Monday, January 24, 2011

"We Built This City"

My first experience was bad...really bad. The side of the box says the game takes forty-five minutes, but it took the three of us two to three hours to play, which was way too long. At the end of it, I was lapped a time or two on the score track and received the comment, "You might as well not have been playing." It was bad.

But, thankfully, I decided to give Carcassonne another chance (though almost a year later). I got this game on megadeal from Barnes & Noble (a trend, it would seem) before our vacation to Tennessee, and it was a good companion on the trip, especially since I forgot my bag of books.

Carcassonne is a tile-laying game. Each tile represents a portion of the area surrounding the French city of Carcassonne, known for its frequent changing of hands. Each tile bears one or several features of the landscape: road, city, cloister, or field. There are eighty or so tiles that are mixed together, and each turn consists of drawing, playing, and scoring a tile. In addition to the tiles, each player receives eight "followers"--little wooden pieces in the player's chosen color and in the shape of people. One of these is put on the score track (to keep score, obviously), the other seven go in the player's supply.

Now, I said before that a turn consists of drawing, playing, and scoring a tile. In between the playing and scoring, the player has the option of playing a follower on the tile he just placed. Depending on where the player places his follower, his follower can take on one of several occupations. If the follower is placed on the road, he becomes a thief and scores one point for each tile in a completed road (the road either dead ends or comes to a crossroads at both ends). If the follower is placed on a city, he becomes a knight and scores two points for each tile in a completed city as well as two additional points for each "pennant" in the city (a shield icon). If the follower is placed on a cloister, he becomes a monk, and he scores nine points when the cloister tile is completely surrounded by other tiles. If the follower is placed on a field, he stays on the field until the end of the game and scores three points for each completed city in the farmer's field. Whenever a feature is completed, that feature is scored. Whichever player has the most followers on that feature receives all the points. (If there is a tie, all players who are tied receive all the points, i.e., they are not split evenly.) When a feature is scored, all followers are removed and returned to their owners' supplies. The exception is farmers, who, as I mentioned, one played, stay on the board until the end of the game.

The catch is that you cannot play a follower on a feature that already has a follower on it. So, if Jimmy already has a knight on a city, I can't play a knight on a city tile that connects. Well, how do you get more followers on features then? Through the clever laying of tiles. I can't play a follower on a tile that connects when I play it, but I can play a follower on a tile and connect them later. This is a big part of the strategy of Carcassonne: muscling your opponents out of high-scoring areas by connecting areas and having more followers there. There is also the strategy of making your opponents' features harder to complete, because at the end of the game, any incomplete features are worth fewer points. The game ends when all of the tiles have been played.

What I really like about this game, aside from its being a legitimately fun two-player game, is that the board is different every time you play it. You are building the board as you play, so it looks and feels different each time. I also like how interactive the game is. I have to balance the objective of scoring the most points with the strategy of keeping my opponents from scoring points. When do I try to muscle my way into their features, and when do I try to block them? When is it more prudent to build my own features? When should I not play a follower at all? Each player is thinking the same things. There can be alliances and treachery, and all this while land is being developed. I also like the mixture simplicity and strategy. The rules are simple to learn and teach, but the strategy for the game varies from play to play.

One thing that can slow this game down, though, is overthinking. While I think Carcassonne is great, I mentioned that my first time playing it took almost three hours, and Carcassonne cannot sustain interest that long (in my opinion). A chess timer may be in order for slow players, because Carcassonne is meant to be fast. Might you find the perfect place for a tile if you study the board long enough? Perhaps. Might you annoy your fellow players if you study the board long enough? Almost certainly. The limited options you have on your turn keeps most players from getting bogged down, but after my first game, this is a legitimate concern.

Carcassonne has several expansions available. I can't speak for the rest, but the two expansions I have, Inns & Cathedrals and Traders & Builders, are a blast, both in terms of the additional rules and pieces they add and in terms of the new tiles that better accommodate some situations that come up in the base game. With both expansions, Abby and I can normally complete a game in under an hour. Without the expansions, the game takes us about twenty minutes. (Obviously, the game takes longer with more players. I think four players is optimum, but like I mentioned before, it is a great two-player game.) There's also an iPod app, which Abby says is pretty fun (and it looked cool when I commandeered hers for a trial).

This game is fairly cheap (normally $20-$30, depending on where you get it) and is worth every penny. I highly recommend it.


  1. One of the worst things about Settlers of Catan is the time it takes to set up the game before you actually get to start playing. Dynamic boards are cool, but there is the drawback of putting them together. Carcassonne eliminates this since the board is built piece by piece AS the gameplay. I find Carcassonne to be delightful and probably in my top 5 games.

  2. That's a good point. The setup is super easy, so it lets you jump right in.