REVIEW | Carcassonne

Photo of the Medieval French City of Carcassonne.
Carcassonne – A Real World Medieval French City

When I first started getting into board games, I stumbled across Carcassonne. It seemed to be one of those key games to try and I just had to give it ago. Now it’s one of my go-to games.

In Carcassonne, players take turns placing tiles to create a medieval landscape inspired by the fortified French city that gives the game its name. You become competing creators and architects in a bid to build a mosaic of Cities, Roads, Fields and Monasteries. And with the endless ways that tiles can be drawn and placed, no two Carcassonne landscapes will ever be the same.

Off the box

  • Players: 2-5
  • Ages: 7 years and up
  • Playtime:  35 minutes
  • Designer: Klaus-Jürgen Wrede
  • Publisher: ZMAN Games [Although in the past there’s been numerous other publishers of the game, such as Rio Grande Games]
  • Key game mechanics:  Tile Laying and Area Control

How do you play?

Carcassonne’s gameplay is centred around two core actions:

  1. Pick up a new tile.
  2. Place the new tile in the location of your choice, ensuring that:
    • It creates a consistent and continuous landscape with the other tiles in play.
    • At least 1 edge of the tile is adjacent to a tile that has already been played.

Players choose their new tile from a shuffled stack of facedown tiles at start of their turn. By picking and placing the tiles, you gradually build a landscape of Cities, Roads, Monasteries and Fields.

Carcassonne - Tiles without Meeples

However, tile-laying is just the start. To win Carcassonne you need to score the most victory points, and you score these points by placing meeples on the board. If you’ve never come across meeples before, they’re the player pieces used in Carcasonne that have become an iconic symbol in tabletop gaming.

Carcassonne - Tiles with Meeples
Meeples everywhere!

By placing your meeples on different features, they become Highwaymen (on Roads), Monks (on Monasteries), Knights (in Cities) and Farmers (in Fields).

Carcassonne - Farmer (yellow), Highwayman (red), Knight (green), and Monk (blue)
The different meeple workers: Farmer (yellow), Highwayman (red), Knight (green), and Monk (blue)

When you place a tile, you need to decide whether to put one of your meeples onto that tile. You can only place one meeple at a time, only on the tile that you have just placed, and only if there are no other meeples already on that feature. However, it’s possible to start a separate City, Road or Farm that then joins up with other features containing meeples!

The final step of your turn is to score any victory points from any features that have been completed as a result of you placing your tile. Any completed feature populated by a meeple is scored. This means that if the tile ends a Road, or completely surrounds a Monastery, or closes off a City, then points are awarded to the residing meeples. The amount of points awarded is dependent on the type of feature.

Feature In Game Scoring
Roads: Highwaymen Each tile in a completed Road: 1 Point
Cities: Knights Each tile in a completed City:  2 Points

Where a City tile has a coat of arms (completed City): Additional 2 Points

Monasteries: Monks A completed Monastery: 9 Points

When a Monastery is surrounded by 8 tiles it is completed.

Field: Farmers A Farmer doesn’t score until the end of the game!

When a completed feature is scored, the residing meeple is returned to the player’s hand, ready to be placed on a new tile. The player with the most meeples on a feature is the only player to score the point – if multiple players have the same number of meeples, they all score the full points.

Farmers are the only meeples that aren’t scored until the very end of the game, even if the Field is completed.

The game ends when all the tiles have been played. Any meeples left on Fields and any meeples on incomplete features are scored. NOTE: The final end game scoring differs to completed features.

Feature End Game Scoring
Roads: Highwaymen Each tile in an uncompleted Road: 1 Point
Cities: Knights Each tile in an uncompleted City:  1 Point

Where a City tile has a coat of arms (uncompleted City): Additional 1 Point

Monasteries: Monks An uncompleted Monastery: 1 Point per tile surrounding the Monastery plus 1 Point for the Monastery tile itself.
Field: Farmers Each Field: 3 Points for each adjacent City.

A Field spans a number of tiles until it stops at roads, cities and the river.

How complex is it?

From my experience, Carcassonne is a great gateway game that everyone enjoys! Initially, the game scoring can seem a little bit daunting, but it soon becomes second nature after a couple of games. I’ve played Carcassonne with a lot of my wider family who aren’t heavy gamers; they all enjoy it and we always end up playing two or three games in a row. But be careful…it only takes a couple of games before they pick up the basics and all the family tactics come out! If you’re like me, you’ll soon be left in the dust as they race past you on the scoreboard.

When you play Carcassonne for the first time, I strongly recommend following the advice in the instruction book and playing without Farmers until you get the hang of the game. Fields are much more expansive and trying to figure out whether Fields are connected when you’re placing and scoring can be a bit tricky, which could detract from your enjoyment of the game if you’re learning or playing with beginners. To be honest, I still prefer to play without the Farmers to keep it a lighter game, particularly with non-gamers like the previously mentioned family.

Do you need to be good at strategy to win?

