CARCASSONNE: THE CITY (Hans im Glück/Rio Grande Games; 2-4 players, ages 12 and up, 1 hour; $49.99)

   What’s that old cliché?  Something like:  Keep riding the horse that brought you!”  I guess designer Klaus-Jurgen Wrede and Hans im Glück have found their horse, and its name is Carcassonne (Summer 2001 GA REPORT). Since the release of the original a few years back, we have seen a steady stream of expansions and spin-offs.  The latest "stand alone” game in the series is Carcassonne: The City.

   When I first heard about the game I decided to not purchase it.  It’s not that I dislike Carcassonne.  Quite the contrary.  However, just how many variations of the same game does anyone really need in their collection.  I already own Carcassonne, Hunters & Gatherers, The Castle and Ark of the Covenant, as well as two expansions.  That’s enough, thank you.  So, I didn’t even give the game a glimpse at the Essen show.  

   As fate would have it, the reports that began filtering in following the show were praising The City as one of the best and most strategic in the series.  So, in spite of my “enough is enough” mindset, I finally yielded to the temptation and purchased a copy.  Much to my delight, I found myself in complete agreement with the sentiments expressed in these reports. This version of Carcassonne is the most strategic of the lot and is quite fun.  In addition, it is certainly the most visually appealing, with wooden walls and towers resulting in an impressive spectacle as the game progresses.  Ultimately, it may even relegate some of its ancestors to the Bayou Bazaar. 

   Don’t get me wrong … this is Carcassonne.  The heart of the system remains intact.  Players alternate selecting and placing a tile into the city, causing the board to expand as the game progresses.  After placing a tile, players must decide whether or not to place a “follower”, those cute wooden pieces known affectionately to gamers as “meeples”.  Players score points when certain board features are completed, while others score at the end of the game.  Most points wins. 

   However, there are significant differences.  Gone are the construction of small and large cities, and farmer fields.  In their place we have residential areas and markets, as well as public and historical buildings.  Only road segments need to properly align on adjacent tiles.  The remaining tile features can abut without matching, a mechanism which is similar to that used in The Castle, the Carcassonne 2-player version.  This actually gives players more placement options and more decisions, which is a very good addition. 

   Markets wind their way throughout the town and can contain up to three different types of markets:  fish, grain and livestock.  When a market is completely surrounded either by walls or residential areas, it scores 1 point for each tile contained in the market multiplied by the number of different markets present.  For example, a market consisting of four tile segments and containing both a fish and grain market will score 8 points (4 x 2 = 8).  

   Residential areas do not score until the end of the game, and will earn two points for each different market area that borders it.  Roads also score a bit differently, scoring 1 point per tile if the road is three or less tile segments in length, and two points for tile if it longer than three segments.  In the case of roads and markets, followers are returned to the owning player immediately after the scoring, while followers in residential areas will remain in place until the end of the game. 

   Another major difference is that players may no longer complete a feature that does not contain a follower, and subsequently place a follower in order to score quick points.  This was a major tactic used in the other versions of Carcassonne, so it takes a bit getting used to this change.  However, it does force players into longer-term strategies, which does add some additional depth to the game. 

   The most visible change, however, is the addition of the walls and towers.  Before the game begins, the 90 tiles are separated into three stacks of 35, 30, and 20 tiles.  When the first scoring is triggered while the second stack of tiles is in use, players will begin placing walls to ring the burgeoning city.  Thereafter, each time a scoring is triggered, each player places one segment of the wall adjacent to a previously placed wall.  They then have the option of placing a follower as a guard atop the wall piece.  These guards cannot be placed if there is a guard on a wall segment directly across from the newly placed wall and there is an uninterrupted line of tiles between the two wall segments.  

   So why place a guard on a wall?  At game end, each guard will score for the row of tiles emanating from it.  Each public building depicted on the tiles will score two points, while each historical building, denoted by an incredibly tiny banner listing the name of the building, scores three points.  These points can be significant, a harsh fact I learned at the conclusion of my first game.  Often, these points can rise to double digits, so the wise player will conserve some of his precious few followers to take advantage of guard opportunities. 

   After each player has had the opportunity to play a wall segment and guard, the player who triggered the scoring also has the opportunity to place one of his three towers at either end of the current wall.  Towers earn one point for each wall segment between it and the nearest existing tower along the wall.  Since a player only possesses three towers, the urge is to conserve them.  However, players usually will only have a handful of opportunities to place them, so being too cautious will likely cost the player valuable points. 

   Once the players begin placing tiles from the third stack, further scorings will result in each player placing two wall segments.  Since two of the possible game-end conditions is having the entire city either enclosed by walls or by having the two ends of the walls reach within 5 segments of each other, this creates an increased sense of urgency in the players as they rush to close roads and markets and place their guards and towers. 

   Once the game ends, any followers located on unfinished roads and markets are    removed and do not score points.  Thus, players are wise to attempt to complete these areas prior to the game’s conclusion.  Merchants and guards are then scored as described, and the player with the most points is declared ruler of Carcassonne.

   There are some significant choices to be made during the course of the game, more than what is present in the original version of the game.  Further, each player only possesses 7 followers, so players do not have the luxury of placing one on each turn.  This, too, adds some tough choices to the proceedings, especially in regards to the residential areas.  One had best be confident that the points earned from a residential area is worth the cost of tying down one or more of your followers for the entire game. 

   Wall placement also presents players with tough choices.  Often, players are fearful of   triggering a scoring, as the ensuing wall placement phase may give an opponent the opportunity to place a wall and guard in a location that will yield copious amounts of points.  One of our games saw everyone actively attempting to avoid triggering a scoring lest their opponents benefit from a lucrative wall and guard placement.  The game was quite tense … and fulfilling. 

   A further feature of the game is its appearance; it is aesthetically beautiful.  The artwork is similar to that found in previous Carcassonne titles, but the addition of the walls, towers and game make for a truly eye-catching construction.  Play this one on a table in a public place and you are sure to attract some curious onlookers.  

   My determination to not add another Carcassonne variation to my collection nearly prevented me from enjoying what is quite likely the best of the series.  I’m happy I was convinced to second-guess myself! - - - - - - - Greg J. Schloesser