SdJ Re-Reviews #23: Carcassonne

  • Designer:  Klaus-Jürgen Wrede
  • Publisher:  Hans im Glück Verlags-GmbH, Rio Grande Games, Z-man Games, Multiple Others
  • Players:  2 – 5
  • Ages:  8 and Up
  • Time:  30 – 45 Minutes
  • Times Played:  > 25

CarcassonneCarcassonne: The game that gave us the meeple…

The first ideas for Carcassonne came to Klaus-Jürgen Wrede when he was touring the south of France on vacation in the late 1990s.  He was tracing the history of the crusade against the Cathars for a novel he was writing, and his travels took him through a region covered with castles and walled cities.  He fell in love with the landscape, everything from the countryside to one of the huge fortressed cities, Carcassonne.  

His trip gave him an idea for a game where the players imitate the growing of cities and castles.  The first prototype was completed soon after he returned from vacation, but it was more complex than he had hoped: he wanted the game to have simple, intuitive rules while still featuring a strategic touch.  He started reducing the game to its essentials, experimenting with different iterations.  He painted the first tiles by hand with watercolors.  The first prototype was ready by early 2000.

Wrede — who was, at the time, a completely unknown game designer — sent the rules and some photographs for Carcassonne (plus similar materials for a couple of other games) to Hans im Glück.  They landed on the desk of Dirk Geilenkeuser, who saw potential in Carcassonne.  The publisher asked for the prototype of the game, testing it in Germany and in the United States before HiG agreed to publish it in May 2000.  The game then entered development, with HiG hurrying to have it ready by October.  

Doris Matthäus did the game’s artwork, but it was Bernd Brunnhofer (founder of of Hans im Glück and designer of St. Petersburg) that gave the game its most iconic feature: the meeple.  Wooden figurines representing people weren’t new to boardgaming, but Carcassonne was the first game to use the shape of the modern meeple.  One account of the history of meeples attributes the word itself to gamer Alison Hansel, who used the term when playing Carcassonne in November 2000 as a portmanteau of “my people.”  

The game went viral shortly after its release.  It won the Spiel des Jahres in 2001, a strong year that featured nominees or recommendations from Reiner Knizia, Alan Moon, and Uwe Rosenberg, among others.  After the relative complexity of Tikal and Torres, the jury veered towards a lighter game, praising the simple yet tactical gameplay of Carcassonne.  The game won the Deutscher Spiele Preis that year, and it received a nomination for the Gamers’ Choice Award (which would become the International Gamers Award), ultimately losing to The Princes of Florence.

Carcassonne and its expansions have sold more than ten million copies, making it the third bestselling SdJ winner (behind Rummikub and Catan, respectively).  It has received dozens of expansions and mini-expansions, as well as a few spin off games: too many to recount here.  Wrede still designs the expansions himself, although the Carcassonne fanbase has had input on some of the expansions, most notably “Burgen in Deutschland.”  There are also several fan expansions available around the internet.  I asked Klaus-Jürgen Wrede what his favorite expansion was, and he said it was the dragon from The Princess and the Dragon.  

Wrede has gone on to design other games, most notably The Downfall of Pompeii (2004), Mesopotamia (2005), and Rapa Nui (2011).  The book he was researching when he visited the south of France was released this year: it is called “Das Geheimnis des Genter Altars” (“The Secrets of the Ghent Altarpiece”).

Carcassonne — and its many, many expansions and spinoffs — are still in print today.  The game has been released in more than 27 languages.  Carcassonne received a fresh coat of paint late last year, with minor changes occurring to the cover and the tile artwork.  

The game received an iOS edition in 2010, and to date there have been more than 3.2 million online games played.  

There are a few great Carcassonne resources around the web.  The website Carcassonne Central is dedicated to this game and has an active forum.  Brettspillguiden did a nice interview with Wrede a few years ago.  And BGG has a nice list of expansions in the main Carcassonne entry.

[A big thanks toKlaus-Jürgen Wrede for agreeing to answer my questions on the history of Carcassonne.  Without his participation the above history wouldn’t have been nearly as comprehensive.  I also owe thanks to the forums at Carcassonne Central.]

The Gameplay: Tile placement… plus meeples…

Carcassonne is played with 72 tiles.  Players place the starting tile (which has a different back) in the middle of the table and shuffle the remaining tiles, forming face down draw piles.  Each player takes eight meeples of their chosen color, and the score track is set out.  The game begins.

On a player’s turn he must first take and place a land tile.  He shows it to other players, who can advise him on the “best “placement of the tile.  The tile must be placed with one edge abutting one previously placed tile, and the tile must be placed so that all field, city, and road segments match any abutting tiles.  

Carcassonne Tiles

In the rare instance where a tile cannot be placed, it is discarded and the player draws a different tile to place.

