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Oliver Kiley
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Abstract

Carcassonne: Hunters & Gatherers ("Hunters") is a standalone version of the classic tile-laying Carcassonne, (designer Klaus-Jürgen Wrede), and was released in 2002. I have played over 100 games of Hunters (89 recorded plays), with the vast majority of these plays being 2-player games. Hunters stands out as a game that strikes a paradoxical balance between its outward appearance and accessibility as a light game and its hidden and genuine depth that can sustain many repeat plays. Hunters’ mechanics are straightforward yet flexible enough to foster good tensions and a competitive edge throughout the entire game.




Introduction


The Backstory

I was late to the modern boardgame party. Despite having played a variety of games my entire life (both physical and digital) I really didn’t play many modern euro-style games until a few years ago. In one of my first game purchase binges (x-mas 2010 as it was), I looked to grow a modest collection of games and asked for recommendations.

Carcassonne is always in the top of the list of recommendations as a gateway game because of its potential widespread appeal, easy rule set, and engaging gameplay. In researching the Carcassonne line, I came across Hunters & Gatherers, and after reading reviews and comments, got the impression that Hunters functions as a better standalone game with more depth, and better suitability for 2-players, compared to the original (unexpanded) Carcassonne. Plus I liked the look of the artwork and theme more. Ultimately, I was pushed to buy it upon reading that a couple working abroad in Central America had only taken along Hunters, and they never tired of it for years. Whow! So into the cart it went!

Fast-forward to the present, and I’m happy to say that I have likely played over 100 games of Hunters (89 recorded plays thus far). The majority of these plays have been 2-player games, between me and my wife. Hunters has been a success in bridging our differences in gaming preferences and providing a game experience we enjoy every time we pull it off the shelf. This review reflects primarily my experiences with Carcassonne as a 2-player game.


Gameplay Synopsis

Hunters is a tile-placement game, and sharing a lineage with the original Carcassonne(2000) puts it within the realm of genre defining euro-style games. Unlike Carcassonne’s medieval setting, Hunters uses a pre-historic theme. For the uninitiated, below is a basic overview of the gameplay:

Players take turns drawing a single tile and placing it next to an adjacent tile where the edges match. Tiles contain portions of woodlands, rivers, and hunting grounds in various combinations. After placing a tile, that player has the option to then place one of their 5 meeples onto the tile that was just played in one of the landscape regions, provided no other player already has a meeple in that region.

Once placed, meeples remain in place until the region is closed in the case of woodlands and rivers (and players earn points for these closed areas). In the case of hunting ground regions meeples remain in place until the end of the game. Each player also has two huts which may be placed onto any river or lake system that doesn’t already have another player’s hut somewhere in that system. If two regions with different player’ meeples and/or huts on them are connected through subsequent tile plays, both players score points for the region.

* Comparison with original Carcassonne: Carcassone: Hunters and Gatherers Review in Comparison to Carcassonne


Discussion


Thesis

Carcassonne: Hunters & Gatherers stands out as a game that bridges a lot of gaps. It provides a solid balance between simple rules and relatively deep gameplay. It can satisfy many styles of play and appeal to a wide variety of gamers, from those wanting to play a low-conflict casual game to those looking to squeeze out every opportunity for competition and conflict. It packs a modest level of depth into a game with low overhead and that is easy to learn. Overall, Hunter’s success is attributed to how well it balances these potentially competing interests; luck and skill; ease of learning and depth of play; passivity and aggression; casualness and seriousness.



Decision Space

Hunters poses two decision points to players on their turn; tile placement and meeple/hut placement.

Decision #1: Tile Placement

Regarding the first decision, players only have one tile in their hand and it has to be played. At the broadest level, your choice of tile placement is constrained by the legal moves for placement, meaning that it must be placed in a way that avoids mis-matched edges. In my 100+ games, I’ve only had a few instances where there was no legal move for the tile (in which case it is discarded and a new one is drawn). The game begins with a single special "start" tile, which includes forest, river, and hunting ground sections, allowing any drawn tile to be placed at the start.

