The Carcassonne Expanded Universe, Which Expansions are Worth It?


22 April 2021
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Our guide to what’s best to buy from two decades of expansions

Words by Matthew Vernall

250. 

That's how many tiles you'll tally up by buying every expansion currently available for Carcassonne. Unless you're blessed with a bank account as large as the table you'd need to play every expansion at once, you're no doubt wondering which expansions are worth buying. Worry not, for we have spent our summer playing the nine boxed expansions in print, to give you our recommendations on how to best this tile-laying classic.

River & Abbot 

Whilst technically a supplement to the latest base game, these two mini expansions help us put all other expansions into perspective.

The River is exactly what you want out of an expansion; changing the game in a significant way without introducing too many rules. Players work together to place the twelve river tiles, many of which contain standard features that can be claimed as normal. This dynamic start offers more opportunities for early points and helps guide players to compete or co-operate. I always use this when possible.

The Abbot is everything we don't want to see. Everyone has one copy of this special meeple, which can only be used as monk, can exclusively use garden features and can be picked up early if desired. Worth playing if you like to aggressively claim every feature you can, but it otherwise adds very little. 

Play It?

River: Five Meeples

Abbot: Two Meeples

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Inns & Cathedrals 

This expansion rips away the training wheels and sets the idyllic campagne aflame. The 6th Player expansion is either a must have or a pointless extra, depending on your play group size. It does also let someone play in pink, which is nice.

The real spice comes from the titular Inns and Cathedrals. If a road or city has one of these respective features, it counts for double points if completed and zero points otherwise. The double or nothing scoring makes these tiles fantastic ways to catch up with a massive point swing or sabotage opponents with an impossible to finish feature. Dangerous yet delicious, as long as your players aren't prone to sulking.

Lastly, everyone now has a large meeple that counts for double strength when working out majority. Simple, effective and a great way to deter players from sneaking into your features. Nothing special but essential in highly competitive environments.

Play It?

Inns & Cathedrals: Four Meeples 

Large Meeple: Three Meeples

 

Traders & Builders

Like a dainty chocolate box, this expansion starts a trend of providing little ways to shake up your games for the better.

20 new tiles with cities also have goods. Complete a city to gain tokens for every goods symbol shown, regardless of whether you have meeples in the city or not. Majority control of any single good grants 10 bonus points. This manages to encourage players to help one another whilst rewarding those who can seize opportunities to get points for the city and the goods. Wonderful. 

The Builder meeple is another welcome addition. Can be played on a city or road you already have a meeple on, letting you play two tiles in future turns as long as the first tile helps build that original feature. Increases the amount of completed features which is something that always helps others. It also works particularly well with other expansions, elegantly speeding up the game when the stack of tiles has been increased – which, as you’re reading this, is inevitable.

The Pig meeple may look cute but plays like a ‘win-more’ feature. If placed in field shared by your farmer, it adds an extra point for every city, provided you have majority control. Good if your group feels that farmers need support, but otherwise not that impactful.

Play It?

Goods Tokens: Five Meeples 

Builder Meeple: Five Meeples 

Pig Meeple: Three Meeples

Princess & Dragon 

A deceptive looking expansion that introduces ‘playing dirty’ to Carcassonne. City tiles with a princess icon let you remove a meeple in a city instead of placing one, kicking out a collaborator or ruining someone's chance to score. It’s a bit mean.

Volcano tiles summon the delightfully dorky dragon meeple. When a tile with a dragon symbol is placed, players then take turns to move the dragon up to 6 times in a non-repeating path. removing ALL meeples in its wake. The push and pull as players steer the dragon is amusing, but requires ganging up to be effective. Good if your games often have a runaway winner, but the randomness of when it happens and how it moves makes it feel cheap.

The fairy meeple helps balance this randomness. Any turn you don't place a meeple, you instead move the fairy meeple next to a meeple you own on the board. It scores a point at the start of turn, 3 extra points when the feature its in scores and prevents the dragon from moving this way. A helpful yang to the dragon's yin, you'll still never prioritise grabbing it over owning a new feature.

Magic portals sprinkle more randomness to balance out board. Placing a tile with a magic portal lets you place a meeple on any legal feature on the table. A essential pairing with aggressive expansions that cause meeples to "vacate" features, otherwise unnecessary.

Play It?

Princess: Two Meeples

Dragon: Three Meeples

Fairy: Three Meeples

Magic Portals: Three Meeples

 

The Tower 

The Tower expansion takes no prisoners when it comes to... taking prisoners. 

When a tile with a foundation feature is placed, players can choose to place one of their limited tower sections instead of a meeple, letting them capture a neighbouring opponent's meeple, only returned if swapped back in a hostage exchange or a ransom of points is paid. More levels can be added in later turns, extending the tower's range every time, until a player caps it with one of their precious meeples. Bloody brutal gameplay for conflict lovers only.

Play It?

The Tower: Three Meeples

 

Abbey & Mayor 

This expansion adds a little something to everything from the base game feature, nothing bad but nothing amazing. 

Every player gets a single abbey tile that are awkward to place, but can complete any feature and count as a feature for monks. These one-hit wonders help save the day when finding the perfect piece feels impossible, even if they require a lot of set up. A great gaming lifejacket that rarely causes grief.

Mayor meeples can only be placed in cities and have a strength value equal to the number of shields present. Great to dominate a city or to sneakily take one over, but sometimes fall flat.

A feature completed with a Wagon meeple on it lets you slide it to an adjacent unoccupied feature instead of returning it. Takes some forward thinking to succeed, but also gives roads another raison d'être.  

