When my friend opened up his Friendly Neighborhood Game Store (FLGS), I was there on opening day. He had lots of different games that I had never seen before, and he had a few games opened up for people to look, observe, or even try. On display was Carcassonne, with a few tiles and a couple of little wooden “men” placed on them.
“What’s that?” I inquired.
“Carcassonne. Would you like me to show you?”
“Sure, why not.”
As it turns out, this game got me hooked. Hooked on playing board games again, and also hooked on other types of board games that I had never played before. It also made me some new gaming friends, as I took it to a Game Night at our church, and it was a hit.
Anyway, let me review the game. Or at least try to.
The gameplay concept is simple. Draw a tile. Place the tile in such a way that all of the features on that tile (road, city, and/or grass) match up with other adjacent tiles with similar features. Put a little wooden “man” on the tile you just placed. On subsequent turns, complete the feature that contains the wooden “man”, score points for the feature, and “Voila” you have Carcassonne.
Okay, do I really need to say any more? Sure, why not. As simplistic as it may seem, there is actually a significant amount of strategy and depth to this game. You start with a limited number of wooden “men”…
[…Okay, quick sidebar here. For some reason, I hate calling them “Meeples”. The game really doesn’t define them as such in the rulebook, but for some reason, wikipedia makes mention of the word “meeple”, then goes on to explain that the etymology of the word “meeple” is actually a portmanteau of “my people”, and has come to represent Eurogames. I am fine with “wooden men”, although for the purposes of this review, I shall hereby call them “meeples” to please the masses. And now, back to our normally scheduled show…]
…which requires you to strategize as to where and when to place them. Do I place the “meeple” on that newly started city, or do I save my last “meeple” for the Cloister which I know will be the next tile that I will draw? The nice thing is, you get your meeple back when you complete and score a feature, but sometimes if you don’t get the right tile, it could be a while before that meeple returns to your pool.
There is another bit of strategy in the game, and that involves blocking. For example, if you opponent is working on a decent sized city, you may be able to play a few of your tiles on your turn in such a way that the only way that the city that your opponent is working on can be completed either a.) doesn’t exist, or b.) has already been used. This serves the purpose of not only cutting the point value of that city in half (of which your opponent won’t score until the end of the game), it also ties up one of his meeples, thus preventing him from playing another one someplace else.
There are also a lot of other positive parts of this game. It is a relatively inexpensive game. It has a vast array of Expansion Sets (which include Builders, a Dragon, and a tower to hold the tiles). The game is well crafted, and the tiles are made of hard, thick cardboard that doesn’t bend or warp. You can get a large sized group of people to play (up to 5 in the core game), and because each turn consists of playing only one tile, the gameplay itself can be pretty fast paced.
The game is also very easy to learn. I have played the game with my 8 year old daughter, and I was also able to play it with my father-in-law who has never played or liked board games very much. This is a relatively good “introduction to board gaming” type of game.
However, for all games with a lot of good things to say, there are a few things about this game (like any others) that can be seen as a negative. First of all, because I bought the “Big Box” edition, I have four expansions. This makes the game very long. Adding to that is that there will (most likely) always be one player in the group inflicted with a disease that some people call “Analysis Paralysis”. Sometimes there are so many options as to where to place a tile, or whether to place your meeple, that the opponent’s turn can drag on longer than it should. And since you really aren’t supposed to draw your tile for your turn until the previous tile has been played by your opponent, you can’t use his or her Analysis Paralysis as a time to strategize.
Overall, this game is a moderately simple, yet intrinsically strategic, tile-laying game that requires some thought, patience, and a little bit of luck (only because the tile drawing is random). It is fun to play, and the time spent can range from 20 minutes for the basic game, to well over 2 hours if you have all of the expansions and 4 or 5 players. This game deserves my rating of 8 out of 10.
Even though you have bought the "Big box" you shouldn't use all expansions at the same time, even if you are very well accustomed to the rules. Carcassone is a game that in my opinion absolutely SHOULD be played evolutionary, e.g. you play the vanilla, after awhile you introduce Inns&Cathedrals, then after playing it for some time you put either Builders or Dragon into the mix and so on. It0s hard to appreciate the subtleties and game changes each expansion introduces if you just throw everything into the mix - more likely you'll just have a big mess and newer players will be plenty confused.
The problem with Big Box is that it serves everything at once, and by deliberately NOT using something out of it you can feel like you are not getting the whole experience. Unfortunately, that's totally wrong. I would NEVER suggest purchasing the Big Box to a new Carcassonne player - sure, it saves him money, but devoids him of the true gradual introduction to the world of Carcassonne that buying each game separately enforces. Big Box is for people who already play the game for quite some time and want to save money and/or have a nice storage place for all the game pieces. It's NOT newbie-friendly.
I suggest you gather up only the tiles and pieces from the original Carcassone and Inns & Cathedrals and just play with that. Your games will be quicker and more satisfying and new players will appreciate it. Only after you get really tired of the game and develop some effective strategies you can put in one more expansion, and start with only one (I strongly suggest Traders & Builders). It should probably take you at least a year if not more to finally go further then that, and even then it should probably be more mix'n'match approach with using a new expansion and removing another then just a good old everything-goes.
While Carcassone is a great game, using all the expansions at the same time suits only a small subgroup of its fans. Me and my friends like it, but only occasionally - more often then not it's just I&C and T&B, which seems the perfect compromise between game length and complexity.
I would agree that using all the expansions at once is not a very newbie-friendly idea. Our games can take up to four hours using everything. And that's not always a great idea.