Thursday, March 29, 2007

Anatomy of a Game: The Carcassonne Standalones, Part Two: Rules Changes

Welcome to what just might be my last game design article on Carcassonne. In case you've missed them I've written five previously. The first four extensively covered the main game and its expansions while the last article instead looked at the standalone variants, and examined how their tile selection and scoring differed.
This week I'll be continuing my look at the six standalone Carcassonne games and taking a look at how each one offers different answers to some major game design questions. I've identified three major elements, each of which differs quite a bit from game to game. Examining them offers some interesting insights both into game design and how the Carcassonne series has changed and evolved.

Scores as
Scores as
Stuck Meeple
Easier to
Easier to

We'll look at each of these elements in turn.

2-Tile Penalty

The original rules for Carcassonne (and the ones still used in the "official" Rio Grande edition) call for a 2-tile penalty: if you make a city out of just two tiles, you only get 2 points, not 4. The reason behind the 2-tile penalty has never been clear to me. I suppose Jurgen-Wrede thought it was too easy, and that it might encourage tactical in-and-out play where you never got to build larger cities. But, having always used the current German rules for play (which get rid of the 2-tile penalty), I just don't see that, and generally I don't see any reason that allowing two tile plays might be a bad thing.

Conversely it was pretty clear that the rule to disallow them was a bad thing. It added unnecessary complexity to the game by introducing a seemingly arbitrary special case. The SdJ committee was probably correct in demanding that it be removed, and I expect the game is better for it.

Only one standalone game has tried to match the original game's rule, and that's Discovery, and I think the results speak for themselves. Though Discovery is for the most part an elegant game, it introduces the 2-tile penalty to every type of terrain which adds an intimidating grid of possibilities to the game where each terrain can be scored in three different ways, which turns out to be the biggest barrier to getting people into the game.

However, if we assume there is some good game design reason for the 2-tile penalty, we might not want to see it utterly removed. Instead more elegant mechanisms should be constructed where players don't have to remember an arbitrary rule, but instead play as they are "supposed to" because of more organic gameplay mechanics. A few of the other Carcassonne standalones show how this can be accomplished.

Hunters & Gatherers introduces an organic 2-tile penalty in a very clever way. All of the forest tiles except "caps" have gold nuggets on them. The result is that if you make a 2-tile forest you don't get a nugget, while if you make a forest of 3 or more tiles, you do. (And you want the nugget, because it gives you an extra play.) This pretty much exemplifies how you can take a rule and turn into an integral part of the gameplay instead.

In City Jurgen-Wrede does something very similar. Markets score based on how many colors they include, and there's just one color per tile, so you're encouraged to build markets to include all three colors--which will be at least three tiles. Like H&G this is a great alternative to the original because it depends on the pieces not the rulebook.

(Conversely Ark just ignores the 2-tile issue, while Castle mostly does; in the latter you're encouraged to build big houses to score the "largest house" and you might work on a big house or tower if you have a doubler tower bonus tile, but you won't encounter either element in every game.)

Edge Matching

In most of the Carcassonne games you have to match every element on the edge of tile. However in Castle you only have to match the roads, not the other terrains. Jurgen-Wrede then mirrored this approach in City.

The difference has a few different results, but I think the largest has to do with 2-player game.

After numerous two-player games of Carcassonne I've come to the conclusion that it fails as a 2-player game, at least for casual and fun play with your family. The reason is that it's too easy to get into someone else's terrain. Particularly with the original set of Carcassonne it's often possible to play a single tile that will almost automatically grant access to your opponent's large city or field. Granted, there are ways to play the game better to try and avoid this, but sometimes you just have to take chances, and if you do the opportunity of getting screwed is really high in a 2-player game.

This is a result, I suspect, of Carcassonne being designed for multiplayer play rather than 2-player play. In a 3-player game it's fun to have two people in a terrain because it creates cooperative opportunities, and at the same time you have two people trying to keep that third person out of the terrain. Conversely in a 2-player game if someone shares your terrain with you it effectively takes all of your points away. You can spend a few turns building, and then your opponent takes it away with a single play.

The partial-edge-matching of Castle and City is exactly what's needed to fix that. A player can no longer play a single tile that can give him almost guaranteed access to your terrain. Because there are so many tiles that can be played in any location, you're much more likely to block him. On the other hand there's still some opportunity to get in, if you can match the roads before your opponent can. Thus it's a nice match of risk-tasking where the risk and reward are in much better tune for 2-player play than in the edge-matching Carcassonne games.

Stuck Meeple Balance

I've long thought that the expansions and variants of Carcassonne have largely served to resolve problems in the original game. One of those problems was definitely that your meeples could get stuck, slowly decreasing your options (and frustrating you!) as the game went on. Expansions to the original Carcassonne just tended to multiply this problem by extending the game length (and thus giving you more time to lose your meeples). Conversely some of the standalone games have tried to solve it.

Hunters & Gatherers, the first standalone didn't really do anything. You can sometimes play huts if your meeples are stuck, but those huts also resulted in you having a smaller number of meeples which can make the problem worse.

and City didn't directly address the problem either. However the partial edge matching makes it harder to totally block a space, and thus it's more likely that your meeples will come back you. They also both introduced city walls which can speed up the process of getting your meeples back by blocking off one (or more) sides of a terrain. These all combined to offer a pretty decent solution to the issue.

Then, wwhen we get to Ark and Discovery, we find that each game much more explicitly offers an alternative to the stuck-meeple problem through an alternative action that you can take rather than picking a meeple up.

Ark is a bit more elegant. You can move the Ark of the Covenant around the board, and when it hits your meeples on the board, you get points. Thus not only do you have an alternative action when you can't place a meeple, but you actually can be rewarded for your meeples being stuck.

Discovery instead attacks the problem dead-on. Instead of placing a meeple you can remove a meeple, scoring it as you do. So that life isn't too easy you only get half the normal points if the terrain wasn't closed.

Both of the latter solutions work pretty well, while conversely the partial-edge-matching is a decent answer too, meaning that all four of the latter standalone games have pretty good solutions to this original problem.


When I first started playing Hunters & Gatherers , I thought, "This is Carcassonne done right. I can no longer say that, because I think every variant of Carcassonne has improved on the game in some way. Generally, I'd rather play the variants than the original as a result.

Overall, if I had to pick, I'd say that Castle and City and the two best. This is primarily thanks to Reiner Knizia's design. He's one of my favorite designers, and Jurgen-Wrede was very right to pick up many of his ideas for City.

However, as this and the last article shows, there have been improvements through all the Carcassonne variants, and they've pushed the original game's design in interesting new ways.


huzonfirst said...

I guess we're just looking for different things in our Carc experiences, Shannon. I think the 2-hex city rule is both simple and necessary. I also LIKE the fact that meeples can get stuck. It means that managing your meeples is an essential element of play, so that you just can't plop them down willy-nilly. In addition, defensive play is rewarded, since with good placements you can make life difficult for your opponent by stranding his meeples.

I've really yet to find a version of the game that I prefer to the original + I&C. It makes for a nice, approachable title that still has some tough decisions. I really only like Carc with two, so that may be part of it. The Castle had some clever rules, but also some that bothered me, and since my principal opponent didn't care for it, I had no problem abandoning it.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for an excellent and interesting series Shannon! I enjoyed you various takes on this game series.