Carcassonne Strategy: The Basics (Hints and Tips)
Carcassonne is one of the quintessential games of our time. Regularly considered one of the big four Eurogames (along with Catan, Agricola, and Ticket to Ride), Carcassonne has become a board game essential for all players to play. It is fast, it is furious, and it is easy to play, giving it a trifactor of playability. Nearly everyone who plays it loves it, and it holds a special place in the hearts of so many gamers.
Over the next few weeks, we will be exploring Carcassonne strategy in some detail as the next instalment of the “Board Game Strategies We Enjoy” segment on this blog. The completion of the Scythe basic faction strategies has left an empty place that needs filling. Carcassonne strategy feels like the next logical step. Why? Well, Carcassonne is the reason that we, as gamers, have the term “meeple”.
So, with that in mind, we’ll be looking deeper into the game to see how we can make the most out of all the possible moves. When is it best to go for a city? When should you place on a road? What is the best sort of farm? How many meeples does it take to change a lightbulb? Let’s find out.
Of course, for these articles, I am going to assume you already know the rules and have played Carcassonne by Klaus-Jürgen Wrede – either the Hans im Glück/Rio Grande version or the version by Z-Man Games. Either is fine, as they are the same game, but to really get to grips with Carcassonne you really need to have played it. If you haven’t then feel free to pause this article here, go away, order it on Amazon Prime, play it with some loved ones or friends, and come back. This blog will still be here.
Okay, are you back now? Good. Let’s talk about one of the most played games of this modern board game renaissance we are now a part of. Let’s talk about Carcassonne.
The Basic Mathematics
To fully understand Carcassonne we need to first understand the value of tiles and what they are worth in the game. At its heart, Carcassonne is all about tile placement, and being able to place a value on each tile within the game is a good place to really get to grips with the strategic thinking behind the game.
For this, there are four ways of scoring points within Carcassonne. These are:
- Roads/Highway Men
Each one of those is scored differently, with Roads, Cities, and Cloisters being scored as they are completed within the game. Farms are slightly different and we will come onto those in a bit.
Within the game box, there are a grand total of 72 tiles. These have four basic elements on them – roads, grassland, city parts, and monasteries. With these, we can break them down further. For instance:
- There are 48 tiles that have road on them.
- There are 13 tiles that will end a road.
- There are 23 tiles that will close off a city wall on one side only.
- There are 6 tiles that will open up cloisters.
Knowing that kind of basic information allows for a return-on-investment to be placed on each tile. For instance, we know that there are 42 tiles with cities on them in total (23 of which close off one city side). 10 of the city tiles have pennants (shields) on them, doubling their value. This means there are 40 points’ worth of standard city tiles in the game, and a further 40 points of pennant-ed city tiles.
There are a grand total of 48 points in road tiles, but only if they are closed off either onto themselves (difficult to do) or with one of 13 ending tiles.
There are 6 monasteries in the game, and each one has the potential to earn 9 points.
“But what about farms?” I hear you cry, “This is outrageous!”
Well, dearly impassioned reader who loves Carcassonne, farms and farmers have to be treated slightly differently so we will come onto those in due course.
For now though, what we can see is clear. The potential point distribution throughout the game is not evenly weighted, and so not all meeples are born equal. The tiles differ in how much they are worth on a tile by tile basis judged by their potential scoring at the end of the game. That being said, there are several other things to take into account. Strategy is not all about mathematics in a game like Carcassonne where the meta can also take effect. There is also how the other players play, as well as a smattering of luck built in around choosing the tiles you need each turn.
Core Carcassonne Tips and Things To Remember
When playing Carcassonne there are a few things to remember –
Firstly, when you complete a city, road, or cloister you will get your meeple back. This is essential to the game, and gives you motivation. It also means there is a perfectly legitimate strategy in scoring quickly. For instance, if you can complete three two tile cities (the smallest possible city in the game), then it will potentially score 12 points – which is more than that one person who’s been building a five tile city and waiting for the right tiles to arrive – unless they have a pennant.
Secondly, scoring roads quickly means you can get points in rapid succession, especially near the start of the game. Score a three-point road as soon as possible and that puts you three points ahead of anyone else. If you start with a road ending tile, and can end a road, then do it. You get the meeple back instantly.
