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Carcassonne: A Second Look on Game and Player

Carcassonne: A Second Look

Michael Ubaldi  //  December 5, 2007

Not just another turn-based, tile-driven board game.

o the naked eye and jaundiced eye, Carcassonne looks like a repeat attempt of Microsoft's: transposition, for Xbox Live Arcade, of turn-based, family-friendly, strategic board games. Released in late June 2007, it got a pass from me. Tile-driven accounting of roads, lands and livestock? No, thank you — I already had the Live Arcade version of Settlers of Catan. When, three weeks ago, Sierra Online's product was offered on the Marketplace for free, Ed Kirchgessner suggested I write a review. Game and Player's editors played a few rounds two weeks ago; it was my first time, and those prepossessions remained. The game commenced with the laying of tiles. It continued with the laying of tiles. Five minutes in, I spoke up. Will we start playing soon? I asked. Came the reply: Mike, we are playing.

The big payoff: learn to accept
"Oh, you sonuva..." as a compliment.
Carcassonne, its eponym an ancient, walled city in southern France, is what tabletop publisher Rio Grande Games calls a "map-building" game. Players take turns selecting at random a single, four-sided tile — its face a painted section of countryside from bird's-eye view — and placing it in a contiguous match with the illustrated geography of tiles already laid. The resulting mosaic describes roads, road crossings, cities, fields and monasteries. Each is valuable once a completed circuit: roads must begin and end somewhere, cities must have a perimeter, monasteries must be surrounded by eight tiles. Players earn points for completion by committing one of seven figures, or "followers," to an undertaking. Placed on a city tile, the follower is a knight; on a road, a thief; in a monastery, a monk; and on the pasture, a farmer. When tiles run out, the game is over; following a tally, the highest-scoring player wins.

Simple enough. But the tiles' order of play is unpredictable; and thanks to the ingenuity of creator Klaus-Jurgen Wrede, there are almost always several choices for placement. Carcassonne's board assembles differently every time. Influenced by both strategies and the dumb luck of terrain, it might be packed tightly in a kind of medieval build-out, or splayed with inchoate constructions. Players, contributing to the same board, can with fitly placed tiles and followers reap from opponents' work, keeping scores even. Or, making use of the relative abundance or rarity of tiles, they can occlude an unfinished city or road and deny its full worth, maintaining a lead.

Things left undone are scored after the drawing of the last tile but under certain penalties, and completions allow players to assign their followers elsewhere, so Carcassonne encourages ambition — inspiring different styles of building. One may cautiously build small, two-tile cities or short roads to steadily accumulate points. Yet since cities, in particular, are scored exponentially, the methodical construction of a large one over four or five turns could mean the difference between 4 points and 24 points. Essayed with friends, these challenges bring laughs, cheers and good-natured braggadocio.

Preserving that essence would surely have been Sierra's goal, one that was substantially reached in the game designed for Xbox Live Arcade. The look of Carcassonne is a match, and additions of media — sound effects, aesthetics — are unobtrusive. Opponents controlled by AI function at three levels of skill, the most capable resembling a human player with a slightly restrained aptitude for cunning. For multiplayer games, hosts have a number of "house rules" options: time limits for turns; values for completions according to "US" and "International" rules; and the insertion of the tabletop game's first expansion, "The River," a watercourse which bifurcates the land and stimulates inventive play. Players can, mid-game, push a button and calculate farm scores (always counted after the last tile) — but as all other properties must be recognized on sight, one can lose track of them, even in spite of a camera zoom.

The game retails as a download on Xbox Live Marketplace for 800 points, or about $10. A pair of adapted expansions can be downloaded for 300 points ($3.75) each. That Rio Grande has released over a dozen expansions should assure that neither addition, nor any in the future, will vitiate gameplay. Carcassonne on its own is fun, and for a 360 owner's library of parlor games, enough.

Carcassonne: A Second Look



Sierra Online


Sierra Online

NA Release

June 27, 2007


Play Mode

ESRB Rating

In Favor

  • Brilliantly simple
  • Short rounds despite depth


  • Not pure strategy; luck matters

G&P Rating

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