Carcassonne is one of the classics of modern board-gaming. First released in 2000 and winning the coveted Spiele Des Jahres (Game of the Year) award, it’s a clever tile-laying game in which players control Meeples (little wooden figures) and use them as “Knights” “Farmers” “Monks” and “Thieves” to vie for control of the medieval French city which gives the game its name.
Star Wars is a multi-billion-dollar Science Fiction franchise depicting heroic conflict between a vast galactic empire and heroic rebels, recently given a new lease of life by a new film for the first time in 33 years [just pretend the prequels never happened, and nobody gets hurt].
Up until now, there was never any reason to suspect that these two things would have anything in common with each other. Now, however, A New Hope has awakened for those who like a Sci-Fi flavour to their gaming, with the release of Carcassonne Star Wars edition.
Sci-Fi is a completely new direction, and depending on who you speak to, it’s either a stroke of genius, or just shameless profiteering on the part of Disney. Today, I want to take a look at this new version, and see what’s really different, what’s the same, and try to work out how worthwhile this is overall.
Is it different? Yes!
Like many gamers, I already own Carcassonne, with several expansions, so the first question for me is whether Carcassonne Star Wars edition would offer anything sufficiently different aside from art-work? Asteroid Belts are basically Cities, Trade Routes are roads, and Planets are Cloisters. Meeples are still Meeples. So far, Carcassonne Star Wars was looking unremarkable. There are no farmers, but otherwise, everything seemed to line up more-or-less 1 for 1.
The big difference though between normal Carcassonne and Carcassonne Star Wars edition is how conflict is resolved. In a classic game, control over roads, cities, or farms can be shared or stolen by putting your meeple onto what is currently a separate feature, then joining it to another with future tiles. When the City (for example) is completed the points will be shared between players if they have an equal number of meeples, or may be stolen altogether if the late-comer has managed to get more of his meeples (or his large meeple, which counts as 2) into the city.
Carcassonne Star Wars views these conflicts as “ship combat” and the matter is resolved with a dice, which is completely different from anything we’ve seen before. As soon as two meeples find themselves on the same feature, the players dice-off, rolling one dice for each meeple (or two for a large meeple) on the feature. Whoever rolls the highest number on a single dice is left in control, whilst the loser gains a point for each die they rolled, and is kicked out. In this way Carcassonne Star Wars takes a fairly subtle, almost insidious form of conflict from the classic game, and puts it front and centre, with all the subtlety of a Death Star wiping out Alderan.
Carcassonne Star Wars also introduces a new feature in faction symbols. When dicing for a contested feature you also check to see whether the thing you are fighting over contains any faction symbols. If you are playing as Luke Skywalker or Yoda you can add a dice to your roll (up to a maximum of 3) for each rebel alliance symbol on the feature you are contesting. Darth Vader and the Stormtrooper look for Empire symbols, and Bobba Fett gets his own bounty hunter symbol. Again, this is something unique to Carcassonne Star Wars, in that it makes particular places inherently easier or harder for you to control depending on your/their faction.
Overall then whilst there are many obvious similarities to the original game in terms of the basic shape and mechanic, Carcassonne Star Wars definitely feels like a different game. The dice element is something completely new, and really gives a different feeling to how it plays out – it also introduces a random element which prevents people from relying on pure strategy alone, and may provide a good corrective if you regularly play Carcassonne and have the one player who always wins (in the interests of full disclosure I should say, for our group, this was usually me).
Is it Star Wars? The Force is Weak with this one
Whilst there’s no doubt that Carcassonne Star Wars feels different from the classic game, it’s still debatable as to just how Star Wars-y it feels. One of your first tasks after opening the box will be to stick pictures onto your meeples featuring tiny photos of the iconic characters from the film – personally I think I would have preferred something a bit more stylised and art-y over tiny photo-realism, but this is a minor gripe.
