Monday, November 17, 2014

Game Stories: Carcassonne

So sometimes, you get story elements in games because there's distinctive characters, and sometimes it's because there's a particular mood around the table. Those aren't the only ways you can have a sort of story in the game, though. Sometimes, it isn't really about a flow of drama or pulling across specific themes. Sometimes, it's about nonsensically placing tiles on a map until they more or less make a weird world. Welcome to Carcassonne

In case you're one of the few who hasn't played Carcassonne, I'll sum things up briefly for you. It's the game where you build a map and put people on the map. Ostensibly, you're some sort of medieval baron or something, working to explore and develop the countryside with cities, roads, and monasteries. Unfortunately, so is everyone else. So you need to place agents in order to claim renown for yourself. You can put Knights in cities, Thieves on roads, and Monks in (plot twist!) monasteries. Oh, and you can stick Farmers in fields, to help supply food to surrounding cities. It's all vaguely like being a medieval mob boss, if you think about it...

The main gimmick of the game is that the majority of gameplay involves building the board. Each turn, you draw a tile and have to pick somewhere to play it. When you play it, you can decide to put one of your agents on it. Then, you have to try to complete the roads, cities, and monasteries that your agents are assigned to, so that you can get points and have your agent back. Of course, doing this simultaneously with other players means that everything's going to become a wonderfully massive mess.

There's...holes in the map...

Carcassonne is home to the weirdest urban planning you'll ever be witness to. Because players are competing over the same space, it often makes sense to aggressively play a map tile where it will minimize your opponent's score. Maybe you're trying to block them from creating a massive road, so you connect both ends of the road into a very circular construction. Maybe you don't want them to complete their city, so you keep sprawling it out in bizarre directions. Or maybe you're trying to perform a hostile takeover of their city, so you start growing it towards a chunk of city where one of your agents is waiting to assert dominance. There's a peculiar tug-of-war between everyone, accordingly.

It's very bureaucratic, actually.

It's a very simple game to visually understand, however. It's also a game that leaves behind something unique: a visual artifact. It doesn't last for long, since you have to clean up the game afterwards, but it's a great reminder of how the game went. It's also an artifact that keeps developing as you play the game, and if you create a particularly memorable map, it's something you can reminisce about for a while! "Remember that super-mega-city we all collaborated on?" "Remember when you trapped the farmer in the middle of those roads?"

The Eyes Have It
Carcassonne works particularly well because it's such a visual game. As such, its narrative is very straightforward: you're assembling a world out of smaller bits and pieces. Each tile has a unique combination of roads/cities/monasteries on it, and they can usually go in more than one place on the board. As you keep building the map, more and more options open up, and everyone starts to shape the world to their own purposes.

What's important is that it's a history of the game that's very easy to visually assess. You can see at a glance what the world is becoming and shaping up to be, and you can see the difference from round to round. It's a game where the field of play itself is what grows and develops, and it does it all underneath your very nose! How cool is that?