Teaching Time: 5 mins
Playing Time: 30-45 mins
Setup Time: 1 mins
Value For Money: Mid
Reviewing Spiel Des Jahres is a strange beast, it splits between reviewing things like Focus and Fair Means or Foul where it’s a reasonable bet that people actually haven’t played or heard of them and sometimes reviewing a Ticket to Ride or Codenames where the idea of someone interested in reading my reviews but not having heard of them is a little insane. Carcassonne falls very much into the second category, but it’s a great game and I’m working my way through the Spiel Des Jahres so its getting its review.
Gameplay is a combination of tile laying and worker placement. Players take turns pulling a square tile from a bag and laying it on the table, connecting with other tiles already in play. Tiles are marked with walled cities, roads, fields and monasteries, when they are laid players may place workers on unoccupied features. When completed features score players with workers on them points, at which point the workers can be reclaimed, but at no other point may they be reclaimed. Committing workers only to features that are soon to be completed and scored to reclaim workers until the endgame while keeping tile laying options open form the core of the tactics of the game.
Carcassonne is a modern gateway gaming giant and a classic in the field. It has a massive range of expansions at this point allowing players to do everything from placing princesses and dragons around their kingdoms to flicking pieces at each other with a wooden catapult. The main reason for its success is the sheer simplicity of its gameplay concept, anyone who understands the idea of a jigsaw can grasp the concepts of Carcassonne, but beyond that simplicity lie multiple choices. A simple piece with a road running through a field on it offers players the choice between a generally quick but low scoring bandit or two separate fields offering options for the much higher scoring farmers, but who only score at the end of game. This offers instant careful decisions about how much longer the game will go on for or where other competing farmers are placed.
Particularly interesting in Carcassonne is its player interaction. There is no direct conflict in the game (at least without expansions, and even then, its pretty light conflict) and yet it is an extremely cut throat and vicious games when played by experienced competitors. This is thanks to two simple facts, the first is that elements only score for the player with the most workers on them, but secondary workers cannot be placed on features, meaning that only by connecting together features can you steal points directly from your enemy. Watching the arm of a field with two enemy workers in it snake towards your high scoring single worker field can be a slow and cruel death. The second fact is that tiles can only be placed if all of their edges match the tiles touching them, so by unkind placement of other tiles players can put their enemies into horrible positions with workers trapped in cities that will never be completed or monasteries doomed to remain partial. Any modern game worried both about mutli-player solitaire and unbalancing interactions (and they’re worth worrying about) would do well to examine Carcassonne.
Its not the deepest game in the world and the core tactics are generally mastered within a few playthroughs. Despite this it remains a perennial favourite for much the same reason that jigsaws remain popular even without tactics being involved. You might know, in theory, the right way to place the next tile, but that does not preclude mistakes of spotting its location.
As a Spiel Des Jahres winner, it makes total sense. I often say that SDJs must be gateway Eurogames, and then need to have a mix of innovative or definitive mechanics and solid and unique table presence. Carcassonne is certainly a gateway Eurogame, it lacks a unique table presence but it nicely covers both basic tile laying and basic worker placement strategy in a single game, ticking some quick boxes for the SDJ. It doesn’t hit you in the face with its brilliance like some winners, but you know all the way through that you’re playing a smart, elegantly paced game that requires attention without burning your brain overly, as an SDJ winner should be.
As a game, there is no good reason not to own it, if you’re a huge tile laying worker placing fan its expansions let you take it anywhere from a filler game to an evening filler of a game. If you’re not a huge fan this is a great place to start and should please most players most of the time.