CARCASSHWACKED
Chris Tannhauser
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"I looked at my hands, I understood that one fine day, one fine evening to be precise, they would no longer be hands but some other awful thing." —Jack Kerouac
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The church bells tolled the witching hour as the knight waded through the undercity sewers. His torch guttered in the fumes, illuminating the arches of crude brick in an ever-shifting orange and black hemisphere. He kept his watering eyes up, away from the lumpy thickenings that clung briefly to his ruined armor and then slid away into the darkness behind. Standing watch be damned, he thought as he held his dinner in check, someone's dead at the end of this.

Know that I abandoned Carcassonne in 2003 after only a handful of plays—it was unique, sure, unlike anything the American Experience had yet produced; but it had no teeth, and little to recommend it beyond bright colors and timid forms suitable only for children to engage with in parallel play...

Fast-forward through a decade of ever-increasing crankiness and fatigue with games games GAMES—in truth I grew tired of the Cult of the New years ago, much preferring the Cult of the Old and "depth gaming". We should, all of us, be so lucky as to "wear a game out" and actually become something like an expert at it; to do so with an entire group of likeminded souls is something most gamers will never get to experience. But I digress.

I came full circle and decided to pull out the ur-games, play them to death, whether that meant three or 300 plays—we would see how far they could march before succumbing and being trampled into the mud of never again.

First up was Carc, hitting the table with a thud. We will play this and tire of it, I figured, as four-year-olds tire of the sand table, resorting to hair-pulling for variety and then snacks and naps...

O GLORY OF BEING WRONG

The "kids" are now grown and at university and the games we played were at first sweaty, then bruising, and finally, wholesale slaughter—every tile a tea-bagging, every follower a disaster—who knew something as adorable as a "meeple" could stand in for domination, ruin, ethnic cleansing?

This list is an agglomeration of my game comments on the vagaries that make up Carc—a record that chronicles my evolving views on this truly Great Game... But it also stands as a psychic ward against all the trauma and bad beats, like a stickman totem buried atop a mass grave of hobo bones to hold them at bay in the deepest of nights.

And hey, if anybody else gets a kick out of it, so be it—with apologies if it's to the head or groin.
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1. Board Game: Carcassonne [Average Rating:7.43 Overall Rank:139] [Average Rating:7.43 Unranked]
Chris Tannhauser
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"I looked at my hands, I understood that one fine day, one fine evening to be precise, they would no longer be hands but some other awful thing." —Jack Kerouac
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tl;dr — Potentially light and mild, it's a great social game when played in 30ish minutes, but sags if it goes longer. Expansions are the seasoning and so should be used sparingly to create the game that suits your current mood. Terribly cruel when played to win, though.

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Neat for what it is, a kids' game that can be played for blood (farm wars, anyone?). The vanilla version is a pleasant-enough pastime. Where Carc really shines, though, is as a game system—the mix 'n match expansions allow you to complicate or flavor the game as you will.

UPDATE: Revising down from a 7 to a 6. This was shockingly novel at first, being only the second Eurogame I'd ever seen, but now... And another thing: The 8,000,000,000 different farm-scoring schema make for bizarre parallel-dimension gaming where some people at the table have evil goatees and some don't, leading to the disastrous overlay of competing realities, some where farmers lie on their backs and gaze at duck-shaped clouds scudding by and others where you can only get promoted by stabbing your boss in the neck.*

UP-UPDATE: This is the game that made me realize that most expansions are crap—they just add plaque that calcifies a decent game into an immobile, spiky mess. (Or, to go to the other extreme, bloats it out so it can't even wear pants anymore.) Expansions, in general, are a terrible idea unless:

a) It was a part of the original game (as designed) that got peeled off to make the base game simpler/cheaper,

b) Actually adds an element that enhances repeat plays, or

c) Fixes one or more broken elements that really shoulda been caught during playtesting.

Only three expansions for Carc fit any of that—The River, Inns & Cathedrals and Traders & Builders. Everything else is dessicated mummy-crap.

UP-UP-UPDATE: Resurrecting this as a mild social activity; as a game game it gets a 5, when consumed as a small bowl of whipped cream it's a 6. The deal with the expansions is to understand that every tile added into the mix is another turn—and if you've got multiple axes to consider (with several expansions at once) then those turns can become very long indeed. The game works best when it comes in well under an hour; it wants to be short.** I can honestly only see using one expansion at a time...

I forgot what an awful little game this can be: so much grief, so many ambitious building projects that will never be completed, so many farmers stabbing each other in the tummy with pitchforks from the backs of rage-donkeys.

I'm not sure how the rest of world plays this, but man, we are just plain mean to each other.

Me likey.

UP-UP-UP-UPDATE: Back up to a 7 where I expect it to stay. When grokked and played accordingly—as a shortish social activity with one big and maaaybe one small expansion at a time it's a pip.