But this basic requirement gets interesting. As more and more tiles are placed over the course of the game, the volume of legal spaces for placement increases exponentially, particularly at the edges of the tile landscape where there are fewer constraints. This causes other factors to weigh in on your decision of where to place the tile; raising the question where "should" it be placed. Fundamentally, there are a number of basic approaches to tile placement:

- Place a tile to expand a region where you already have control (a meeple is placed in it)
- Place a tile to claim a region (by placing a meeple on it)
- Place a tile to close a region where you already have control (scoring points immediately if it is a forest or river segment).
- Place a tile to expand a neutral region (no one has control yet)
- Place a tile to close a woodland region, regardless of owner, to score a gold nugget (i.e. bonus tile).
- Place a tile to close an opponent’s region (river systems + hunting grounds)
- Place a tile with a tiger in an opponent’s hunting ground (negating points from one of their animals)
- Place a tile in an irrelevant location to buy/burn a turn
- Place a tile to prevent an opponent’s region from being closed or expanded
- Place a tile to position yourself to invade an opponent’s region
- Place a tile to limit break-in opportunities into your own regions

Quite a lot of fundamental choices with just one tile (and for such a simple game right?); and we haven’t even got to meeple placement yet! Of course, the potential decision space generated by all these choices is narrowed considerably by the intersection of the legal tile placement locations and the above functions that the tile can perform. But it can still be a potentially large decision space.

Decision #2: Meeple Placement

What will ultimately drive your tile placement decision is consideration of the second decision in a player turn; that of meeple (or hut) placement and the associated scoring opportunities. Players only have 5 meeples and 2 huts at their disposal over the course of the game. Meeples placed into hunting grounds and huts placed on river systems remain on the board for the rest of the game and can never be moved. Meeples placed in forests or rivers are only returned to your supply once the region is completed (closed). Meeples (and huts) can only be placed on the tile you just played, which plays as a strong role in constraining your potential options.

Fundamentally, there is a risk-reward proposition wrapped up the decision of where to place your meeple; particularly for hunting grounds and river systems which constitutes a long-term commitment. In each case, players must weigh the chances that they will be able to expand their hunting ground / river system to earn as many points as possible while minimizing the risks that opponents will either close off the region prematurely (limiting the point potential) or try to break into the high scoring region, thereby neutralizing points or starting an "arms" race for majority control. When choosing to start a hunting ground or river system, key considerations include how many expandable edges you have, how well you can control the boarder, and of course how many animals/fish are present.

Also, how far into the game you are plays a role in this decision too. Claiming hunting grounds and placing huts too early gives your opponent a lot of opportunities to work against you, but you have a lot of opportunity to expand or take advantage of early point concentrations. Placing too late may not give you enough opportunity to take advantage of your placement, yet is less risky and preserves your options better over the course of the game. A noteworthy example is the dynamic created in hut placement. There is a strong incentive to place the first hut to grab the best developed and expandable river system. Yet that passes the initiative to your opponent, who can then choose to either try to break in, or work to close off that river system while they still have two huts at their disposal to expand elsewhere. So there is a tough choice in whether you play actively or take a reactionary approach.

Placing meeples into forest regions or river segments is more straightforward. Generally, you want to place meeples into new regions so that it is relatively easy/quick to close that region, score it, and get the meeple back into your supply to place it elsewhere. Building huge woodland or river sections can earn you lots of points in one big chunk, but if you commit to too many of these larger or more complex areas, you can end up meeple starved (i.e. your meeples are all locked up and you have none left in supply). A mid-term play might mean that you are able to close off the region in 1 to 2 future plays (assuming you get the right tiles), while an immediate (short-term) play is one in which you place a new meeple in a region and close it at the same time; scoring it immediately and getting your meeple back. Generally speaking, you never want to be meeple starved as you will lose your ability to make these short-term plays.



Interaction + Conflict

Within the eurogamer culture, there’s a historic tendency to avoid direct conflict and fighting. Eurogamers talk of their desire to play games that embody "building up" rather than "tearing down." A paradoxical observation I have made is that often times in pursuit of "anti-conflict" games, the resulting "indirect" interaction mechanisms cause even more confusion and ambiguity of intent on the part of the players, leading to more hurt feelings and frustrations than if the game addressed conflict head-on.

