This article is meant to lay the groundwork for how to master the board game Carcassonne (Wikipedia). I do not intend to explain the rules of the game and I assume that the reader is familiar with the basic mechanics of the rules. If need be, I will of course refer to a specific rule to prove a point. Over the years, we have tried various rule sets and different expansions, and we have finally settled on playing with first edition rules and only one expansion, Inns & Cathedrals. Even though some specific parts of this article will pertain only to games using that particular setup, most strategies are valid for other combinations as well (even for games in general).
I am making two assumptions for the majority of this guide, which both are crucial. Firstly, I assume that there are five players, and secondly I assume that the goal of the game is to get a good a rank as possible (as opposed to getting as many points as possible). I will explain why I have made these assumptions later, but just take my word for that they are very important for the strategy of the game. Most of what I say is relevant for all games anyway, but I have provided a special part discussing number of players and why the goal of the game has to be determined in advance and what consequences the choice entails.
That being said, who am I to lecture about how to play Carcassonne? No one, really. I have never participated in a competition, but I have played the game several times a week for a couple of years together with friends who are as analytic and interested in games as I am. Even if I am confident that we are pretty close to mastering the game, I write this mostly because I want to focus and clear my own mind. If someone happens to find it interesting or rewarding in any way, that is a significant bonus, but it is not what makes me write in the first place.
Please note that even if I have originated many of the ideas in this article, I am indebted to my friends. Without them, I would never have played the game as much as I have and I would never have reached the conclusions presented here. So credit where credit is due.
Table of contents
Repeated luck is called skill
Shared joy is double joy
Importance of relative points
When to play a follower
When to use the big follower
Number of players
Playing for position
Playing when losing
Playing the fields
Repeated luck is called skill
When playing Carcassonne for the first time, it feels much like throwing dice; sometimes one gets the desired tiles, but most often not, and the winner is determined by chance. As is the case in all games involving any kind of luck, the quintessential idea is to maximise the probability of a positive result and minimise that of a negative one. Very few tiles played in Carcassonne are trivial or without meaning (seldom more than one or two during an entire game). Positive things include helping oneself and disrupting one’s opponents. Negative things include disruption of one’s own play and helping opponents. Therefore, strive to play each piece so that it achieves both positive aspects at once, or, if that is not possible, at least one of them, prioritising helping oneself over causing damage to an opponent. The best play is a piece which helps oneself and, at the same time, is bad for someone else (preferably more than one opponent).
A rule of thumb in this spirit is that you should always have several different projects to develop that require different kinds of tiles (thus maximising the chance that the next tile is useful). Try to have at least one road and one city being built all times and avoid having two projects which require the same kind of tile to be completed. There number of ways to master luck in Carcassonne is paramount to my desire to describe them, but let me just leave it at saying that most of them will come gradually with experience.
Conclusively, the most desired skill in Carcassonne (and most other games) is to be able to maximise each play so that it leads to the goal of winning the game. Even if rotating the piece in a certain direction will only give you very slight advantage, doing so will in the long run build up your chances of winning tremendously. Recognising how to do this for every piece takes a lot of experience and analysis, but I consider it the most important skill needed to win.
Shared joy is double joy
In any game of more that two players, there is an effect which has to be employed in order to win. If you do not, you will lose to players who do. Fortunately, it is rather simple. Assuming five players, let us consider the following two theoretical examples.
• The five players build one city each, using three tiles with no shield. Each gains six points in absolute terms, but zero points relatively (since all the players earn the same amount of points, the game is left unchanged by the cities, bar the possibility to gain more points on the field adjacent to them).
• Three of these players cooperate, building one large city instead, and they will then earn eighteen points each (using the same tiles). The two players left out still only get six points for their completed individual cities.
Compare the result between these two. As mentioned, the effect on the game in the first case is non-existent, save for the effect on the fields. In the second case, however, three players remain unchanged relative to each other (same as for the first case), but have gained twelve points over the other two. Again barring the effect on the fields, this leads to the conclusion that shared joy is indeed doubled joy. Whenever possible, strive to cooperate with other players to maximise your own (and their) points.
In practice, this means that you have to devise ways by which to gain access to cities and roads being built. It requires experience to recognise some of the more creative ways of doing this, but simply placing a tile and a follower so that you need only one more to have joined the city is most often enough. Note that you shall not use the large follower for this purpose, since you will then be building the project on your own. The idea is to cooperate so that your tiles and another player’s tiles both add to both of your scores.
Consider a city being built jointly by two players and the third player has the option to sneak in as described in the previous paragraph. Assuming that it is early in the game, the two players building the city will not wait for a means to exclude the third player (since they have adopted the principle of shared joy, they realise that even if the third player gains more than they do, they still win out compared to the two left, which leaves a net positive effect for them). Perhaps they will not themselves play the tile than joins their city with the third player’s, since it might be bad to waste a tile that the third player will play anyway later on. Now to the point: If the third player would have put his big follower instead of a small one in order to share, the two other players would have done everything in their power to prevent him from joining them. This is extremely important, since playing the big follower is often a terrible mistake which will lose you points and possibly the game. The big follower has its use, but it is not to steal moderately large cities at the outset of the game.
