Review: Carcassonne05 Dec 2017 1
Released 29 Nov 2017
Carcassonne is the aged grandparent of mobile board game adaptations. For those unfamiliar it's a simple mix of tile-laying, collaborative art and vicious one-upmanship. You get a random tile each turn and choose where to place it, ensuring that roads, cities and other terrain features remain contiguous. Then, if you want, you can claim a feature by placing a meeple on it. These are the original meeples, the ones that launched a thousand identikit imitators across gaming. The bigger that feature gets, the more points it scores when it’s complete, then you get your meeple back.
So simple that it might leave you wondering where the strategy is. In fact, there's a decent amount, as the repeated thrashings I've received from other players over the years will attest. It's easy to run out of meeples if you're not careful rationing and completing your scoring opportunities. And the one-upmanship comes from the ability to hijack other people's features if you can connect them up to one of yours. Every draw is a spin of the roulette wheel and every placement a prediction of possible future opportunities.
Another key source of strategy is Farmers, an in-game name for meeples that you can't score until the game is over. Their points come from the number of cities they can connect to without crossing a road from their tile. They require shrewd placement and timing to get the most from. So it may come as a surprise to veteran players to find that they can't find the farmers in this new adaptation.
There's no mention of them in the too-brief tutorial. Once you've gotten used to placing faux meeples on the sweet faux 3d tiles in this edition, you'll find there's no space for them either. However, if you haven't already looked it up in the help files, you might find them should you jump into an online game. What's going on?
The answer is that, like several other important features, they're buried in the game - as opposed to the general - settings. Presumably they’re hidden in this way to make the game accessible to new players. Why other details, such as the ability to start asynchronous online games, are also hidden is harder to explain.
Once you’ve got it sorted, though, this proves to be a solid translation of the original. In other respects the accessibility is top notch, with an easy interface and clear signposts. You can turn off the 3D effect for flat tiles if you prefer. There’s even another (hidden) setting that flags up spaces where no legal remaining tile can be placed. And with farmers turned on there’s a helpful display to show you which cities they’re supplying.
Games are fast and fun. While this is an old title that most veterans should be familiar with, it remains interesting and playable thanks to its classic combination of simple rules and interesting play. There are lots of variables to consider, and the spatial aspect keeps things varied between games. Although it works with up to six players, the game really shines with just two. That way you maximise the chance of smart placement denying your opponent some precious points.
Solo play quickly loses its shine, though, thanks to weak AI opponents. There are three of them, with edgy play-style names. But even with my limited skills, I beat them all first try. The game also lacks any kind of campaign mode. So you’ll turn to online play which, again, seems fine once you’ve got the settings configured right. Games default to a 25 minute limit which is barely enough for real-time play let alone an asynchronous match. Thankfully it can be extended, although there’s no option to remove the time limit entirely. There’s a lobby to chat and options for public or private matches as you prefer.
Veterans will know full well that in its long life, Carcassonne has spawned about eleventy squillion expansions of varying quality. Making them available through an app should be a big draw for a digital version, but right now there are only two of the simplest. The Abbot you get for free if you sign up for an online play account. The River is a paltry amount extra to pay and adds a paltry amount extra to play. More are promised in time.
So many years after release, it’s questionable whether we really needed a new Carcassonne app. The iOS version – from a different publisher – is a much loved byword in brilliance and accessibility. This can’t live up to that standard, but it’s still good enough to make it a pleasure to get re-acquainted with a classic all over again.