There has been a board game renaissance here lately, and I have missed out on it. So I thought hosting family for Christmas would be a good excuse to check out some of the new board games.
After a trip to Barnes and Noble derailed by sticker shock and a certain misunderstanding between me and my wife over what I meant by “let’s buy a board game,” there were two conditions. One, we needed a game that five players could play (so Settlers of Catan was out). Two, we needed a game five board game beginners could figure out on the fly (so the Game of Thrones board game was out—one reviewer suggested each player watch the instructional video and one player read the instruction manual cover to cover twice). Carcassonne met both conditions and was priced to sell so we went for it.
It turned out to be a great choice. For all the medieval trappings it is, as my father and law pointed out, ultimately a real estate game. It’s a straight forward set up. Each player places tiles with some combination of three features (road, city, abbey) and places “meeples” to control features. That’s it, tiles and meeples. No paper and pen are necessary and scores are kept by meeple on an accompanying scoreboard.
I’ve played three games so far, two with five players and one with two players. The first game we tried to play on the fly and, well, we screwed a bunch of the rules up but it was fun nonetheless. I read the short instruction manual between games and by the second game we had everything figured out. Five player games are hectic. You only get to put down so many tiles, and your plans will constantly be affected by moves by other players. This was the most fun part, as every other turn devolved into half-shouted attempts at cutting backroom deals (we had been drinking). This is in contrast to the two player game I played with my wife, where we mostly played our own way, occasionally trying to place a tile to thwart the other’s plans (which seems tough to do).
The replayability, I think, will be high. My wife is up for more Carcassonne game nights, and we already have a request to bring the game for Christmas. Three or four people is probably the ideal number to play, though. There is a lot of luck involved (i.e., the tiles you draw), but there are enough different ways to play tiles to keep it interesting for a while, especially with more players. The biggest flaw, I think, is that there is no penalty for failure to terminate roads and surround abbeys, only for failure to wall off cities. Board Game Geek lists the playing time as 30 – 45 minutes, but each of our games went well beyond that (we should really introduce a chess timer). The basic set comes with river tiles and an abbot meeple that we haven’t played with yet (two separate mini-expansions).
We played another 5-player game with the river expansion tiles. The additional rules are admirably straightforward (and the reason we started with that instead of the abbot). It did make a big difference. It really spread the game out. For a 5-player game, that meant a lot less of the wheeling-and-dealing and backstabbing I talked about above. It was difficult, though, to do our own thing with so few turns and tiles per player. I think I prefer it without the river tiles, but that may be a bug or a feature, depending on your perspective.