Carcassonne

This Wednesday on Xbox LIVE Arcade featured another treat from the Rhineland -- Carcassonne. It's a dirt-simple tile-laying game in the classic German style. It's not flashy, and unlike Guitar Hero, would be painful to watch instead of play.

Carcassonne is the second German board game to hit Xbox LIVE Arcade, following the launch of Settlers of Catan in May. The games share much in common -- they both feature tile mechanics (albeit in very different ways). They both have heavy reliance on luck (dice in Catan, tile drawing in Carc). They both have pretty pieces and minimal bookkeeping during gameplay (meaning, there aren't a ton of tiny little numbers to keep track of). They both won the Spiele de Jahres award (the Eurogame equivalent of the Oscars, but without the dresses). They have both sold like ice water-in-Africa out here in meatspace, and they've both spawned an endless series of expansions and variants, some good, some complete crap. In other words, Carcassonne and Catan are the most logical transfers over to XBLA.

The root game, designed by Klaus-Jurgen Wrede and sold in the US by Rio Grande Games, is ridiculously easy to teach. I play it regularly with my 7 year old. When she came home from 1st grade with her year-long journal, her favorite-thing-to-do-on-a-weekend page was "play carcisoon with my dade." Draw a tile, play a tile. Edges have to match (City, Field, Road). Drop a meeple (Geekspeak for 'little wooden dude') on the tile to claim said city/field/road. There are some subtleties of course, but the tutorial included in the XBLA version provides more instruction than I give the average dinner guest whom I trap into playing a game.

Asking whether Carcassonne on XBLA is a good game is off the mark. Carcassonne, as it is imagined in any format, is a good game. If you like German board games, you will at least appreciate Carc. The real question is "how does it translate?" And the answer is "perfectly." The game's visuals are simple, as they should be. The nuances -- little 3D effects -- are more useful and entertaining than Catan's, which I found essentially unusable. And as is the case with most online board game implementations, a game of Carc online takes less than half the time as it does around a table.

 

This time compression is the most surprising advantage of online board games. Neither Catan or Carc require lengthy setup or in-game bookkeeping, but somehow, the process of actually moving through turns on both is blisteringly fast. A two player game of Carc against an AI opponent can be played in under 10 minutes. The ability to iterate so quickly means that the level of strategic intensity you can bring to bear in a short time is unique. I can't honestly recall a time I've played more than 2 games of Carc in an in-person gaming session. But I've played 4 games of XBLA Carc in an hour and not even noticed the passage of time. As a result, I understand the game better. I've crammed months worth of Carc strategy lessons into a handful of days.

The implementation isn't without warts, most noticeably the sound. The sound is terrible overall, but the soundtrack in particular is hideous. I turned off the music instantly, and replaced it with a nice Brandenburg Concerto recording which seemed appropriate for the setting. There are other minor annoyances. The city walls sometimes obscure other pieces. You can't rotate the board. But in the end these are all nits and lice, and don't detract from the fact that the game is easier to play, easier to find opponents for, and easier to get good at than the root game on a kitchen table. I can't think of much higher praise.

But perhaps the most enjoyable aspect of playing Carc online isn't the game as much as it's the atmosphere. Whereas a pickup game of Gears of War on Xbox LIVE can be painfully punctuated with threats, 12-year-olds and general douchebaggery, my XBLA games of Carc have been wonderfully civil. Having now played 1.2 million hours of Catan and Carcassonne on XBLA, and I can honestly say they've been some of the most pleasant online gaming hours I've had. By far the most persistent infraction on the polite gentleman's social hour has been silence. But I generally attribute that to the hours in which I play -- usually during the day, or at least early evening. I imagine people just like me, on conference calls, bored to death, sneaking in a 20 minute game. The sound is off, the headset sitting unused on the desk.

But more often, the person on the other end of the headset is a heck of a nice guy; pleasantries are exchanged, with occasional conversation about the game. Most recently, I had a charming conversation with a British gentleman about Gencon, and he actually gave me (I'm not making this up) a "good show mate" every time I screwed the pants off of him. If players are using the supported Xbox LIVE camera, the experience can be nearly as pleasant as sitting around the table with friends.

