Thursday, March 15, 2007

Anatomy of a Game: The Carcassonne Standalones, Part One: Tiles and Scores

Last year I wrote a series on game design articles on the original Carcassonne and the expansions for that game. If you haven't read them yet, those articles are:
I've long intended to to follow those articles with another part or two talking about the game design of the Carcassonne stand-alone games, and now I've finally been encouraged to do so by the publication of my Carcassonne overview in Knucklebones Magazine.

So, what are the Carcassonne expansions, and what do they bring to the original game?

This week I'm going to start off by talking about the games, the tile distributions, and scoring, particularly focusing on how changes to the tiles and scoring change the feel of the later games. Then in two weeks I'm going to finish up the topic by talking about more far-reaching rules changes.

The Six Carcassonnes

There are, to date, six distinctive Carcassonnes available for play.

Carcassonne: The original game, as extensively discussed in my first anatomy article and my original review.

Carcassonne: Hunters and Gatherers: A complex variant intended for the more advanced player. Meeples are much more valuable because of their scarcity, and there's a whole new piece to score, the hut. However land terrains are largely the same, except for changes introduced by the hut, and the fact that fields are much more constrained. See my review.

The Ark of the Covenant: A close cognate to the original game created for the religious community. It also simplifies fields, adds an ark which you can move if your meeples are all committed, and exchanges monasteries with something just as hard to score. See my review.

Carcassonne: The Castle: A 2-player game by Reiner Knizia that shakes up the game with a sharply constrained playing space, non-edge-matching tiles, special powers if you hit certain scores exactly, and bonus points for "majority control" and overall tile layout. See my review.

Carcassonne: The City: A 4-player max game that was printed in an expensive limited edition. It builds on some of Knizia's ideas and also introduces a whole new bit of wood--wall pieces which are added as the game goes on. See my review.

Carcacssonne: The Discovery: The newest Carcassonne, and a Leo Colovini design. It's back to basics in many ways, without the bells and whistels of other recent productions. The only notable innovation is that meeples can be removed without closing areas down. It was distributed badly for a year thanks to an exclusive deal between Rio Grande and Funagain that kept it out of the mainstream. I've finally gotten a copy, but I've only played it twice and never reviewed it.

Generally my experience is that every single one of the Carcassonne standalones is a better game than the original Carcassonne without expansion. (As I wrote in previous articles in this series, it took two expansions before the original game really got its tile distribution down straight.)

Beyond that they have a lot of interesting elements that are worth discussing.

The Changing Carcassonne Tile Distribution

In my original articles I talked a bit about the tile distribution of the original Carcassonne game and the fact that it was somewhat flawed. There were a number of different problems, but two are notable here for how quickly the first new Carcassonne game, Hunters & Gatherers, fixed them: fields and cities could both get too big, way too big in the case of fields.

Fields: One way to measure average field size is by looking at the field-to-tile ratio, which is how many distinct fields that are on the average tile. For the original Carcassonne that ration was 1.75, and it was brought up to 1.96 through the first two supplements (an increase which slowly made fields smaller).

Hunters and Gatherers, the first standalone game, immediately went in the same direction, offering a field-to-tile ratio of 2.0.

Cities: Cities being big in the original game caused two issues: it made them frustrating to close, but also quite valuable. This also changed quite a bit in Hunters and Gatherers thanks to changes in tile distribution.

The following chart shows the different types of tiles for cities/forests. Here's how the two games compare:


(Caps have at least one edge that is a single, unconnected city/forest; corners have two city/forest edges that are connected; three-parts have three city/forest edges that are connected; and fulls have a connected city/forest taking up the whole tile.)

The difference is striking and greatly affects the styles of play in the two games. In the original Carcassonne there is a lower percentage of caps and corners, and a higher-percentage of three-part and full city tiles, while in Hunters & Gatherers there are no four-part tiles, only one three-part tile, and a ton of caps and corners.

As a result cities tend to grow into huge masses in the original game, while in Hunters & Gatherers the majority of forests tend to be three tiles large, a size supported not only by the gold nugget rules (which we'll meet next article), but also by the tile distribution itself.

Another notable change from Carcassonne to Hunters & Gatherers is in the way the tiles with three city/forest edges are designed. In the original game, the were all three-part city tiles. Hunters & Gatherers meanwhile had about the same number of three-edged tiles (8 vs. 7), but they're almost all divided forests, to support the three-tile forest ideal already mentioned. Of its 8 three-edged tiles, one is a three-part forest, two are triple caps, and five show a cap and a corner.

I suspect I could look at similar tile distribution changes in all the other standalone games, but for now I'll leave it here: subtle changes can, and I think do, make pretty big changes throughout the Carcassonne standalones and are a simple way to polish up the gameplay.

Carcassonne Scoring

One of the most consistent changes from one Carcassonne standalone to another is scoring. Though the original three games are all pretty similar, from there things get more different. The following chart lays out all the differences, and as we'll see they've also resulted in various game design changes too.

2/tile +
2/tile +
1/tile +
1/tile +
1/tile +
2x if well
1/tile +
2x if size 4+
1/adj. tile
7 points
1/tile +
1/tile +

Here's some thoughts on the results of the changes.

