Last weekend was a bit of a geekfest at mine. For the last three weekends a whole bunch of us have met up in various places around the country, with a moving-in party in London, a splendid wedding in Glasgow, then finally mine last time round for Eurovision related shenanigans. A uniting theme for all three of these events was the fact that games came out every time because… well, we’re a big bunch of nerds, and we’re proud of that. The brave and hardy souls who had survived to the bitter end of last weekend fancied playing something, and as a few were new(ish) to the kind of games you find here on Little Metal Dog, it was an ideal opportunity to break out something from the gateway games pile.
There were six of us, so selection was a little more limited. My eyes fell on Carcassonne (and the Inns and Cathedrals expansion, but we stuck to the basic rules, just grabbing the extra meeples), one of the first games I bought after rediscovering my love for the hobby. I haven’t played it for a while, but it’s such a simple set of rules you never forget them – it’s the tile-laying equivalent of riding a bike. A set of tiles are placed in a bag (though I don’t have one, so we just set them up in different piles and grab them randomly that way) and players take one per turn. You generally start with the River expansion that is included with most sets that are sold now, and get the opportunity to put down one of your little wooden guys to claim some land. After the river tiles have been placed, you then start drawing the regular ones – these must then be placed on the table, connecting to the map in a position that fits correctly. For example, a road must always connect to another road that’s already there, fields with fields, towns with towns… that kind of thing.
Once you’ve put your tile down, you’ve got a chance to put one of your meeples (aka: ‘little wooden fella things’) on that same tile. Not one near it, only on the one you have placed. You do this to score points, and popping them on different bits of the tile will get you differing amounts. Put them astride a road and your guy becomes a thief, stealing a point for each tile that comprises a completed road – from a town to a crossroads, for example. Putting one on a town area transforms the meeple into a knight, getting you two points for each tile when the town is finished. A little more risky is dropping a guy on a cloister should you draw one – this monk now gets you nine points if you manage to completely surround the church-y tile in a 3×3 grid style fashion. Now, with these three, if you manage to complete their various things, you get the meeple back on your stack, free to use again any way you wish – but there’s a fourth option, the farmer. This gets you no points during the game, but is awesome at the end. You permanently place it on any greenery on your tile, and any finished towns that are served by this field that you now control will rack up four points each – this is a great spin to the game, meaning that even if you’re dragging behind in the points, judicious placing of farmers can help you catch up and often grab the lead in the endgame. However, one caveat – you’re not allowed to put a farmer on a field that’s already been claimed. If your field joins another one then that’s fair enough, but invading someone else’s? Not allowed. Never rub another man’s rhubarb, remember?
That, in a nutshell, is Carcassonne. Get tile, place tile, choose whether to place meeple, rinse and repeat. However, there’s an awful lot of strategy in there – do you put your tile down to start a new town that has the potential to join up onto another player’s already huge metropolis with the possibility of sharing their points (because you can do that!) or venture off on your own, hoping you’ll be able to compete? Or do you risk throwing a few farmers down early, meaning that you’ll be down on usable meeples for a lot of the game, but you could really cash in at the end with bonus points? Even newbie players will be able to develop strategies early on with little problem, as long as they don’t forget about controlling a field or two by the time the game is done.
One of the good things about Carcassonne is the fact it plays as well with a couple of people as it does with six – sure, there’s a little more downtime with more folks involved, but you won’t be waiting long for your turn to come around. There’s also the ever increasing amount of expansions that are available from the (in my opinion) indispensible Inns & Cathedrals to the slightly ludicrous Catapult and Wheel of Fortune. Some add more strategic elements while others bring a level of chance, but how you customise your game is up to you – you can use as many or as few additions as you like.
So, six of us were playing, and it was the first time for four of them. Did they enjoy it? Well, they said they did, but what really showed that they had fun was when one of the guys poked me on Skype in the week to let me know he’s ordered his own base set to play this weekend with his mates. That, ladies and gentlemen, is a successful gateway game. Another gamer joins the fold, and it’s thanks to this (deserved) winner of the 2001 Spiel des Jahres. It’s one of the biggest selling releases of all time for a reason, you know…
Carcassonne was designed by Klaus-Jürgen Wrede and first published in 2000. It’s currently available through many different publishers including Rio Grande Games and Hans im Glück. The base game handles between two and five players and is available in the UK for around £15-£20. There’s also an Xbox Live version available as well as an excellent interpretation on the iPhone, iPod Touch and iPad – no excuse not to play!