In a general sense, it’s easy to credit board games with a purity. In contrast to a number of other cultural products, the board game does not directly require technology to use, and therefore feels less removed from nature. A board game is very often the work of a single auteur and can thus be felt to manifest a clarity of vision which a contemporary video game produced by a sizeable, sub-divided team might not.
It’s not necessarily the case, however, that individual games are approached in such fashion – as means of experiencing purity – by either players or producers. Board games are often in major part sold on the quantity of components they provide; expansions adding even more pieces and extra rules are craved; the hobby at large tends to afford greater value to longer and more intricate games. Of the current top ten on Board Game Geek, only Android: Netrunner is recorded as taking less than 90 minutes to play.
Moreover, among those top ten games Agricola employs nine game boards, 360 cards, 303 wooden pieces and 102 cardboard tokens (if I haven’t miscalculated). It also has 14ish expansions to date (some large, some small – I haven’t included individual promo cards). Eclipse has seven boards, 84 plastic pieces, over 300 wooden pieces, and over 300 tiles. It also has, to date, six expansions of various sizes. Neither is atypical in these respects. Shorter though a given game of Android: Netrunner may be, its monthly expansions mean ever greater complexity, ever more stuff under which to bury oneself.
Even games not typically thought of as heavyweight are frequently sold on similar terms. The recent Z-Man Carcassonne big box proudly boasts on its enormous packaging that it includes nine expansions. Partly, this is achieved through the inclusion of seven mini-expansions. Nevertheless, the implication is that more is better: more expansions, we should understand, mean more possibilities and therefore more fun.
However, there’s credible evidence that Carcassonne is improved not by addition, but by subtraction. This is provided by Carcassonne: The Discovery, one of a number of stand alone titles which was added to the Carcassonne family in the middle part of the last decade (it was released in 2005). Some, such as Hunters and Gatherers (2006) and Ark of the Covenant (2003) rethemed Carcassonne and added rules similar to certain of those used in expansions to the main game. The Discovery, by contrast, aimed to purify – to reduce rules, to use less components. Its success in this is considerable, albeit not total. A terrific game (as, it should be said, is Carcassonne itself), it is also an instructive example of how great the gap can be between what the hobby of board gaming celebrates in itself, and where its real virtues lie.
As a simplification of the Carcassonne system (designed by Leo Colovini, and not by Klaus-Jürgen Wrede who designed Carcassonne itself), The Discovery seems mostly to have been approached as beginner friendly alternative. This is not fundamentally unreasonable. There are fewer different ways to score points in The Discovery than regular Carcassonne, reducing the amount of information a new player must absorb during a first game. The Discovery also includes player aids for the scoring of each of its features, an innovation which could and should have been adopted by now by regular Carcassonne. However, this view sells The Discovery short. There’s a great deal here for players familiar with Carcassonne to enjoy: The Discovery is a game with fewer automatic decisions than regular Carcassonne, and fewer instances in which the lucky draw of a particular tile decides a game.
The simplifications The Discovery brings all, in one respect or another, relate to the means by which points can be scored. In Carcassonne itself there are four different kinds of feature on which a meeple might be placed: cities, cloisters, fields and roads. In Carcassonne: The Discovery, there are three: grasslands, mountains, and seas. The bare number is a little misleading, however. What is most important is the structure of these features, and the possibilities for their expansion.
In Carcassonne, each feature is distinct not only in how it scores points, but also in the possibilities for its expansion. A road is linear: it enters a tile through a single edge, and either leaves through another edge, or terminates on that tile (since junctions end all roads reaching them, roads do not branch, though a finished map might give the impression that a complicated road network exists). A city, by contrast, can fork: when a tile has a city encompass three or more of its edges, it allows that city to be expanded in multiple directions concurrently. The cloister, meanwhile, does not expand in itself, but is developed to score more points through the placement of other tiles adjacent to it. Fields, like cities, fork. They differ in being able to co-exist on an edge with a road, making their expansion particularly complicated to control and to monitor.
These differences have impact upon good play. Blocking the development of cloister is achieved through very different means from those needed to block the expansion of a city. Ensuring control of a field is very different from making sure one retains sole possession of a road. This is fine; this is flavour; there is nuance to managing the intersection of unalike structures.
In The Discovery, by contrast, each terrain more closely resembles the others: each, like a city in regular Carcassonne, might occupy a single full edge of a tile, two edges, three, or even four. Thus, each terrain can fork, and blocking the growth of a given feature of each kind follows broadly the same process. The distribution of tiles feels broadly even, such that approximately a third of the final map will be covered by each.
Partly this is another quality of The Discovery which makes it more penetrable to completely new players than regular Carcassonne, but, perhaps more importantly, it gives the game a greater sense of focus. In regular Carcassonne a map reading challenge sits on top of the game of placing tiles in the best furtherance of your interests. A good deal of the mental effort required to play Carcassonne well is spent on watching the expansion of fields, on reading whether given fields might connect, and, indeed, simply counting and recounting how many meeples belonging to each player occupy any particularly large field. I don’t hesitate to assert that most experienced players will have lost a game through failing to notice that two fields had connected and control changed. Certain pleasure can come from this part of the game, but there’s a lot of mental investment for limited reward.
The Discovery, by increasing the clarity of its map, allows players to spend less effort to properly understand the game state. Thus, placing tiles well can more fully be the focus – as it probably ought to be. In The Discovery, only mountains are made especially particular with respect to the scoring method attached to them, in that a completed mountain range can gain in points if neighbouring areas of grassland have cities depicted within them. It takes a certain portion of mental resource to follow, but a relatively small one.
The Discovery also gives each player fewer meeples to manage than does the base game: in regular Carcassonne each player controls seven meeples, in The Discovery four. In itself, this supports a logic whereby fewer possessions means greater value to each: on the majority of turns in a regular game of Carcassonne, one will probably place a meeple. This is not the case with The Discovery. In standard Carcassonne, the feature any given meeple is placed on may or may not yield a significant amount of points: one is encouraged to experiment – to start something on the off-chance it might grow. With seven meeples, some failed projects can be made up for by the success of others. With only four meeples, however, this approach is not possible. If one of four meeples gains few points, it constitutes a significant problem in terms of attempting to win the game. Thus, players need a clearer sense of how a given feature will become valuable.
Connected with this, furthering the value of each meeple, is the greatest innovation to The Discovery. Meeples are not automatically returned to a player when a feature is finished. Instead, each turn the active player may, after placing a tile, either add a meeple to that tile, or remove a meeple from an existing tile, whether or not it occupies a finished feature (unfinished features yield less reward). Cheap points in The Discovery are, therefore, not cheap. It is often possible to place a meeple onto a feature which is immediately completed, but that meeple is not immediately returned, as it would be in regular Carcassonne. Thus, this kind of opportunistic play is less often worthwhile, since the meeple used cannot be reclaimed until a future turn (and, of course, the chance to place another meeple on the turn in question is sacrificed).
The Discovery, then, favours those virtues many board game players flatter their hobby as possessing. It strips back and simplifies, allowing for a purer focus on pleasurable exercises. It also exhorts players to value fewer possessions more dearly. The right thing, then, would probably be to replace standard Carcassonne in my collection with this. Instead, I have both. Make of that what you will.