CODA: GROINS IMPLY BOOTS

The sheer ruthlessness required to play the game competitively is entirely at odds with the presentation: cutesy li'l squares of bucolic cartoons, and the meeples themselves, adorable and nonthreatening, the very symbols of "points without pain" Eurogaming. If the package reflected the truth of it the art would be dark and violent: fields strewn with fresh grave-mounds, dangerous roads to nowhere festering with spleen-stabbing thieves, sprawling slums with gaping holes in the walls patrolled by gangs of baby-stomping kingsmen.

This is what you must do to win: sucker your opponents into fights that you either dominate or walk away from (leaving them overextended), place tiles to ensure their followers are trapped in projects that will never be completed, and never share points unless you are so far ahead it doesn't matter... and even then, hook yourself in for +1 at the last minute to steal the "joint effort" for yourself.

You must crush dreams, snap their bones and suck the marrow. You must be prepared to engineer fallen crests and hopelessness. I'll be honest: I felt like a complete jerk at first, as playing to win in Carc is really about making everyone else lose, and the constant pooping in the punchbowl can suck the fun right out of the party. But if you wish to do your best then that tile must be placed where it maximizes both personal gain and does the most harm to your opponents.

In the end the countryside puzzle we are constructing is a façade that does nothing to conceal the suffering of the nameless, numberless peasants who are too small to see from our lofty perches of intrigue.

Carcassonne is an assassin in clown paint.

Rating bumped up to an 8.


*So, 12 years later, it looks like this has settled down—the standard seems to be German 3rd Edition rules with "farm-centric" scoring of cities for three points each. I like the simplification—as well as the change making the tiny two-bit mini-cities worth four points instead of two, eliminating a rules exception, always a good thing.

**The closer to 30 minutes the better.


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Blind and bloated in Her subterranean cavern,
the Ultimeeple births them all—



—wet and screaming into the dark.
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2. Board Game: Carcassonne Limited Edition [Average Rating:8.00 Unranked] [Average Rating:8.00 Unranked]
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"I looked at my hands, I understood that one fine day, one fine evening to be precise, they would no longer be hands but some other awful thing." —Jack Kerouac
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The "You're Not My Friend Anymore" set.

After years of no love, revisiting this as a mild social activity... I'd like to try my many unplayed expansions one at a time to get a feel for what they do. (I get the impression that "MegaCarc" is just too much, like eating seven-and-a-half jelly donuts while doing Jäger shots. One of either is more than enough.) But we shall see.

UPDATE: One of the cruelest little games I own, a Hello Kitty stiletto. Definitely a timeless keeper.


"What can men do against such reckless hate?"
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3. Board Game: Carcassonne Big Box 4 [Average Rating:7.86 Unranked] [Average Rating:7.86 Unranked]
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"I looked at my hands, I understood that one fine day, one fine evening to be precise, they would no longer be hands but some other awful thing." —Jack Kerouac
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I dropped the cheddar on this as our plays and bloodlust accelerated, with no regrets in any direction.

This is just about the most perfect version of Carc: the first two (and best) big expansions along with seven mini-expansions that can be added in any combination to create your own personalized mix. The number of possible unique setups easily exceeds the number of plays even the most ardent fan would expect to get out of this—there is literally a lifetime of Carc in this box...

If I had a cabin in the woods this would be in the closet.*

Inns & Cathedrals is pretty much essential (I can't see ever playing without it) and we haven't really gotten into Traders & Builders yet—but the mini-expansions should work nicely as single pinches of spice to season the game to the table's taste.

UPDATE: The lack of sack is disheartening as this forces me to buy a gallon jug of Crown Royal, and we all know how that turned out last time: Sure, I ended up with a nifty dice bag, but the public nudity and tasing were regrettable.


*Right on top of the unplugged chest freezer that's padlocked shut.
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4. Board Game: Carcassonne: Expansion 1 – Inns & Cathedrals [Average Rating:7.61 Unranked] [Average Rating:7.61 Unranked]
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"I looked at my hands, I understood that one fine day, one fine evening to be precise, they would no longer be hands but some other awful thing." —Jack Kerouac
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The point tiles are nice for taunting, though the sixth player is waaay too much. It's cool to have a different color, but after two games at 6p I'm pretty much done with "full boat" Carc.

UPDATE: I really like what this does. The all-or-nothing gamble of the eponymous tiles adds a neat way to blow out some massive points on your side while prolapsing the bowels of your opponents on the other:

"Here—" [drops cathedral into the outskirts of an unfinished megalopolis near game end] "—the Pope says you totally got this."

UP-UPDATE: Can't ever see playing Carc without this—the base game alone feels incomplete in comparison. It's the must-have, always-mixed-in keeper.

Besides, there's never a reason not to include the acromegalic BOSS MEEPLES in all games of Carc from this moment forward, forever.


Fig. 1 — "Just walk away..."
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5. Board Game: Carcassonne: Expansion 2 – Traders & Builders [Average Rating:7.60 Unranked] [Average Rating:7.60 Unranked]
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"I looked at my hands, I understood that one fine day, one fine evening to be precise, they would no longer be hands but some other awful thing." —Jack Kerouac
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"The Sack" is worth the price of admission alone as it converts the metaphorical teabagging the game provides into a literal one.

