Early this summer, a big batch of Xbox Windows Phone and Windows 8 games disappeared from the Store and into the ether. Some of these games would return without their Xbox features, we reported, while others would stay gone for good. One of those delisted titles was Carcassonne, a strategic board game from German developer Exozet games. This week, it finally returned to Windows Phone.
Formerly a Windows Phone 7 title, Carcassonne has been upgraded to Windows Phone 8 status. The new version looks better and plays faster than ever. It has a new cross-platform online multiplayer mode that should make playing with friends easier than before. And even better, Carcassonne supports universal purchases. Buy it once and get the Windows Phone and Windows 8 and RT versions. Read on to find out how the game plays and what changes the Remastered version brings!
Know your tiles
In a game of Carcassonne, 2-6 players take turns placing tiles on the board. Tiles must be connected to a tile that has already been placed, and the features of each new tile must align with whatever tile it will be connected to. Grass must connect to grass, road to road, etc. The game ends when all 72 tiles (or more if playing with an expansion) have been placed.
Tiles may contain four basic features:
- City: Building cities (and scoring from them) is the main goal of the game. Some city tiles have blue medallions; these increase the point payout of the city. Cities are considered completed when they are entirely walled off by edge pieces. Upon completion, the player receives points based on the size of the city and his or her follower is returned. Incomplete cities provide a smaller number of points at the end of the game.
- Road: Like cities, players receive points and get their followers back after completing a road. Roads don't pay as much but still provide a reliable source of points.
- Cloister: 'Cloister' is a British word that I was unfamiliar with before playing the game; the XBLA version calls them monasteries. These are single tiles which must be completely surrounded by 8 other tiles in order to receive your points and follower back.
- Field: Each tile contains at least one of the previous features, but most also have fields. By placing a follower on a field, the player will receive points for each field that connects to it without being divided by roads. However, the follower does not get returned to player until the game ends, so seek score from fields judiciously.
After placing your tile during a turn, you may choose to place one of your seven followers on that tile. Followers are the only way to earn points. You'll need to use them wisely, holding on to them at times. Tie up all of your followers with incomplete cities and you won't get enough points to win.
Defeating the opposition
After getting a grip on the core game play, you can start to learn how to compete against your opponents instead of just doing your own thing. For instance, a skilled player can make it difficult or impossible for another player to finish a city by placing certain tiles near the city.
My favorite way to hassle opponents is by stealing cities or forcing them to share points. If the enemy has an incomplete city or road with a follower on it, you can't just build off of that structure by directly placing your own tile and follower adjacent to it. Instead, you need to place the same type of tile and your follower at least one title away.
Once you've done that, you're free to place a connecting tile between the two similar structures. Upon completion of the structure, both players will share the score for it. But if you manage to get more followers on the same structure than the enemy (by connecting non-adjacent pieces with followers), you'll steal the structure from the other player. Tough to do, but very satisfying.
Like the old version, the new Carcassonne includes 'The River II' 12-tile expansion, which can be toggled on or off before starting a game. At least, that's how it should work. At present, the IAP system appears to be broken. You can try to download your free expansion, but it never actually installs. Update: Exozet tells us this issue will be fixed via update soon.
As we learned during last year's interview with Exozet, Microsoft refused to allow the developer to release additional expansions for the Xbox version of Carcassonne. Now that Exozet self-publishes the new version of the game, they can offer as many expansions as they like.
Once the IAP issue gets straightened out, players will be able to choose from four new expansions: 'Traders and Builders,' 'Crop Circles,' 'The Festival,' and 'Inns and Cathedrals.' These cost $1-2 individually or $4.99 as a pack. Not a bad deal for serious Carcassonne players.
Still no structure
Since board games aren't usually fun to play all alone, videogame developers often add new single-player modes to compensate. Take the Survival Horror mode in Zombies!!!, for example. The iOS version of Carcassonne (developed by TheCodingMonkeys, not Exozet) has its own exclusive single-player mode - though, to be fair, that game sells for ten bucks instead of four.
The mobile Windows versions just allow players to select from a pool of 11 AI opponents and play a standard game. Playing against the computer can be fun, but the lack of a metagame really hurts the long-term single-player value. The original Windows Phone 7 version suffered from the same issue. Shame the revamped version of the game didn't throw in more structure.
Better in multiplayer
Carcassonne offers both pass-and-play and online multiplayer. Pass-and-play works well and could certainly provide entertainment should you and a few friends find yourselves stuck somewhere without a gaming console or physical board game to play. That's a lot more feasible than in the original Windows Phone 7 release, now that we have phablet phones like the Lumia 1520 and the ability to buy once and get the game on Windows 8 and RT too.
The old phone game offered online multiplayer, but the matchmaking and servers performed terribly. At present, the mobile Windows versions feature a single 1-on-1 online mode. You just choose to play an online game and the matchmaking will seek another player out. The online multiplayer is even cross-platform with Windows 8 and Android. Very cool!
Unfortunately, matchmaking still requires another player to hunt for a game at the same time as you, which is boring and impractical. A game like this needs Xbox One-style matchmaking, letting us dabble in single-player while we wait for an opponent to be found.
The game does promise an enhanced online multiplayer mode will come in a future update. It will add friends lists and the ability to switch between multiple online sessions. Hopefully those changes will make it easier to find a game!
What's old is new again
Did I mention Carcassonne looks better than ever? The game takes place on an actual wooden table now, without fancy clouds passing by. It runs very smoothly, fluidly planning around and zooming in and out. And the AI opponents now pop up and animate on-screen when someone makes a good move, better simulating the experience of playing against another person.
Carcassonne still needs a real campaign and better online matchmaking before it can be the ultimate board game. But this is an excellent recreation of the real life board game, a genuinely fun game all on its own. I'm glad we can play it again on Windows Phone. The ability to buy once and get phone, tablet, and PC versions makes it even better. Hopefully Exozet will continue to improve the game (and fix the issue with 'The River II') in the months to come.