About Me

A blog wherein a literary agent will sometimes discuss his business, sometimes discuss the movies he sees, the tennis he watches, or the world around him. In which he will often wish he could say more, but will be obliged by business necessity and basic politeness and simple civility to hold his tongue. Rankings are done on a scale of one to five Slithy Toads, where a 0 is a complete waste of time, a 2 is a completely innocuous way to spend your time, and a 4 is intended as a geas compelling you to make the time.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Games People Play - Carcassonne

One of the nicest things I've started to do in the past six months if host regular games events at my apartment.  It's a mix of people from my twice-monthly Scrabble club with JABberwocky employees and other writing and publishing types.  These are a lot of fun.  I've always felt a little under-gamed in my life. I've played with my Scrabble club regularly for over 20 years, but you look at the games room at an sf convention like Boskone or Balticon and you realize the world is full of wonderful games, and I've played all too few of them.

So let's start to review a few of the games, and we'll start with Carcassonne, which has become a real favorite of mine.


Well, first, I like games that have a combination of luck and skill, and Carcassonne is very very good at this.

For those of you who haven't played, it's a land-building game.  In the basic game, there are tiles that have pieces of road and/or pieces of buildings on them.  You can claim a road or city that's on one of your tiles, so long as it isn't already claimed by someone else.  You get points if the roads or cities are completed.  You also get the "meeple" back, the little piece you use to claim things.  Because you are only allocated a certain number of those, you have to balance the desire to claim anything and everything you can with the fear that all of your pieces might be out on the game board in incomplete roads or cities.  There are a few other little wrinkles, there are some buildings called cathedrals that you don't complete, but rather get your meeple back if you can surround.  You can also claim a field and get points for the completed cities that border on the field, but that meeple stays in the field from the time you place it until the end of the game.  You can compete for things, let's say you start and claim a city a tile or two distant from somebody else's and then the two end up connecting, both you and your opponent now have an ownership share in a big city.

So there's luck, lots and lots of luck.  Some games, you'll need a piece with a road and a city in this exact right combination in order to complete something, and it never arrives.  Turn after turn, your opponent gets the tiles you need, and you never get the ones you need, and soon you find you've got all your meeples marooned on the board.  It's very hard to overcome a bad run of tile picking.

But it's not impossible.

After all, every turn you might have a choice of claiming a road, a building, or a field.  That's a lot to choose from, and there will always be an element of skill in making good choices regardless of the bad titles.  And you can play both offense and defense, maybe you can't claim anything or finish anything of your own, and all the plays have to match up so that road pieces abut matching road pieces and building pieces abut matching building pieces, and if you play a tile just so maybe you can make it way more difficult for your opponent to finish something.  As with Scrabble, there is a distribution guide, if you want you can keep track of which tiles have been played, and you can realize there's no way your opponent can get a tile with the road and the city in just the right place to allow it to be completed.

Because there are so many different ways to play a tile, your opponent(s) can be full of advice and suggestions on where to play things.  So it's fun, especially with a lot of people where you can choose whom you're going to try and help or hurt.  As an example, do you play a tile that might get you points for a city, but at the same time will fully surround somebody else's cathedral and allow them to get those points and regain the meeple?  Or do you start a city at some other end of the board that might have less immediate benefit to you but with more long-term potential?  In a large game there will be no lack of opinions.

As with so many games these days, Carcassone comes with a lot of expansions that add more cards with different powers to do different things.

Even those are very well-designed.

Today we played with "The Princess & The Dragon."  The dragon adds a lot of luck to the game.  Depending on the tiles, the dragon could be at one end of the board at one time, and then one turn later be at the opposite end.  Drawing other cards will determine when the dragon goes on the prowl.  So it's hard to protect against, you never know when the meeple you've used to claim a potentially big city will suddenly be attacked by the dragon and taken off the board.

However, the expansion set comes with a few other wildcards that allow you to make tasty lemonade out of your lemons.  Maybe the dragon displaces and returns a meeple that was in a bad place, and now you have a chance to put it in a better place, with other added cards like the magic portal to make that possible.

We also played with "Builders & Traders."  The trade goods go to the player that completes the city where the goods are made.  And at the end of the game, you can get 10 points for having the most of a particular trade good.  But there's no guaranty it's your city that you'll complete in order to claim the trade goods.  Is it worth giving your opponent six points and letting him get back his meeple so that you can maybe get ten points for owning the most wheat at the end of the game?  It's a perfect distillation of the constant balancing act between offense and defense, of doing things that are right for you that might also be right for someone else.  The builder is a powerful tool that lets you draw a second tile if you can add to a road or city that your builder is on.  But what happens if you play your builder on a city, and then spend the rest of the game drawing only road tiles, or your opponent is able to play his tiles in a way that will make it really difficult for you to complete your city and regain your builder and meeple?

Which also demonstrates how well different expansions play with one another.  The best solution to the trapped builder might be if the dragon starts to move and knocks off your pieces.

Like Scrabble, you could choose to count tiles if you wanted to, it would be a little more difficult with a lot of expansions in the mix, not too difficult with just the basic game.  If you play on the iPad, you can see the remaining tiles, and the game will put an "x" on a square that can't be played on with any of the available tiles.  And also like Scrabble, I don't think I would actually enjoy playing the game with someone who was so serious as to be counting tiles.

Luck, skill.  Luck, skill.

It also fits into lots of different time slots.  Play the basic 72-tile game, you can find yourself finished in a half hour.  Start adding different expansions that work with one another in different ways providing more options of where and how to play, you could be taking two hours.

Other than a couple places where the rules lend themselves to ambiguity, it's hard to find a fault in the design.  It works in different ways with one opponent or many, it can be a guaranteed quick half hour or two hours or more.

So all in all, there is a reason why the game is popular, and I can't wait to play again.

If you get the "Big Box Carcassonne" that I did, which comes with the basic set and a few popular expansions bundled, be very careful as you take the tiles out.  They come out a little too easily, then you need to sort out which go with the basic game and which with the expansions.  At least the inside of the box has a key to where to put all the different tile pieces.

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