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Carcassonne: The Castle Playtest Report

January 8th, 2004: Mike Sugarbaker says...
Carcassonne: The Castle Playtest Report

I admit that our newest poll is more cryptic than usual, particularly if you aren’t already a fan of the Carcassonne franchise. Carcassonne is now large enough in Europe to challenge the hegemony of the last big megahit, everyone’s favorite settlers from a little spot called Catan. More to the immediate point, it is now getting remixes from superstars: namely, this new two-player design from Reiner Knizia.

Yes, this is entirely a Knizia design, rather than a collaboration between Knizia and Carcassonne creator Klaus-Jurgen Wrede as we first reported. The differences from the basic paradigm of Carcassonnes before it are significant, and arguably improvements (from a certain perspective). Once you’re in the Castle, the days are gone when you just had to think about matching the edges up. You don’t have to match tile edges at all in this game, unless there are Roads, or rather Paths or Walkways or whatever-the-hell. (There are Towers, Keeps, Courts which are analogous to Fields, and these Road things in the Castle. Towers and Keeps are considered closed when they are entirely surrounded by things of a different type, orthogonally speaking. Since Towers, Keeps and Courts can take up as little as a quarter of a tile, you may close a little baby territory in just one move, but you also find yourself nearly giving other folks major additions to their properties in the same move.) So placement feels both more and less constrained as compared to other Carcassonnes, and when a Path gets in the way of your plans, you feel it that much more.

Scoring all these things works more or less as you’d expect. The Paths have Fountains on them, which work like the Lakes in Inns & Catheters. They are easy to mistake for road-closing junctions, but they aren’t. Fields, uh, that is, Courts are scored entirely based on how many pre-printed little Markets they serve, as opposed to Cities. This is of course much like the big game hunting in Hunters & Gatherers, but the changed nature of the board and the tiles makes it much, much easier to cut your opponent off from what s/he needs to connect.

There’s also the border/score track, which has a couple of interesting effects. First, it constrains the play area. There’s a point bonus at the very end of the game for the player with the biggest Keep, and the bonus is equal to the size in tiles of the biggest zone with no tiles in it, but play is so constraining that I don’t see many ways to work this to your advantage. Second, there are little yummies along the way that you can score if you land on them exactly. They let you do things like get partial points for incomplete stuff (you can’t do this normally in The Castle), make a building worth double, or even take another turn. But landing on them exactly frequently means taking fewer points than you could for something – or taking a number that, well, you can’t get. Although the turn-by-turn qualities of the game feel less random than other Carcassonnes (due to each tile feeling a little less different from other tiles), the yummies can make it feel more random.

All in all, after this initial play I would recommend C:tC to people who find other Carcassonnes too light and fluffy, or feel that the 2-player experience lacks something in the other variants, or those who are just big fans. To others, I’d say try before you buy. There’s definitely a lot of fun and quality to be had in the Castle, but it made me feel a lot dumber than others in the series, so maybe it won’t be to your taste.

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