Love live the Empress!
For the Motherland!
Overview: Players lay tiles completing the French countryside of Carcassone, claiming various areas of that countryside as they do so to gain points and win the game.
Materials: The first thing you will notice about the contents of the game is the well-designed box. I cannot stress this simple, but important fact enough. So many games out there waste either materials (making it more expensive than necessary) or don't provide enough space (like Zombies!!!, where you can't get everything into the box after you open it). Rio Grande Games smartly made the box about the size of a sheet of paper and about 2 inches thick. Why is this key? 2 reasons. First: You will be drawing tile from this box, and the box contains a recess to place the upside-down tiles into without fishing a bowl out of your cabinet. Second: the box is small. It takes up little space on the game table. This is important because as you play, this game is going to grow, and grow, and grow. If you have a big box (which is a game piece in and of itself) holding tiles that is taking up space on the table, the less room you are going to have for the game itself.
The square tiles are hand drawn, thick, 2"x2" and stamped onto thick cardboard (rather than glued on cardstock), meaning they take a beating. They are also matted, so you can spill (done it!) liquids on the tiles, and they won't stain if quickly cleaned. The artwork is simple. However, the tiles when layed adjacent to each other make a perfectly, beautiful continuous picture; so the artist did a nice job making sure the art flows from one tile ot the next. You also get a score-track (like a race track), good sized, made of the same material as the tiles. One BAD THING about the score track is it only goes to 50. You will ALWAYS go past 50 pts, so you'll have to make laps. One expansion (Inns & Cathedrals) comes with 50+ chips to indicate how make laps you've made on the track. This should've come with the original.
Finally, you get the European-style wooden, painted "Meeples". These are small men that are simple (like Settlers pieces). These are not the most artistic, but they are thick and wide, meaning they stand out nicely at the end when you are counting points (believe me, it'll get messy at the end, so this is a nice feature).
Mechanics: Players go in a circle like most games. Each turn consists of 2 parts.
1. Draw a random tile (face down) and play it. It must "match up" with the tile(s) you are laying it adjacent to. There are 3 possibilities of what terrain feature lay on each side (and, thus, must match) are road, city, and grass. The tiles can also contain a cloister (i.e. monestary), but these are in the center and do not affect how it gets laid.
2. IF YOU CHOOSE, you can place 1 of your 7 Meeples on the tile you just played to claim a structure (such as a road, city, farm, or clositer). Meeples are generic people and can be different roles depending on where you place it. You may only place a meeple if another meeple is not "claiming" that structure already. Remember, structures are continuous...cities can be many tiles wide...roads many tiles long. If you place it on a:
-Road = Thief
-Monestary = Monk
-City = Knight
-Grass = Farmer
*One point I'd like to make is that it can be difficult to tell what meeple is what roles if the board gets "bumped" and they move even a few millimeters. So a lot of people lay their monks prostrate (i.e. praying), farmers on their shoulders (i.e. digging). As for theives and knights...well...their placement is never confused.
Meeples are permanent and stay there until the structure is complete and then they score points. Once the road is complete or city is complete, thieves and knights come off making points for their structures. Bigger the structure, more points. Clositers have to be completely surrounded to be complete (8 tiles surround a square tile), bringing them off the board then as well. Farmers, however, stay until the end of the game.
Points are totaled as they are made. Farmers get points for each complete city their farm (and ONLY their farm) is adjacent to. (Well, this isn't quite true, but the instructions do the mechanics of it justice with pictures, but you get the idea) Farms are basically any grass touching that city...these can be quite big. Most points=Wins.
The mechanics are quite European, and thus provide a huge draw to many players, in that (1) a person's turn only takes a few seconds and (2) you can score points on other people's turns. It makes the game very intense, even during other people's turns since someone else can draw the tile you need and place it elsewhere. Unlike American style games, like Axis and Allies, where you can be waiting 30 minutes before doing ANYTHING. So, in terms of keeping players attention the entire game, it succeeds immensely. The game only takes about 30 minutes to complete, so add this to the fact you are constantly paying attention, it goes quite quickly. The one downside is that, although the rules are easy to comprehend (only 4 pages worth of rules and can be read in 10 minutes...ready to play), the farmer scoring at the end is very, very tricky. It's a necessary mechanic to keep the game balanced, but you have to systematically go thru each and every city and count farmers for that city to see who is farming it to claim the points. Because the board is often large, incomplete, and asymmetrical at the end, it can be a bit daunting. I suggest using pennies to mark cities as you score them so as not to repeat yourself (since 4 points can make all the difference in the world).