No one gets angry when you capture someone’s bishop in a game of Chess. That’s the point of the game. But when someone blocks you from taking wood in Stone Age? Some people get all bent out of shape. This stems from the indirect nature of the conflict causing ambiguity. Did they take wood because "they" needed wooded or just because they want to make your life difficult? If it is clear that everyone is playing to win, the ambiguity of intent is less. But when its supposed to be a "friendly, family" game people often are troubled by such "underhanded" tactics.

Hunters (and other Carcassonne titles) share some of this concern, but I feel that the series is intentionally more confrontational than most people assume on first glance; especially in a 2-player game. There isn’t "conflict" in sense of destroying people’s meeples, but there is a lot of conflict in terms of directly stealing and negating your opponent’s scoring opportunities. This includes:

(1) Breaking into an opponent’s region with your own meeples, either neutralizing their points (if sharing equal majority) or outright stealing control (if gaining a higher majority).
(2) Prematurely closing off opponent’s regions to prevent future expansion and/or to steal their bonus tiles.
(3) Placing tigers in opponent’s hunting grounds.
(4) Neutralizing your opponent’s meeples by placing tiles to prevent region completion (i.e. preventing them from being able to complete a region).

Turning a blind eye on any of these opportunities greatly limits the scope of the game’s decision space and the strategic opportunities. It is quite clear that these rules and opportunities are intended, and playing "nice" without them is a contrived activity in my opinion. But to each their own.

Multiplayer Hunters (3-5 players), does introduce an element not present in the 2-player game, which is that if multiple players have a claim on a hunting ground or river system, those players each earn points for the region. This has the effect of diminishing the harshness of stealing territory, primarily by diluting the impact of this power/point sharing across multiple players. There is also greater opportunity for meta-gaming and player-driven chaos as players collude in ways to peck away at the leader’s position or advantage. As a 2-player game, it is of course quite a bit less raucous.



Strategic Depth

Hunter’s is certainly on the tactical end of the strategic/tactical spectrum, which certainly contributes to its success as a casual game. While controlling valuable hunting grounds and river systems factor into a long-term strategy because of their end-game scoring, the "strategic" factors that drive your actions are primarily tactical in nature. It’s clear on the board what hunting grounds or rivers are valuable, and relatively straightforward to decide whether you will want to gain control of them yourself or try to shut them down and block their potential in the event your opponent goes for it.

While the game is initially quite quick to learn, there is a key skill advantage that comes with many repeat plays: learning the tiles and their distribution. In a 2 player game, each tile in the deck has a 50% chance of being drawn by you, and this knowledge can be leveraged on a risk-reward level. There are a handful of unique tiles (not counting the bonus tiles) that can allow for some particularly advantageous plays given the right spatial layout (created through conscious effort).

For example, one of my favorite tiles contains a river terminating in a lake surrounded by open hunting grounds. The significance of this tile is that it is the only tile that allows the land areas on two sides of a river to be connected. Over the course of the game, I know that I have a 50% chance of drawing the tile, and I can structure my own plays with that tile in mind. If it would be to my advantage to connect across a river (i.e. to break into a hunting ground) I might make plays that create opportunities for the terminal lake tile to be played if I draw it. Conversely, if I’m trying to protect a hunting ground, I can actively place other tiles to minimize the opportunity for this tile to be used as a weapon.

So there is more strategy/skill opportunity in the game than people assume for a casual game; this depth emerging as a consequence of knowing the tiles and knowing their frequency distributions. In large part, this fact is why the game has had staying power for me and stands up to many repeat games. And while the above example was quite specific, there are plenty of other examples, from obvious to quite subtle. I love creating opportunities where there is a "hole" in the board that can only be filled with a specific tile that gives you an advantage if it is filled. To the extent that you can couple your own meeple placements on the back of an opponent’s placement relative to this hole is even better, such that "you" don’t have to rely on drawing the right tile; instead you can rely on your opponent to fill the hole, score a region, and get their own meeple (important!) back but give you points in the process too.

This, broadly speaking, ties into optimizing your plays such that each placement achieves 2 or more functions (from the big list above). Can you place a tile to block an opponent’s region expansion, score some river points, and set yourself up for a possible break-in all in one move? Being able to recognize these opportunities and capitalize on such instances offers a wealth of opportunity for skillful play.

