Pros: Simple to learn; endless play
Cons: Having the expansion makes it more fun!
Rating: 4 out of 5
First published 1/6/2003
“Carcassonne” isn’t anything like those old board games I played as a child. Not “Monopoly” or “Sorry” or “Clue.” It’s one of a wave of strategy games you probably won’t find in the local toy store or department store. Many of these new games come from overseas, but it’s pretty easy to get English versions, or at least copies of the game that come with an English translation of the rules. Many of them are also aimed not at small children, but rather at adults and teenagers.
“Carcassonne” is pretty simple. In fact, the rules take up just four (relatively small) pages, most of which consist of sample pictures. The game includes 72 land tiles. These are square heavy cardboard tiles with colorful images on them of fields, cloisters, city centers and city walls, and roads, in various configurations. You put them out upside-down, and players take turns drawing them and putting them down on the table, starting with a particular “start” piece. You pick up your tile, and you have to find a way to fit it with the tiles already out. Field has to match up to field, road has to connect to road, and city has to connect to city.
You also have eight little wooden followers (in five colors–each player picks a color). One of these is used for scoring (you move it along a “scoring track”). You put the rest down on the tiles you play as you play them. A follower on a road is a thief; a follower on a cloister is a monk; a follower in a city is a knight; and a follower on a field is a farmer. At various points during the game you get to “score” a particular area and reclaim any relevant followers. For example, I put a thief down on a road. Once that section of road is completed, I get one point per road segment and I get my follower back and can re-use him. Cities score more than roads, but they’re harder to complete; you could end up losing the further use of the follower for the rest of the game if you can’t get the right tiles to finish your city.
If you get the version of the game that has a note of “includes free river expansion,” then you get an additional 12 tiles that you can vary the landscape with a bit. There can be a fair amount of strategy involved, even though the basic game-play is simple. There are all sorts of ways to try to screw over other players and increase your own score. Do you want to build a great, sprawling city for the points, and risk not being able to complete it, thus costing you some of those points? Or do you build small and often?
The heavy board tiles are very thick and strong; they don’t bend or tear easily. The little wooden followers are also strong, and don’t have any thin fragile bits. Carcassonne is designed for 2 to 5 players of age 8 and up, and a game is estimated to last 30-45 minutes. In our experience adults can get a lot of fun out of this game!
Why You Should Buy the Expansion, Too
The expansion comes in a very similar (although smaller) box, and is labeled simply “Carcassonne: the Expansion.” It’s fairly inexpensive (I found it for about $10). First, it allows you to add a sixth player, because it includes followers of another color. It also makes scoring easier by adding a handful of tiles that say “50” on one side and “100” on the other. (The scoring track only goes up to 50, and when you have a small number of players scores can get pretty high. This lets you go around the scoring track multiple times, keeping track of your extra points.)
The more important thing, however, is that it has another 18 land tiles. Some of them do new things, like allowing you to score more points for cities or roads–but only if you complete them. (Normally you get some points for unfinished structures at the end of the game. These are all-or-nothing bonuses.) You’ll also get a handful of tiles (such as several city centers) that mean you won’t get stuck quite as often when trying to build a city. With just the basic game it’s easier to get stuck with unfinished cities. With the expansion you can build more grandiose structures, which makes strategy even more important. (And it looks cool!)
Carcassonne is easy and fun; it’s simple to learn. You can play a basic game even when you’re feeling tired and run-down. But there’s enough strategy that you can keep enjoying the game long after you first learn it; you can engage as much of your brain as you’re willing to use. As far as I’m concerned, the only flaw the game has is its reliance on an expansion to plug several “oversights” on the part of the designers. If the expansion components came in the original box, it would be a five-star game.