Carcassonne - Basic Strategy Guide

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.


Common Strategies

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

Using a new tile to prevent Black from completing their Monastery

With the addition of this city tile, Black will not be able to complete their Monastery, as the tile needed to fill the remaining space to the right of the new tile doesn't exist.


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.

Red and Blue should cooperate to build their shared city together

If Red and Blue work together to combine their cities into one and build it up, they will get much farther than Black working alone.

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.

Blue's farmers seek to outnumber Red

Blue has wisely combined their two fields in order to have 2 Farmers controlling each of the 3 cities in the centre, as the Red farmer at the bottom threatens to connect their own field and force Blue to share the points.

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.

Conclusion

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.