It’s worth mentioning the strategic importance surrounding the bonus tiles as well. Any player who closes a forest region containing a gold nugget gets a bonus tile (scoring for meeples aside), and immediately gets to play it; effectively giving you two turns back to back. In general, it is almost always worth taking a bonus tile if you can, even if it gives your opponent’s points for the forest. The exception is if closing the forest relies on a more specific type of tile, and by avoiding closing it you can keep one of your opponent’s meeples "tied" in the region.



Role of Luck

Carcassonne (and Hunters of course) draws some criticism for being too luck-driven. People are impelled to suggest having a hand of tiles so that you have more "options" each turn and as a way to minimize/mitigate the luck of the draw. I once thought this way, but after dozens and dozens of plays, I think this would fail miserably and ruin the game.

By not having a hand of tile I know that if a particular tile hasn’t been played then it is still in the stack. It isn’t hiding in someone else’s hand waiting for them to slam it down at some opportunistic moment. This provides its own sort of perverse perfect information game. It’s not a question of "if" a certain tile will be played, but "when."

Another failing, I imagine, is that some players approach the tile drawing with the attitude "I need X tile, damn, I didn’t get it, this is miserable!" Instead, players need to keep an open and fresh perspective on their drawn tile, instead asking themselves "what’s the highest and best use of this tile" rather than trying to force-fit the tile into a predominated role. Often times, I won’t make the "obvious play" that scores some points and closes a region with a particular tile because there is a more nuanced function the tile can provide that tiles better into a longer term horizon or achieves multiple benefits rather than a singular benefit.

Beyond the strategic significance of the single tile draws, the 1 tile limit helps minimize downtime and keeps the game functional on a casual level. As I illustrated earlier, there is a huge range of potential tile functions, placement locations, and related meeple placement choices that adding a hand of tiles would bring the pacing to a crawl.



Tensions + Arc

For me, the "fun" of Hunter’s comes through the sequence of relatively short-term tensions created by working a series of moves to accomplish a particular objective. For example, it might take 2 or 3 turns for me to break into a valuable hunting ground. Will I get the tiles to quickly do this? Will my opponent see what I’m doing? Will they play tiles to block and stop me in this effort? There are often multiple instances of these short-term tensions working at once in different parts of the tile landscape. When you draw your tile, which of these tensions do you put your tiles towards? Can you create a tough choice for opponent in balancing multiple tension points?

The scoring system creates another set of tensions on an entirely different level. Investing turns in building up and protecting large hunting grounds (for example) might net you a lot of points at the end of the game but you can lose out on turn-by-turn scoring opportunities and face a greater risk if your opponent breaks in. Regardless, it’s great fun (and tense) watching the final scoring take place and seeing how differences in score position going into final scoring pan out. Ultimately, players need to strike a balance between their short-term scoring opportunities and the long-term scoring from hunting grounds and river systems.

From the standpoint of creating a narrative arc, I do not think that Hunter’s does anything exceptional or noteworthy. In general, the game is too quick playing and even paced for a more elaborate arc to build over the course of the game. For me, a narrative "arc" comes as a consequence of shifting emphasis in tactics and/or strategy over the course of the game. Factors that don’t matter early come to bear later in the game, etc. This is not the case in Hunters. By and large the set of decisions and the factors influencing those decisions remain relatively constant as the game winds its way forward.


Thematic Underpinnings

Does the theme fit? The theme in Carcassonne largely functions as a mnemonic device to help convey what is ultimately a pretty abstract set of rules in more understandable terms. With this in mind, I think the theme itself (pre-history) works well enough and makes the game readily accessible as a casual family game; but ultimately could be translated to other contexts quite easily.

This said, I do appreciate the subtle theme associations that are established in the game. Placing tiles reflects some collaborative exploration of the landscape. Fighting for majority of control over hunting grounds and river systems mostly makes sense. It is a little odd and thematic-breaking that multiple players can score full points for sharing a region as opposed to dividing the points in among the tied players. This scoring works from a game mechanics standpoint, and in particular can work as a collaborative catch-up mechanism in multiplayer games, but nonetheless is a little odd thematically.




