Back in the 1990s, Settlers of Catan introduced many boardgame players to the joy that is German Games. But it is a new century, and a new franchise is emerging: Carcassonne. The original game was released by Hans im Glück & Rio Grande Games in 2000. It went on to become one of the best-selling games in a long time, grabbing a bevy of honors from critics and game-players.
With its tremendous sales, it was no wonder that expansions were developed. First, a give-away nine-tile expansion called The River was released at the 2001 Essen trade fair. Later, the more ambitious Carcassonne Expansion was released commercially. Both of these have been met with enthusiasm, and it would seem the appetite for all things Carcassonne shall continue to be fed. In 2002 an entire new game, Hunters & Gatherers was released, and the publisher promises yet another expansion for the original game that is in development (Builders & Traders, which shown at the Nürnberg game fair).
Kevin: So Mark, What was your reaction to the original Carcassonne? Do you think it merited the expansions for it, and now a follow-up game?
Mark: I was one of those that found the original Carcassonne to be a solid, dependable, even useful game. Though it's never become one of my all-time favorites, it's a game that I'll usually play at the drop of a hat. It fits well in a lunch hour (and on a lunch table), and is pretty easy to explain to newcomers. They tend to enjoy it, too. Add in the fact that it's inexpensive, attractive, and easily portable and you're left with a game that may be the best "gateway" game for introducing people to our hobby since Settlers of Catan.
My appreciation of the game increased a bit when I managed to play a number of 2-player games. Combined with a gradual memorization of the tile mix, I learned that the game can be played with a great deal of … ahem … player interaction (putting it nicely). Though some people don't enjoy the game as much when players are actively trying to thwart each other-such as playing tiles that make completion of another player's large city impossible, preventing the score and trapping a meeple-that's when I think the game is at its strongest. (Editor's note: "Meeple" is the term used for a players' pieces.)
Kevin: Hmmm, I differ somewhat with you here. I rather dislike card-counting, or in this case tile-counting. I've been thinking about playing Carcassonne with a few tiles left out-just to avoid the temptation of using tile-counting as a strategy. With the new "all or nothing" expansion tiles-I think it becomes even more attractive to have some uncertainty in the mix.
Mark: If an expansion for Carcassonne seemed likely before it won the Spiel des Jahre, it became a certainty afterward. While The River didn't add much to the game's basic strategies, it was a heck of a bargain (free!). The Expansion didn't literally expand the scope or nature of the game, either. It's still about scoring roads, cities, etc. However the double-strength meeple and all-or-nothing scoring tiles opened up some additional tactical choices in the game, enhancing the parts that already worked the best.
A standalone version of the game like Hunters & Gatherers is a minor surprise, especially when it doesn't vary the game's mechanics too much, either. As a game franchise, then, this is definitely following the Settlers model more than what happened with El Grande.
What about you, Kevin? What was your experience with the original game?
Kevin: I have to say I was left scratching my head about the big fuss when I first played original Carcassonne. I do like the game, and I have found it useful-it's easy to teach and play. When I reviewed my gaming log for 2002, I was amazed to note that I had played it 10 out of 12 months! In my opinion, The River expansion was cute, and while I may use it, I don't think it is all that important. As you mentioned, the Expansion is more important, and introduces some clever new ideas.
I am glad Hunters & Gatherers was released! Initially, I found myself skeptical, why do I need another Carcassonne? But upon playing I found a lot to like!
Let's go over what is in the box, and what the new concepts in this sequel are.
Physically, Hunters & Gatherers comes in the same small-sized box as the original game. The game has 91 tiles, which are the same size as those in the original game. The playing pieces include the expected meeples, but also include two round Fishing Huts for each player.
Tiles represent forests, meadows, rivers, and lakes. Each type of terrain has various features that can be present. For example, forests may have mushrooms and gold, meadows may have predators and game animals, and waterways have a few fish.
Kevin: I found the new graphics to be functional, but a bit spidery. I don't dislike them, but they are not as strong as the original game's.
Mark: My own opinion of the new tile graphics matches yours. They're attractive and nicely detailed, drawing comparisons to the Where's Waldo line of children's books. Unfortunately, those fine features make the artwork less functional in the play of the game. Many of the important elements on the tiles (e.g. predators, fish) are quite small, easy to miss as you scan a large board, or if a meeple is accidentally placed on top.
The basic idea of play remains from the original game; each turn you draw a tile, and place it. Players attempt to lay tiles in such a way to complete forests, hunting grounds, and river sections. At the same time, players must place their pieces in order to score the regions they are building. Each player has six such meeples to use, one of which is assigned to the scoreboard.
Kevin: With only five meeples in hand, placement becomes dearer. I really like the reduced number of meeples in Hunters & Gatherers. I find the decision over whether to commit a meeple more important in this version of the game.
Mark: I didn't notice this as much. The fewer number of meeples feels balanced by the fact that they're scored and returned to your hand more often in Hunters & Gatherers.
Gatherers are meeples placed in forests. When a forest is completed they score two points for each forest section. However, gatherers left in an incomplete forest at the end of the game score nothing. All of the larger forest tiles have a gold nugget. Whenever anyone completes a forest with a gold nugget within it, they receive an additional turn and draw from the bonus tiles. Bonus Tiles? Yes indeed, there are 12 special bonus tiles available. They are all good, and merely playing one represents an "extra" turn. Since they are awarded to the player who completes a forest, players now have an interest in finishing an opponent's forest.