The appearance of the tiles themselves is undoubtedly space-y, the planets and asteroids certainly look like planets and asteroids rather than monasteries and cities, but there isn’t a lot to it that is explicitly Star Wars. The Star Wars films were never really concerned with exploration and planetary settlement, and whilst it doesn’t seem unreasonable to believe that this is an area-control game taking place within the Star Wars universe, the idea that it’s actually Yoda invading that planet, or Darth Vader exploring that Asteroid-belt feels like a bit stretched.
There is no way to remove this tile once played, even if you are Darth Vader…
Carcassonne Star Wars also makes no attempt to implement a “Force” mechanic. There are no character/faction-specific powers: a lot of Star Wars games give a sense of the two sides being mis-matched as the rebels try to delay the inevitable rise of the Empire, and the Empire try to crush the rebels with overwhelming military strength, but here all colours are functionally the same.
There is an element of character to the planets; all of them are individually named, and the faction symbols correspond – for example Dagoba has a Rebel symbol, meaning a Rebel player will get an extra dice when defending it from an attack. There’s no reason to avoid in-fighting however, and you could easily have the Luke Skywalker player trying to wrest the planet away from Yoda’s control, in which case they would BOTH gain an extra dice.
Is it better? Or just different?
When I played Carcassonne Star Wars with long-standing Carcassonne Veterans, they quickly honed in on the unique aspects of the game. There’s a definite sense that this plays in a different-enough way from the classic version to justify its existence, the dice-combat really does make it unlike any previous implementation of Carcassonne. The fact that you don’t have farmers means there’s less need to look at the bigger picture of how the board is taking shape, less long-game strategy. Stealing someone else’s feature is a lot easier, particularly if it’s a planet, and you really are at the mercy of the dice.
That’s no moon!
In terms of which people prefer, it really seems to come down to personal preference; several folk have commented that they prefer the art-style of the French countryside over the zoomed out view of a galaxy far, far away, but most of those were not particularly big Star Wars fans. Personally, I like the planet and Asteroid field art, but find the trade routes slightly unconvincing. The way that conflict over planets, trade-routes and asteroids works is definitely different; some people preferred the more in-your-face, winner-takes-all style conflict that Carcassonne Star Wars offers, whilst others liked the traditional approach where features could be shared. In most of our games of classic Carcassonne, I was the guy who managed to nick that city you’d spent the last ten turns building (probably why my wife doesn’t like playing Carcassonne with me any more), so I was initially unconvinced by this approach, but the added random factor does mean I’m more likely to find people to play it…
Another major factor in weighing Carcassonne Star Wars against the classic version, is that it is (currently) just a one-off. I’ve definitely seen a pattern in the past where people get Carcassonne, play it a lot, and add expansion after expansion, gradually making the game longer and more complicated to the point where they no longer play it – the lack of expansions for Carcassonne Star Wars means that there’s no danger of drifting into this trap – but it also means that the game can never be extended beyond the quick and simple offering that comes in the box.
So is it worth getting? In the right situation
Overall, as with all Carcassonne games, Carcassonne Star Wars is a good, solid game, with interesting mechanics. Just playing through this has been a good reminder of what a good game I already owned in classic Carcassonne. For many people, just having the Star Wars logo on the box is reason enough to buy this. If you’re looking for an immersive, thematic gameplay experience which calls to mind the excitement and emotions of the classic films, then these are not the meeples you’re looking for: as someone who likes their thematic games very thematic, this didn’t quite do it for me. However, if you want something fun and simple, and like the idea of a Star Wars theme without wanting to invest the time and energy required for some of the monster games out there, then this could be a good choice. Equally, if your existing Carcassonne collection has got too bloated to make it off the shelf regularly and you want to do something different from just removing all the expansions, them this could be the refreshing little alternative that you need.
I'm an avid board and card-gamer, still trying to figure out where Board Gaming fits into life as the dad of a very grabby toddler.
I enjoy thematic games (Fantasy, Cthulhu, etc) and play a lot of cooperative games, along with a bit of competitive gaming (currently Legend of the Five Rings) when I can make it out of the house.
When not playing games, I can be found doing a mundane office job, or working on my own Blog, Fistful of Meeples.