Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Big Game Hunting - Gateway Games: Carcassonne

Easy to learn, hard to master: this is a goal many games hope to achieve, but few ever do. Carcassonne is one of those few that has succeeded. This tile-based board game, published in 2000, is an addictive experience (as I've discovered, having hardly been able to put it down over the last few weeks).

The game begins with a single face-up tile. Players take turns drawing from a pile of face-down tiles and connecting the tile they've drawn to those already played, forming the board one piece at a time. The edges of the tile must match the edges of those it touches: roads connect to roads, cities to cities, fields to fields. When you play a tile, you may choose to put a meeple on it. A "meeple" is a playing piece that is used to score points, and each player begins with seven. Meeples can be placed on cities, roads, fields, or cloisters - but you must complete it before you score any points and get your meeples back. You also cannot place a meeple on an element that has already been claimed in an adjacent tile. The larger the city, road, or field is, the more points you get. The game ends when the last tile is placed, and everything that was not completed is scored (for less points than if they were completed). The player with the most points wins.

What makes this game so brilliant is the fine balance between chance and skill. A good strategy will serve you well, particularly if you are very careful with your tile and meeple placement. However, the success of that strategy is dependent on the tiles you draw, as well as those drawn by the other players, and your ability to adapt to how the board is built. Being able to shift game elements to your advantage, including unlucky tile draws and your opponents' less than useful tile placements, is key to winning the game.

As one can imagine, this game can become fiercely competitive. Players may often try to "steal" points from another player, by placing tiles in a way that connects an element claimed by two or more meeples. Points from cities, fields, and roads go to the player with the most meeples on it. An equal number of meeples means both players get the points. This can be a way to get yourself out of a sticky situation where you are lacking in points and options, and your opponent has a rather large, uncompleted city or road that can be stolen from another angle.

The only issues to be had with this game are not unexpected. Scoring can be tricky at times, especially when one is trying to count up fields, which are only scored at the end of the game. This is made more difficult when it's discovered there are actually three different methods of scoring (though thankfully the earliest two are no longer used, making current games more consistent). Placing meeples on fields to the best advantage is a technique that seems to require several games of practise to fully understand. Also, the physical game requires a large amount of space, as the board can grow to quite large and unusual shapes.

This is where the digital version of this game comes into its own. This edition solves the main issues with the physical version. Scoring is done for you, so you have more time playing and less time counting. A breakdown of all the tiles remaining in the draw pile can be found, so you can see straight away if the tile you want is still waiting to be played. It also lets you know if there are any tiles that can still be played on a particular space - if no suitable tiles remain, an "X" is marked on that spot of the board. Also notable about this edition is the AI of the computer players. You can play against several styles of computer players - easy, hard, weird, even evil - and they are surprisingly good players. Even playing as many games as I have, I still find it difficult to defeat the AI for this game at times.

Carcassonne and its many expansions are fantastic - true classics of the board game genre - and should be in everyone's game library. The digital version is available for iPhone, Android, and online play.

For more from guest blogger Rae, please check out her website

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