Gaming Unplugged: Carcassonne

May 6, 2011

When I reviewed Cities last month I effectively called it the offspring of FITS and Carcassonne, and it occurred to me at the time that I have yet to cover Carcassonne in this space. Time to correct that oversight.

A perennial “gateway game” that has been around for more than a decade now, Klaus-Jürgen Wrede’s tile-laying classic Carcassonne (published in the US by Rio Grande) has received so many expansions over the years that it could potentially provide fodder for this column for a solid year. I will be focusing only on the base game for now.

Each player (from two to five) receives seven meeples (“followers”), with another one placed on the score track. Once the start tile is located (it has a different colored back), the remaining seventy-one tiles are shuffled (or placed in a bag) and the start player determined. Each tile contains one or more of the following features: a road, part of a city, or an cloister. On a player’s turn, they draw one tile and place it adjacent to an existing tile in such a way that any roads and/or cities on the new tile matches up with all surrounding tiles. They may also play one meeple on the new tile, if able; meeples placed on a road, city, or cloister claim that structure for the player, and no new meeples can be placed directly on it, although two separate claimed structures can be united by the careful (or careless!) placement of a new tile. 

When a structure is completed (a fully enclosed city or cloister; a road with two end points), the claiming meeple scores points based on its size and is then returned to its owner (even if it was just played); if multiple players have meeples claiming the structure only the majority player earns points (or all tied majority players). Alternately, a meeple may be placed on the field portion of a tile, effectively claiming all connected fields (with the same one-meeple-per-field restriction); these meeples do not score until the end of the game, so once you place one in this manner you basically lose it, although the potential payoff may be worth the investment. There are a few different rules for how to score these “farming” meeples, although the easiest (and best) is that they score three points for every completed city adjacent to their field. The game ends when the last tile is played, at which point any incomplete structures are also scored.

And that’s it, really. One of Carcassonne‘s strengths is its simplicity; with no reading required, games can be played in well under an hour. Game play can be further sped up by each player drawing a new tile at the end of their turn and knowing in advance what they will have to work with on their next. There is not a ton of in-depth strategy to be found in the base game, but Carcassonne is more than just a simple filler, like most solid gateway games. If you can find the base game (which often includes The River, a minor expansion) you should be able to pick it up for around $30 or less, but it is somewhat more likely that you will instead find some sort of “big box” version containing several expansions. No matter which version you actually pick up, Carcassonne will pay you back in repeated play several-fold.