This reminds me of that Glengarry Glen Ross scene –
A.B.C – Always Be Closing
The more you can close off the stronger your game will become, simply because you will be able to retrieve meeples at the same rate as getting points. If you can close a city off with one tile, then place it with a meeple. In the best case scenario, you are the only person with a meeple in that space and you get the points. In the worst case scenario, place your meeple one tile space away from something your opponents are trying to close. Then, simply, join the gap. This will make you incredibly unpopular, leeching off their success, but it means you can score off your opponent’s success with relative ease. It’s points, no matter which way you look at it. It may not be good for your interpersonal relationships – but this is Carcassonne strategy, not making sweet love on the Riveria. This is serious stuff.
This means that roads, although not as valuable as their city counterparts, can be used to score significant points near the start of the game. There are, ultimately speaking, more tiles with roads on them after all, meaning they are more likely to come out.
There is, of course, no reason not to play cooperatively to some degree, and this is a strategy that is often explored. I’ve seen it a few times around the gaming world, online at sites like Starlit Citadel, and in books like Ticket to Carcassonne by Steve Dee. They both raise fair points, and working with other players is something certainly worth considering. This is assuming you can work cooperatively in a competitive game with the people you game with.
The idea here being that you don’t lose points for equalling the number of workers in a farm, city, or road as another player. To quote the exact Carcassonne rules:
It is possible through clever placement of land tiles for there to be more than one thief on a road or more than one knight in a city. In a completed road or city, the player with the most thieves (on the road) or the most knights (in the city) earns all the points. When two or more players tie with the most thieves or knights, they each earn the total points for the road or city.
Interestingly, the same is the case for farmers sharing fields, however, it is stated in a different part of the rulebook.
This means that players can, in theory, work together, especially with the building of cities and roads. Likewise, however, if you want to play aggressively, it is possible to use tile laying to block players off. Placing two meeples on two separate city spaces before joining them up is one way. This is a somewhat aggressive Carcassonne strategy, as it will ensure that you steal the points that belong to your opponent, and blocking is as much a part of Carcassonne as scoring points. You can, inadvertently, get your opponents to finish your road or city by starting along their logical route for completion. It becomes a win/win situation.
The Cooperative Cloister Carcassonne Strategy
Getting/persuading your opponents to work for you is something that isn’t just limited to roads or cities. It also works with cloisters, however, more passively than with the other two. One of the tricks with cloisters is to build them next to where an opponent will likely want to build a road, and/or where an opponent will likely want to complete a city. That means you will need to fill in fewer tiles yourself to get the points. This works two ways.
Firstly, every tile they place around your cloister is valuable real estate to you.
Secondly, by getting others to contribute to your cloister you will complete it faster than if you were doing it alone. Completing the cloister means that you, as the player, get your monk back. Getting your monk back faster means you can place it out again, on a road or in a city or on another cloister.
“Earlier you mentioned City tiles being worth more, should I solely go for City?”
No. City tiles are, statistically speaking, worth more in the game; however, they are also difficult to gain dominance on. It is so easy for a city to go unfinished in a game where there are more than two players – especially if those players want to play aggressively.
Instead just be aware of city tiles. If one comes out that is open, that can perpetuate a city opening you see on the board, then it may be worth going for. Remember that closing city tiles are not few and far between. Instead, there are a fair few within the tile stack. This means you can afford to explore a city and make the most out of it; however, if you find yourself opening up too many avenues to shut off then it is far more of a gamble. The points payoff will be huge, but the risk is larger. Thus the odds of an opponent coming in or blocking you off so that only one specific tile will complete your city, is much larger.
So, by all means, a city may be the “how to win at Carcassonne” simple answer; however, it is also the biggest gamble. Remember that an unfinished city is still worth points – but half the value of a finished one. Going on a sole city strategy is not a wise move as it becomes easy for opponents to (a) muzzle in on your strategy (b) block you or (c) make your life difficult. Instead, Carcassonne needs a mixture of strategies in order to win the game.
Conclusion: No Single Carcassonne Strategy
Over the past 2000 words, we have talked about all kinds of Carcassonne strategy, and this is kind of the point. There are so many strategies that can be used that it becomes an incredibly open game. This is ultimately why it is so popular, as it is a fantastic entry-level game that introduces players to thinking in a more strategic way.
You will notice that in this article I didn’t really touch upon farms. This is because there is a lot more exploration needed in order to break Carcassonne down into its core components. For the time being, however, this should be enough to give you some idea as to the basic strategy of the game.
In the meantime, please feel free let me know your thoughts in the comments below. What is your favourite aspect of the game? What are the strategies you enjoy?