138 Games: From Carcassonne to Princes of Florence

The 138 Games series has covered many games so far, but in this entry, we bring you a number of modern classics.  There’s a classic tile-laying game, a classic role-selection game, a classic cooperative game, and a classic Alea game.  There’s also an abstract game in there just to completely round things out.  We’ve got something for everyone as we launch fully into the 2000s this week.  After missing a week earlier in the month, Knizia is back with Samurai last week, a cooperative game this week, and a pair of games coming up in the next entry that you may be able to anticipate.

– Carcassonne –

Tom Rosen:  A board game sans board — Carcassonne is the ambassador of the modern Golden Age of board games.  Carcassonne is the board game you should be introducing to anyone who asks what kind of board games you play and whether they’re like Monopoly. Carcassonne is the “gateway” game if there ever was one and the staple of any fledgling board game collection.  Carcassonne is all that and it’s actually a great game too; one that experienced gamers ought to dust off and revisit.

Klaus-Jürgen Wrede burst onto the board gaming scene in 2000 with the release of Carcassonne.  The game quickly went on to win the most important award in the industry – the Spiel des Jahres – in 2001, followed by the most important award to many serious hobbyists – the Deutscher Spiele Preis – a few months later.  Wrede has followed up the game with a handful of additional designs (namely Downfall of Pompeii, Die Fugger, Mesopotamia, Anasazi, and a few others), but has devoted most of his subsequent releases to expansions and stand-alone spin-offs of Carcassonne.  The family of Carcassonne games now bears over 20 expansions and 10 stand-alone spin-offs (some of which include designer credits by such luminaries as Karl-Heinz Schmiel and Reiner Knizia).  The game has even proliferated to a number of virtual implementations, including releases on the Xbox and the iPhone, in addition to the old faithful BrettspielWelt site.

People have gotten married over this game, cloned over this game, set world records over this game, and even traveled the globe for this game.  Carcassonne introduced the world to the iconic component known as the “meeple.”  These small wooden human-esque figures are the most recognizable piece in modern gaming and have been adapted for use in countless other games over the past decade.  For more on the phenomenon of the meeple see this fantastic “Intelligence Report on Meeples” by Dave Lartigue.  Obsession with meeples clearly runs rampant as people have sewed meeples, driven meeples, rained meeples, and even made snow meeples.  This game is a geek-culture phenomenon.  It’s not only a game that people play, but a way of life that many proselytize.  Carcassonne, without a board, is the defining board game of our time.

– Citadels –

Jeff Allers:  It’s easy to forget that this game continues to be one of publisher Hans im Glück’s most popular games, even though it never won the Spiel des Jahres (German Game of the Year) award as Carcassonne and Dominion later did.  It’s also the game that propelled French designer Faidutti into the spotlight in the German board game scene, paving the way for a number of talented designers who have since emerged from France. But you shouldn’t play it simply because of its historical significance or sales.  The experience of playing this game is still quite unique.

I have not yet played Marcel-André Casasola Merkle’s game, Verräter (that game is on MY bucket list), but Faidutti uses the role-selection mechanism borrowed from Casasola Merkle’s work to great effect here.  A stack of role cards are passed from one player to the next, with each one secretly choosing a role and passing the rest on. The roles provide each player with a unique ability for that round, as well as the turn order. The goal of the game is to earn gold and construct buildings, but the roles are pivotal in helping you or hindering your opponents.  As the game progresses, bluffing–a favorite element in Faidutti’s designs–becomes important as your strategy is slowly revealed by the buildings you’ve already constructed. It’s an elegant design with high player interaction and can support up to 7 players.

One more thing: Faidutti also set an example in the game design community by first asking for Casasola Merkle’s permission to reuse the brilliant role-selection mechanic, and he has openly credited Verräter’s contribution to Citadels ever since.  During a time in the industry when there is much debate about intellectual property and game mechanics, it would behoove game designers to give credit where credit is due as Faidutti did — and also to allow one’s game mechanisms to remain in the public domain where they can be further developed by all designers, as Casasola Merkle did.

– Lord of the Rings –

Matt Carlson:  When Lord of the Rings was released I was an immediate fan.  I love to play games but tend to end up playing more with casual gamers than the hard core.  Having a cooperative game to suggest where everyone would win or lose together seemed like a win-win proposition to me.  Yes, while I thoroughly enjoy the theme, it is only lightly present.  Yes, the game can easily become a solitaire game while one player runs the show.  However, when played with a good group of people it can be a thoroughly enjoyable game experience.  Where you lie on the love/hate category for the game will depend how you feel about experiential games.

Lord of the Rings deserves to be mentioned as it was the first truly cooperative (one vs many players is right out – I own but deny the existence of the Sauron expansion) board game to become highly popular.  It showed it could be done and gave birth (albeit some time later) to more modern classics like Pandemic.

Personally, Lord of the Rings will always exist on this list due to perhaps the most exquisite board game moment I’ve experienced.  I had befriended a single mother and her two junior high students from our church and had conned them into getting together one day when school wasn’t in session to try out a board game or two.  After a fairly pleasurable, but hard, game of Lord of the Rings things began to get very tight at the end.  We were one turn from winning the game when tragedy struck and things looked bleak.  After a short bit of thinking, the mother figured out she could sacrifice herself, granting the rest of us one more turn which we used to good effect to cast that ring into Mount Doom and win the game.  Cheers spontaneously erupted around the board for “mom” who sacrificed herself for the team and allowed us the glorious victory.  If that isn’t a good “experience board game,” I don’t know what qualifies.

