Welcome to my strategy guide for the board game ‘Carcassonne’, designed by Klaus-Jürgen Wrede.
There is a certain amount of luck in Carcassonne, because the tiles you draw each turn are random. However, tactics and strategy do play a huge part. Just like with many other well-known games which also have a random element, such as poker or Scrabble, the better player is more likely to win, and luck rarely plays a deciding role.
Do not focus on the total number of points you are going to score. Instead, focus on the whether or not you are going to score more than your opponents.
When choosing an overall strategy, think about tile efficiency. That is, how will you best score more points per tile than your opponents.
You need to get the balance right between scoring points quickly (i.e. constructing and claiming roads, cities and monasteries) and storing them up for the end of the game (i.e. fields). Both strategies are important, and if you just focus on one or the other you are unlikely to win. I would suggest you need to focus at least a quarter of your effort and resources on securing and developing your fields. In some highly tactical games it might be considerably more.
Make sure you do not play all of your meeples too early. If you run out you will not be able to take advantage if the opportunity arises for easy points. On the other hand, if you do not use them enough, you will have missed out on opportunities earlier in the game. As a rule of thumb, I like to have deployed around four or five of my meeples by the midpoint of the game, leaving me with two or three in reserve (though of course a number of the deployed meeples will return to me over the next few turns as constructions are completed). By the end-game (say, the last five tiles per player) I am usually down to one or two meeples in reserve. It is usually good (or at least it feels good) to play your final meeple on your final turn.
You should employ different tactics depending on the number of players.
- If there are three or more players, then collaboration becomes a very important part of the game. If two players jointly control a feature, then it is possible for them to score more points together than they would score individually. For example, suppose that three players each play two city tiles. One player completes a city on his own and scores six points. The other two players collaborate to create one big city which they share, and each scores twelve points. It is clear that collaborating has given two players an advantage. In theory, the player who will eventually emerge with the biggest advantage is the player who collaborates the most, with different players each time. In practice though, it is usually best to collaborate with players who are behind in the game. You should try to avoid being caught up in battles over field ownership, but if you can arrange for your opponents to fight among themselves while you remain friends with everyone, that would be ideal. Diplomacy and charm can really help you to do well.
- In two-player Carcassonne there is no point in collaborating. If you and your opponent share the points for a construction then it is of no use to either of you. You do gain a benefit however, if you let your opponent do all of the hard work laying tiles to grow a city, road, or farm, and then you sneak in and merge your own smaller feature with it, negating all of his work. Blocking a construction is also very important in the two player game; any point that you can prevent your opponent from scoring is effectively a point for you. Also, he will be unable to take back his meeple, reducing his point-scoring capacity for the rest of the game. Two-player Carcassonne is a lot more strategic and a lot more cut-throat than games with many players.
You should also play different strategies depending on whether you are winning or losing.
- If you are winning you should try to play it safe, and block opponents who are trying to score big to catch up with you. If you are losing you should take chances.
- If you are losing but have a chance of winning if only you can draw a certain tile or combination of tiles, then you should play a strategy that assumes you will in fact get those tiles. If you do not get them, well, you were losing anyway and it was worth a try. If you do get them though, you would kick yourself if you had not laid the other tiles necessary for victory when you had the chance.
An easy way to score a few points is to claim and complete in the same turn a small city or road, and take back the meeple straight away.
Except for monasteries, try to claim features which are on the edge of the playing area rather than in the middle, as it is harder to complete constructions when you must match with other surrounding tiles.
Try to claim features that you think you will be able to complete quickly: roads with one end already in place, cities with few open sides, and monasteries with locations which are already partially surrounded. That way you will be able to recall your meeple at short notice if needed.
Whenever you play a tile, try to place it so that it works towards more than one of your objectives. For example, if you claim a road that runs past your monastery, then when you place a road tile you are scoring points for both the road and the monastery.
If possible, try to sabotage an opponent’s plans by playing a tile that makes it difficult (or even impossible) for them to finish a construction. For example, playing a road tile that leads towards an opponent’s incomplete city could mean that he needs a tile with both a city and a road on it, and there are not many of those in the game.
There are some expert players who have memorised all the tiles in the game, and can at any point work out the likelihood of a particular tile coming up. Such a player can use the probabilities to make choices that maximise his chances of winning. The diagram below shows (using a hopefully obvious notation) the distribution of the tiles so that you can do that if you want to, or you could just learn a few of the more useful ones, like the number of monasteries with roads (2).