Summary Profile

[ _ X _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ ] Abstract / Thematic
The theme works as a mnemonic aid and keeps the game accessible with wide appeal. But the specifics of the theme could readily be substituted with nearly anything. Hunters is fairly abstract at its core.

[ _ _ X _ _ _ _ _ _ _ ] Simple Rules / Complex Rules
Rules are straightforward and minimally complex. The game can be taught/learned in 5 minutes or less.

[ _ _ X _ _ _ _ _ _ _ ] Solitary / Interactive
There are limited opportunities for interaction "above the table" and outside of the confines of the board. Players can collude at a meta-level against the leaders, but otherwise it is limited.

[ _ _ _ _ _ X _ _ _ _ ] Passive / Cutthroat
There is a modest amount of conflict, both indirect (blocking, claiming areas first, etc.) and direct (breaking into regions, claiming bonus tiles, locking opponent’s meeples). There is no outright destruction of assets or removal of accumulated points.

[ _ _ _ _ _ _ X _ _ _ ] Clunky / Elegant
Overall, I find Hunters to be a solid example where the rules and outward appearance of the game belies its deeper strategic depths. It certainly isn’t a deep game in the spectrum of board games, but it is quite an accessible game with more depth than meets the eye. All the pieces fit together.

[ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ X _ _ ] Fiddly / Streamlined
The components and mechanics of the game work well together and creates a reasonably streamlined game experience. I like that the action of game all centers around the board state, and there are not extraneous elements competing for your attention.

[ _ _ _ _ _ X _ _ _ _ ] Skill-less / Skillful
There is more opportunity than the game is often given credit for. In particular, better knowledge of the tiles, tile distribution, and unique opportunities for using specific tiles can be advantageous. Game hinges on a series of short- to mid- term risk-reward propositions that reward skillful decisions and balancing of priorities.

[ _ _ X _ _ _ _ _ _ _ ] Zero-Luck / Luck Fest
Reasonably low luck, despite the outwards "randomness" of only drawing one tile at a time and having to play it.

[ _ _ _ _ X _ _ _ _ _ ] Narrow Decision Space / Wide Decision Space
Modest size decision space, driven largely by the diversity of options you have for what to "do" with a tile compounded by meeple/hut placement decisions. Overall set of decisions is constrained by legal tile placement locations.

[ _ _ _ _ X _ _ _ _ _ ] Shallow Depth / High Depth
Modest depth in decisions, driven mainly by the risk-reward propositions, the need to balance short-term incremental scoring with maintaining valuable positions in hunting grounds and river systems.

[ _ _ X _ _ _ _ _ _ _ ] Short-Term Tactical-Focus / Long-Term Strategic-Focus
While the game does include longer-term scoring aspects, the execution and pursuit hinges heavily on the short-term tactical decision space factors.

[ _ _ _ _ _ X _ _ _ _ ] Subdued / Tense
There is a modest amount of tension created over the course of the game, primarily hinging on whether you will get the tiles to complete a particular sequence of moves while having to react to your opponents doing the same. Additional tensions created through the end-game scoring, although generally wins are not complete surprises.

[ _ _ _ X _ _ _ _ _ _ ] Sameness / Variability
There is not a tremendous amount of variability between games, as you are working from the same basic set of tiles each game. While the board certainly evolves into its own unique and beautiful landscape each game, differences in the overarching structure of the landscape rarely has a bearing on driving different gameplay.

[ _ _ _ _ _ X _ _ _ _ ] Short-Lived / Venerable
So far, Hunters has stood the test of time in my collection, and I imagine playing it into the foreseeable future. The game always has a "fresh" feeling to me and is just an enjoyable balance of simplicity, depth, and enough character to keep things positive (despite the opportunity for conflict!). Games are short enough (2-player games in 20-25 minutes) that we often play multiple rounds in a session (i.e. best of 3).


Conclusions

I’ve focused the bulk of this review on the competitive 2-player "mode of play" for Hunters, for which I think the game provides a rewarding blend of fast play and depth. But this isn’t the only way it can be played. I’ve seen groups take a far less confrontational stance towards the game and still get a high level of enjoyment out of the experience.

