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Review: Carpe Diem

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They say Rome wasn’t built in a day, and I suspect it’s because of how punitive everything was. Why, take being a merchant as an example. The fickle people change their minds all the time, and if you don’t give them what they want–there go your hard-earned victory points! You can build a large landscape fit for raising and harvesting grapes and chickens, but your gains are meager and you’re gouged on the sale price when you trade them in at the merchant shack. To get anything done, you have to have bureaucratic approval, but gaining that is its own hoop to jump through. No wonder everything takes so long!

It’s a small comfort to know that each person lives under the same restrictions–day after day, just twenty-four hours in which to accomplish their ends. The one who seizes that day best will come out on top. Maybe it will be you?

How It Works

Carpe Diem is a tile-laying game for two to four players. Players are Roman merchants collecting wares to sell at the market. The player with the most points at the end of the game wins.

Carpe Diem st up for two players.

To begin, each player receives a building board and four random frame pieces to go around the board as well as a supply board/player aid. Players receive five discs and place one of their discs on the banderole* track in an order dependent on seating position. Scoring cards are placed on the scoring area dependent on the number of players, and four tiles are placed on each of the seven depots. Special tiles are placed on the scroll spaces at the bottom of the board. Players receive victory points dependent on seating order and place their figure at one of the depots. The first player begins.

Carpe Diem is played in four rounds of seven turns each. On a turn, players will move their figure along one of the printed lines to another depot and choose one of the tiles there to add to their board. (Each depot is connected to two other depots.) Tiles must match with surrounding kinds in order to be placed.

Tiles feature either villas, buildings, or landscapes (or some combination). Completed landscapes grant players goods like fish and grapes. Completed buildings allow players to perform special actions like earning bread, taking extra building tiles, moving their disc along the banderole track, or drawing special scoring cards. Villas show chimneys on the tiles, which may come into play with some scoring cards, but completed villas are scored at the end of the game.

Bread, gold, and goods. The player board stores these and serves as a reminder of what buildings do and how to score points.

Once each player has claimed seven tiles, the round is over. Then, beginning with the player farthest ahead on the banderole track, players will place one of their discs between two scoring cards to claim two scoring opportunities. If the player can fulfill the scoring condition, they take the corresponding reward (coins, bread, victory points, or movement along the bandarole track) for as many times as they can fulfill it. If they are unable to fulfill the condition, they must either pay three bread to consider that objective fulfilled (and claim the reward once) or lose 4 points.

The game ends after the fourth round’s scoring. Players score end-of-game points for their position on the banderole track, goods leftover, special scoring cards, and completed villas. Players also score points based on the position of their landscapes and buildings in relation to their player board frames. The player with the most points wins.

Seize the Game

I’ll admit that I’m a bit shallow. While I had taken notice of Carpe Diem when it was first released due to the names of the designer (Stefan Feld) and publisher (Alea), once I saw the bland board and components, I put it on my wishlist but largely forgot it until it was nominated for the 2019 Kennerspiel des Jahres. And I’m glad it received that attention, because if it hadn’t, I might have missed out on what turns out to be a very good game.

Rather than a scoring track, Carpe Diem uses cards for players to keep track of victory points.

If I had to boil Carpe Diem down to a sentence, I would say, “It is everything you expect from Stefan Feld in around one hour.” There are penalties to avoid, benefits to chain, multiple scoring avenues that pull players in different directions. There is indirect player interaction that can turn nasty. Yet it is also lean and lacks a lot of the rules overhead that can bog players down. There aren’t lots of systems to know (as with Trajan’s six minigames) or options to optimize (as with Castles of Burgundy’s manipulable dice). Yet Carpe Diem still feels like these earlier games, just shorter.

The colors in Carpe Diem are sometimes hard to tell apart. The buildings all look alike except for their color (the brown and yellow look particularly similar in less-than-perfect lighting), and the tiles, which need to be separated after each game, are just a subtle shade of green different. I added seal stickers to the dark green tiles so they are easy to pull out at a glance.

But before we look at how the game plays, we need to discuss the components, because in this case…woof…they matter. No one in my group is colorblind, but we all feel a little bit like we are when we play Carpe Diem. As is typical for Alea, the color palette involves subtle variations of greens and browns and yellows. Carpe Diem isn’t very attractive on the table, but what’s worse, this unattractive look hampers functionality. The brown and the yellow buildings are very close in color, the subtle colors of the different landscapes can be hard to tell apart, and when putting the game away, all players have to go on to separate the main tiles from the special tiles is a subtle shade difference in green. (Thank goodness for Board Game Geek–someone made seal stickers for these dark green tiles, which help immensely.) As for the build quality, this is slightly better than what is typical for Alea. The main game tiles are on thicker stock than the player boards (which is what I usually think of as Alea tile thickness), and the cards are on good stock. It’s unfortunate that the game makes this kind of first impression because it’s quite a good game once you make it over the initial barrier. And it gets better with each play.

