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Off the Grid: Carcassonne review


Every other week Scott Jon Siegel contributes Off the Grid, a column on gaming away from the television screen or monitor.

From time to time, I'll be reviewing analog games here on Joystiq. I'm starting with Klaus-Jürgen Wrede's Carcassonne, a German board game which came out in 2000 and is already considered a classic of the genre.

If you're already a fan of Carcassonne, there's not going to be any new information here for you. You already know that it's a deceptively simple game, and great fun to play with a few of your friends. This review's more for the unenlightened, and maybe even those few souls who remain unconvinced that board games can be fun ... even ones that are coming to Xbox Live Arcade.

Carcassonne takes its name from the fortified city in southern France, famous for its strategic location and oft-conquered land. The game focuses on developing the land around Carcassonne, as each player vies for control of roads, farms, cities and cloisters.

At its core, Carcassonne is a tile-laying game, challenging players to build the land to their advantage, and deploy their followers strategically. During a turn, a player draws a land tile, and places it down on the ever-growing map of the area. Each tile played must connect logically to the tiles surrounding it -- roads must continue, as must city walls and fields. Once the player places a tile, he or she then has the option of placing one of four kinds of followers on the land: a knight, a monk, a thief, or a farmer.

There's only one generic type of follower piece in Carcassonne, affectionately nicknamed a "meeple." Rather than having defining characteristics like helmets and straw hats, the role of a specific meeple is determined by its placement. A knight is a meeple placed within a city; a monk is one placed within a cloister; a thief is deployed on a road, while a farmer is played onto an open field.

Players score points by placing their meeples strategically. Meeples earn more points for players when they control more land. A knight meeple, for instance, earns two points for each tile of city it controls. The challenge for a player is to then build a city as large as possible, in order to earn the most points.

Each player only has seven meeples to deploy, so a great deal of the game's strategy entails the effective management of limited meeple resources (can you tell that I like saying meeple?). The game ends once all 72 land tiles have been played.

On average, the game takes around 45 minutes to an hour. Up to five people can play, but I can only vouch for the two-player experience. A few nights ago I played Carcassonne with my fiancée as a break from work. With no new Netflix movies to watch and nothing good on television, we sat across from each other on the hardwood floor, taking turns developing the land around the ancient city. Although neither of us had played before, we picked it up the rules quickly.

At the end of the game, the scores were fairly even, but one cleverly-placed farmer tipped the scales drastically. The final score was 140 to 116, in her favor. It's okay, though. I'll get her next time.

Scott Jon Siegel is a fledgling game designer, and fancies himself a bit of a writer on the topic as well. His words and games can be found at numberless, which is almost always a work in progress.

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