The barn meeple can only be placed in grasslands on the centre point of four tiles. When placed, all farmers in that field are immediately scored and returned, whilst the player who owns the barn scores alone at the end for four points per city. The ultimate farmer tie breaker that's also finicky to place, but has impact like a sledgehammer.

Play It?

Abbey: Three Meeples

Mayor: Three Meeples

Wagon: Three Meeples

Barn: Three Meeples

Count, King & Robber 

This expansion finds the perfect sweet spot, adding more competition without outright aggression.

 River II gives us even more of a good thing, making rivers longer, adding forks to diversify options and including features from previous expansions. Brilliant.

The King and Robber work similarly; if you complete the largest city or road so far, you gain the king or robber token respectively. Whoever holds the token at the end gets a point per matching completed feature across the board. A fantastic tug of war that makes players get greedy and ensures lots of features get completed, making the titles more tantalizing.

Shrines let you start a race against a monastery; only whoever fully completes their feature first gets to score it. Can also be placed peacefully, providing a great degree of depth and decision making. Shame they'll appear so infrequently.

Finally, the Count. Only took six expansions but we finally have the city of Carcassonne itself on the board as an alternative starting point. Whenever a player completes a feature which scores anyone but themselves points, they can place a meeple into one of the four districts of Carcassonne. Each area corresponds to a feature type and whenever that matching type is completed, any meeples in Carcassonne can be moved onto that feature, regardless of normal placement rules. Rewarding players who help others so they can steal a much grander prize is insidiously appealing, but kept balanced by the titular Count meeple, who is moved around the districts every time a meeple joins the big city, blocking meeples from leaving it and ensuring any plans of grand larceny can be prevented. Shame that the Count and the River are mutually exclusive.

Play It?

River II: Five Meeples

King and Robber: Five Meeples

Shrines: Four Meeples

Count: Four Meeples

 

Bridges, Castles & Bazaars 

Everything in this expansion is nice, but not thrilling. 

Bridges let you continue a road with any tile by placing a bridge over it. Can be used inventively, but aside from letting you continue a city underneath it there's limited scope for great plays.

Castles let you replace tiny two-tile towns with a token, that copies the points of the first neighbouring completed feature. Nice to have an alternative to the quick four points, but often more risk than reward.

Finally, Bazaars add auctions to Carcassonne. When drawn, tiles equal to the number of players are revealed and auctioned off, with players only allowed to win one tile and bidding done with points. The idea is solid and getting to outsmart each other with clever bidding leads to some great play moments, but sometimes leads to dud rounds where no-one feels like they got a good deal.

Play It?

Bridges: Two Meeples

Castles: Three Meeples

Bazaars: Three Meeples

 

Hills & Sheep 

Sometimes, you just wanna take a gamble on sheep. Each player gets a shepherd meeple, that can be placed in a field even if there's farmers present. When placed and whenever you extend the field, you can draw a mystery sheep gokdn and add it to the field, or you can stop and cash in all sheep already out. If a wolf is drawn, all tokens are picked up and shepherds returned. While distracting from the main experience, this mini-game of chance keeps things jovial whilst also helping some players sneak in a few extra points.

Hills are boring and efficient. Draw a hill, stick the next tile underneath it, meeples on hills break ties for shared features. Only play with this if your group doesn't like sharing or if players know the game too well.

Play It?

Hills: Two Meeples

Sheep and Shepherd: Four Meeples 

 

Under the Big Top 

This is a bizarre one. Circus tiles hide an animal beneath the circus tent token. When another circus tile is drawn, the animal is revealed as the circus tent moves away, scoring players points shown on the animal per meeple near it. These hotspots draw players to build nearby in the hope for big points, but in doing so makes the board feel cramped and lead to lots of half finished projects.

Acrobats are equally zany. Up to three meeples, placed when anyone lays the acrobat tile or one surrounding it, form a mini pyramid. Once completed, any player with a meeple in the pyramid can choose to score it instead of placing a meeple on a turn. Literally wasting meeples on a pyramid scheme looks cool but requires heavy commitment to score big points.

And finally, Ringmaster meeples are placed and scored like a normal meeple, with extra points for every circus or acrobat tile near it. Nothing special and only worth playing with both other modules.

Play It?

Circus: Three Meeples

Acrobats: Three Meeples

Ringmaster: Two Meeples

 

Final Verdicts

For me, Count, King & Robber is the only ‘essential’ expansion, expanding on the solid core game and offering multiple choices in how to start. Your next port of call is either Traders & Builders, my personal choice with how it encourages players to finish features, or Abbey and Mayor for how well it revitalizes the base game's scoring systems.

If you're lucky enough to have six players in your regular playgroup, then Inns & Cathedrals is a no-brainer, giving you those essential extra pieces and creating more divisive plays that are needed with so many around the table. But if your group is smaller, maybe only three or four, you'll only need this expansion to make things competitive.

Speaking of competitive, Inns & Cathedrals with Princess & Dragon and The Tower, is a recipe for nuclear warfare. If your playgroup wants victory through crushing opponents outright, this is the one-two-three knockout combination. Steer well clear of combining these (or even using the latter two at all) if you don't enjoy making your friends squirm.

On a final note, currently out of print is the game's seventh expansion, the Catapult. It featured a wooden prop that would let you fling tiles across the table in a dexterity mini game. There is a good reason it hasn't been reprinted. Do Not Play It. 

If you enjoyed this, be sure to take a look at the upcoming 20th Anniversary Edition of Carcassonne, plus a conversation with the creator of Carcassonne, and some tips from Steve Dee's The Book of Carcassonne on playing it most effectively.

 


This article originally appeared in issue 47 of Tabletop Gaming. Pick up the latest issue of the UK's fastest-growing gaming magazine in print or digital here or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.

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