In comparison to other tile laying games of comparable complexity/depth/interaction, such as Samurai or Tigris & Euphrates, Hunters does a little better in my view as a casual game. The Knizia tile-laying games are notably more unforgiving of poor plays, which arguably coincides with their longer strategic horizons.

Hunters does a number of things well and doesn’t do anything poorly. Yet at the same time, is not a risky or innovative game from a mechanics standpoint. It takes the original Carcassonne and reimagines it as a more a diverse and better balanced standalone game (according to things I’ve read), but it isn’t breaking radical new ground over the original either.

Carcassonne: Hunters & Gatherers is a game I expect I will keep coming back to. It is a game that strikes a balance between potentially competing interests to yield an experience that can be enjoyed by a broad audience for a variety of reasons. Each play offers its own subtle nuances as the board grows, creating a wide tactical space to explore. While the game loses much of its strategic import with 3+ players, as 2-player game I find it excellent.

Cheers!



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David
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Very nice overview review. I think this game doesn't get quite the acclaim it deserves as a single-box alternative to the extensions monster that is Carcassonne.

I get a bit wound up by loose use of mathematical terms so
MezMorki wrote:
the volume of legal spaces for placement increases exponentially

bothered me. The most open spots that a newly-placed tile can add to the available options is a net two (three new ones on the added tile, minus the one lost on the matching edge). The number of available spots only increases linearly. Of course, the time it takes to evaluate a linearly increasing set of alternatives might increase exponentially, but that's not the same thing!
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Steve Kennedy

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My wife and I play this frequently when we want a quick Carcassonne fix. I think it is because she likes the fish aspect.meeple
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Oliver Kiley
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david_os wrote:
Very nice overview review. I think this game doesn't get quite the acclaim it deserves as a single-box alternative to the extensions monster that is Carcassonne.

I get a bit wound up by loose use of mathematical terms...


Agreed on both accounts, and certainly not exponentially in a literal sense.
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Martin G
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Nice to see you write a big review, Oliver! I haven't played H&G, but very much enjoy Carcassonne: The Castle as an incremental improvement over vanilla Carc for 2 players.

Your section on luck reminded me of my defence of the one-card hand in my Kingdom Builder review. So naturally, I agree!

My only constructive criticism of your review would be that the bulk of it applies equally to regular Carcassonne, and I would have liked to see something on what H&G adds to the experience. But I don't think you have played Carc, so I will let you off
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Oliver Kiley
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Lol, thanks! I was working on another blog post about various things as a follow up to my one on Armature for Criticism. But I figured I'd better do a review first lest people accuse me of all talk and no action

Anyway, it was fun to write and a learning process too.

And you are right, I haven't played normal Carcassonne so I couldn't really comment on the differences in the experience unfortunately. Thanks for the feedback!

Edit: My next will may be on Magnate, but I'm not sure how well I can talk about strategy. My wife beats me about 70% of the time in that game, so maybe I need to talk to her first! Of course, she claims that she doesn't even pay attention when we play. So either she's hiding something or I'm thinking too hard!
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Fantastic review of a game in my collection that I really need to play more of.
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Greg Cornell
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I actually enjoy this game more than original Carcassonne. I like the way that hunters score in this one better than the way farmers score in the original.

Maybe it's the theme that I enjoy, maybe it's the addition of huts, or the bonus tiles, but something about this game scratches an itch that the original one does not. I really enjoy Carcassonne, especially with the first 2 expansions, but this one is a marked improvement.

Now, why doesn't my wife agree with me? She thinks The Castle is more fun. I like that one, too, but I don't really like the artwork in it - and those stupid paths always screw up my plans! cry
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Eric O. LEBIGOT
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Thanks, Oliver. Your review is centered around subjects that I believe are very relevant; it really gives me a good feel for the game. Keep the reviews coming!
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Oliver Kiley
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2097 wrote:
Quote:
Ultimately, I was pushed to buy it upon reading that a couple working abroad in Central America had only taken along Hunters, and they never tired of it for years. Whow!

I love obsessions with just one game, and this is certainly a beautiful game. Anyone know where this story game from? Here on the geek, or…?


I stumbled on it here at BGG. I can't remember if it was a comment, review, or discussion post in a recommendation thread where I saw it unfortunately.
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Reuben
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Incredible review!
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