Strategy: As you can see, you can run out of Meeples early if you start placing them to early. Thus, the strategy lies in knowing when to place meeples and when not to. Place a meeple too early, and you may not be able to complete that structure, leaving that meeple there until games end, wasting other scoring opportunities. But place them too late, and someone else will claim that structure before you. In addition, farmers are HUGE points. But they stay on the table until the end. People will intentionally build around their own farmers, hoping to get cities finished around them. So one can "drive" the tile placement by placing precious, permanent farmers. Also, there is the many and small versus few and big strategy. It is very advantageous to build HUGE cities and roads, since you will get lots (and sometimes exponential points, depending if those cities have "Pennants"=flags worth even more points) more points. The downside is it gets very hard to complete them because usually the last tile to complete it is very specific how it fits in with the game. The other way is to try and complete many smaller structures, but with less points. This latter strategy works as well if you are trying to build a farmer-heavy point strategy and are looking to have lots of cities to farm.
Does it work with few (i.e. 2-3) players as well as more (i.e. 4-6) players?: The short answer is yes, you can play with 2 people and have as much fun as with 6 people. The long answer is: this is a hard question to answer because although the mechanics remain the same for 2-6 players, the strategy changes immensely. It becomes exponentially more difficult to score bigger points per structure the more people that are playing. However, when you do so, it can be appropriately a game breaker. The reason for this is if, say, 5 people are playing, you only have a 20% chance of being the player to draw the “complete-the-structure tile” that you need. With 2 players: a 50% chance. You can do the math yourself, but can see that adding more people makes it harder to be the person to pull the last tile you need. Conversely, it’s easier to score smaller structures with more people, making farmers more valuable in bigger games.
Will my non-gaming spouse/friends like it?: Absolutely. The rules are simple, with the exception of the farmer scoring (which once you do it, becomes second nature). There are no exceptions to the rules. It plays quick and the non-gamer will not be bored waiting for opponents to go (since they can score points, as well as have their strategy change as the board changes during this time). Finally, although experts can win using well thought out strategy, it is quite possible to win playing for the first time: a huge plus for non-gamers.
Good for kids?: The most difficult aspect of tile based games for kids is the ability to visualize the board before it is played. Games like Candyland have the entire board in front of them. Chess forces a player to picture the board a few turns ahead. Carcassone has some aspects of chess in this regard. Since placing the tiles is the core of the game (versus another tile game like “Zombies!!!”, where tile placement is not as crucial), it works well only with kids who can abstractly fill in the board, mentally seeing that uncompleted structure as complete by knowing what type of tile to place in that blank spot. 12+ years is probably a safe bet.
Should I buy it?: It’s a good deal at $25 retail, considering it only takes 1 other player, and works well with only 2 players. Given the replayability and the fact you can get almost anyone to play, it’s a steal. The only people who might not care for it are those that demand aggressive-style competitive games. Carcassonne does not fill that category, but otherwise is a hit and should make a fine contribution to any person’s game closet.
Suddenly a shot rang out! A door slammed. The maid screamed. Suddenly a pirate ship appeared on the horizon! While millions of people were starving, the king lived in luxury. Meanwhile, on a small farm in Kansas, a boy was growing up.
Hehe. You have a funny conception of 2 inches, as you mention it as both the approximate thickness of the Carcassonne box and as the size of the side of a Carcassonne tile.
The Carcassonne box is at least 3 inches wide, I would venture... if not close to 4 inches. On the other hand, the Carcassonne tiles are only 1.75 inches square, not 2 inches.
Aside from that, nice review. Cheers.
Nice review. I appreciate your format and the fact that you address the different target gamers. Looking forward to more reviews!