The scoring opportunities. Each round you have to claim a spot between two of these, and there’s only one excess spot, meaning just about every one will be claimed by game’s end. Like I said: FOCUSED.

What focuses Carpe Diem and makes it compelling are the scoring conditions. At the start of the game, the scoring cards are laid out. Everyone knows in advance what the possible scoring conditions are, and every space between cards save one will be used over the course of the game. Essentially, the game begins in a straitjacket: players know the goal, and it’s up to them to reach it. Everything in the game comes down to these scoring conditions because while there are other ways to earn points, players won’t make it very far if they keep taking penalties. And boy, is it possible to take penalties in this game.

The threat of penalties also serves to focus players. If there are several cards scoring goods and landscapes, the landscape tiles will be hotly contested. If there are several building cards, the building tiles will become more valuable. Each card also offers different rewards, whether points, coins, or banderole track spaces, and while points are the ultimate goal, the other rewards can be helpful, especially when they can be used to fulfill the other card’s scoring condition.

Each player’s building board is surrounded by four frame pieces, which give players another way to score points by building things in the right spot.

But just because certain things are more valuable than others, it doesn’t mean the tiles that don’t fit these parameters are useless. Everything in Carpe Diem can be valuable, so long as players are vigilant and capitalize on their opportunities. While Carpe Diem feels in no way Roman aside from the toga on the box, the name is apt: players are constantly trying to seize the best opportunity from those available to them. But this doesn’t feel like a “point salad,” the typical way Feld’s games are described. Everything can score you points, but nothing scores you points immediately: players will collect points only at the end of a round and the end of the game. So players are choosing the best opportunity among those available, but these opportunities are weighed against long-term goals. Should I take the villa piece now, hoping I’m able to complete it? Should I take the landscape piece I need to score the frame bonus on my board? Should I punt and place the fountain, hoping I draw a good special scoring opportunity card? Should I try to build a yellow building, converting my goods into coins and giving me more options once the scoring comes around? Or should I just try to get bread to make sure I don’t take a penalty? And do I leave the villa tiles alone, getting more immediate gains but potentially handing an opponent a lot of points in end-game scoring? Every choice is a little bit brutal as players try to collect what they need for the round’s scoring so they won’t be stuck with penalties. Because there is no way to get everything.

A player’s board at the end of the first round.

And of course, governing the action alongside the scoring cards is the banderole track, because it wouldn’t be a Stefan Feld game without a track of some kind. So unassuming, with such a little-used word for its name, yet this track can make or break a strategy. Whoever is farthest ahead on this track gets first crack at scoring opportunities, so if players prioritize just building up their empire of goods, they might lose the opportunity to spend them to the player who is consistently moving forward on the banderole track. Each scoring round players have to place one of their discs on scoring cards, and the disc has to be placed between two cards. There is only one opportunity for two particular scoring cards to interface, and if someone else beats you to it, you might have to take a lesser scoring opportunity or, worse, a penalty. Players ignore the banderole track to their peril, yet no matter how much players go for it, one player will always choose last. You just hope it isn’t you. The banderole track is another source of tension in the game, because while your position on the track does score you some points at the end of the game, you’re really just advancing the order in which you’ll choose scoring options, not bettering your position with the things you’ll be measured on.

A player board at the end of the game. You score points if the golden arrows on your frame point to that feature on your board.

The tile-laying aspect of Carpe Diem is not as interesting as, say, Isle of Skye or Carcassonne: you know what to expect from just about every tile, and there aren’t twisty landscapes or just the right tile to complete several features at once. All building tiles show one half of a two-part building. Villas and landscapes are the only things that allow bends, and there is usually just one or two ends on a tile. But Carpe Diem’s tile-laying isn’t the star of the show, and these restrictions serve to enhance the agonizing decisions. Tiles have to match feature to feature, and players are trying to make the scoring conditions on the frames of their boards intersect the features on their boards to score points, but this is difficult to do, especially when it’s uncertain when the tiles you need will become available and whether you’ll have an opportunity to get them once they are. Because players have access to just two depots from their current spot, they have to plan ahead to get what they need, but they might be locked out because of other players’ decisions.

The depots in Carpe Diem. Each depot connects to two others, making choices easy to parse if no less excruciating.

This makes bread exceptionally valuable because it allows you to jump to any space and take just the tile you need. But bread is also scarce and valuable if you want to avoid penalties, so players have to weigh what the moment of greatest need is. The tile-laying on the board involves some strategy–you’re trying to make it pay off toward the scoring conditions on the cards–but you’re also trying to leave open opportunities that you can seize when the right tiles are available. Carpe Diem strikes a great balance between tactical and strategic thinking. There’s forward planning involved, but on any given turn, players are limited to just a few options and the limited tile-laying possibilities make it easy to tell what you can use at a glance, which keeps the gameplay quick. And it’s also quite interactive given the competition over the tiles on the central board.

