22 April 2021
The designer of Carcassonne reveals how a novel idea spawned a tabletop giant and says the modern game industry is ‘overwhelming’ players
Words by Joshua King
Carcassonne. A city like no other. Ringed with towering walls and topped with a crown of spires, this otherworldly jewel of the Pyrenean foothills looks more like a movie set or the backdrop of an epic fantasy novel. And though it has been home to Romans and Visigoths and Saracens, the French city of Carcassonne is now synonymous with a different army of people – board gamers.
As the game Carcassonne celebrates the 20th anniversary of its release, a host of figures involved in its industry-topping success – including designer Klaus-Jürgen Wrede – share the story of what went on behind those creative walls and how it has had an impact on the city itself.
The game has an elegant simplicity owed to its French inspiration and German Eurogame mechanics. Players draw terrain tiles depicting the walls and spires and roads and farmland of Carcassonne and lay them face-up on the table. As the game goes on, the map grows. Each new tile must be placed in a way which joins up with the landscape already laid down. Walls, roads and rivers must connect. Players – the game accommodates between two and five of them – may place a follower (or ‘meeple’) on a tile they have laid, collecting points as features are completed.
The game snapped up the prestigious Spiel des Jahres and Deutscher Spiele Preis awards as well as a host of other honours, and has spawned a landscape of expansions. Follow-up boxes have added features including inns, cathedrals, a dragon, a catapult, hills and sheep. The tile-laying juggernaut has also become a gold standard gateway game introducing thousands of people to the hobby. As of August, only Pandemic had received more ratings on BoardGameGeek, and even then, just 15 more than Carcassonne’s 96,385. Fellow gateway staple Catan was the only other game even close in its reach.
But where did it all begin? On a fact-finding trip to the walled city, of course.
“It was a journey I made. I was researching for a novel I wrote,” says Wrede, “It was around the theme of Cathars, Templars and mysteries of the Middle Ages which are connected to the area around Carcassonne.”
“The whole landscape around Carcassonne, with the fortified villages, castles and monasteries, impressed me so much that I started to think about a game during my research.”
The game was launched at Essen Game Fair in 2000 and published by Hans im Glück (in German) and Rio Grande Games (in English, until Z-Man Games took over in 2012). Within a year, it grabbed the headlines with that famous Spiel des Jahres 2001 win.
Wrede confesses he was ‘astonished’ by his game’s immediate success and puts its popularity down to finely balanced mechanics.
“I think it is easy to learn, has a constructive element and has enough depth in spite of simple rules. It is a little archaic, building a puzzle together, and has a little luck-element to be exciting.”
It is that simplicity – that foundation of solid stone – which makes Carcassonne such a successful model to build upon. The core idea – place a tile, play a meeple, score points – does not change with the expansions, just the features on the map.
The pace of the game is snappy. Players rarely suffer from analysis paralysis because the options of where to place a new tile are tight. There are, however, hidden depths to the play. As you repeat the experience, the details of each individual tile (there are 72 in the base game with a further 12 added in the 2014 redesign) become familiar.
The scarcity of certain tiles – in particular the hallowed crossroads or city centre pieces of which there are only one – adds to the thrill. As the tension ramps towards the end of each 30 to 45 minutes of gameplay, players hope, sometimes beyond hope, to draw that one tile that fits the quirky gap needed to complete their feature.
And the puzzle building aspect, that sense of playing both competitively and collaboratively, helps attract new players.
“I always change things by creating new expansions and stand-alone games,” says Wrede, “It can be interesting over a long time for the players when they want to keep the base game but play a little differently. The experience is different with every new scenario.”
“The base game I would not change even today after 20 years. I think it’s a good base for all the variations that came after. And it is simple enough for everybody to learn, but has strategic possibilities that you can find and learn for next time.”
Perhaps the most influential expansion to the base game was the introduction of Carcassonne: The River back in 2001. Adding 12 new river tiles to the stack, this bolt-on created a new way to build the map. Starting with the first player, river tiles were drawn and added in sequence. Once complete it gave the players a bare-bones map to start adding to. In 2014, The River was incorporated into Z-Man’s base version of the game.
But despite Carcassonne’s continued success, and its status as an advert for the hobby as a whole, Wrede is worried about the sheer volume of tabletop titles now being released year on year.
“It will keep growing but I think it will follow the same process of natural selection as ever,” he says, “there are an unbelievable number of new games published every year. More and more. And you can’t notice most of them, never mind play them. And that has effects for the industry, not just positive ones. We as players and consumers are overwhelmed.”
POWER TO THE MEEPLE
Whether or not you have played Carcassonne, whether or not you are a convert, there can be no denying the indelible impact the game has had on the hobby. It is top of its class in its given genre and, believe it or not, introduced the term ‘meeple’ to tabletop life. The wooden followers players use to claim points take on different titles depending on which feature they are placed. Followers in cities serve as knights, on roads they are highwaymen and in monasteries they become monks.
But the name they soon all became known as was meeple thanks - according to sources including Wiktionary - to a woman called Alison Hansel who during an early game of Carcassonne merged ‘my people’ into ‘meeple’. With that a staple of the Eurogame genre was born.
The nature of tile-laying games like Carcassonne, Tsuro or Isle of Skye is that you, the player, create the board as you play. That is part of Carcassonne’s appeal. The tiles themselves are beautiful and uncluttered. The artwork itself guides the players’ decision making, rather than a multitude of Eurogame symbols and icons which can be daunting in weightier titles.
