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[Review] Carcassonne: the City

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tomvasel
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Joined: 03/23/2011

Carcassonne has become quite the franchise in the past several years. On Boardgamegeek, I can pull up twelve different entries for the game, and five of them are self-contained games. I have always enjoyed Carcassonne in all its forms and variations; but found each consecutive set better than the last, with Ark of the Covenant (released last year) playing extremely well. The newest member of this happy family is Carcassonne the City (Hans Im Gluck and Rio Grande Games, 2004 - Klaus-Jurgen Wrede). When I first got the box, I was immediately impressed to see that the box was wooden; and upon opening it, found even more wood in the form of 72 wall pieces.

One thing I’ve always liked about the Carcassonne games has been their eye appeal, and this one is no exception. When completed, the game looks better than any other version, because the walls and towers create such a nice visual effect. Not only that, however, but the game play is more strategic than any other Carcassonne (save possibly the original Carcassonne + all umpteen expansions). The rules are incredibly simplistic, but the tiles are easier to match up - play is fast, and knowing where to place your meeples is a lot more fun. If this were the last Carcassonne game ever (and I doubt it), then the series would have finished with a bang.

To start the game, each player takes seven followers of their color (generally called “meeples” by most folk) and places another one on the “zero” position of a scoring track. Seventy-five tiles are placed in three stacks next to the table: one stack of thirty tiles, one of twenty-five, and one of twenty tiles. Twelve wooden towers are divided evenly between all the players. One player is chosen to go first, and play proceeds clockwise around the table.

The first player draws a tile from the first stack (thirty tiles) and places it in the middle of the table. Succeeding players must place tiles adjacent to any tile currently on the table. When tiles are laid next to each other, the only thing that needs to match are the roads. Tiles consist of road sections, residential areas (which may contain one or more public or historical buildings), market areas (either fish, grain, or livestock), or a combination of these. After placing the tile, the player has the option of placing one of their meeples on the tile they just placed. The player must place the meeple...
- as a citizen, on an unfinished road (roads are finished by running into markets or by reaching an intersection)
- as a steward, on an unfinished residential area (residential areas are enclosed by markets and roads)
- as a seller, on an unfinished market (markets are enclosed by residential areas and roads)
- NOT on any market, residential area, or road that already has another meeple on it, including their own. The only way for two or more meeples to end up on the same area is if two separate markets, etc. have meeples in them and are connected by a tile.

If the tile placed finishes a market or road, then that area is immediately scored. (Residential areas score only at the end of the game.) A road scores one point for each tile that makes it up (three tiles or less) or two points per tile (four tiles or more). A market scores points equal to the number of tiles in the market multiplied by the number of different wares in the market. (A five-tile market that has fish and grain scores ten points.) If more than one person has meeples in a market/road, the player with more meeples gets the points - ties score points for both players. All meeples on the scoring market/road are returned to their players, and play continues.

When the first stack of tiles is completed, players move on to the second stack (twenty-five tiles); however, walls and towers can now be played. Walls are placed whenever a player plays a tile that causes something to be scored for any player. The first player places the city gate (a wall for all intensive purposes) next to any tile they want, and then each other player places one wall adjacent to the gate or another wall placed. Walls finish markets and roads, so scoring can occur. After placing a wall, a player has the option of placing a guard meeple on top of the wall, as long as there is no meeple on the wall directly opposite. After all players have placed their wall, the player who initiated the scoring can place a tower at either end of the wall, scoring points equal to the number of walls between the tower and last tower (or city gate). Everything else remains the same, until the third stack is reached (twenty tiles). At this point, players place two walls each during the wall-placing phase.

The game ends when the last wall is built, the entire city is enclosed by walls, or the two ends of the city wall are within five walls of each other (in which case the city is automatically finished). All unfinished markets and roads are NOT scored, but residential areas score two points for each adjacent market. Guards also score two points for each public building they can see in a straight path in front of them, and three points for each historical building. The player with the most points is the winner!

Some comments about the game...

1.) Components: I’ve already seen debate on the internet about whether the graphics on The City are better than other Carcassonnes. I can’t really say; I think the graphics are about on par with the other games. But the finished product looks better than any other game I’ve played. Because it’s rare to have an empty tile in a city, the game just looks aesthetically better. The walls and towers surrounding the city certainly don’t hurt; it looks like an actual city. Not to mention that every historical and public building look different give the city a very distinct look. The tiles are durable cardboard, as is the scoring board. The meeples are squatty little wooden figures, but they don’t tip over too easily. The wooden walls and towers are nice, chunky bits and are cause for more “statue-building” (where players forget about the game and play with the pieces) than any bits I’ve seen in a while. Everything looks very sharp and clean, and the wooden box certainly doesn’t hurt, especially since it comes with TWO drawstring bags (if you need one for another game - here you go!), one for the walls, and another for the tiles.

2.) Rules: The rules are printed on six full-color pages, with many illustrated examples. The formatting is excellent. They’ve obviously had a couple games prior to this to figure out what people have problems with, but everything is written very clearly, with tricky rules highlighted. The game, while offering more strategic options to “gamers”, is one of the easiest to teach new players; and I’ve brought many to the fold in the past couple weeks, using this excellent game.

3.) Differences: The game play plays like regular Carcassonne but borrows a tactic from Knizia’s Carcassonne: the Castle, in that the tiles don’t have to match up except for roads. This drastically changes the game, both aesthetically and strategically. Players no longer fight over huge markets and districts, as they are easily finished and scored. The tower and guard scoring is a simple thing, but adds a lot of strategy, especially to tile placement. If I want to place a tile that will expand my market but will place a historical building in front of one of my opponent’s guards, what will I do?

4.) Strategy: The main complaint about Carcassonne is that when one draws a tile that they cannot use continuously; they don’t have a chance. In this game I believe that this changes dramatically. The tile mix is superb, and the fact that they can go in many places allows a player a lot more options. The placement of the walls also adds strategic options and gives players the motive to score other player’s roads and markets. This makes the game more palatable to people who want a meatier game, while people seeking a simpler game won’t be disappointed either.

5.) Fun Factor: People, when introduced to Carcassonne, are normally impressed at how “cool” it is to connect the tiles. This game has the same effect, while the walls only double the “coolness.” At the same time, the game is fun, and scores can often be quite close - I have seen blowouts. The game plays well with two to four players, and it makes an excellent two-player game. There is a contingent of people who don’t like Carcassonne, and I’m not sure that this game will win them over. But if any game will, this is the one. One of my friends who despises Carcassonne said of this game, “Of all the Carcassonnes, I hate this one the least.” I guess that’s some credit.

My opinion is close, “Of all the Carcassonnes, I love this one the most.” I’ve enjoyed all the incarnations of the series (H&G was merely okay). But this one adds a lot of strategic options, while keeping the game simple. The scoring is easy and has no confusion (unlike the farmers), but the simplicity in this game does not mean it’s a “light” game. I’d rather classify it as a medium-weight game, and the fact that it plays in about an hour or less makes it a worthwhile addition to my collection. If you only want one Carcassonne game, then I would recommend either this one or Ark of the Covenant. If you want the game with the most strategy, this is the one to get.

Tom Vasel
“Real men play board games.”

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