The player may then deploy one of his followers (i.e. meeples).  He can only play one on a turn, and it must come from his supply.  The meeple can only be deployed to the tile he just played.  The meeple will be deployed in one of the following roles:

  • As a knight in a city.  The meeple will be returned once the city is complete, i.e. there are no gaps in the wall.  At that point, the player scores two points for each tile in the city, plus each pennant in the city earns two points.  (Each tile and pennant is only worth 1 point at the end of the game on uncompleted cities.)  
  • As a thief on a road segment.  The meeple will be returned once the road is complete, i.e. when both ends connect to a crossing, a city segment, or a cloister, or when the roads forms a complete loop.  At that point the player scores one point for each tile on the road.  (Each is only worth 1 point at the end of the game on uncompleted roads.)  (Players may place meeples on structures completed that turn, scoring the points.  This seems to happen often with roads.)
  • In a cloisters as a monk.  The meeple will be returned once the cloisters is surrounded, i.e. once eight other tiles are around it on all sides.  A completed cloisters is worth 9 points.  (At the end of the game, a cloisters is worth one point for the cloisters tile itself plus one point for each abutted tile.)
  • As a farmer in a field.  The meeple will not be returned.  At the end of the game, each farmer earns four points for each city it supplies, regardless of the size of the city.  A city is supplied by a field as long as the field touches it uninterrupted by roads, other cities, and the area where the tiles have not been played.  (Note that there have been different mechanisms for scoring the farmers over the years.)

A meeple cannot be deployed on a field, city, or road if that segment connects to a segment on another tile (no matter how far away) that already has a meeple on it, including his own meeples.  However, through clever tile placement, more than one meeple can end up on these spaces when they are completed or at the end of the game.  In which case, the player with the most meeples earns the victory points; in the event of a tie, the players share the points.

Players must carefully manage their meeple supply: they only get eight.  Placing too many farmers — or getting meeples trapped in hard-to-complete cities, roads, or cloisters — can mean missing out on valuable point opportunities.  

The game ends when the last land tile is placed.  The player with the most points wins.  

Does it stand the test of time?  My thoughts on the game…

I was walking through a Barnes and Noble a few years ago when I noticed that they had a board game section.  I had recently gotten into gaming, and thanks to a series of events over the previous several years, I had become familiar with the SdJ award.  I noticed that Carcassonne had the SdJ logo on the box, so I bought a copy and took it home to try it out.  I liked it, and so did the people I played with, but none of us were passionate about it like we were with Catan or Ticket to Ride.  My fondness for Carcassonne has grown over time, but in contrast to many in the hobby, I’ve always found it to be a bit dry.

Carcassonne does have a lot to love, and it is an ideal gateway game.  The game is easy to learn — despite some of the wonkiness with farmer scoring — and new players tend to pick up the basics with ease.  Experienced players have an advantage and will usually win, as for most players managing their supply of meeples comes only after two or three games.  Nonetheless, Carcassonne is still approachable, and new players seem to enjoy it.

The artwork is beautiful, and like many tile placement games, the end result can be eye popping.  Doris Matthäus once again did a great job, taking the artwork to the next level.  I always feel like a landscaping is developing in front of my eyes.  The meeples are, of course, iconic.

My game group and I had never really played Carcassonne aggressively until about a year ago.  On hearing my complaint that I found the game dry, a friend said the game was best when played in a cutthroat manner.  I’ve tried it that way, and it does make it a bit more entertaining, but I still find the game dry overall.  I like a little randomness in my games, but Carcassonne has always seemed to be a bit too much on the luck side for my taste.  For my tile placement fix I now turn to Cacao, which I find to be a bit more strategic with more interesting decisions.  

I’ve tried a few of the expansions, and some of them have added some clever elements, but none of them stand out to me as warranting “must have” status.  My favorite is probably Inns and Cathedrals.  Also worth mentioning: the iOS version of the game is extremely well produced, with a decent AI.  It is one of the few iOS games I prefer to the actual board game.  

Would Carcassonne win the Spiel des Jahres today?  I think the answer is yes.  I’d pit Carcassonne favorably against most of the recent SdJ winners, let alone against many of the recent SdJ nominees.  The game and its expansions have sold ten million copies, and it is easy to see why: the game is family-friendly, easy-to-learn, well-presented, and fun to play.  This one will be played decades from now: Carcassonne is a modern classic.

Thoughts from Other Opinionated Gamers

Patrick Brennan: 50+ plays. Very elegant in its simplicity. Pick up a tile, play a tile, score if you’ve completed an element you started earlier, place a meeple on one of the elements you’ve just placed to potentially score later. The key to its success is the claim now, score later feature – in most tile-laying games you score with the playing of the tile itself. Combine that with offering people different elements to claim on each tile to offer choice, with fast turns, and the game has broad appeal. While it doesn’t come out as often as it used to, it’s still a quality game I enjoy. The base game is moving closer to filler territory after this many games where everyone can play fast. I’ve played nearly all the expansions, and in truth, I can give or take all of them … none of them stand out to me as essential. They add some variety, but invariably also add unneeded length to the game, as well as additional rules complexity that delays us launching in while we remind ourselves of what this variant (of the 3237 published) does.

