I once asked the President of Rio Grande games what his favorite game was, in terms of game play, and he said it was Carcassonne (Rio Grande Games, 2000). That was when the game was brand new, and I hadn’t gotten a chance to play it yet (I had heard good things about it, though). When I finally gave it a try, I understood why he liked it so much.
Carcassonne was the second big hit – after Settlers of Catan – to come to America from the prolific European board game market (referred to as “eurogames”), and it pretty much solidified the genre and ushered in a new era of board gaming in North America.
So what’s so special about Carcassonne? It appeals to young and old, male and female, and has become a household favorite practically everywhere. The rules are easy to understand, the game is attractive and durable, most players are in the game right up until the end, and there is a satisfying blend of strategy and luck. Players take turns laying tiles onto an increasingly complex, ever-expanding playing field, and then have the option of placing their game pieces, little wooden men known as “Meeples,” on the tile they just placed. Points are awarded throughout the game, including a large portion at the end of the game when the final tile has been placed (see pic below).
Points are awarded based on the size of the real estate parcel controlled by a player’s meeples. The various types of real estate that can be claimed are cities, roads, fields, and cloisters (certain isolated buildings). Once a meeple occupies a portion of real estate, it has been claimed and no other meeples may be placed on any contiguous part of that real estate. However – and this is a critical element of the game – two noncontiguous parcels that have already been claimed might be joined by a certain tile placement. Thus, a player might have successfully claimed a city and added to it, making it worth more and more points, only to eventually see it merge with a far smaller city owned by someone else who then shares the points. The same can happen with roads and fields as well.
Players have a limited number of meeples to use, so they can’t simply lay them out every turn. When cities and roads are completed, the player scores immediately and the meeples return to his or her hand. When a cloister is played, the player must claim it immediately, and it scores points only after it has been surrounded by 8 other tiles, at which point that meeple is returned as well. Meeples placed in fields, called farmers, are different – they remain until the end of the game, and score points according to how many cities are adjacent to (and thus “served” by) that farmer’s field. Since the board is ever expanding, a farmer placed early might get more and more points throughout the game, or else might end up being boxed in by roads and cities and contribute very little.
Carcassonne has quite a few expansions and spin-offs – the Rio Grande Games website lists 22 stand-alone and expansion packs available! The expansions allow extra players and more variations on real estate. For example, Inns and Cathedrals (Rio Grande Games, 2002; $17.50) provides an extra set of men to allow a 6th player, extra land tiles (including inns and Cathedrals, of course, for more means of gaining points), plus six ‘Mega-meeples,” who are larger than regular meeples and count as two instead of one. Mega-meeple come in handy when a player anticipates a conflict over property, and wins the property over a player with just a regular meeple.
I haven’t played all of the expansions or stand alones; the stand-alone games will be reviewed separately, but expansions will be treated along with the appropriate stand-alone. One spin-off that deserves mentioning is new from Rio Grande Games for 2009, The Kids of Carcassonne ($29.95), which is getting excellent reviews and is a less complex variation on the adult version, but still as nice and engaging.
I heartily recommend this to any person even remotely fond of games. If Monopoly, or Risk, or Pictionary, or Taboo, or Trivial Pursuit, or any of the other game night games were part of a family’s past and they have not yet discovered eurogames, Carcassonne is precisely what they need.