This gentility is a welcome change. I've been insulted by pubbers in UNO. I've been harassed in Worms. It seems it takes the Germans to bring out the gentlemen in us all.

Do you need to buy it? Well, not really. Like so many wildly popular German board games, there are dozens of ways to play this game online already. But none of them are nearly as well done, and none of them feature the matchmaking, ranked play, voice chat, or camera support. Saying "at ten bucks its a bargain" is a weak way to end a perspective. Carcassonne isn't just another game on XBLA; it's proof positive that the way we think about "board games" can, and indeed should, be changing in this century.

So bring it on. Give me the expansions; I'll even buy the bad ones. Unleash Puerto Rico, to which Microsoft just secured the rights. And hurry up and finish Alhambra. While a handful of random web sites in the corners of the geek community have tried to bring board games online, it has taken Microsoft, for all its corporate flaws, to bring us gamegeek nirvana, and I, for one, am thankful.

Comments

I'm SO happy they're finally bringing these out, and giving international games a broader exposure. Someday, we'll break the hold that Monopoly has on the general gaming psyche. I hope this and Catan do very well.

Great perspective Rabbit. It really is a wonderful game.

Now you're tempting me even more. I'm a big fan of both Catan and Carcassone, and played a ton of both in college. I haven't played either in awhile, because of the usual lack of interested parties reason, so I jumped at the chance to play Catan and bought it right away.

But after an initial few games, I haven't touched it again. I think what I loved best about the table top games of Catan was the fierce bartering that went on between friends. A lot of cajoling, sneaky backstabbing... and it's lost playing with strangers.

However, I will probably say I enjoy Carcassone better than Catan, yet I'm leary of spending another $10 on an XBLA game that I'll love for a few days then put down. Maybe a few more short demo games will convince me to drop the cash.

I was actually thinking how for $10 it's not really all that great. Catan is really engaging multiplayer and I felt it was worth the $10 but Carcassonne hasn't engaged me nearly as much. I couldn't pony up the cash. If they'd drop it to like $7 or $5 it might be enough for me, but XBLA seems determined on the $10 or bust policy.

I've been totally diggin' it, especially the matchmaking aspect. With Catan, you've gotta coax out communication with random people and commit to a 45 minute game. With Carcassonne, I'm always done in twenty minutes, I can play with 2-5 people and voice chat is optional. Even my wife has tentatively waded into the Live waters.

Catan and Carc are very different games. I prefer Catan as I find it more strategic, but Carc is a great casual game.

As for legs -- I think it depends on how you think about online games. Personally, I like having a stable to choose from. Do some games go out of style? Sure, I haven't played Worms in a while. But that doesn't mean I WON'T. It just means there's new stuff distracting me.

Oooh, Shiny!

Do you think we're ever going to see more complex, longer games on XBLA like Diplomacy, Axis and Allies, Samurai Swords, and Game of Thrones? I like Cattan as much as the next guy, but tend to reserve my casual gaming to my handheld.

I'd easily pay 20$ for either of these games for a full-fledged XBLA experience and the same treatment that was given to Cattan and Carcasonne.
Justifying another gaming machine to my girlfriend is a different story, but I can cross that bridge when I get there.

I think there's a diminishing return problem. How many people actually play a game of A&A or Diplomacy in a given year? I love them, but its easily three years since I've played either, in favor of other new games. Add to that the need for solid AI, and I think it will be some time before someone invests the money in a "real" wargame conversion.

I'm right there with you though.

Dysplastic wrote:

Do you think we're ever going to see more complex, longer games on XBLA like Diplomacy, Axis and Allies, Samurai Swords, and Game of Thrones? I like Cattan as much as the next guy, but tend to reserve my casual gaming to my handheld.

I would LOVE to see Samurai Swords on Live. I also bought A Game of Thrones and its expansion, but haven't had a chance to play.