– M –

Lorna Wong:  So I think a lot of people wondered why I picked M, a themeless game, for this list.  I think most newcomers to games shy away from abstracts and I had the same tendencies despite chess being one of the earliest games I remember playing and enjoying. M was one of the first Euros that brought to my attention to the idea that games don’t need to have a theme to be engaging.  This tile placement game of colors, shapes, and numbers is fun!

It has everything you want besides theme, it’s very interactive – you can make great plays and your neighbors can force you take negative points.  I like the fact that you only score 2 color types of tiles and the rest are negative points.  It seems fairly innovative for it’s time, the way you pick up tiles when you score changing the gameboard so to speak.  And last but not least, the game scales well from 2-6 players.

– Princes of Florence –

Nathan Beeler:  Auction games tend to intimidate newcomers, due to the usually impossible-to-fully-answer question that inevitably comes up, “what is this thing I’m bidding on worth?”  Without knowing an answer to that, you can’t really hope to bid meaningfully, except by possibly playing off of clues from experienced players, if any are in the game.  Often players flail wildly in their first efforts and end up finding the experience frustrating.  I recognize this phenomenon, and have felt it myself on occasion.  But good auction games will pay off a patient learning play-through (or two) with a degree of freedom found in few other games.  If you want something badly enough, you can pay for it and get it.  Generally you won’t get tripped up by turn order, poorly set predetermined costs, or other such shenanigans.  Pay more than anyone else (if you have the funds), and that thing you covet is yours.  Or at least you can take a given auction to the point where you think the other sucker is overpaying (which is what everyone who isn’t the winner should leave each auction thinking).  These are the pros and cons that I see in a good auction game.  Princes of Florence is an exceptional auction game, and something you must try at least twice before you die.

The game gets so many things right.  For starters, money is not limited.  You can always convert victory points, at an unfriendly rate, into money.  This means you truly have to evaluate your drop-out point for each item you’re bidding on, and everything is up for grabs if you really want it.  Also, the game play is very tight, in that there are only seven rounds total.  Each player will win one auction and have two actions in each round to build the most prestigious palazzo in Florence.  Fourteen tiny actions.  To do well, you must have a plan or develop one quickly.  But you must be adaptable, as well.  When the critical component of your master strategy gets to be too expensive for your liking, you’d better have an alternative or two, and an idea of how best to use them, so as not to waste precious actions.  The tension around the auctions can be highly engaging.  Wrap the box up with great on-board aids, a fun Tetris-like puzzle element, a lot of player interaction without direct aggression, and a reasonable playing time, and the whole package ascends to the throne as one of the greatest games ever made.

Larry:  For some reason, when great games are mentioned, Princes is often excluded and I honestly have no idea why.  Maybe it’s because there was such a long gap between the German and English editions.  Some people feel that Puerto Rico made PoF obsolete, which is ridiculous–the two games have nothing in common except for their publisher.  Whatever the reason may be, it’s one of the great injustices in gaming.  Because Princes truly is a great game, with excellent mechanics, very nice variety, tremendous scope for strategy, and completely absorbing gameplay.  It is the minimalistic game par excellance, with so much you have to accomplish with only 7 auction buys and 14 actions.  It’s also a very reliable game, since just about every time I’ve played, I’ve loved it.  I acknowledge that some of the titles on our list of 138 games are obscure and their inclusion perhaps a bit quirky.  But if for some reason, you haven’t had the chance to play Princes of Florence, this truly is a game worth seeking out and playing as soon as you can.  It was great a dozen years ago, it’s just as great today, and it should continue to be great a decade from now, since a game this good will remain in the public consciousness, no matter what bad karma it has suffered from in the past.

To be continued…

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12 Responses to 138 Games: From Carcassonne to Princes of Florence

  1. David Brain says:

    The only issue I really have with Carcassonne is, oddly, the same one that I have with Scrabble, which is that there are two different games in there – the competitive and the social – and you have to be sure that everyone is playing the same version or it can all get horrible. Whilst this issue certainly exists with other “gateway” games, I think it is exacerbated here.

  2. Tom Rosen says:

    Good point David! Normally I’ll spend much of my effort on stealing my opponent’s large cities and long roads, but I’ll do that less if teaching the game. Although won’t stop doing it entirely since I think it helps to open a new player’s eyes to the possibilities and usually means that they’re thinking about how to do the same by the end. At least there are no two-letter word lists to memorize for Carcassonne! When certain friends reached that point in Scrabble was when I realized it was not a game for me, or at least for me with them.

    • godfeather says:

      I have participated in Carcassonne tournaments and the problem there was that some players were tile counting making it a very destructive game; a game I don’t want to play. I don’t mind people competing for the same things though.

      • Tom Rosen says:

        Wow, that is taking it seriously! I think a decent solution for that (which I often happen to use just to shorten the game slightly) is to remove a set number of random tiles face down from the pool before the game starts. So if I’m playing with a couple expansions, I’ll often mix them in, shuffle the tiles, and pull out something like 20 tiles before the game so you can’t know that X more cloisters are coming or something like that.

  3. ianthecool says:

    I like that you included LOTR. Nice story as well.

    • jeffinberlin says:

      Great story, Matt!
      If only it had been Frodo’s Mom that had accompanied him to Mt. Doom…

      Seriously, though, Moms know more than anyone what sacrificial love means.

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