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.