Cities: Cities have always scored based on how many tiles they contain. Two early games--the original Carcassonne and the very similar Ark of the Covenant--both feature bonuses (pennants and scrolls), but Wrede very quickly realized that bonuses weren't required. The cities were already valuable enough. The City is the one game that has the potential for cities to be even more valuable, but it's based on the number of different colored tiles in the city (market), from 1-3. This can be hard to attain, and also makes the city a huge target for blocking or stealing if it's one of the "good" 3-point ones.

Roads: Conversely roads were undervalued in the original Carcassonne at just 1 point/tile compared to 2+ for the cities. So we've seen roads go up in value throughout the standalones, just as cities as decreased a little bit. H&G and Ark both did this with iconography. In H&G the two end tiles of your road (river) gave you bonus points, while in Ark ever tile could have bonus value for roads. The solution in H&G felt like the better one because it was easier to see and felt less random.

Castle took an entirely different tack. You could put a well on your road, doubling its value (and also putting it on par with cities), but you also took the chance you'd get nothing at the end if you did, rather like the inns on the road from the first Carcassonne expansion. It not only gave roads the opportunity to be more valuable, but made it a strategic element.

Finally the City offered the least elegant solution. A 4+ space road is worth 2/tile. It works, but every other solution is prettier.

Fields: Fields were definitely one of the most troublesome elements in the original game because they could get really big and dramatically valuable. Sometimes the original Carcassonne game would come down to a battle over fields. In addition, the original method for scoring was pretty tricky since it correlated one element (the field) to another element (the city). Standalone games have offered two different solutions.

The first three Carcassonne standalones, H&G, Ark, and Castle all offered the solution of putting icons in the fields: animals, sheep, and markets. Then you scored 2-3 points for each icon in the field. It was a lot easier to score than the original, and also simpler to control from a game design point of view. The first two games also offered the fun catch that you could put "bad" animals into a field, giving players another orthogonal choice when placing tiles.

The last two Carcassonnes, City and Discovery have each gone back to the original methodology of scoring a field based on a nearby terrain. The City is almost identical to the original with you earning points for markets (cities) next to your residential areas (fields). Fortunately the non-edge-matching made fields smallers, though it could also make those markets more plentiful.

Discovery actually combines both methods: you get points for icons (cities) but you get points for all the icons in your mountains and in the grasslands that connect to it. This is actually a pretty confusing rule for many newcomers, but on the other hand it combines the advantages of the original rules (since you can beneficially build one terrain next to another) with that of the later ones (since the icons are easy to count, once you've figured out which to count).

Special: Each Carcasonne has had one type of special scoring.

For the original game that was the monastery, which gave you points for every adjacent tile. It was originally a problem because it gave so many points, and when you put a lot of expansions into the original game it became a different sort of problem because it was easy to get your guys stuck. Ark tried to clean this up with the temple, which gave you 7 points if you filled in 4 adjacent tiles. It was a little fewer points and a little less chance to get stuck, but still not that interesting since control of these areas randomly went to the players who drew the scant tiles.

H&G is the only game to introduce a new type of scoring piece, the hut. It's kind of interesting because it's a different resource to manage, and thus can offer an orthogonal option in your decision matrix--do I use a hut or not--but in actuality its use is very proscribed. You put it down if there's an option for a great river or you have nothing better to do.

Castle and Discovery each offered a new scoring terrain that was somewhere between a road and a city, which is to say between 1 and 2 points. For Castle that's a 1 point/tile house that can give a 5-8 point bonus at the end if it's the largest. I generally find it to be a pretty low-valued tile, just like the original road. For Discovery that's a sea that gets the normal 1 point/tile plus 1 point/icon. It's never as good as a city (grassland), but you might be adding cities to a nearby grassland (that benefits your mountains) at the same time. The interconnetiveness of Discovery is kind of cool.

Finally the guards in City are a totally new and kind of complex subsystem. They add a lot of value to the game because they can be very valuable but you have to carefully control when the city wall gets built in order to take advantage of them. They're also the only special scoring pieces which requires you to commit a normal meeple for the whole game--like in a field--which makes them interesting from yet another angle.

(The huts are game-long commitments too, but they don't require you to reduce your normal meeple allocation like a guard does.)

Overall the various scoring elements for Carcassonne have grown in three ways: cities have slightly decreased in value, roads have notably increased in value, and various other scoring elements have popped up to make the game more interesting.


Six games in, we've definitely seen a lot of changes to Carcassonne. Most of the big-name tile and scoring changes were already in place with the first standalone game, Hunters and Gatherers and I don't think those elements improved a lot from that place, though the variety is fun. However as we'll see in two week other rules changes have added a lot to the game.


Anonymous said...

Just bought H&G and was looking over your site. Small error. You claim H&G has a single 3-part forest. I see at least two in my collection at quick glance. Haven't checked the rest of your numbers closely. Just thought I'd let you know.



BTW, oriiginally posted this comment to the wrong post by accident. Feel free to remove at your leisure. Sorry.

Dr. Matt J. Carlson said...

I think you addressed this in your old articles (don't recall) but you gloss over the 3 vs 4 points per field city in the original... I assume you just play with the 3pts per city.

Shannon Appelcline said...

I haven't understood RGG's stubborn refusal to go with the better balanced, simpler rules.