Jeff Allers: This is the game that started it all for me, even though I had moved to Germany just before “the year of Catan.” It was Carcassonne that introduced me to a “different type of game” and opened the door to me to become a designer. Sentimentality aside, it’s still a game I will always be willing to play and teach, and I do not see that ever changing.

Greg Schloesser:  Carcassonne was released in the same year as two other “C” games:  Corsair and Cartagena.  At the time I felt Cartagena would prove the most popular.  Wrong again.  Carcassonne is a very good introductory game that is easy for folks to learn, play and perform well.  I think a few of its offshoots are more appropriate for gamers, but I still enjoy playing.  

Joe Huber (64 plays): Carcassonne was fading badly for me about five years back – I still owned a copy, but no longer had one at work, and was on the verge of letting it go.  But two things saved it.  First, I got rid of all of the expansions – I now play the game only as it was originally released.  And – the game is much better for it; for me, the expansions had a strong tendency to add to the length of the game without making it more interesting – or any better for gamers.  The other factor that saved the game for me is the iOS app, which has allowed me to play the game more (in addition to playing the physical boardgame more often).

Mary Prasad: It’s a great gateway game. I have recommended it to many people (and even bought copies for family members). The travel version is so cute, I had to have it. I enjoy some of the expansions and variants as well (although definitely not all of them). The iOS app is well done.

Matt Carlson:  It was one of my early purchases and I played it often, although it didn’t hit the table as much as Settlers.  I gravitate towards games where I can create something of “mine” rather than trying to stake something out on a communal board – something that might encourage a bit of blocking/picking on a leader.  I consider it a great gateway game but rarely take it out as it is further down the list.  By the time I’ve gone through the gateway games I prefer, a typical gamer will be experienced enough for me to bring out something deeper.  It is time for me to bring this out for my boys to play, and hope to get a new series of enjoyment out of it.  My one complaint is the strange debate over “Farmer Scoring”.  Apparently there are two ways to score them, and I never remember which is considered the better or original way.  (Of note, for a long time, the iOS version was considered the best of any boardgame ported over to the system.)

Dan Blum:While I don’t want to play this all the time, I still enjoy it and it does come regularly when playing with my non-hardcode-gamer friends. We generally play with just the first two expansions and the Phantom; none of the others I’ve tried have really been worth the extra complexity and some actually detracted from the game. I also haven’t been too impressed by any of the spin-off games except The Castle, which I prefer to the original when playing with two; some of the others are fine, but I like the original better.

In addition to being a good game, Carcassonne is an excellent example of what good developers can do for a game. I played a prototype of this in April 2000 – if development started in May as stated above, this was presumably Wrede’s original design. It had many of the features of the final version but not all; in particular it lacked the key rule that a meeple can’t be placed on a feature where a meeple is already standing. The game is not nearly as good without this rule and there is no way the original version would have won SdJ or had such staying power.

Larry:  I was shocked when I found out that Carcassonne had won the SdJ back in 2001.  But keep in mind that we had just gone through a 6-year stretch of rewarding heavier games and I just assumed it would go on forever.  I was not happy about this turn toward lighter games and it would have been easy to take out my resentment on the poster child for this movement.  And, in fact, I’ve never cared for playing Carc in multiplayer mode (particularly with 4 or more).  It moves too slowly for such a light game and the level of control lessens with each added player.  However, I do like the game with 2.  Specifically, it was a very good game for my wife and myself and we tended to play it in a fairly cutthroat fashion (it helps that we always used the original farmer rules).  It’s also easy to teach and Doris’ artwork was excellent (I like it far more than that of any of the newer versions).  There’s no question this is a great gateway game, so since there is a version of this I enjoy playing, I’m happy to give it a thumbs up rating.

Fraser: (many plays over the years).  The base game (in fact the two base games if you count Hunters and Gatherers) are still staple reliable gateway type games.  When we ran games nights at our primary school, a lot of families had Carcassonne although they did not really identify as gamers.  With Carcassonne, you can play it without any expansions, personally I would consider the first expansion mandatory, but I am happy to ignore all the other expansions even the ones that are good, just to keep the simplicity of the game.  The changing of the farmer scoring rules over the years is a tad annoying to the extent that our house rule is “Use the farmer scoring rules that are in the box of the set we are playing” which came about when we had two RGG sets at a games day and they had different scoring rules :shake:

Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers

  • I love it!  Jeff A., Joe H., John P
  • I like it.  Chris W., Patrick B., Erik Arneson, Greg Schloesser, Mary Prasad, Matt C., Larry, Fraser
  • Neutral.  Nathan Beeler
  • Not for me…
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