My playing group is my family: my wife, my two boys ages ten and eight, and occasionally my daughter, age four. When I first heard about Carcassonne I was intrigued but hesitant because I thought the scoring system might be a bit too complex and I wasn't sure if they would get frustrated about possibly not being able to put a particular piece where they wanted due to wrong edges. I then discovered Kids of Carcassonne which seemed designed to address all my concerns. I bought this primarily as a game to play with my daughter. My daughter likes it well enough, she calls it the "people game." It ended up being a little too simple for the rest of us though.
I wanted to get another version that would present more challenge for myself. After some initial research on the various versions, I narrowed down my options to four. The first two choices were the original Carcassonne or the Carcassonne Big Box. While the original may have been fine, I've read many forum threads where people claim certain expansions like Inns & Cathedrals are necessary. On the other hand, the Big Box felt like too large a commitment to make. On the other, other hand, I didn't want to buy the original, decide I wanted some expansions, and then feel like I should have just bought the Big Box to begin with. So I looked at the various stand-alone Carcassonne games.
I quickly narrowed things down to my third and fourth options. Carcassonne: Hunters and Gatherers was considered by many to be a great stand-alone game, and Carcassonne: the City was also well regarded. Other stand-alone versions were dismissed: the Castle is only for two, and New World and Discovery didn't immediately appeal to me. After quite some time debating with myself these four options, I went with Carcassonne: the City.
My primary consideration was I wanted plenty of scoring options for lots of strategy. This was the main thing I wanted to improve from Kids of Carcassonne. I ended up reading through the rules of the main game, Hunters and Gatherers (H&G), and the City and made a comparison of the various scoring features:
Road (Thief) = River (Fisherman) = Street (Citizen)
City (Knight) = Forest (Gatherer) = Market (Seller)
Cloister(Monk) = n/a = n/a
Field (Farmer) = Meadow (Hunter) = Residential Area (Steward)
Compared to original Carcassonne, both H&G and City have equivalents for everything except the Cloister(Monk). However, Farmers and Stewards score similarly, based on adjacent cities and markets, while meadows are scored based on images of animals within the meadow. One animal, the tiger, takes away points which I didn't like. One bonus tile, the Shrine, can be used to steal a meadow from other players, and I read several complaints on that which was also a minor concern. From what I've read, the scoring of markets feels closer to cities and the meadows seems like a separate thing. I see this right now as an advantage of City over H&G.
In addition, H&G has Huts that score in "river systems," and a bonus tiles system, while the walls of the City give scoring via Towers and Guards. None of these have an equivalent in the original Carcassonne (sans expansions at least). I also don't feel I'm missing anything by not having a Cloisters equivalent; the public and historical buildings watched by the guards feels like a more than fair trade. The City felt like the best system to start with for me. I even like the 'quirks' to City -- like Streets count one point per tiles until four tiles are reached, then it's two points per tile. After comparison with the original I understand better now why people recommend adding Inns and Cathedrals, as roads seem underpowered in the original game.
One more difference in the City from other versions of Carcassonne is that you can't place a follower on a feature of a tile if it completes that feature. Or as I've read elsewhere: "No MIMO (Meeple In, Meeple Out) scoring". This is apparently a popular way of scoring in the main Carcassonne and after a few games I can see how that could be useful. However, I also consider this an advantage for now as it's easier to teach to my family who isn't familiar with the main rules.
The next major reason I chose the City over the other options is the fact that you only have to match streets instead of all features. This is the same criteria that Kids of Carcassonne uses so it is easy to teach my family. After a few games of the City, I'm also happy with this decision. Placing tiles in the City is certainly harder than in the Kids game, but not overly so.
I've noticed in my reading that some Carcassonne veterans who come to the City sometimes have a problem with the looser tile matching restrictions. As someone new to the game, this doesn't concern me. Having to match all features in the other games isn't really a problem either, but I felt it would be better to start with the City's rules and then if I wanted more variety later I could then move on to the other games.
Having three stages of the game works well. It gives a nice structure to the game and is easy to teach. For example, you can ignore walls and the public and historic buildings until it comes up in the second phase. It can also be used to teach strategy; for example, I showed my boys that you might not want to place many stewards until the walls start so you have a better idea of how the areas will turn out.
Aesthetically, everything looks great. This was the final reason I decided to go with the City. The art in Hunters and Gatherers isn't as attractive to me. The original looks nice but I think the City looks just as good, and the walls and gate at the end is really wonderful, giving a great feeling of completion. Of course, other than the Big Box, this was the more expensive of the options I was considering, but I feel like that the components are worth it and I have no regrets.
So do I have any complaints? Not really, but there's a few things I noticed that might get me to try another version eventually. The primary issue I may have someday is that the City is only four players; that's ok for now, but once my daughter gets beyond Kids of Carcassonne I may need a version that plays five for my family to play together.
Another thing to consider is that I sometimes look at all the different expansions for main Carcassonne and feel some temptation to try different things. Finally, I occasionally would like a slightly longer game. However, I think the City works great as an introduction to Carcassonne for anyone needing more challenge than the Kids of Carcassonne provides, and even if I eventually get more versions of Carcassonne I doubt I'll ever get rid of the City.
The City is the best game of the series for me.