Sunday, March 9, 2008

carcassonne: the castle

This is my 2nd entry in a series on excellent 2-player boardgames. The first reviewed the Settlers of Catan Card Game, and also touched on some of the fundamental differences between so-called Eurogames and Ameritrash. Carcassonne: the Castle (hereafter, CC) is another popular Eurogame and is very easy to pick up and play when you want to escape reality for a short while.

A glance at the box cover might convince you that this game is about building castles or developing some kind of miniature medieval economy but don't be deceived. CC is very much an abstract puzzle game in which the theme has been pasted on. In fact, there is an entire series of Carcassonne titles, ranging from the original game (designed for 2-5 players) and its many expansions, to Carcassonne: Hunters & Gatherers, Carcassonne: the City, and Carcassonne: the Discovery. The play is similar in each.

Players take turns randomly drawing tiles from a central stockpile. You then place the tile next to previously played tiles, creating the map as the game progresses. In this sense, every game will be unique. Much of the strategy of Carcassonne comes from tile placement. In CC, tiles can be used to build towers, houses, paths, or courts. Each tile usually has several of these features on it, and therefore can be lined up against a variety of tiles already in play. Here's a shot of what the tiles look like:

The most upper-left tile in this picture is made up mostly of tower (the gray brick) but also has house (red tile) in it. The tile in the bottom row to the far right has tower, house, and courtyard. Counter-intuitively, you're allowed to place tiles against one another even if the sides don't completely match. You can place a red house side against a gray tower tile in play, for instance. The one exception to this is that paths do need to match up. As you place tiles, you're trying to build bigger houses/towers/courtyards and longer paths. However, you need to actively claim these spaces by placing a "follower" (meeple) on whatever castle feature you want. You have a limited number of followers, and can only play one per turn.

Scoring is a little tricky. For towers and houses, you score when the entire structure is surrounded by other features. Paths are scored when they form a complete loop or end at a castle wall (you score double if there's a well along your path). Courts aren't scored until the end of the game, when all tiles have been used; whichever player has more followers within a court scores 3 points for each market within the court. Finally, the player with the largest house (called the "keep") scores a big bonus. Yikes. That sounds really complicated - fortunately, it's not and after a couple games, you'll have it mastered.

Here's the final board after the last game that Aili and I played:

(click for larger image)

Note that tiles are placed within a delineated space - a border called the "castle wall." This wall also serves as a score-track, a clever design feature of the game. In general, I love the feel and look of CC. Call me a simpleton, but I really respond to its vibrant colors and small wooden pieces.

So that's Carcassonne: the Castle. You lay tiles to build structures and then try to score them with your meeples. The larger a structure is when completed, the greater the score will be. For example: a house built from 5 different tiles is worth 5 points. Herein lies the great tactical challenge of CC. You are tempted to keep expanding a particular structure - make your tower bigger or path longer - but if you don't complete it by the end of the game, you won't get diddly. This happens more often then you think. So... will you go for the quick score and get 3 points for a short path - 0r take a risk and try to build one that winds through the entire castle and could get you a dozen or more? This dilemma creates the underlying tension of every Carcassonne game and brings you back for more.

Both Aili and I like the game because while there is some strategic depth, there is also a healthy dose of "i have no idea what's going to happen because of this tile i'm playing and i don't care." This creates a casual, non-competitive atmosphere without too much "analysis paralysis." Aili often gives me suggestions of where to place my tiles and then regrets it when I end up kicking her butt!

Games can be completed in around 30 minutes. If I've done a poor job of explaining the rules and strategy, check out this excellent review by Shannon Appelcline at RPGnet.

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