Don’t let Carcassonne fool you with its simple mechanic and approachable gameplay – there’s plenty of opportunity to add strategy to the game. You may decide to focus on completing an enormous city, monopolising farmland or ‘stealing’ points from other players by joining their features. You’re likely to develop a favoured style and strategy when you play Carcassonne, but it’s important to be flexible: different opponents and the random tiles you draw may mean you have to adapt your game plan! Overall, I think Carcassonne is a good combination of strategy and luck, and can be as ‘heavy’ as you want to make it, which is what makes it such a versatile game to play with different people.

Warning! You only have 7 meeples, so place your meeples wisely! You need to find the right balance between getting your meeples on the table and having meeples in your supply, ready to be placed when the perfect opportunity arises…but always remember: a meeple that is never placed, never scores!

How many other players do I need to have a good game?

We’ve all bought a game that’s advertised as being playable with a ranging group size, only to find that said game is much better at one end of the scale than the other. This isn’t true of Carcassonne – it’s just as good with 2 players as it is with 5. Another big positive for me is that Carcassonne doesn’t involve any player elimination, so nobody is knocked out and forced to sit and watch everyone else play until the very end. Also, you usually never know who is truly winning until the end game scoring, which keeps all the players invested as they’re all in with a chance of winning.

What do you think of the game components?

What’s not to like? ZMAN games have refreshed the tile illustrations, but remained faithful to the previous versions of the game. I really like the artwork – the style of monasteries, castles and even the little field details like farm buildings and gardens are true to the medieval theme of the game.

I was also impressed with the effort that had gone into the box design and insert – something I feel can be overlooked by many game developers. The insert is perfectly designed, with one space to for the game tiles and another area for the meeples, all covered with the same illustrative designs as the game tiles.

Carcassonne Box and Inlay

The game components are physically well made. The landscape tiles are robust and made of sturdy card. The meeples are wooden with a usual choice of colours, but if you’re not happy with the choice there are many third party designs available online. The game also comes with a separate scoreboard made of the same material as the tiles (as well as an additional meeple in each colour to move along the scoreboard), and is covered in complementary illustrations.

In addition to the basic game components listed above, the ZMAN version of Carcassonne comes with two mini expansions as standard: The River and The Abbot. The quality of these components is the same as the other tiles and player pieces in the standard game.

How replayable do you think this game is?

Each time you play Carcassonne it will be different – tiles will never be drawn in exactly the same order and tiles will never be played in exactly the same place. This means that each game can be different, even though the actions that you take will remain very similar. This keeps the game fresh and exciting. As I said above, ZMAN games have included two mini expansions as standard to the Carcassonne base game: The River and The Abbot. This means that you can start to introduce game variations as soon as you are ready for a new challenge without needing to invest in more expansions. We started using the river tiles pretty early on, and now we would rarely play Carcassonne without them.

Not to mention there are a handful of other expansions you can get to spice things up, including:

  • Expansion #1 Inns and Cathedrals
  • #2 Traders and Builders
  • #3 Princess and the Dragon.

Each expansion changes the game in different ways. In the Inns and Cathedrals expansion, players expand on the medieval landscape of the base game with additional land tiles and the ability to place new building types (Inns and Cathedrals, hence the name!), which offer new scoring opportunities. Inns and Cathedrals also has the added advantage of adding an additional player to the game; for this reason alone, I can see myself investing in this expansion in the future.

There is also a number of standalone Carcassonne titles that employ the basic mechanics of the original game, but with their own unique twist. The newest of these include:

  • Carcassonne: Amazonas
  • Carcassonne: Gold Rush
  • Carcassonne: South Seas.

If you’re lucky you might also be able to get your hands on Carcassone: Winter Edition, which changes the traditional medieval landscape into a winter wonderland. But as this edition isn’t currently listed on ZMAN’s website, it might not be as easy to come across.

When would you play this game?

Carcassonne is very easily accessible with a very short learning curve. This enables it to be taught to new friends and family quickly and painlessly, making it a great bring-along to any gathering. Due to its relatively quick playtime, we’ve found that bringing out Carcassonne during a games night (or games day!) after playing a more intense or complex game is an excellent gear change that allows us to re-group before tackling another long game.

The simple game components and next-to-no set-up mean that Carcassonne is also great for taking to the pub or playing outside whilst camping or having BBQ. (Something that isn’t possible with bigger games that use more components and can be more easily disrupted by wind, e.g. Dead of Winter).

Is it good value for money?

Yes! You should be able to pick up a copy of Carcassonne for around £25. It’s well worth the money as Carcassonne has proven popular with my gamer and non-gamer friends/family. Despite it’s simplicity, it gets much more play time than some of the other games on our shelf.

Carcassonne really is one of our go-to games and rarely stays on the shelf long enough to gather any dust!

TL;DR

  • Simple yet extremely effective game play
  • Great with any number of players
  • No player elimination, keeping all players involved right to the end!
  • Easily approachable for new players, with enough opportunities for strategy to keep more experienced playing it again and again.

Final Verdict: Buy It

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