Anyone out there listening? I'd buy those games in a second.

GoT is brilliant. It's not complex, but it's perfectly balanced 3-5 players. There are several of the alternate rules you really have to play with though, most especially the fortress variant and the clash of kings battle variant. Those are pretty much must-use in my opinion, the others are mostly flavor and variety.

rabbit wrote:

I think there's a diminishing return problem. How many people actually play a game of A&A or Diplomacy in a given year? I love them, but its easily three years since I've played either, in favor of other new games. Add to that the need for solid AI, and I think it will be some time before someone invests the money in a "real" wargame conversion.

I'm right there with you though.

My only counter is to say that the only reason I don't play more of these games is because it's hard to set aside an entire evening and coordinate with my friends (some of whom do shift work) to play these games. Live would
A) Make the games go faster and
B) Make it easier to find people to play against,
which I think would bring closet or ex-boardgamers back into it by realizing that they can actually now just pick up a game whenever, and have it not last 6 hours.

I know, I know, I'm preaching to the choir. I just think it might be more profitable than you think, especially if marketed intelligently.

i'll throw a big thumbs up out here for it too.

i never played Catan or Carc before downloading demos of them on XBL, and now i own both.

I enjoy Carc much more, because you're self sufficient. You don't HAVE to try and trade with the other people to get ahead. saying that can come off as anti social, but more often than not, in a game of Catan, no one trades sh*t.

It's this kind of things which makes me feel that eventually, I will become a console gamer. But for now I will just pretend I never said that.

Consoles suck, PC rocks! Great writeup.

Koning_Floris wrote:

It's this kind of things which makes me feel that eventually, I will become a console gamer. But for now I will just pretend I never said that.

I have to admit, I'm really starting to feel the need to get off the PC upgrade train and just buy a 360. All these great XBLA games, built in voice, my comfy couch to play on.

Sigh.

A shame these games only comes for Xbox :/ Would love to play them. But still not far enough out to actually buy a console (pc-fanatic..). Maybe Ill give up one day too.

You can find these games on PC as well, do a search for assobrain, they have both Carc and Catan. They are called by different names but they are there.

I'm THIS close to convincing one of my non-video-game friends to by an Xbox because of XBLA.

Its true you can find the games in other versions on PC too, but it still doesnt have the same "easy accessibility", and as the short review says, they arent really as well done either.
Its understandable MS wants to keep as much as possible Xbox Only (so the poor souls dont realize how much better the PC is ^^). Still, such games seems to have fit perfect into the plans of Vista-Xbox "Games for Windows Live". Might even have been a reason for some to upgrade to Vista.

Looks like the plan is working though.

rabbit wrote:

I'm THIS close to convincing one of my non-video-game friends to by an Xbox because of XBLA.

Some day soon my father will play Catan or Carc with the Goodjers. I guess I beat you to the punch?

Dysplastic wrote:

Do you think we're ever going to see more complex, longer games on XBLA like Diplomacy, (etc.)

I'm not sure that Diplomacy would benefit that much from an XBLA treatment. All of the Dip games I've played lasted over six hours. Getting people to commit to that amount of time is difficult, although it might make it a little easier to find opponents than an in-person game. One of the great benefits to putting boardgames online is that it streamlines all the bookkeeping, but that counts for relatively little in Diplomacy. It would turn a 7 hour game to a 6.5 hour game. However, XBL could be a great way to play a PBEM game. It has built in text, voice, and video messaging, plus voice and video real time chat. Now that I think of it, XBL could be a great communication tool used in conjunction with a regular email-adjudicated game.

isobelle wrote:

i never played Catan or Carc before downloading demos of them on XBL, and now i own both.

I never played Catan or Carc before playing them on XBL either and now I'm hooked. Board games on my console are a great way to get a quick gaming fix in that I would never have thought would be a big deal to me but they are now. I bought a whole bunch of Microsoft points and now wondering which great games I have missed and need to pick up right away.
And that's the other great thing about XBL is I get to try them all out first!