times so far and I am still willing to play at about any point. I do think the level of random is a little higher than the level of interaction/strategy. Getting a random piece one at a time can sometimes feel a little limiting to strategy and depending on who you are playing with, you might find yourself playing most of your tiles on the clear opposite side of the map as the other player(s). More players make the game a bit more strategically interesting as there are fewer available places to place followers and more tendency to try to steal cities, roads and farms away from other players. I have also heard of playing the game with a hand of 3 tiles, which I believe would effectively up the strategy factor. Ultimately this is a great game you will want to play over and over again, especially when introducing new players to the world of ‘Euro Games’. And if you want something more from the game the sheer number of expansions should give you plenty of ways to make a good game better or keep players, who might be getting bored, happy. Eventually the more advanced players may drop the game for more complicated concepts in time, but, I still think for the most part it is fun for any occasion or audience for many, many plays. Score 8/10.

What comes in the box. I actually think the tiles are really solid, the meeples are wood and sturdy even when dropped on the floor. So far I haven’t seen much wear on our set in the form of dents or scratches on the tiles themselves. The box is compartmentalized well for the base game (gets a little more complicated when trying to store expansion tiles in the main box). The art is just the right amount of bright, colorful and enticing which is pretty common is some of the more popular Euro Game including Ticket to Ride and Small World. Score 8/10.

Fun Factor. I believe if the game isn’t fun the other details don’t matter that much. With that in mind, this game is endlessly fun. Partially this is because of solid mechanics and design. Partially this game is really fun because getting new people playing a game and having them see the fun they can have with some wood and cardboard pieces sitting around a table is a very rewarding feeling. As far as replay value, or, am I still having fun playing it much later, I still think it is strong even for more advanced players. Say you don’t want a hard strategy game one day and just want a relaxing game to end the night or to sip wine around — Carcassonne fits perfectly in so many situations. The one situation I might warn against: playing this game on a smaller surface. Running to the end of a table can be a bit maddening. For optimal fun, find a large playing surface and start right in the middle. Score 9/10.

Final Thoughts

All together this is a classic game everyone can enjoy for a long time. One of the heralded gateway games of the table top gaming community, and it is a true beauty. If you run out of fun with the original expansion are everywhere (I recommend Inns & Cathedrals and Traders & Builders). Give it a go if you haven’t already, and it you have it and haven’t played for a while, get it back out and build another map of the city of Carcassonne.
Average/Final Score 8.