The rules are 12 pages, but they’re easy to digest, and the gray boxes are just summaries.

I think the most impressive thing about Carpe Diem is how simple the rules are. In one four-player game, one player was new, and we setup, taught, and played the game in just north of an hour. The rules are smooth and intuitive, and Alea’s rulebook has handy reminders in the margins, so it’s easy to find information in the rulebook if you need to (but you probably won’t need to). Yet these simple rules give rise to a snappy, focused, satisfying game.

There are loads of scoring cards, but only 8 to 12 are used in any given game.

Honestly, just writing about Carpe Diem makes me want to play it. It’s a fun game with tense decisions in a quick-playing package. If you’re doing poorly, it’s over quickly, and because the game is all about players’ choices, you’ll know better what to do in your next game. A game of Carpe Diem has a satisfying arc that reminds me of Azul as players’ decisions early in the game begin to hem them in toward the end–you realize there are fewer options for placing your scoring discs (meaning you might need to shift gears), or you’re no longer able to score a frame bonus without some serious focus, or you realize you finally need to devote the effort to closing off that big villa you just keep building. And each game feels different because the scoring cards–and there are loads of them, far more than strictly necessary–and the order in which tiles come out can change the game drastically.

Another player’s board at the end of the game. This player scored a lot of points from fountain cards, which give points based on features found on a player’s board.

But Carpe Diem won’t be for everyone. First of all, it is wound tight and full of tension. Carpe Diem is a game of scarcity–a game of narrow margins and scant opportunities hemmed in by harsh penalties. This makes the game feel weighty, even for its slim playtime, but for some the pressure might be too much. You can do things that make you feel clever, but it’s more a game of stick than of carrot. I think Carpe Diem should appeal to players who like games like Agricola (will I be able to feed my people?!) or Stefan Feld’s excellent Notre Dame (how will I manage all these rats?!).

The scoring cards at the end of the game. Note that only one opportunity between two cards was left unclaimed.

That’s really the main thing to be aware of with Carpe Diem–it’s tense. Yes, it’s also ugly, and that will be a turn-off for some (and should be an especial warning for players who are colorblind, although supposedly this will be fixed in a future printing), but from a gameplay perspective, the only “fault” is that it leans into the penalties typical of Stefan Feld’s games, and some players don’t like that.

There are lots of different fountain scoring cards as well. Each one appears twice in the fountain deck, but you only get to look at two each time you build a fountain. Is it worth it to try to dig for what you want?

I’ve played the game with all player counts, and it scales well because the scoring opportunities are tailored to the player count and so are the tiles. While all tiles are available in every game–something you need in a game with opportunities that vary as much as this from game to game–once a number of tiles equal to the number of players is gone from a depot, the rest of the tiles are discarded. This keeps the tension and scarcity of the game largely the same across player counts.

The insert. There’s a good deal of stuff in this box. Note that the drawstring bag did not come with the game.

I really should know better by now not to judge a game by its look, especially when it comes to Alea. Their games are consistently interesting and enjoyable (albeit ugly), and Carpe Diem is no exception. I picked this up with the intent to play it, review it, and probably pass it on in advance of the announcement of the Kennerspiel des Jahres winner. But it has found a more secure spot on my shelf because it is full of great tension and decisions and provides the feeling of a complete and satisfying Stefan Feld game in a fraction of the time. It doesn’t replace a game like Trajan, where the interesting action-selection system is a more interesting puzzle, but it is more likely to get played often, if not just because it fits more gaming niches. I’m hugely impressed by Carpe Diem, and I hope it seizes the Kennerspiel poppel later this month. It’s certainly worthy of the honor.

* Banderole is a word we don’t use much anymore, and it’s one I had to look up. According to Webster’s variant definition, which seems the appropriate one for this occasion, it is “a long scroll bearing an inscription or a device.” I think of the banderole track as bureaucratic favor in obtaining permits, but YMMV.

  • Rating: 8.5
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Summary

Pros:

Fairly simple rules and quick playtime, yet has the tense decisions of a longer, meatier game
Plethora of scoring cards make new tactics necessary with each play
Scales very well for different player counts

Cons:

The look and colorblind usability--WOOF
Game is more stick than carrot, and the tension and scarcity might be more than some players enjoy

8.5 The Day Has Been Seized

I'll try anything once, but my favorite games are generally middleweight Euros.

Discussion2 Comments

  1. FarmerLenny,

    It’s been a while since I last read one of your reviews…mostly out of disinterest in the game, as I thoroughly enjoy your reviews and when interested in a particular title, such as Carpe Diem, I relish the idea of reading it from start to finish. I appreciate the care you take to discuss each and every aspect of the game, from the components to the overall gameplay. Again, wonderful review…thanks for taking the time to both play it and provide such an excellent review.

    Cheers,
    Joe

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