Now here are some tips for playing specific types of tile.
- Roads rarely score big points, so they should not form a major part of your strategy. However, you will draw so many road tiles during the game that you cannot afford to ignore them.
- Always try to have one road being built at any given time in the game so that if you draw a tile with a road on you can play it straight away. Having one road in progress should be enough; there is usually no need for a second one.
- Unlike cities, there is no scoring advantage in actually completing the road, so you should only complete the road if you need to retrieve the meeple. It is relatively easy to complete a road, so doing this is usually worth considering if at any time you are desperate for meeples.
- Roads can be used to divide fields, either to disrupt an opponent’s strategy, or to protect your own fields from being merged with an opponent’s.
- Road tiles can be placed next to an opponent’s city in such a way as to make it difficult (or even impossible) for him to complete his city.
- Just like with roads, always try to have one city being built any given time in the game so that if you draw a tile with a road on you can play it straight away.
- Unlike roads however, it is important to complete cities. For this reason, I recommend that you do not let a city become too big (more than, say, eight tiles) as they become more difficult complete as the number of edges goes up. Also, they become easier for an opponent to steal from you.
- A better tactic is to complete lots of small or medium sized cities adjacent to fields that you control, so that you can score points from both the knight and the farmer meeples.
- A single city tile you play can be worth two points to you, or potentially four points if it has a coat of arms on it, and even more if you control an adjacent field. This makes the city tile a high scoring tile; roads by comparison are only ever one point per tile. Therefore, if you can, you should try to claim the city tile that you play rather than letting an opponent benefit from it.
- Avoid building a city next to fields which are controlled by an opponent, or he will score points from it at the end of the game.
- Monasteries are a great way to get points and you should almost always place a meeple on it when you play one.
- Consider placing it in an area that you are planning to place tiles in, such as near one of your uncompleted cities or roads, or another monastery. Or, perhaps even more satisfyingly, place it next to an opponent’s uncompleted feature and let him complete it for you! You can encourage their help by putting open roads or unclaimed cities nearby too.
- Mastering the strategy for using farmers and fields is the trickiest part of the basic game. It requires long-term planning. It is crucial though because a well-placed farmer meeple can score a huge amount of points.
- Firstly, whenever you or an opponent play a farmer meeple, double-check that the field is not already claimed. Physically point out everywhere that the farmer could walk to, and make certain there is not already a farmer meeple there already. Do not rely on others to check for you as it would spoil the game if something was missed at this point.
- If an opponent has sole control of a large high-scoring field, consider trying to claim it for yourself. That is, play a farmer meeple in a nearby field, then in a later turn, try to play a tile that connects the two fields into one. Be aware however, that this is a high risk strategy. It is likely that the opponent will retaliate and try to merge in another field that he controls. If this happens, the two of you could get locked into a battle of wills that takes up a lot of resources and might leave one of you with nothing to show for it.
- Conversely, if you are the sole control of a large high-scoring field, keep your eye on your opponents’ smaller fields. Could they be merged into yours and is that what the opponent is planning? It is a sensible idea to have another smaller field of your own nearby that could be merged into your big one if necessary.
- Keep a lookout for unclaimed fields that are almost completely closed off, as these would be difficult for an opponent to steal. Consider claiming the field if it has, say, three or more completed (or almost completed) adjacent cities.
- I like to play a farmer meeple or two quite early in the game, and defend the fields if necessary. However, playing them late in the game and merging with an opponent’s field is an equally valid strategy. You must find out for yourself which style of play you prefer and choose a strategy accordingly.
Finally, let us consider the endgame – the last five or six turns. When you enter the endgame you must adjust your thinking away from long-term plans and towards short-term gain and maximising your advantage in the turns that remain. Here are some tips:
- Make sure you know exactly how many tiles remain and so how many turns you have left. You should time it so that you play your last meeple on one of your last few turns.
- In your mind, move your tiles around the board and see which places give you the most number of points.
- Can you benefit more from stopping an opponent from completing a city? They will be very keen to complete unfinished cities in the last few turns – use awkward road tiles to stop them.
- If you wait until the endgame to merge your farm with an opponent’s bigger one to steal or share the points, he will not have time to retaliate.
This page has been an extract from the book ‘Ticket to Carcassonne’, by Steve Dee.
Ticket to Carcassonne is an introduction to the hobby of modern board gaming, and an entertaining history of its origins. It is full of interviews, recommendations, and strategy guides.
Ticket to Carcassonne is available to buy at Amazon, in paperback or eBook form.