Technically, you could argue that a board game doesn’t even need to have a board. It could just use cards, or little bits of cardboard, and the whole game could be making the board. There’s actually a name for games like that – tile placement games. Let’s roll back the required attention span this week and look at a good introductory tile placement game, the best of which is the practically classic Carcassonne.
Carcassonne is a game where you and your opponents build a medieval landscape, attaching one tile at a time onto the ever-growing board. Whenever a player places a tile, they need to make any roads, cities or grasslands on that tile connect to the pieces already played. After the tile is placed, the current player can decide whether or not they want to place one of their seven “meeples” — the colorful little person shaped tokens — onto that tile. They can place the meeple as a robber on a road, a knight in a city, a monk in a cloister, or a farmer in a grassy area. Whenever an area is completed, any meeples on that road, city, or cloister are returned to their owners and points are distributed accordingly. That is, aside from those meeples laying around in the grass (you place farmers on their back) – they just loaf about until the end of the game.
That’s really all there is to this game. There’s no hand limit because there’s no hand, there’s no trading, no money, just tiles and meeples. Every turn in Carcassonne you draw a random tile and then connect it to one already played. Sometimes you get a tile that works with the city or road you’re trying to build, and sometimes you get a tile that can only go in two possible locations, both of which hurt you more than help. Either way, you have to place the tile you draw. You’re only limited to where you place the tile by the roads and cities drawn on it. Roads can’t end at the edge of a field, they have to go someplace, and cities aren’t completed if they have an edge without a wall. Cloisters simply need to be surrounded on all sides, but what surrounds them, as long as it’s legally built, doesn’t matter.
If you’re paying attention, you’ve realized that this means you can play tiles anywhere your opponent doesn’t want you to. That sprawling metropolis Blue’s been working on for 8 rounds? You can place a tile, and then a meeple, so that you get in on his hard earned points just at the last second. While you can’t place a meeple onto a city (or road) already claimed by another player, you can place a tile that links two claimed areas together. When that area is complete, the player with the most meeples there gets the points. If there’s a tie, both players get the total points awarded. (Pro tip: It’s not uncommon to get lucky enough to pull off this point-stealing strategy on cities, especially if they’ve grown a bit out of control. If you can pull it off, it’s always a nice way to get a sizable chunk of easily earned points.)
Completed roads get you 1 point for each section of road, even if two of those sections are on the same tile. Cities earn you two points per tile – not per section – and an additional two points for every shield within the city walls. Cloisters always earn you nine points when you’ve surrounded them, and farmers are scored at the end of the game.
Farmers are those early game gambles that can sometimes make or break your victory, because as soon as you place a meeple as a farmer, he’s in it for the long run. You don’t get your lounging meeple back until the end of the game, when you get 3 points for every completed city connected by grassland to him. (Pro tip: If you can place a farmer early on and then ensure that his grassland doesn’t get diced up by roads, you can get a lot of points during the final scoring.) Other player’s meeples can’t be placed in grassland connected to your farmer’s, but their meeple’s grasslands can be connected with yours, in the same way multiple players can claim cities. The scoring in situations like this are the same as for cities.
At the end of the game, you still get points for incomplete, but claimed, areas. For each tile in your unfinished city, cloister, or road, you get one point. Shields also still give you a bonus, but only one point, instead of the normal two. Keep that in mind when you start to work on the Paris of meeples, only to be eventually blocked by an opponent, or realize it’s physically impossible to build a 2D Eiffel Tower. You can still keep building your dream city, just know it’ll only get you half the points you deserve for such a masterpiece.
Carcassonne is a simple game. It requires minimal brainpower to play, which makes it great for playing after a hardcore game, or for getting new gamers to the table. It’s relatively quick, with games lasting about 30 minutes, and scales from two to five players easily. You can play it with gamers of all experience levels and ages and it travels well, especially because you can ditch the box entirely and toss the pieces into a plastic bag. Overall, it is a great lightweight game (physically and mentally), for a decent price, and would be a fantastic title to add to your game shelf.
If you ever reach a level of true mastery with the base game, or just want something more, there are a slew of add-ons available in the series. There are expansions and big box sets and mini games and mini expansions and dragons and witches and wizards and princesses and corn (Corn!). There are crop circles and jugglers and rivers and moats and festivals and special edition secret tiles. Carcassonne is a series in the way Terry Pratchett’s Discworld is a series. It’s a whole world that you can build, one 2-inch piece of cardboard at a time.
If the idea of more expansions doesn’t interest you, but you still want something a little more complex, check out Dirk Henn’s Alhambra, a tile placement game about building a palace. Each player constructs their own Alhambra, made up of arcades, gardens, towers and chambers they can purchase from the shared marketplace. While luck plays a hand in what cards and tiles are made available in the market, it’s up to players to choose just which tiles they add to their structure. Toss in mid-game scoring rounds, bonus points for the longest wall, and a scaling value for tiles, and this game gets a lot more interesting than Carcassonne’s immediate “draw one, play one” gameplay. So, if you’re looking for a game with a bit less of Lady Luck and a lot more strategy, than Alhambra is the tile placement game for you.
Made it this far down, eh? I guess I’ll reward you by letting you know Carcassonne is available on iOS for $9.99 as of this writing. That’s not cheap by app standards, but it’s high quality and features asynchronous multiplayer along with a few extra solitaire mode options that are a lot of fun.
Board Stiff is GrE’s regular foray into the deep, dark, cardboard-smelling realms of analog gaming. Boards, cards or dice, it doesn’t matter, our writer Tiffany will play them all. Follow her on Twitter here.