[Editors note: The following is a Nemesis Review, featuring opinions from our in-house thematic-loving @futurewolfie and his ferocious opponent, the stodgy euro-loving @Farmerlenny. Make sure to read both opinions to get a better overall picture of the game!]
A lot of American games are based entirely on luck (or weird knowledge of an obscure subject). Mechanics such as “roll the dice and move that many spaces forward” are simple and easy to learn, but don’t have any lasting value. In fact, it doesn’t take long to realize that these games just… aren’t very fun. Fortunately, there exists a number of games that are close equivalents to those weakly designed games that are still simple and easy to learn, but add some choices and elements of strategy that give the gameplay lasting value. To put it simply, they are fun.
One such game is Carcassonne. It is a game about laying tiles down in a similar manner to dominoes—no, not the fun version of dominoes where you stack up a line of dominoes on their ends and then tip one over. I’m talking about the game of dominoes where you draw a tile and attempt to connect it to a matching end until all the dominoes run out.
In a similar manner, Carcassonne involves drawing tiles randomly and playing them with their sides matched up. However, Carcassonne adds a layer of strategy, a lot of color, and a set of classic “meeples” for each player.
How it Plays
Each Carcassonne tile is a square that may contain one or more of the following features: grass, cities, roads, and monasteries. One by one, players randomly draw a tile and place it adjacent to the tiles already in play. The only rules for placement are that 1) at least 1 side must be touching and 2) any sides that are touching must match in feature. Thus city edge must connect to city edge, road must connect to road, and grass must connect to grass.
Then the active player may place one of his limited set of meeples, and only on the tile he just placed. He may place it as a thief on the road, a knight in the city, a farmer in the grass, or a monk in the monastery. He may not place a meeple on any feature that already has a meeple on it.
Points are scored when features are fully completed—a road “ends” at both sides, a city is completely walled off, or a Monastery is completely surrounded by eight tiles. When this happens, the scoring player also receives his meeple back, allowing it to be used again on a new feature. Roads are worth 1 point per tile in the set, Cities are worth 2 (plus an an additional 2 for special “pennant” icons that appear on specific tiles). Farmers are never removed until the end of the game—making it a risk and permanent sacrifice of a meeple—but are worth 3 points per completed city that touches any continuous part of a particular farm.
It is also possible for multiple meeples to occupy the same feature, but only if a tile is laid that connects two previously separate features with meeples occupying them. In that case, points are awarded to the player with the most meeples on that feature; or, if there is a tie, both players receive full points.
Play continues until all the tiles have been used up.
Carcassonne is a blast, straight up. It is one of the easiest games I have ever had to teach, but it remains fun every time I play. The box may not be the prettiest thing you’ve ever seen, but it is functional and even leaves room for a few expansion packs. The tiles are bright and colorful and nice enough to look at. No text means no one has to struggle to read or interpret functions—the colors and shapes are clearly defined and separated.
Set-up time, which can be a detracting factor in some games (Settlers of Catan, you take forever!) is about as fast as it takes everyone to get down and settled, since the game itself is essentially setting up the board.
The various ways to score points allow for a variety of choices—even if you don’t draw the best tiles, it is still possible to win if you play well. And you feel like you have some control over it, as opposed to just picking some random number. The limited number of features that might touch an edge—road, grass, farm—means there is always some place to play any tile you draw, usually multiple places. No one is stuck losing a turn because they can’t draw one of four tiles that match the right number. And I’ve seen people win focusing on the roads they drew while everyone else fought over cities and farms.
Farms are the most contentious element. They can be worth big points to the one who wins them. This often means that a few players will end up fighting tooth-and-nail over them—which, in turn, results in them giving up points from cities or roads they might have claimed. Still, as players gain more experience, they learn to intentionally cut off farms from becoming huge oceans of points, lessening the intense conflict that results in wide point gaps.
In fact, the more I play with experienced players, the more games end within 10 points of each other—and these aren’t necessarily gamers, these are just people who have played Carcassonne a few times.
While the board is technically “different” every time you play, there isn’t a ton of variability in the game, which might mean that the game will sit on the shelf for a while between plays. But it is an incredibly fun game, and a quintessential game for any collection. Anyone interested in finding a fun game that is easy to learn without being overwhelmed by complex rules should definitely check this game out.
Finally, Carcassonne also has a number of expansion packs and standalone variations. I can’t speak firsthand about all of them—although some of them seem a little… uh… too far… but some of them add a little extra kick increasing the replayability and fun factor of the game. Inns and Cathedrals and Traders and Builders come highly recommended, but add them one at a time, and in that order.
I wrote about this game a while ago on my blog, so I’ll redirect you there if you care to know my take. The gist: Carcassonne is fun, but it’s better if it’s played fast. Get a chess timer if playing with someone who suffers from Analysis Paralysis. My first game took three hours. My brothers, this should not be.