Carcassonne is a tile-laying game that expands well from 2 to 5 players. With its simple rules, depth of strategy, and large number of available expansions, it's considered by many to be a perfect "gateway" to strategic boardgames. In this article, we'll review some of the common strategies for winning this popular game.
How to Win
The victory conditions for Carcassonne are simple: the player with the most victory points at the end of the game is the winner. Points are tallied throughout the game, and additional points for Farmers are scored at the very end. Since only one player usually scores points for a given feature, players are competing directly for those points, and so scoring is relative. For example, a move that would stop an opponent from gaining 10 points is better than one that would gain you 8.
Since winning a game of Carcassonne takes a combination of maximizing the amount of points you collect and reducing the amount your opponents get, a strong player will end up using a mixture of the tactics listed below.
Tile Placement - All roads lead to victory
Every tile placement should meet at least one of two objectives: improving your position to grant you points, or weakening an opponent's position to cost them points. The best placements are able to accomplish both at once. Strong placements for yourself include expanding or completing features on which you've placed a follower, or completing a City adjacent to one of your Fields. Blocking tactics to weaken an opponent may include:
expanding a nearly-complete City to force the placement of additional tiles
placing a hard-to-match tile near a Monastery, making it harder to complete the section
"sniping" a nearly-complete feature by linking it to a tile containing your follower, forcing an opponent to share points, or stealing them entirely
Cooperation - Beating them with smiles
In games of Carcassonne with 3 or more players cooperation between any two players is a great catch-up mechanic for any players falling behind, and may even push one of the cooperating players into first place. Let's look at a game where Black, Red, and Blue are in 1st, 2nd and 3rd place, respectively. If Red and Blue work together on a City to make it as big as possible and share the points, they'll be able to effectively counter any blocking attempts by Black(since they're placing 2 tiles to Black's 1), and will earn more points working as a team than Black can earn working alone. This could move Red into 1st place, and put Blue in 2nd, or at least close the gap with Black significantly. Either way, our cooperating players are now in a much stronger relative position.
Since alliances are so good at generating points, "sniping" a feature by taking it over completely is a risky move. If you can share the points with another player, you gain their cooperation in finishing the feature and will ultimately earn more points, while taking over forces players to either abandon the location or start blocking you in a bid for supremacy. In a multi-player game of Carcassonne, choosing to go it alone will often put you behind players who are willing to cooperate.
Follower Placement - Holding one back
Placing followers well is crucial to any strategy's success. As a general rule, players should never place their last follower on the board unless they are able to retrieve another one the same turn. In addition, followers should be spread out among different features, ensuring that any tile drawn will contribute to a feature that you have a follower on. Monasteries are the most versatile, since many kinds of tiles can be placed around them, but Cities and Roads should not be neglected either. Fields work a little differently from other features, and their use is described in more detail below.
Farmers and Fields- Riding herd
At the end of Carcassonne, points for Fields are tallied. As each one gives 3 points for every complete City it borders, a single Farmer meeple can easily generate 12 or 15 points (for 4 or 5 cities). The drawback is that followers placed as Farmers cannot be retrieved before the end of the game. For this reason, playing a Farmer early in the game is generally a waste. It deprives you of a follower and leaves too much open space for other players to block you with a road or other feature. Farmers come into their own in the middle and end of the game, once a number of Cities have been built and the scoring opportunities are more easily predicted.
Farmers are the one exception to a general cooperative strategy, especially in the end-game. Due to the large number of points at stake, it's often better to get exclusive control of a group of Cities by placing Farmers in multiple fields surrounding them. This prevents another player from forcing you to share the points at the last minute, and --if done correctly-- can deprive them of any points at all for that region.
In games where many players are concentrating on building large cities (together or alone), farmers are less valuable. In games where players complete many smaller cities, they can make or break the winner - especially in a close game. An effective player will watch the playing style of their opponents and look at the general layout of the board before committing to a Farmer-heavy strategy.
Core Carcassonne Tips and Things To Remember
When playing Carcassonne there are a few things to remember –
Firstly, when you complete a city, road, or cloister you will get your meeple back. This is essential to the game, and gives you motivation. It also means there is a perfectly legitimate strategy in scoring quickly. For instance, if you can complete three two-tile cities (the smallest possible city in the game), then it will potentially score 12 points – which is more than that one person who’s been building a five tile city and waiting for the right tiles to arrive – unless they have a pennant.
Secondly, scoring roads quickly means you can get points in rapid succession, especially near the start of the game. Score a three-point road as soon as possible and that puts you three points ahead of anyone else. If you start with a road ending tile, and can end a road, then do it.
