Ok, before I started I should point out that in case it isn’t immediately obvious, this hasn’t been written by a three year old. Nor is it the direct thoughts of a three year old. Instead it’s a review based around games of Carcassonne that I had with my own son, who took one look at the box and decided that he was abandoning all plans for the weekend and learning to play. I was slightly dubious, after all the game suggests and age of 8 years and up on the box, but something occurred to me which made me agree to the idea: Carcassonne is regarded as one of the great gateway games, a game which convinces people who don’t know much about board games to learn a bit more, to realise that there’s more to board gaming than placing tiles on a grid to form rude words. For that to work it needs to be simple, easy to play and make them want to come back for more.
What better test audience than a three year old?
The idea of Carcassonne is simple: take tiles and place them on the table in such a way that you start building up a city complete with roads, monasteries and towns. Tiles need to match up, so if you’re placing a road it needs to join up to another road, with the same rules applying to cities and fields. This is where we started, even though there’s more to the game than just placing the tiles. As a jigsaw fanatic my boy was awestruck that these tiles could be placed anywhere that looked good; the sense of freedom afforded by the random nature of the tile order mean that the city grew organically, without boundaries (apart from the size of the table) and with no preset structure to adhere to. He loved it almost instantly. There were a few moments when he needed reminding about the idea of matching up the edges, but the excitement at forming a perfectly round road or building a massive town couldn’t be measured. Two games later we’d built two entirely different cities and we were both grinning at just how easily we could make something incredibly cool. We’d even started to drop a few meeples here and there, but without exploring the scoring system – he just liked seeing small men dotted around the place.
I’d assumed his interest wouldn’t last beyond out initial experiment; I was wrong. Next day, and we’re playing again. This time we try out the idea of using the meeples properly, placing one on a road or town while it’s being built up. As soon as the road ends, or the city is closed off without any gaps in it, then the scoring kicks in. We kept the scoring simple: 1 point when your road or town is finished (usually your score would depend on how big the road or town is) and it transformed the game. Despite my opponent being 33 years younger than me we were both having a fantastic time, and when my wife played as well, or when he dragged in his grandparents to play and could explain the rules almost perfectly after just a few games it struck me just how great this game is. If a pre-school child can pick it up after a few games, then you’d like to think anyone could.
And yet, with an older audience it takes on a whole new strategic level. You’re always trying to extent your own city features for more points, while at the same time keeping half an eye on that ever expanding town of your opponent’s and trying to close it off as soon as possible to minimise their own point gains. That’s not something I’d expect my son to understand just yet, but the very fact that he was able to learn it, and explain it to others, after just a few games speaks volumes about just why this is classed as one of the great gateway games available.
It’s incredibly easy to learn, enormous fun to play, makes you feel creative and clever at the same time, and can genuinely be played with people who are considerably younger than the box suggests. This is a game that will be kept readily to hand, whether it’s a rainy afternoon with the family or a Friday evening with some friends, and will be played a lot. For accessibility and enjoyment, it’s difficult to think of a game which beats it. Absolutely great, and my three year old agrees – we’ve already planned an afternoon of “building cities” this weekend, and I can’t wait.
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