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Subject: Game overview and initial impressions rss

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Laurentiu Cristofor
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This is the second review in my exploration of Huch! games. The first review was that of Ignis and you can find it here.

While Carnac was the first game I purchased, it took me a bit of time to play it and I encountered more challenges in this area, which is why I did not review this game first. But now I think I have collected enough thoughts to put together a post.

Components



Carnac has some very nice bits. First there's a sturdy board that has 3 different playing areas printed on both sides. And then there are 28 very nice pieces of the same type - these are made of a hard plastic, similar to the material from which dice and dominoes are made. These are very attractive and were one of the reasons this game drew my attention. Besides these basic playing components, the game box also includes an insert for neatly ordering the pieces and the board, a desiccating bag, as well as game instructions in three languages (German, French, and English). This is a sturdy game, just like Ignis, and its components should last a lifetime.

I should add that the patterns on the surface of the pieces are engraved, just as was the case with the Ignis pieces. Huch! makes really nice components!

Also, I should mention now that in game terms, the pieces are called megaliths, so that's the term I'll be using henceforth.

The shape of the megaliths can be seen on the game box cover:



As you can see, each piece looks as if gluing together two dice. The surfaces of the megaliths are engraved with one of two symbols: a White Celtic spiral or a Red Celtic knot. The opposing two small surfaces bear different symbols and the larger surfaces bear the same symbol on opposing sides, alternating White and Red as you rotate the megalith in your hand.

Rules

Like Ignis, Carnac is a 2-player game. The game bears some interesting similarities to Go. Like Go, Carnac is a placement game that starts with an empty board. The grid board is also similar to that of Go, although unlike Go, you won't play on the intersections but on the squares. The 3 different boards available are all rectangular and just differ in dimensions; as they are simple grids, you could very well design your own different boards if you ever feel the need for more diversity than what the game already offers.

The placement rules are relatively simple, just a bit more complicated than in Go. Here is how one turn goes: a player will take a megalith and place it "standing up" on one of its 2 smaller sides. This way it covers 1 square of the board. The other player has three options now:

1. Tip over the megalith, so it ends up resting on one of its 4 larger sides, covering 2 squares now. He can choose to tip the megalith in 4 directions. Note that in being tipped over, the megalith will vacate the space on which it was originally placed and instead will cover two spaces leading away from the original space. This tipping over will end the turn and now the second player (the one that did the tipping over) can take their own turn.

2. If the megalith cannot be tipped over (if other megaliths or the edge of the board prevent that), then it will be left standing and this turn is over - the second player will now take their own turn.

3. If the megalith can be tipped over but the second player prefers not to do this, then they pass their turn - the megalith remains standing and the first player can place a second megalith again.

The game ends when there are no more megaliths to place or when the board is full.

OK, but what is the goal? Well, at the beginning of the game, each player chooses one of the colors (Red or White). A group of megaliths that displays the same color on the upper surfaces and that are connecting to each other along edges is called a dolmen. The goal of Carnac is to create more dolmens in your color than your opponent. Ties are broken in favor of the largest dolmen and then in terms of the next one, which means that draws are possible, but unlikely.

If you are familiar with Go, then you can think of a dolmen as being a group of connected stones.

Let me also clarify a point about the megalith placement: you do not have to place/tip over the megaliths so that your color shows up - while you will often do that, you will also sometimes choose to show the opponent's color for the purpose of connecting two of their dolmens/megaliths into a single one. Also, once a megalith is placed/tipped over, it can no longer change position. You cannot later tip over a megalith that was left standing by passing a turn.

This is it, this is the game! About as simple as Go, especially when it comes to figuring out who won the game - the scoring conditions are much simpler in Carnac.

Impressions

Some games try to avoid random elements like dice or cards in favor of player injected randomness. I look at both approaches as different methods of boosting the variety/complexity of a base game. In Carnac, the player injected randomness takes the form of the tipping over done by the opponent. This means that at least in the beginning of the game, moves are made kind of by compromise, with both players contributing to them. Later, as the board gets filled with megaliths, you'll start getting more opportunities to make a move that you expect to turn your way no matter what. But at the beginning, the first moves feel fairly arbitrary. This is not to say that you cannot develop a strategy, but the learning curve is high here. The complexity of Carnac starts high and then decreases towards the end of the game, as less play opportunities remain.

This means that Carnac might be a difficult game to introduce to young children. My daughter, who enjoyed instantly Ignis, quit playing Carnac after a few moves - my guess is that she just couldn't figure out what she had to do, like she could in Ignis, where the goal of pushing the enemy's pieces off the board and the mechanisms to do so were quite intuitive. So I had to find some time to play the game with my wife to be able to form some impressions for this overview (hence the delay in writing it).

I'm wondering how many games I might need to play to feel like I know what I am doing in the opening of the game. The overall strategy is to keep your opponent's megaliths connected and yours separated - this is easy to figure out from the game's goal, but the ways to achieve this are not straightforward. To begin with, even forming the smallest dolmen is not something you can quickly achieve. Let's say you already have a megalith face up in your color, covering two squares; any megalith you place standing next to it can be tipped over away from it and it is only after the tipping over becomes unavailable that you may finally be able to place next to it a megalith sporting your color on the face up, to complete the group of 3. On the other hand, your opponent may more easily connect your lonely megalith to a dolmen of yours, defeating your goal of creating a separate dolmen. This makes it hard to form a plan early on, although I suspect you might be able to develop some sound strategies with serious study.

Further into the game, when some dolmens take shape, you can start focusing more on connecting some and separating others. You get more opportunities for placing megaliths in positions from which there are fewer tipping over options available. At this point you also get opportunities for throwing 1-2 punches - you tip over the megalith placed by your opponent and then on your turn can place another one on its initial space, but oriented in a way that suits you and with the previous megalith now blocking one of its tip-over directions.

Towards the end, you can probably calculate several moves ahead and determine the outcome of the game before the last moves are made.

A note on the different boards. They are numbered I, II, and III with I being the smallest and III the largest. II is overlapping I and just adds a row of squares along its periphery. I only played on II so far (at the recommendation of the game booklet), but from that experience I expect each board to offer significant differences.

On board II it looks like you can get most megaliths placed and almost fill the board. Board I will be tighter and I expect you will end the game before you can place all megaliths. Board III offers breathing space, so here you'll certainly exhaust the megaliths. While these sound like simple differences, I expect they'll cause significant differences in how games play. For example, it could take longer to create any dolmen on board III if the megaliths are placed apart from each other.

Carnac is intriguing enough. The rules are fairly straightforward and I just wish that the complexity would be equally distributed from the beginning to the end, rather than decreasing through the game.

Final words

In the end, I don't regret acquiring Carnac. Part of this is due to the nice quality and look of the components. The pieces look great on the board at the end of a game:



And part of it is that I like the simplicity of the rules and components: a straightforward board, a single type of piece, and a simple "place and have the opponent tip-over" move.

You may not want to get Carnac as the first abstract game for a young kid, but if you like abstract games and especially Go, you should take a look at this game.
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