Carcassonne is a German-designed game that came out in 2000, winning the prestigious Spiel des Jahres (Game of the Year) in 2001. On the surface it appears to be a simple game about building the medieval city and its surroundings by laying tiles and placing small wooden people to score points. However, once you play it a few times, you realise that it is a more thoughtful and strategic game.
At the beginning of the game, all the tiles are placed in a face-down stack and each player is given a number of coloured wooden pieces (called ‘followers’ in the game rules and ‘meeples’ by board game enthusiasts). These iconic figures make an appearance in a number of European-style games. A starting tile is placed in the middle of the playing area. On their turn, each player takes one tile from the stack and adds it to the growing layout of tiles. Where the edges touch, they must match with neighbouring tiles. The tile layout doesn’t have to be a perfect grid (and often isn’t) but each tile must touch at least one other. The matching tiles start to develop into recognisable features - city walls start to enclose a city area, cloisters appear in the countryside and roads meander across the land, connecting some of the other features. It is these growing features that are the key to scoring.
Once a player has placed a tile they then have the option of putting one of their meeples onto the same tile. It is placed on one feature of the tile – in a city (knight), in a cloister (monk), or on a road (robber). A meeple can also be placed on the surrounding land (farmer) – this will be discussed later. Once a meeple has been placed, it stays there until the feature it has claimed is finished. A city is completed when its walls fully enclose an area. A road is completed when it has two ‘ends’ – either another feature or a road junction. A cloister is completed when it has eight surrounding tiles. As soon as a feature is completed its value is added to the scoring table and the meeple is returned to its owner to be re-used.
Farmers are slightly different. They are placed lying down to show that they remain in place until the end of the game. Only then are they scored, based on the number of cities they can reach (and supply with food). Some beginner players find farmers difficult to play and score, so they avoid using them in their first games.
What makes Carcassonne interesting as a game and starts to introduce some strategy are some of the rules subtleties.
Place-and-Take – if you place a tile that completes a feature that no-one else has yet claimed, you can place a meeple on the tile, score the feature and immediately return the meeple to your supply. This is particularly effective with two-tile cities (shaped like a rugby ball) and two-tile roads (usually just two road junction tiles).
Unfinished Cities - which only score half-points at the end of the game. If one player is building a large and potentially valuable city, it is possible to attempt to block them from finishing it by placing a tile that enclosed the space required for the last tile needed to finish the city. Thus the finishing tile must match all four edges touching it. With luck, this will require an ‘impossible’ tile i.e. one that doesn’t exist in the game or has already been played, or an ‘unlikely’ tile – one that the city-builder has a low chance of drawing.
Joining a Feature – you cannot normally join a feature started by another player directly, but you can do so indirectly, by connecting two incomplete features. The rules state that you can’t add a tile to another player’s feature and then place you meeple on that tile – the feature is already claimed. However you can start your own feature nearby – usually one tile away, and then join the features on a later turn by placing a connecting tiles. This is particularly appropriate for cities. When this happens, scoring is shared. In a two player-game, this will effectively neutralise the feature and with more players, both players share the score and any others miss out.
Taking Over a Feature – similar to join a feature, but if you can do this twice and have two of your meeples on the feature, you win the full score. This is particularly effective with farmers who can earn a large score at the end of the game, and the open spaces they inhabit make take-overs easy to perform.
Carcassonne is a pure strategy game like chess, but also it is a game of luck depending on which tiles you draw, and that’s where the thought comes in.
Always keep a meeple on hand. Try not to place them all as you may need one for a take-and-place (see above).
Making the best of the tiles you draw. Always look for the best scoring possibility. Having said that, it is polite not to over-agonise on this point and annoy other players who are waiting for their turn.
Try not to concentrate on one feature at a time, as the tiles come out fairly randomly. Spread your interests and keep several half-finished, different features on the go.
Make each tile placement count; preferably twice. You might be adding a simple road, but can you add to a road that also helps to surround a cloister? That is making it count twice.
Farmers can be very effective and often win the game. Timing is important. It can take a while for the overall layout of the tiles to emerge and the best farming opportunities to become clear. Place too early and other players may attempt to block your farmer. Leave it too late and someone else may claim the space.