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Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Nation Building for Fun and Profit

Last week I introduced some of you to the concept of the Board Game for Grownups, courtesy of Rio Grande’s Bohnanza. Bohnanza is a card game, but a good way to wet your toes in the waters that ultimately flow from GenCon every year.

But what about board games? Well, Rio Grande has you covered on that front as well. And since I foreshadowed the existence of a “gateway board game” last week, I might as well fulfill that. So this week I’ll be discussing Carcassonne.

That’s pronounced “Car” (as in automobile) “Cass” (as in Mama) “Own” (as in pwn).

It’s easier to play than to say, or spell for that matter. For two to five players. Each player selects a set of colored tokens that represent their people. There are ENTER NUMBER HERE cardboard tiles in the box, one of which is the starter tile (identified by the inverted palette printing on its back). The remaining tiles are placed face down in an easy to reach location off to the side in a loose pile, not a stack (it would reach the ceiling if you tried to stack them anyway.)

On a player’s turn, he or she must select a tile from the pile and try to place it adjacent to any tiles already on the board. This is where the skill comes in, because you can’t just place a tile any old where. All four sides of the tile have to match whatever surrounds it. If there’s a road in the middle of one side, it has to line up to another road. Likewise, a castle wall or green field must touch a castle wall or green field. So it’s kind of like four-sided dominoes.

Now, if it were just four-sided dominoes, it probably wouldn’t sell very well (we can’t all replicate the fabulous success of Tri-dominoes, after all). So Carcassonne mixes it up a bit by allowing the active player to claim a feature on the tile provided it’s not already claimed by extension from another tile.

For example, let’s say Herman draws a tile that starts a road (roads start or end at intersections, small towns, and castle gates). Three sides of his tile match green fields, which makes this one fairly easy to place. He places the tile down in such a way that the only side adjacent to existing tiles is a green field. He now has the choice of claiming either the road or the field. However, Bobby, in the previous turn, had placed a green field tile and placed a marker down to claim that field as his own. Bobby’s field was extended by Herman’s tile, so Herman cannot claim the field. Instead he claims the road.

Points are tallied by counting up the number of tiles that comprise completed features, and more is better. If the road Herman began in his turn is completed on the next turn by Zoe who drew a tile with a road on one side and castle walls on the other three sides and wanted to prevent Herman from being able to claim points for a big long road, then Herman must collect his marker and add the score (score for a road times number of tiles) to his own score.

Play continues until the tiles run out or no tiles can be legally placed.

There are some specialty scoring rules for contingencies, such as what if two players end up “owning” the same feature on the map, but for the most part that’s it. The rules for a given turn can be summed up on an index card with plenty of room leftover for doodles of Zoe in a chainmail bikini riding a dragon that’s eating that stupid boyfriend of hers who doesn’t even like board games and doesn’t treat her anywhere near as well as she deserves.

Not that Herman ever thought of her like that or anything.

As a gateway into board gaming, this one is crackijuana. It gets you in the door of the board gaming shop, so you know where to get the harder stuff, and is easy to get addicted to. I first played it at Pax East 2010, where I was about to leave but bumped into some fellow Employed Gamers and asked if I could join in on a game. It was enough fun that I bought it to play with my wife, who didn’t need to be convinced to try a board game but had never tried any of the European style games that tend to have simpler rules but more complex strategies than the Milton Bradley and Parker Brothers games.

Much of the game is left to the player to do. The board needn’t be square, so if you can’t find a good place to put a tile, you can put it on the border of the map as it currently exists. Finishing someone else’s map feature can be profitable for you, even if you can’t claim anything, because it might shrink how big their feature can get, thus limiting the points they get. The number of each kind of tile is listed in the instruction manual, so you can gauge how likely it would be that you get a certain kind of tile before you commit to a new feature. And remember, just because you have a big castle doesn’t mean you’ll finish it before the end of the game, when the points for unfinished features are tallied and you find your score will not be as high as if you finished a slightly smaller castle when you had the chance.

If you thought board games were all about Monopoly and Pop-O-Matic Trouble, then consider branching out a bit. And if you’re looking to branch out, you can’t go far wrong with Carcassonne. But be forewarned: The game is very fun, and comes with a brochure advertising other games from Rio Grande.

Because hey, that crackijuana isn’t going to sell itself.