Carcassonne: Here Come the Meeples

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My first encounter with Carcassonne was at my sister’s college campus. There were a group of students huddled around what appeared to be some sort of game. What immediately got my attention were the tiny colored mini-people scattered all over the table. And it looked incredibly random. Some were standing up and some were lying down, and there didn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to their placement. It wasn’t until a couple years later, while visiting with a friend, that I finally got the chance to learn how to play.

Game Specifications

Publisher: Z-Man Games
Published: 2000
Suggested Age: 8+
Number of Players: 2-5
Playing Time: 30-45 minutes

Gameplay

In Carcassonne, players will take turns drawing and placing land tiles to collectively form their own version of the southern French town from which this game takes its name. Each turn, players will have the opportunity to place one of their meeples (the little wooden character pieces) on top of the tile. But what’s really important is where you place your meeple, as this will determine how many points you earn over the course of the game.

Players collect points by controlling four different areas: roads, castles, fields, and monasteries. When any given area is completed, the meeple returns to the player and the player scores the appropriate number of points.

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What I find absolutely brilliant about Carcassonne is that it’s both simple and complex at the same time. Every turn consists of only two actions – drawing a land tile and then placing a meeple on top of it. But deciding where you want to place the meeple isn’t always so easy. If you place your meeple on a city or a road, there’s a low risk-reward ratio. You’ll get points and the chance of getting your meeple back (when the city or road is completed). But if you try to claim a field, the risk is much higher. You might score lots of points (based on how many completed castles the field touches), but you won’t get your meeple back for the remainder of the game. This is important to know because you only get seven meeples to work with. If all of them are already placed on tiles, then you won’t have one available to place on your next turn!

The first few times I played this game, they were head-to-head matchups against a friend.  I hadn’t yet figured out the strategy of the game, so I didn’t know it might be advantageous to share a field with another player (and thereby share or even steal points this way). And of course, I was unceremoniously whopped each game.

You see, normally, if someone has already claimed an area, you can’t claim that area. The one exception to this rule is when you place a tile in such a way that connects two unattached areas and adjoins them. Sometimes this happens inadvertently (particularly with fields), and sometimes it’s an intentional strategic move.

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What I Like

It’s easy to teach young players. As I mentioned earlier, this game is so simple! You pick up a tile and then place it and your meeple on the table. I taught this game to a group of kids ages 9-11 at an English summer camp in China and they absolutely loved it. There aren’t a million different choices to make, and once you’ve placed a few of your meeples on the board, it’s pretty obvious what you need to do next.

The gameplay is interactive without being overly aggressive. I love games that require players to interact with one another, and Carcassonne does that very well. Each tile placement has both an immediate and long-term impact on players scores, and so players will be very concerned (and maybe even a little vocal) with where tiles are or are not placed! At the same time, this isn’t the the type of game where you can really hurt other players. Sure, you can make it harder for them to complete a castle, but that’s about the worst you can do to them.

This game is highly replayable. You’ve probably noticed that I say this about a lot of the games I review. Replayability is one of the key things I look for in games, especially if I’m thinking about purchasing the game. And this game does that very well due to its tile-placement game design. Every game will be different based on the tiles players draw and the way they place them and their meeples. Sometimes you’ll have lots of really big castles and other times it’ll be more road-heavy. There are games I’ve played where everyone went for big points and placed all their meeples on fields. Other games people have been more conservative and stuck with just roads, castles, and monasteries.

What I Dislike

Scoring for fields can be a little confusingEven though I’ve taught this game so many times, I keep forgetting how to properly score fields. Apparently, I’m not the only one, as a quick Google search revealed that lots of other players also had problems knowing how to keep track of points for fields. The official rules are also different based on which edition of the game you own.

Solution: Have a look at the Official Carcassonne Rules by Z-Man Games and familiarize yourself (and everyone else playing the game) with the new edition rules for scoring points. It’ll save you a lot of time and grief if you do this before starting the game!

Final Thoughts

Carcassonne is a game that should be a part of any family’s collection. It doesn’t require a whole ton of strategy, making it incredibly accessible to new and young gamers. As advertised, it takes about 30-45 minutes to play, which means you could easily play two games in an evening. It’s also rather satisfying when you’ve completed the game and you can see the crazy little world that you all had a hand in creating. Overall, this game is just a lot of fun and I highly recommend you pick up a copy if you don’t already own it!

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