Thus, in Carcassonne it is vitally important to cooperate as much as possible. If you are the only one doing this, you will win every single time you play (I am talking out of personal experience here). Finally, when everyone has realised that this is the case, a new skill is needed to know when the stakes are high enough that one ought not to cooperate, but more on that later.
Importance of relative points
I would like to make a statement that, when stated, might seem obvious, but which very few players follow. The absolute number of points amassed in a game is irrelevant; it is the relative number of points that matters. In other words, the important thing is how many points you have compared to you opponents. Carcassonne (and many other games) is won by having more points than your opponents, regardless of how many points one actually has! The most valuable application of this insight is that points do not have a fixed value. Scoring two points against opponent A might be much better than scoring a hundred points against opponent B (albeit a somewhat extreme example).
In the early stages of the game, it is never clear who will come out ahead, so this idea of relevant points is not crucial. Instead, strive to maximise your own points regardless of the opponents. As the game progresses, identify which players threaten your position or which players you have the chance to beat and focus on gaining points towards them. Sometimes it is necessary to realise that it is highly unlikely to beat a certain player and put him or he out of your mind entirely.
Example: Towards the end of a three-player game, Angus is in the lead with 140 points, having left Morn and Nick far behind with 40 and 60 points respectively. There is one 14-piece road with an inn, currently shared between Morn and Nick. Morn has the option to finish it on her turn, giving herself and Nick 30 points. Assuming that the rest of the board is fairly neutral, she should always play somewhere else, even if it brings only a single point. The reason for this is that she can never catch up with Angus anyway (being 100 points behind), which means that points against him is worth nothing. Since she shares the road with Nick, finishing it would give her a total of zero points relative to him. Therefore, any other play is preferable, even if brings only a single point towards Nick.
When to play a follower
As I have already mentioned, followers should be played in such a way as to maximise the possibility that tiles are useful. However, even if you do this, you will repeatedly run into the problem of whether to play follower or not, especially when you have only a few. It is difficult to say anything in general about this, except:
• Never deploy your last follower if you do not get one back the same turn
Even if you have played wisely and can use many kinds of tiles to build on you various projects, there is still the possibility that it will take several turns for you to regain a follower (if you have not played wisely, it might be disastrous to play the last follower). Some of the tiles you will be playing in the meantime will generate no points at all. Compare this to a trickle of points (two or three each turn from small roads or towns), and you will see that deploying your last follower will have to earn you a lot of points to be worth it (cloisters are never worth it, but huge cities or fields towards the end of the game might be).
Of course, I have deliberately over-emphasised the importance of not deploying the last follower. There are situations when you should play the last follower, but the situation is still very awkward.
When to use the big follower
There are exceptions to the rule of single joy is doubled joy when you actually want to play the big follower (or two small on two separate tiles) in order to establish single ascendancy in an area. There are three things to take into consideration.
• In some games, there are pivotal projects which will determine the outcome of the game (a huge city or a field with, say, ten adjacent towns). If you have the option to grab all those points for yourself, you will win the game if you do and then sharing is not an option. Use the big follower and hope that no one else will be able to.
• If all the players are conscious about the principle of shared joy, situations can arise when all players share a certain project except for yourself (in certain cases, it is only necessary with three others already into the project). In these cases, joining in and sharing will only give you relative points in that they will not leap ahead of you when the finish the project, so playing a small follower will probably result in you being excluded or the project never being finished. Sometimes, this might be sufficient for your needs if you need the big follower elsewhere, but if you can, try to grab all the points for yourself.
• Bear in mind that you have to use the big follower sometime during the game. It might be wise not to deploy it too early (due to the risk of it being trapped), but not using it at all or using it at the end when a single follower would have sufficed, means that you have made a mistake somewhere along the way. When there is opportunity to play the big follower, ask yourself this question: is there a reasonable chance that there will be a better opportunity later? If yes, keep the big follower. If no, go ahead and use it.
Number of players
As promised in the introduction, we have now gained enough knowledge of the game to understand why the number of players is so crucial. I will make the claim that playing with five players is very different from playing with four, so it goes without saying that a two player game is entirely different from a six player one. Fortunately, the variations follow a single rule which I will try to explain.
As we have seen, there is a delicate balance between grabbing and sharing in Carcassonne, and this is shifted by the number of players. Let us take the extreme opposite of what I have been describing hitherto, namely playing a two-player game. In such a game, there is no sharing at all, since gaining a point for yourself is exactly equal to removing a point from your opponent. A game like this is not very interesting to play, but I do believe it is extremely useful as a tool to understand the concept of relative points.
