Sunday, December 05, 2004

Review: Carcassonne: The City

Carcassonne: The City is the latest game in the Carcassonne family. Like the others before it, this game revolves around drawing and placing tiles, placing followers (I'll call them meeples from now on) and scoring areas. This time, players are building the city of Carcassonne itself including residential areas, roads and marketplaces and, in a rather interesting change, constructing the walls around the city as well.

One of the most obvious things that sets this version apart from the others is the pretty wooden box that it comes in. Inside you will find two very nice cloth bags, 75 very sturdy cardboard tiles, the usual assortment of meeples in four colors, twelve ornate wooden towers, a wooden city gate and seventy wooden wall sections. All of the components are top notch. This game looks and feels like something special.

Those of you who have played any of the other Carcassonne games are probably thinking, "OK, that's all well and good but aside from the pretty pieces, why would I want to buy this game? Is it a different game or is it really just more of the same?" Well, I'm happy to say that it's actually quite a different game; albeit a very familiar one.

As in other versions of Carcassone, on your turn you must draw a tile, place it and then decide whether or not you wish to place a meeple on that tile to claim one of the landscape areas. The different areas are roads, residential areas (similar to fields in the other versions) and markets (similar to cities). But the tile placement rules have been simplified a bit and this takes a bit of getting used to. This time, the only requirement is that roads must meet (similar to Carcassonne: the Castle). Markets and residential areas can be placed next to each other. This relaxing of the placement rules results in some interesting issues. For instance, now it's entirely possible to complete a market with only one tile.

The rules for placing your meeple have changed a bit as well. Unlike in other versions, you are not allowed to place a meeple in a completed area. That means that you can't place a tile to complete a road and then put a meeple on that road and take him back for a quick score. This changes the dynamic more than you might imagine because it forces you to really think twice before playing a meeple.

Scoring is a little different as well. Roads score one point per tile until your road is at least four tiles long. Once your road is four tiles long or longer it counts two points per tile. This means that roads are more valuable in this game than in other versions. It also means that there is a huge incentive to end someone else's road for them before it can grow too long.

There are three types of market in the game (indicated by a small sign and the color of the market tents). Whenever you complete a market, you count up the number of tiles and multiply by the number of different market types to get your score.

Meeples placed in residential areas must stay there for the entire game (just like farmers in the original game). Residential scoring is simple. Residential areas simply score two points for each market next to them. This is much simpler than the confusing field scoring rules from the original game.

Now if that were all there were to this game then I'd only feel comfortable recommending it to people who don't already own one of the other Carcassonne games but there's more. The city walls add a whole new dynamic to the game. Here's how they work. At the beginning of the game, the tiles are divided into three sets. While the first set is being played, the game proceeds as normal, with player drawing tiles, placing tiles, and scoring where they can. But during the second set, things get a little more interesting. Now, whenever a player plays a tile that triggers a scoring by completing a road or market, players begin adding to the wall. The first time this happens, the first player places the city gate wherever he likes (on an outside tile edge of course) and each other player adds one wall segment to either side. After that, each player adds one segment to the wall any time a scoring is triggered. Once the third set of tiles is reached, players place two walls each for when a scoring is triggered instead of one, accelerating the pace as the end game is reached.

The walls add some interesting twists to the game. First of all, they prevent the city from growing by blocking off tiles (which can also potentially cause an area to be completed and scored). They act as a bit of a timer because if the walls ever close the game is over. More importantly though, they give the players new scoring opportunities. Any time a player places a wall, he may also put one of his meeples on the wall as a "city guard". That meeple now watches over the row of tiles perpendicular to his wall segment. Some of the residential tiles have public buildings and historic buildings on them. Each public building under a guard's watchful eye earns that player two points. Each historic building earns three! So as the game progresses, players begin to have a real incentive to move their meeples from within the city on to the city walls.

Also, after wall segments have been added to the wall, the player who triggered the action may place one of his towers at one of the wall endings, scoring one point for each wall segment between his tower and the next tower or the city gate (whichever is closest). This creates some interesting tension as players must decide whether or not it's worth it to extend the wall too far in a particular direction.

I am really quite impressed with this game. It plays quickly and it adds a lot of tension and variety that doesn't seem to enter into the other games. If you are looking to purchase your first version of Carcassonne then this would definitely be a good choice. Although the $50 list price ($30 at House Full of Games) is twice as much as any of the other versions, the luxurious wood pieces and box justify the additional cost. If you do own another version, then I would recommend this version only if you already like Carcassonne and are looking for something similar but slightly different. Personally, I really like Carcassonne and I was quite happy to add this version to my collection. I think there are enough changes here to justify yet another version.


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