Carcassonne is what you’d call a “friendly game.” O, it’s competitive, all right. You are most definitely trying to get the most points – prevent others, if you can, from getting theirs. But there’s a background of actual cooperation, of genuine, supportive togetherness, which, as much as all the cleverness of the design, the intricacies of strategic implications, the loveliness of illustration, makes this game Major FUN.
It’s connecting game, played with tiles. You take turns picking from the proverbial tile pile, and placing your tile next to another tile already on the table. You have to connect roads to roads and cities to cities and fields to fields, hoping to complete and occupy entire walled cities, roadways and, as near as possible, fields. Fields are very big.
Parts of roads and cities and farms and maybe other things are all found on tiles. Land tiles. 72 of them. Thick cardboard, lovingly illustrated squares, each showing parts of maybe a road, maybe a walled city (looking, uncoincidentally, like the French city of Carcassonne), maybe an entire cloister, all, in all likelihood, including part of a farm.
I say “land tiles” because in the basic set you also get the river expansion, which manifests itself as a collection of 12 river tiles. Not land tiles at all. And in other expansion sets, like:
- Traders & Builders
- The Tower
- The River II
- The Princess & The Dragon
- The Count
- The City
- The Castle
- King & Scout
- Inns & Cathedrals
- Hunters & Gatherers
and, most recently,
you get more tiles and more rules and more interesting wrinkles.
When you pick a tile, you are encouraged to ask other players for advice. As more and more tiles get placed, advice can become increasingly helpful. Though you don’t actually have to accept the advice, and some advice may be not as well-intended as the advisor claims, this sets the tone of the game, and helps differentiate it from the majority of strategy games.
Once you place a tile, you may also elect to place one of your 7 “followers” (wooden, people-like playing pieces) on that piece, claiming your aim to complete something, depending on where you place the piece (on a farm, a city, a road, a cloister). You don’t score, of course, until your follower is on a completed cloister, city, or road. In the process of striving for completion (a consummation devoutly to be wished), it is possible that you might have to share victory with some other player who has also played a follower on a connected, but non-adjacent tile. This is not such a bad thing, this sharing, because your points are in no way diminished by the sharing. You get the points. And so does your erstwhile colleague. So it’s not what you’d call “zero-sum” nor is it even “everybody-gets-some-of-the-sum.” It’s something else. It’s an everybody gets the whole, undivided sum. Which makes cooperating almost rewarding, and certainly not so bad.
The farms are especially interesting. They never get really completed. And they don’t get scored until the game is over. But when they do get scored, they can get a surprisingly large score, because farms also get surprisingly large as the game evolves. On the other hand, when you complete a city or a road or a cloister during the game, you get your follower back to lay claim to something else. But since farms are never actually completed, you don’t get your follower back, ever.
Wrinkle after wrinkle, strategic implication upon strategic implication makes this game interesting, challenging, involving to the very end. And the cooperative, and point-sharing aspects of the game keep it friendly, as in something you are actually playing together.
Designed by Klaus-Jürgen Wrede, Carcassonne is a great game for 2 players, and can be enjoyed by as many as 5. If you don’t get into the particulars, you can teach the game and get everybody involved in maybe 5 minutes. Since it’s so easy to learn, if you’re old enough to play checkers, you’re old enough to play, and to have meaningful fun while you’re at it. Since there are so many complexities and possible goals, the game appeals to anyone who thinks of herself as a “real gamer.” Since there is virtually no set-up – all you need is a flat, empty space – the game is wonderfully portable, and very likely to be something you bring with you wherever there are people with whom you like to play.