UPDATE: This is really three modules that synergize well together—city tiles that grant trade goods, pigs to make the resulting city-rich farms worth more, and builders to grant extra turns to sneak into or steal features—but can be teased apart as you will.

Pigs & builders can be dropped into any game with ease.

Also: Trade good tiles work well with The Count, providing an extra incentive to "help" others complete cities in order to not only get the goods, but to stage a meeple in Carcassonne proper for later punch-bowl-poopin' deployment...
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6. Board Game: Carcassonne: The River [Average Rating:6.97 Unranked] [Average Rating:6.97 Unranked]
Chris Tannhauser
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Makes for a single crazy-huge farm. And then the bloodshed begins. "Can't we all just get along?" Weep for the meeples—The River runs wooden with their sap.
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7. Board Game: Carcassonne: King & Scout [Average Rating:6.59 Unranked] [Average Rating:6.59 Unranked]
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"I looked at my hands, I understood that one fine day, one fine evening to be precise, they would no longer be hands but some other awful thing." —Jack Kerouac
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Good stuff in that it causes massive-project competition, though once the top-end threshold is reached there's really no stealing the titles away. Which I suppose is thematic; once your butt's in the seat you're gonna neck-stab everyone who has the same idea...

Has nice synergy with The Count as it gives everyone yet another reason to "cooperate" and complete features for each other.


Fig. 1 — Settlers bits work nicely as largest city & longest road markers.
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8. Board Game: Carcassonne: The Count of Carcassonne [Average Rating:5.94 Unranked] [Average Rating:5.94 Unranked]
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"I looked at my hands, I understood that one fine day, one fine evening to be precise, they would no longer be hands but some other awful thing." —Jack Kerouac
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Someone horrible wrote:
Come sundown the Count prowls the streets, bellowing gibberish and obscenities in his iron mask and purple, crotchless velveteens, whipping the slower peasants with a manskin bullwhip. To call him mad would do dishonor to every last one of us, for he is but a symptom of the City...

"We have all taken our turns as the Count—and his gimp."

Has some nice synergy with The King as the person completing the largest city or longest road becomes King or Robber Baron (not the one scoring it), providing an extra incentive for nonscoring completions, the trigger for consigning a meeple into the Count's "care". Should also work well with the trade good tiles from Traders & Builders for the same reason—"helping now to hurt later."
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9. Board Game: Carcassonne: The Ferries [Average Rating:6.81 Unranked] [Average Rating:6.81 Unranked]
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"I looked at my hands, I understood that one fine day, one fine evening to be precise, they would no longer be hands but some other awful thing." —Jack Kerouac
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I really like what this does for roads—instead of being just points-padding dump-features they become something to be fought over with almost the same intensity as cities & farms, especially when combined with Inns & Cathedrals.

It's also nifty in that it adds features to the tableau that other players can monkey around with.
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10. Board Game: Carcassonne: The Gold Mines [Average Rating:6.90 Unranked] [Average Rating:6.90 Unranked]
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"I looked at my hands, I understood that one fine day, one fine evening to be precise, they would no longer be hands but some other awful thing." —Jack Kerouac
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Gold is for a-holes. It makes everyone horn in on your business, often finishing it for you while you watch in horror. And then they Scrooge-McDuck around with it, making really heavy, unstable pigsties and pressing peasants to death with stacks of ingots.

UPDATE: Gold is heavy—monstrously heavy—and when lifted can cause disastrous, spandex-shredding blowouts. While bowels in your pants is certainly de rigueur for Carc, it's as hard on the eyes as it is the stomach.

"I don't like gold," said Anna.

And she was the runaway winner, by something like 80 points.
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11. Board Game: Carcassonne: Mage & Witch [Average Rating:6.71 Unranked] [Average Rating:6.71 Unranked]
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"I looked at my hands, I understood that one fine day, one fine evening to be precise, they would no longer be hands but some other awful thing." —Jack Kerouac
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The mage is a kindly old man, conjuring pennies from behind the ears of delighted urchins; the witch, not so much, what with all the flying around and vomiting clouds of biting insects.
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12. Board Game: Carcassonne: Corn Circles II [Average Rating:6.45 Unranked] [Average Rating:6.45 Unranked]
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"I looked at my hands, I understood that one fine day, one fine evening to be precise, they would no longer be hands but some other awful thing." —Jack Kerouac
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The eerie tampings in the fields presage disappearances or doppelgängers—be wary.

PS. I know this is a simple translation error—literal rather than conceptual—but "corn circles" sounds like a euphemism for something vaguely unsavory...
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"I looked at my hands, I understood that one fine day, one fine evening to be precise, they would no longer be hands but some other awful thing." —Jack Kerouac
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All of which culminates in the CARCASSACK, the only tile bag worthy of the game, a potent symbol of what is expected of you... and what you must endure.

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