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July 08, 2003

Favorite Games XVII

Another open and improving series of games today...

Carcassone is a tile-placing game with enough variety and strategy to satisfy almost anyone, which explains its 2001 Spiel Des Jahres (Game of the Year) victory. The game starts with a single tile in the middle of the table, and each turn you add one more tile to slowly build a complex network of city walls, roads, fields and cloisters. Tiles must be placed to keep various features (roads and city walls, especially) contiguous, though scoring points tends to require actually completing multi-tile combinations to your best advantage (a feature is "complete" when the new tile closes it off, preventing other tiles from being added later). After placing tiles, you also place followers (small wooden men in your color) to claim scoring rights to features, which means you have to be careful not to complete a feature until you have assured yourself a majority position. Otherwise, someone else may claim the points for your tile placement. The game continues until all tiles are placed, at which point some additional features (incomplete cities and roads, plus fields formed into units by the interruptions of roads and city walls) are scored and the winner is found.

There is a limited availability expansion set, now included in the English Language basic game, that adds 12 tiles of river to create a larger "seed" for the map and some additional limitations on cities, roads, and fields (since they usually cannot cross the river). This set makes the early game more interesting without making scoring or strategy dramatically different.

The Inns and Cathedrals set, originally just called Carcasone - The Expansion adds just what it says... Inns and Cathedrals, new tiles types that add more ways to gather points. Also added are tiles to record scores when they lap past the scoring track provided in the basic game (a fairly common occurrence even before the additional scoring options of this set are added) and special "large follower" men (one for each color) that count double for determining who controls a feature. Also added are some new tiles that allow for more complex combinations (a cloister with a road running out both sides, or two city walls on either side of a crossroads), making for some new patterns previously not possible. Oh, and Follower pieces are added to allow a sixth player, though my experience is that this game becomes dramatically more random and less strategic the more players you put at the table.

The fairly new Traders and Builders set adds trade goods, generated by city tiles marked with appropriate icons. When you complete and score a city with one or more trade goods, trade good tokens are given to the player who completed the city (which may not be the player who scores the points for the city, a nice option that gives a reason to complete another player's city). At the end of the game, whoever has the most of each type of good gets extra points. Also added are builders and pigs (one for each player), special sorts of followers who have unique effects on scoring or tile placement (the pig increases the value of a field if you have other followers farming it, the builder may let you play more than one tile in your turn. Also, as a note of practicality, this set adds a cloth bag to draw tiles from, made necessary because the inevitable minor color shifts in printing make it too easy to tell tiles from different expansion sets apart if they're just shuffled face down.

If Carcassonne has problems, it has two... One is decision agony, particularly as the game gets near its end. Every move then can be vital, and every point the decision between wining and losing. An egg timer or a deal to let players draw their tile (in secret) at the end of their turn and plan while other players place could help (of course, you'll want to limit table-talk in this last option). The other maybe-problem is that, as expansions are added, it becomes harder and harder to keep up with all the scoring options and complexities. No one item is too difficult, but there are a lot of them to keep straight.

It is in that second way that Carcassonne - Hunters and Gatherers helps. It isn't an expansion set, but rather is a new game built on the same basic concept as the original, only shifted back in time from medieval city building to tribes of hunters in conflict over rich fields, rivers, and forests. Play is familiar, except for changes in the art (roads become rivers, cities become forests, etc.). Added to the game are huts (placed beside rivers to score bonus points in the end-game), and animal icons in the fields, most of which are worth bonus points (the exception being Tigers, who eat a Deer icons in their field, negating bonus points those Deer would have scored). There are also "bonus tiles", won by finishing forests, some of which have unique icons (and thus unique scoring effects), others of which are just very nice tiles. The advantage of this set is that, while it is nearly as complex as Carcassonne with all expansions, it is more unified in its design and flow, less pieced together, and so the various special rules are a bit easier to keep in mind as you play.

But however you choice to combine this, you aren't likely to find a better game for people who like this style. The pieces are thick and study, the art is quite good and only rarely leaves the exact edges of features even slightly in question, and if you can work people up to the full rules, you'll find it just gets better and better. There's a lot of randomness to the game (more if played with 5+ players), as you have no control over what tile you will draw, only over where you place it. But good decisions are rewarded, and good planning (in placing your followers) is key to winning. This is not a game to pass by, and I'd expect to see more for it in the future.

Funagain Purchase Links
Carcassonne - Inns and Cathedrals
Carcassonne - Traders and Builders
Carcassonne - Hunters and Gatherers

Posted by ghoul at July 8, 2003 12:19 PM

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I need to play Carcassone one of these days... too many games, not enough time!

Posted by: Scott at July 9, 2003 07:58 AM

Carcassone is to recommend everybody

Posted by: Americanlifestyle at September 20, 2003 06:49 PM

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