Fishermen closely resemble the role of the highwaymen from the original Carcassonne. This game's rivers aren't the impenetrable waterways of the freebie expansion, they're networks that score according to their length. They terminate in forests, but also in lakes that include fish, each of which represents a bonus point for the river. Fishing huts are the first pieces in the Carcassonne franchise that can peacefully coexist with other meeples, specifically the fishermen-just don't try this with another fishing hut! Only at the end of the game do they score, one point per fish in the entire river system (typically a network of fish-stocked lakes connected by rivers).
Hunters are the meeples placed in the open plains. Many field tiles show herd animals or predators. When a field is completed a hunter will score for all herd animals present, less any predators. Hunters also score for any undefined field they are in at the end of the game.
Kevin: I found this change to be a really good one! In effect this replaces the original game's farmer scoring. With the hunters, there are some important points awarded at the end of the game, but not the avalanche of points awarded at the end of the original Carcassonne. I like that you can place predators in another hunter's field to reduce his score. Best yet, it is much easier to see how a meadow will score. I was always confused with original farmer scoring.
Mark: The world of boardgamers is divided into those that were bothered by the farmer scoring in the original game, and those that weren't. Hans im Glück devised an alternate scoring system for the original game, (that Rio Grande Games opted to ignore). The River was said to make huge, game-swinging megafarm layouts less likely, and the Expansion's big meeple and different tile configurations may change the farmer-based strategies.
Now Hunters & Gatherers features a notable change in the way these area-based meeples are scored, although I always felt the original system worked fine. Often after one eye-opening episode of endgame farmer scoring, players learned to see those situations developing and adjust their strategies accordingly-either muscling in to share/steal the scoring, or else work to limit the farm's score. However, that viewpoint isn't shared by everyone, and obviously not the game's publishers (who may be justifiably interested in making the game easier to understand on the first play).
Kevin: You almost make my point for me. The end-game points of Carcassonne must be experienced once in order for a player to realize their importance. I've often seen new players create lots of little cities, not fully realizing they are enriching another player as they do so. With Hunters & Gatherers, the completion of forests has no direct link to the scoring of meadows. I like this disconnect between the two methods of area-scoring.
Mark: In Hunters & Gatherers, the hunters are less likely to score huge points, not when other players have the (limited) ability to decrease their score through the placement of tiles with predators. On the other hand, two of the bonus tiles are designed for sweeping plays to change the outcome of hunter scoring, either by negating all of a field's predators or stealing the field outright. The latter requires some skill and luck to use effectively-similar to stealing control of a forest (or city in the original game). The outcome of a close game can turn on the timing of its appearance, or whether it appears at all. I don't find it to be excessively powerful, just something to watch out for (or pursue for yourself by closing other players' forests to draw more bonus tiles).
The new forest tiles are interesting. Of course it's wonderful to finish your own forest that contains a golden nugget-you score the forest and get to place a bonus tile. A more difficult situation is whether to finish someone else's. You might still place a meeple on the other features of the tile, and of course you get to draw and place a bonus tile. However, you score the forest for your opponent. You also return a meeple to his limited pool. Do you advance your overall position through this play? Possibly. The bonus tiles are all good or better-than-good, but you should be careful about helping other players too much.
A clever little feature of the golden nugget forest tiles is that they've helped eliminate the special rule from Carcassonne about the smallest, 2-tile cities scoring half what the larger cities do. Those similarly small, 2-tile forests score just like their larger cousins in Hunters & Gatherers. However, they'll never contain a golden nugget, thanks to the tile mix.
Something else about tile mix makes mergers and takeovers of rivers and forests less common than in the original game. There's a different mix of forest types, and fewer simple curves and straights for the rivers (and more terminating lakes). For anyone that's drawn too many of the original game's roads, turn after turn, this is an improvement. How you feel about the diminished role of mergers will hinge on whether you like your Carcassonne peaceful or combative.
Kevin: All in all, I feel Hunters & Gatherers brings what was good from the original and improves the concept. The weakest concept from Carcassonne has been abandoned: the cloisters have no corresponding role in this sequel. In all ways I think this new edition is the superior game.
However, I am doubtful that we will see any more development for Hunters & Gatherers. Carcassonne is the award-winning game, with one commercial expansion under its belt, and another promised. It seems unlikely that Hunters & Gatherers will have any real chance at winning awards, as it is in many ways just Carcassonne 2.0. Commercially, offering expansions for Hunters & Gatherers would be treacherous ground. The potential for confusion to consumers would be very real (What? This expansion is for a different game also called Carcassonne?) Hunters & Gatherers seems analogous to the Historical Scenarios offered for Settlers of Catan.
So, in my view, if you want to hook up to a game system that will continue to grow and evolve-sign up for Carcassonne. But if you want a finely wrought game that plays a tick better than Carcassonne, consider Hunters & Gatherers.
Mark: My conclusions are a little different. If you're a diehard Carcassonne fan, or were bothered by the original game's farm scoring rules, you'll be happy with Hunters & Gatherers. Also, if you're buying the game for family or other casual gamers, this new game might be a little easier to grasp. It's a real shame that the graphics are functionally a bit inferior because they're otherwise very attractive, and help make the game appeal to newcomers.
For those of us who prefer to play Carcassonne more aggressively, however, Hunters & Gatherers is a step in the other direction. These players should make sure they have the original game's Expansion before they buy Hunters & Gatherers.
- Mark Johnson
- Kevin Whitmore