As the number of players grows, the importance of sharing increases and the amount of grabbing decreases. I have played several hundreds of games with four or five players and they are very different, which is perhaps most notable when it comes to deploying the big follower. In a five-player game, it is alright to share a project between three players most of the time. In a four-player game, this is not true, which leads to a dramatical increase in big-follower deployments and much more grabbing in general. Playing six players will almost remove the importance of the big follower all together, except for the endgame.
Playing for positions
Another assumption I made in the introduction was that of playing for position rather than points. This simply means that the only important thing is where you place in the game, regardless of how many points you have. After careful consideration, I am certain that this way of playing is much more interesting than playing for points. Why?
Because when playing for position, what the other players do becomes much more important. If playing for points, your sole consideration is always to calculate how to maximise your own points regardless of the position of your opponents, but when playing for position, the importance of relative points has to be taken into account. This requires more skill and makes the game more complex and varying. Also, this is the way most tournaments are run.
If you do not think this question matters, have a look at the example in Relative points, which would be very different indeed should they play for points rather than position.
Playing when losing
The strategy employed when winning is very different from that used when losing. When you have many points, focus on increasing your lead steadily and avoid risking points or grabbing for too much. This ought to be fairly obvious.
When losing, the opposite is true. If you know that you are going to lose, you can stop playing cautiously and instead invest in high-risk projects. Another important point, which is true for all games, is that sometimes you have to assume that a certain tile will be played. Let me use an example to explain:
Example: Morn has almost zero points, except for a huge amount of points locked up in a city that requires a single tile (of which there is only one left) to finish. She should then play as if that tile is granted. Why? Because if the tile is never played, how she plays will not matter; she will lose anyway. If it is played, however, her decisions will matter greatly, because she is then in touch with the others again.
So, in certain cases, you have to assume that certain things will happen. If you lose if they do not, assume that they do, and play accordingly.
Playing the fields
Knowing how and when to go for a field is perhaps the most demanding part of Carcassonne, something that is extremely hard to calculate and heavily based on experience. It is also tremendously important. Even if there is no straightforward strategy, there are some things to keep in mind:
• Keep your eyes peeled for fields which are about to be completely closed (by this I mean that no further followers can be played on them) and if they contain two or more towns, consider trying to get them before it is too late.
• If a field seems to develop into a pivotal project (that will determine the outcome of the game), decide if you stand a chance or not, and act accordingly. It is sometimes profitable to focus on something else entirely, although you have almost given up the possibility to place first; just make sure that only one opponent dominates the field.
• As chips in poker, a follower deployed on a field is irretrievable and should not be taken into account when considering to play another. In other words, do not make the mistake of thinking that you have to play another one, because otherwise the ones you played earlier are worthless.
Towards the end of the game, at least one important (or pivotal) field has usually emerged, and these can be used to your advantage even if you have no chance of attaining them. The absolutely worst case possible is when all your opponents share a pivotal field (say ten towns), which will lose you the game unless you have earned forty points towards each opponent earlier, which is not very likely. However, the other players know that it is next to pointless sharing forty points with all players but one (see the section about when to use the big follower) and will do their best to get another follower onto the field to ascertain dominance. By helping this player to accomplish this, you gain forty points against three opponents without even deploying a single follower! If s/he has a follower which can be connected to the pivotal field, play a tile to help the player in and thus help yourself back into the game.
The end of a Carcassonne game is somewhat different from the rest, because it requires a shift from a long-term perspective to a short-term one. Also, since the possible ramifications of each play are diminished as play progresses, the possibility to calculate probabilities increases. Again, there are some things to keep in mind; I will give you three rules of thumb:
• Keep count of how many tiles there are left so that you do not have unused followers at the end of the game
• When you know how many tiles there are and how many followers you have left to play, calculate when they give you the maximum number of points
• For the last few tiles, mentally move the tile around the board and see where it gives you the most points, because often there are possibilities you have missed
I will also provide some hands-on tips:
• Finish two-point towns at the edge of the board and place your follower on the field, which will give you four points
• Finish other people’s towns to earn four points from the field thus created, provided that you are sure of either being beaten by or beating them regardless of the points they gain from the completed town
• Play on outlying fields, even if the towns are already dominated by someone else, because your play might tip the balance to your advantage
• Having no way of giving yourself points, destroy other people’s points by playing an inn or a cathedral on other people’s projects, or placing a tile in such a way that an unclaimed city becomes unattainable
• Look at the scoring board and identify your main opponent (s/he who will place closest to you when the game is over) and concentrate on gaining points towards this player; ignore everybody else
This concludes my guide to the basics of Carcassonne strategy. Note that I use the word “basic”, because there is much I have not covered here. Furthermore, you will need a lot of hand-on experience to master the game, since theoretically describing in detail how to play is impossible. By following these general guidelines I have described, I think that most intelligent players can go further and figure out new ways of applying them. As is the case with all basic strategy, there are times when you have to deviate from them in order to win, but before you do that, make sure that you understand why.
If you have suggestions for further articles, questions about this one, or just general feedback, feel free to post a comment!