Category: Tile Placement Game
Designer: Klaus-Jürgen Wrede
Publisher: Hans im Glück, Z-Man Games (2016 English edition)
Year Published: 2000
Playing Time: 30 - 45 mins.
To Play or Not to Play: Play
A couple weeks ago, I wrote a great new game in the tile-placement genre -- Isle of Skye: From Chieftain to King. My review leaned heavily upon comparisons to Carcassonne, one of the most popular games in the genre and one of the first German games to make the jump across the Atlantic to US markets. Carcassonne is one of those rare “evergreen” games that continues to get printed decades after its initial release. In fact, the Carcassonne brand is so strong that the game itself has changed publishers multiple times in its 20 years. The photo above is the box for my copy, but since then Z-Man games has taken over the license in the US. Currently, you can play Carcassonne on multiple online platforms, including Boardgamearena.com (with a premium subscription), yucata.de, and with the Carcassonne app for iOS and Android. Countless other games don’t have this kind of longevity, so what makes Carcassonne so special? Let’s dive in.
To begin the game, the starting tile is set in the center of the table. Then the first player draws a tile at random from the supply and places it adjacent to a tile on the table. The edges of the tiles have to match: roads must connect to roads, empty fields touch empty fields, and cities touch cities. If your tile placement matches on three sides, but the fourth doesn’t, then you cannot legally place the tile. After you place your tile, the next player goes, and the game ends when all of the tiles have been placed.
The goal of the game is to score the most victory points, which you acquire by placing “Meeple” (little person-shaped wooden pieces) on the tile you’ve placed. Meeple can go on the four tile features: fields, roads, cities, and cloisters. Once a Meeple has been placed on a tile, it will stay there until the feature is completed. Each of the four features completes in different ways. A road must have two distinct endpoints, while a city must be completely enclosed by walls. Fields, though, never complete. Any Meeple assigned to a field stays there until the game ends.
Once the feature completes, the Meeple returns to your supply and you score some points. Here’s the catch: you can only place a Meeple immediately after you place a tile, and only on that specific tile. Each player only has 7 Meeple, to work with, so if you assign them all to your first six tiles, and then draw one with a valuable cloister or city, you won’t be able to claim it for yourself. At the end of the game, incomplete features will also score points, but in most cases you score more points if the feature completes.
What makes Carcassonne so much fun is its “ownership” mechanic. Let’s say I have a Meeple on a road. That road is mine, and if another player places a tile that continues the road, they are not allowed to place one of their Meeple on that road. But they might place that tile somewhere close by, such that the road isn’t directly connected to mine. In this case, they are two separate roads, with separate owners. Later, someone can place a tile that connects the two roads into one road, and now both of us share that road. Since we both own the road, we will both earn equal points for it. Yay!
But maybe I don’t want to share the points. My opponent might be winning, so I need to gain some ground on their lead. If I draw a tile with a road, I can do the same thing by placing it separate from the main road with one of my Meeple on it. Then later I might be able to connect our roads, so that I have two Meeple on the road, and my opponent only has one. I have now reclaimed control over the road, and I will get all of the points, while my opponent gets nothing, unless they sneak another Meeple into the road as well. And you can do the same thing with cities and fields, so every tile you draw could be relevant, even if it doesn’t seem like it at first.
This sneaking mechanic allows for some interesting strategies in the game. You can cooperate with players to generate massive points for the two of you, or you can place your tiles to purposefully block a large city from completing, or to separate a potentially lucrative field into a much smaller one. Every tile has the potential to shake up the balance of power in the game.
Honestly, I think that’s why the game is such a classic. It’s super easy to learn, but there is a surprising amount of depth to the mechanics. The first time you sneak a Meeple into a massive field to take complete control feels amazing! And the first time you think you’ve won a field until a player reveals that some Meeple they placed on a far edge is technically connected, and gives them the lead, is so soul crushing. Also, the game plays well with anywhere from 2 to 5 players. I prefer it with two myself, where you can focus on just one opponent, but with four or five player you can have some zany, family-friendly fun.
All that being said, Carcassonne is also pretty simple compared to many of my favorite games. I often like something that will challenge my brain a bit more, so these days it rarely hits my table. The game offers many expansions to shake things up and add some extra complexity, but they tend to just make the game longer. Nonetheless, Carcassonne is a classic in the genre. It’s great for players of all ages, and it is just so satisfying to hold a tile in your hand as you try and find a place to put it on the board. Carcasonne is an excellent gateway to the board game hobby, and a title I encourage everyone to give a try. Even if it’s not your favorite game, it’s one that just about anyone will enjoy. You should play this game.
What do you think? Share your thoughts in the comments below! And if you'd like to have a say in what game I review next, leave a comment or vote in the weekly polls I (usually . . .) post on Twitter @OrNotToPlay. See you next week!