You get the meeple back instantly.
This reminds me of that Glengarry Glen Ross scene –
A.B.C – Always Be Closing
The more you can close off the stronger your game will become, simply because you will be able to retrieve meeples at the same rate as getting points. If you can close a city off with one tile, then place it with a meeple. In the best case scenario, you are the only person with a meeple in that space and you get the points. In the worst case scenario, place your meeple one tile space away from something your opponents are trying to close. Then, simply, join the gap. This will make you incredibly unpopular, leeching off their success, but it means you can score off your opponent’s success with relative ease. It’s points, no matter which way you look at it. It may not be good for your interpersonal relationships – but this is Carcassonne strategy, not making sweet love on the Riveria. This is serious stuff.
This means that roads, although not as valuable as their city counterparts, can be used to score significant points near the start of the game. There are, ultimately speaking, more tiles with roads on them after all, meaning they are more likely to come out.
There is, of course, no reason not to play cooperatively to some degree, and this is a strategy that is often explored. I’ve seen it a few times around the gaming world, online at sites like Starlit Citadel, and in books like Ticket to Carcassonne by Steve Dee. They both raise fair points, and working with other players is something certainly worth considering. This is assuming you can work cooperatively in a competitive game with the people you game with.
The idea here being that you don’t lose points for equalling the number of workers in a farm, city, or road as another player. To quote the exact Carcassonne rules:
It is possible through clever placement of land tiles for there to be more than one thief on a road or more than one knight in a city. In a completed road or city, the player with the most thieves (on the road) or the most knights (in the city) earns all the points. When two or more players tie with the most thieves or knights, they each earn the total points for the road or city.
Interestingly, the same is the case for farmers sharing fields, however, it is stated in a different part of the rulebook.
This means that players can, in theory, work together, especially with the building of cities and roads. Likewise, however, if you want to play aggressively, it is possible to use tile laying to block players off. Placing two meeples on two separate city spaces before joining them up is one way. This is a somewhat aggressive Carcassonne strategy, as it will ensure that you steal the points that belong to your opponent, and blocking is as much a part of Carcassonne as scoring points. You can, inadvertently, get your opponents to finish your road or city by starting along their logical route for completion. It becomes a win/win situation.
The Cooperative Cloister Carcassonne Strategy
Getting/persuading your opponents to work for you is something that isn’t just limited to roads or cities. It also works with cloisters, however, more passively than with the other two. One of the tricks with cloisters is to build them next to where an opponent will likely want to build a road, and/or where an opponent will likely want to complete a city. That means you will need to fill in fewer tiles yourself to get the points. This works two ways.
Firstly, every tile they place around your cloister is valuable real estate to you.
Secondly, by getting others to contribute to your cloister you will complete it faster than if you were doing it alone. Completing the cloister means that you, as the player, get your monk back. Getting your monk back faster means you can place it out again, on a road or in a city or on another cloister.
“Earlier you mentioned City tiles being worth more, should I solely go for City?”
No. City tiles are, statistically speaking, worth more in the game; however, they are also difficult to gain dominance on. It is so easy for a city to go unfinished in a game where there are more than two players – especially if those players want to play aggressively.
Instead just be aware of city tiles. If one comes out that is open, that can perpetuate a city opening you see on the board, then it may be worth going for. Remember that closing city tiles are not few and far between. Instead, there are a fair few within the tile stack. This means you can afford to explore a city and make the most out of it; however, if you find yourself opening up too many avenues to shut off then it is far more of a gamble. The points payoff will be huge, but the risk is larger. Thus the odds of an opponent coming in or blocking you off so that only one specific tile will complete your city, is much larger.
So, by all means, a city may be the “how to win at Carcassonne” simple answer; however, it is also the biggest gamble. Remember that an unfinished city is still worth points – but half the value of a finished one. Going on a sole city strategy is not a wise move as it becomes easy for opponents to (a) muzzle in on your strategy (b) block you or (c) make your life difficult. Instead, Carcassonne needs a mixture of strategies in order to win the game.
Which strategies you adopt at a given point in a game of Carcassonne will vary depending on the number of players in a game and the choices they make. Careful follower placement and cooperation go a long way towards generating points, but the randomness of tile draws makes recommendations such as "focus on cities" useless. Instead, players should focus on evaluating each move based on the positions of other players' followers in relation to their own, and working to maximize the points they gain in comparison to everyone else. This will often include a mix of blocking, cooperation, and capitalizing on a lucky draw, depending on the situation.