The joyful starling song, the rustling of leaves in the trees, the gentle sounds of the babbling brook, were all but rendered silent by banging and hammering as Meeples took to the french countryside and paved over the lot of it!
Let’s have a quick look at how the game plays and then we’ll get to my thoughts.
A Quick Overview
Carcassonne is like a co-operative jigsaw puzzle that the players are building together, but, it is also a cutthroat race for points as you complete features on the board.
On their turn a player must take a tile and place it orthogonally adjacent to another tile on the board. The tile they place must match each tile it is placed next to, cities must match cities, roads must match roads, fields must match fields.
Then they play a follower from their supply onto any feature on the tile they played as long as there are no other followers already on that feature.
Then they score any features completed by the tile they placed and the followers on the completed feature are returned to their owner(s).
The game is played until the last tile is placed at which point the players tally up their incomplete features and score fields and the player with the most points is declared the winner.
Fields & Farmers
One of the least understood rules in Carcassonne is Farmers and their Fields. In the most recent edition of the game Farmers have been moved out of the core rules however I have always taught the game with them in. Farmers cause issue because they work differently to other followers, they are only scored at the end of the game. Farmers can score huge numbers of points so ignoring them is bad for new players, they will likely lose.
Using Farmers properly requires an understanding of the game and the tactics of what I call “Sneaking” which may be beyond most groups on their first play, so playing without Farmers may well prove a better teaching strategy, but it could also cause the game to be less well received as it will be a bit “dumbed down”.
Carcassonne can be played very friendly as you all work to build a pretty picture on the table, each player working on their own cities and roads. However, that is not how it is meant to be played. It is a cutthroat game of stealing other players points, preferably after they did all the work. Because you can’t just put a follower into someone else's feature directly, you must Sneak it in. Doing this requires you to build a feature for yourself close by and then join it on to another player’s feature. If you do so in a way where you have an equal number of followers in the Feature you will share the points, but if you can do it in such a way that you have more Followers you steal all the points for yourself.
Another mean but valid tactic is trapping. Say another player, let’s call him Dave has moved in on your territory and stolen a rather large city you were constructing, using 3 of his followers, well you can get your own back. You can trap or pin his Followers in that city by playing a tile to make the city difficult or impossible to complete. In this manner you might trap one of your own followers but you trap 3 of Dave's and that son of a... I digress.
Denying your opponents the ability to bring back their followers directly affects their ability to claim features and thus their ability to score points.
Why Choose It?
As with Settlers I chose Carcassonne for this session specifically because it is a classic but more importantly Carcassonne introduced my little group to the idea of Area Control and Tile Laying, two concepts which would be useful going forward.
Did They Like It?
This is one of those games where no one gave any opinions either way. It was the filling of the Game Night sandwich, being played after Settlers but before Ticket to Ride. I enjoyed the game but as for my players I couldn’t tell one way or the other.
Carcassonne is a tricky one to teach to new players, there is a lot of strategy and tactics and new players could fall foul of seemingly bad draws. If you are teaching the game with Farmers there's that whole minefield too.
Here’s the thing… I’ve played a lot of Carcassonne over the years and with this game I did not hold back, I shared and stole my way into the lead and I did it with a song in my heart and a glint in my eye. But I made no secret of my dominance and one by one my friends began to cling limpet like to my limbs, shutting down avenue after avenue of scoring opportunities until it was like running in treacle.
I love Carcassonne, I love the simplicity of placing a tile so it matches and creates a pretty picture on the table. But I also love how all of that cuteness and simplicity is undercut by a vicious edge of tactics and strategy. I love how mean it is, how you can sidle up to another player and take what is theirs while they watch impotently with their meeples trapped in an uncompletable city half the board away.
I wanted my friends to feel that same way about Carcassonne, but I was expecting way too much from a single play. My deep love of everything Carcassonne has been cultivated over nearly one hundred plays, it was way too much pressure on a game where Steve had yet to grasp the intricacies of Farmers and Cloisters, Thieves and Knights.
Perhaps next time I’ll relax, I’ll build a tower of meeples and knock it down with the dragon (oh yes, this game has dragons… shhhh!) but instead of trying to convince my friends to love what I love, I’ll let them discover the wonder of Carcassonne for themselves, in time.
Carcassonne has stood the test of time as a gateway experience for good reason. It has the required simplicity, coupled with the cutesy art, the concept of collectively building something and a deep sublevel of tactics which only become apparent through multiple plays. Infinitely expandable and different every time Carcassonne will forever remain in my collection.