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[Review] Carcassonne: the Discovery

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Joined: 03/23/2011

About once a month, I see someone bemoaning the massive amount of Carcassonne spin-offs and expansions on the internet. Why someone would complain about more of a great game is beyond me, so I tend to ignore them as I snag each new copy of one of the greatest games ever made. Carcassonne: the Discovery (Rio Grande Games and Funagain Games, 2005 - Leo Colovini and Klaus-Jurgen Wrede) was the first I had ever shied away from, though - since I'm not a huge fan of the majority of Mr. Colovini's games. I find them too abstract and simply lacking "fun" to be enjoyable.

But I'm sorry I waited so long to pick up Carcassonne: the Discovery, because it is an excellent game in its own right. It still plays off the basic Carcassonne game mechanics but adds in a few dimensions and can even act as a "gateway" game. Players have a few choices, but they can be excruciating to make; yet tile laying is a bit easier. Carcassonne: the Discovery is all about scoring, or more importantly, when to score. That, combined with some very nice artwork, makes Carcassonne: the Discovery a very worthy game to pick up - whether or not you enjoy the original game.

Each player is given four "meeples" (wooden people) in their color with a fifth meeple placed on a scoring track. Eighty-four tiles are shuffled together and placed in face down piles near the board with a designated tile being placed face up as the starting tile. Each tile shows a mixture of three different terrains: grassland, mountain, and sea with port cities occasionally included between the sea and grassland/mountain. One player is chosen to go first, and play proceeds clockwise around the table.

On a player's turn, they simply flip the top tile from one of the stacks and place it on the board, so that each side of the new tile matches all sides of tiles currently on the board. The player then can either deploy a meeple or score an existing meeple on the board. When placing a meeple, the player may place it in one of the areas on the tile they just placed, as long as there is no meeple of any color in another tile that is connected to the same area. For example, I can place my meeple in the grasslands on a tile, as long as there are no other meeples in that specific grasslands on the table.

When scoring, a player removes a meeple from the board and scores points received from the area the meeple resides in. Points for an area differ depending on whether the area is "completed" or not. An area is completed if it is completely surrounded by the other two areas. Scoring occurs thusly:
- Players receive one point per tile for each incomplete grassland area.
- Players receive two points per tile for each complete grassland area.
- For incomplete mountain areas, players score one point for each city in the mountain area, as well as one point for each city in adjacent grassland areas.
- For complete mountain areas, players score two points for each city rather than one.
- For each incomplete sea area, players score one point for each port city in that sea.
- For each complete sea area, players score one point for each port city, and one point for each tile making up the sea area.
- Any completed area of any terrain type that consists only of two tiles counts as "incomplete" when scored.
Players move their scoring marker accordingly whenever they score an area - removing the meeple there. If for some reason a territory has more than one meeple because of tiles laid down to connect areas, then both players can score from that territory on their turn.

Play proceeds until the last tile is placed, at which point the game ends. Any meeple still on the board is scored, but they all count as "incomplete", even if the area they are in is complete. The player with the most points is the winner!

Some comments on the game…

1.) Components: I'll start by mentioning that I wish they had included some way to mark that a player has passed fifty points (it's happened in every games I've played); but other than that, the components of the game are absolutely terrific. The tiles are thick and easy to handle; and each one shows unique artwork on it, keeping similarities between the different areas, but not so much that the game looks forced. Once finished, the tiles form a group of islands and continents that really look good on the table. The meeples are different than the meeples of other games - as they have a different shaped head; there was a lot of speculation in my group as to what exactly it was (I think it was a stocking cap.) Everything fits inside a cardboard insert that fits inside a nicely illustrated box that is the same size as all the other Carcassonne boxes - small and sturdy.

2.) Rules: The rulebook is four pages that very clearly explains (with full color examples and illustrations) how to play the game. The rules for the game are fairly simple, although I find myself having to explain the scoring rules several times to new players. Fortunately, the game includes several scoring aids, which show all nine ways that something can be scored - with pictorial explanations of scoring. This still isn't intuitive to players (I had one player who had to have scoring explained to her almost a dozen times), but it helps most folk.

3.) Meeples: The limited amount of meeples is a point players will have to deal with the entire game - it never seems as if you have enough. Players will often score an incomplete area just to get a meeple back, because one simply cannot afford to fall behind the leader in points. Placing a meeple in an area that you know won't be finished can also be a good tactic just to remove them on the next turn for a few points, since every point counts. It is a bit annoying (although humorous to others) to remove a meeple from an area that "will never be completed" - only to see it finished by a tile from another player the following turn.

4.) Competition: Unlike regular Carcassonne, the competition between players is slightly less pronounced in this game, because meeples do not actively compete in a territory - only share in the points for it. Because of this, the "Screwage" factor is lower than other versions of Carcassonne - and this will please/displease you depending on how much you enjoy direct confrontation. This doesn't mean that players are playing a solitaire game at all; players can still mess one another up by their placement of new tiles. Still, it's more of a friendly game than the original version.

5.) Scoring: As I mentioned, scoring may seem convoluted to new players, but it's rather quite simple. Each of the three areas seems equal in points; but I usually see seas as scoring the most points, although to get a good one set up takes a bit of work. Grasslands, on the other hand, are usually a player's best bet, as they score the most points when incomplete - one per tile. Still, with only three options to choose from, it's not like players will sit there for hours, trying to figure out what to do next. Place a meeple or score. Place a meeple or score. Place a meeple or score. Etc., etc.

6.) Fun Factor: Carcassonne: the Discovery will appeal to those who enjoy placing and connecting the tiles; this is something that I have seen many folk enjoy - especially those who like jigsaw puzzles. It is simple, has satisfactory results, and even a bit of confrontation but not too much to annoy those shy to such a thing. Games last about an hour, and scores remain fairly close (usually) to keep things exciting to the end. Sometimes games are decided by when a player scores, and waiting too long to score a big area might have it count as "incomplete" by game's end.

7.) Comparison: Will fans of "vanilla" Carcassonne enjoy this game? I believe they will, as it offers a different, unique spin on the original formula. As much as I enjoy playing the first game with all the expansions included, sometimes I yearn for a bit of simplicity. Carcassonne: the Discovery adds that - by eliminating a lot of the features of the original, without getting rid of all the strategy. Discovery has fewer meeples, but also allows a player to pull one off the board at any time -something drastically different from the original one, in which meeples were "stuck" to the end. There is no more convoluted farmer scoring - everything seems equal; and overall, it appears that this version is the most balanced of the three.

Still, as much as I like the game, I still like regular Carcassonne and Carcassonne: the City better. Simplicity is not always something I look for in games; I kind of enjoy the massive options in Carcassone + expansions. But that's like comparing two flavors of ice cream together; I may not think Discovery is as good as the basic thing, but it's still a great game! New players may find it more to their tastes, and experienced Carcassonne players will find it a pleasant change of pace. I'm really glad I got a copy - I'll alternate and play it once in a while, and I must congratulate Leo Colovini in taking a great game and finding a new way to make it work.

Tom Vasel
"Real men play board games"

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