In this, the role of the original artist, Doris Matthäus, cannot be overstated. Humble by nature, Matthäus says she normally enjoys her success ‘with a silent smile’. But the 20th anniversary of one of the tabletop genre’s biggest titles is a time to celebrate and reflect.
“I was a gamer myself and sometimes I was unhappy when a good game had bad artwork, or even when the artwork made it difficult to play the game. As a graphic artist, I got the chance to draw game art too,” she says.
“With Carcassonne something new happened for me. People started to realise the artwork of games was an artform in itself. It has happened with Magic: The Gathering and Dominion, and now a lot of other games. Artwork was getting more and more important and people cherished it.
“The success of Carcassonne increased this because my artwork suddenly reached a lot of people and I confess when I walked through a game store or through a fair and saw my art on the boxes, it made me smile. It seems to have a long lifespan.”
It is hard to browse a game store which does not stock the game and that classic German art style stands out on the shelf. The intricacy of the tile art is vital because each tile needs to interlock with any other place beside it.
The artwork of Carcassonne is beautiful and understandably so. Matthäus’s muse, the walled city itself, is an architectural crown jewel. While it would be bold to suggest the game has eclipsed its urban namesake in global recognition, officials from the medieval town have revealed that the game is a big driver for tourism.
Speaking from the south of France, Carcassonne Tourism’s Sarahi Seguy tells Tabletop Gaming that the game has inspired fresh interest in the city.
“We do have visitors coming from all around the world who already know the game, and sometimes they played it before hearing about our city. Sometimes we attend professional tourism workshops to promote the city and meet people who tell us the first time they heard about Carcassonne was because of the game. Not everyone. But it’s not rare.
“We once had a TV crew from central Europe and at the end of the program they showed the game for the last image. The game’s played a lot in Germany of course but also in most of central Europe and America.
“There’s also a club, Grabuge, here in Carcassonne which organises a meeting of game lovers every year.”
With its compact rules and swift playtime Carcassonne makes for a perfect competition game. And gatherings of Carcassonne aficionados are not limited to the city itself.
The annual Carcassonne World Championship has brought together players from 46 different countries since its launch, from locations as diverse as Azerbaijan, Costa Rica, Japan, Serbia and, of course, France. Organisers from the Spielezentrum celebrate Wrede’s creation as a ‘tactical tile placement game which is easy to learn but difficult to master’ and the tournament is fought at a furious pace with the aid of chess clocks.
In a first for the competition, the 2019 grand finale ended in a tie. The organisers were prepared and implemented a count back rule which handed the title to the player with the better results in the pre-elimination rounds. The result? The prize went to Romanian star Marian Curcan.
This year was supposed to mark the 15th edition of the championship but the grand finals – scheduled to be contested at the Essen Game Fair this October – have been cancelled due to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. Despite the cancellation, organiser Karsten Berlt remains philosophical, “we promote the idea of board games as a cultural interest, like books.”
“Board games do a great job bringing people together, often across borders. Carcassonne functions for people from different countries in the same way, because the visual imagery of the game material works the same for everyone.”
“So the Carcassonne World Championship isn’t only a competition to find the best player in the world, it’s about communication without borders. That makes it such a great game.” Despite its theme, Carcassonne is a game about breaking down walls rather than putting them up.
Berlt explains that the Speilezentrum (‘Game Centre’) is part of the youth welfare office in Herne, Germany. They open their doors for the local children and offer a board game library. As a result, Berlt and the team are well-connected in the German game industry. One thing led to another in 2003 when the centre organised the German Carcassonne Championships for publishers, Hans im Glück. The international competition followed three years later.
While the championship may have been postponed (there will be a bumper tournament next year to make up for the delay), Carcassonne shows no sign of slowing down, even on its 20th birthday.
Since 2012, the English iteration of Carcassonne has been published by Z-Man Games, the stable which also brings us Pandemic, Love Letter, and Mice and Mystics. The team acknowledges the tremendous success of their most popular title.
The firm would not be drawn on what the next 20 years will actually bring for Carcassonne though no one is ruling out further expansions. Wrede too was cryptic about precisely what is in store for his modern classic, simply saying ‘of course’ there will be more to come – either a new expansion or an updated base game.
A burgeoning online community, particularly on Reddit, allows players to share in the hobby. There is a trend for collectors to post pictures of both all their boxes, and of maps made of all the tiles available. The forum’s top post is a colossal 360 tile display.
Many fans have travelled to the city for a chance to play in the shadows of the spires. Others celebrate their hobby by baking cakes and cookies in the shape of the tiles. And such is the popularity of Carcassonne that it has broken out into popular culture and made an appearance in a tabletop-themed episode of South Park alongside Dungeons & Dragons, Rising Sun and Fury of Dracula.
It is no surprise that a gateway game of such popularity has made the jump to digital formats. Carcassonne is available on Facebook, iPhone and iPad, Xbox, PC and Steam. And of course you will find it on the shelves of almost every friendly local board game shop on earth.
The Romans came, saw and conquered Carcassonne. For centuries armies, kings and even popes have staked their claim. And now you can enjoy a piece of one of Europe’s most sought after cities, albeit in a rather different guise. After all these years there really is no excuse not to have laid your tiles on the table and gone behind the walls of Carcassonne.
If you enjoyed this, be sure to take a look at the upcoming 20th Anniversary Edition of Carcassonne, plus a look at the Carcassone expanded universe, 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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