Guest Review : Carcassonne Hunters & Gatherers

Carcassonne is probably the most popular introductory German-style game released in the last decade. Because of its popularity and its winning of the Spiel des Jahres (Game of the Year) award, expansions and stand-alone spin-offs were inevitable. But these have muddied the waters for people new to the series. Is a different standalone Carcassonne game the way to go, and if so, which one is best?

Carcassonne : Hunters & GatherersCarcassonne: Hunters and Gatherers is a standalone re-invention of Carcassonne, released just a year or two later from the same designer. It stays true to all of the core features of the base game, but streamlines some of the unintuitive parts and introduces some additional decisions to consider.

Like in the original game, each player receives a number of wooden pawns, here called “tribe members”, that will be placed on the modular tile board as it is built. A player on his turn will add a randomly-drawn tile to the board, then optionally place one of his wooden pawns on one of the landscapes on that tile. Generally, tribe members must remain on the board until their respective areas are completely surrounded, at which time they score points and are returned to the player’s personal supply to use again on a later turn.

Tiles will feature one or more landscapes, which have direct equivalents in the original game:

● Rivers are analogous to Carcassonne’s roads. Tribe members placed on a river will score one point per tile segment, plus one point for every fish in the lakes at the ends of the river.
● Forests are analogous to Carcassonne’s cities. Tribe members placed there score two points per tile segment. Most larger forests will also feature a gold nugget, and the player who completes such a forest (regardless of who scores the points for it) gets an extra play, drawing from a special set of bonus tiles.
● Meadows are analogous to Carcassonne’s farms. Tribe members placed there will remain for the duration of the game. At the end of the game, they will score two points for each herbivore printed on tiles in their meadow (though some will not score if there are tigers present as well).

There are other differences from the original. For one thing, incomplete landscapes score zero points at the end of the game instead of partial points. For another, while each player still receives seven pieces to place, two of them are not normal tribe members, but huts. These can only be placed on water, and once placed, remain for the duration of the game; at endgame scoring, each hut will score one point for every fish that it can reach by water.

The same strategies used in the original game will meet with the same success here. An important part of the game is maximizing your scoring opportunities, balancing your tribe members among different landscapes to increase the likelihood a tile drawn will be helpful, while still ensuring you keep a few in reserve to take advantage of any opportunities that may arise. Tribe members cannot directly be added to extended landscapes that already have pawns present there, so it is on its face a “friendly”, non-confrontational race for points. But, in the hands of strategy game hobbyists, this game can be played very competitively, with tile placement blocking opportunities and the manoeuvring of pawns into already-claimed spaces to share or even steal a big score.

Mechanically, all the changes introduced in Hunters and Gatherers can be considered improvements over the base game. Meadows are much easier to score, and the ability to add tigers to another player’s meadow adds a level of direct interaction missing from Carcassonne’s farms. There is more motivation to help complete large forests than for Carcassonne’s cities, given the reward of an extra turn and special tiles. Rivers tend to score faster and provide more points than Carcassonne’s roads, improving balance, and the huts are an additional strategic aspect to consider.

Despite all of its gameplay improvements, this game still retains the same feel as the original, which cannot be fully said for its brothers. Unlike Carcassonne: The Discovery, tribe members once placed cannot be claimed back until their features are complete. Unlike in The Castle or The City, tiles cannot be placed practically anywhere but must match the sides of adjacent sides; this creates a fun jigsaw-puzzle aspect and gives the board a unified, organic look. Of all the spin-offs I’ve played, Hunters and Gatherers is by far the closest in gameplay to the base game.

And yet, Hunters and Gatherers features as standard some of the extras that in the original game required the purchase of an expansion. For example, the ability to complete a forest (née city) and receive an extra turn can also be found in the Carcassonne: Traders and Builders expansion. And including 50- and 100-point score tiles in the base game, while not critical, is a nice touch.

These aspects, without a doubt, make Hunters and Gatherers the best alternative to the base game. It cleans up some of the rough edges, introduces new twists, and yet still retains a similar feel to the original — and all in a set that feels more complete. Hunters and Gatherers can replace the original whereas other spin-offs can only complement it. If you’re looking for a genuine Carcassonne experience in a single, complete, inexpensive package, this is the best bet for your money.

There are very few potential downsides to this edition, and they may not apply to many potential buyers, but they are worth noting. First, the game does not really offer expansion opportunities. While the game by its nature is very open-ended and easily expandable, there has only been one small five-tile expansion produced. Some people like the variety and additional complexity that expansions can offer — if you are one of these people, I recommend staying with the base game or, if you don’t have the base game already, purchasing the Carcassonne Big Box that contains multiple expansions. However, some people see the lack of expansions as a positive, as it implies the game is complete as-is and does not need expansions to address perceived shortcomings, and for these people Hunters and Gatherers is a fantastic choice.

The second potential downside is the artwork. When looking at individual tiles, it is hard not to be impressed with the amazing details drawn onto each one. But this gives them a “busy” look and, when taken as a whole during gameplay, the art style is not as clear or usable as in the original game. Forests have trees that point in many different directions; animals come in different shapes and sizes that you must differentiate during play; and the board develops into a sea of multi-shaded green that makes it a little more difficult than it should be to absorb the overall situation. For many people, this may not be a problem, but when making a side-by-side comparison, it’s hard to deny the original’s accessibility and clarity.

If you are looking for a complete, engaging Carcassonne experience in a single box, and don’t wish to be tempted by add-ons, Hunters and Gatherers is perhaps the best choice out there. If you are new to the Carcassonne series and perhaps to German-style games in general, I can also alternatively recommend Carcassonne: The Discovery as an excellent entry point to the series. If you have some familiarity with German games and are interested in getting one of the series, but perhaps have avoided it because of the many choices of add-ons and spin-offs, you owe it to yourself to consider Hunters and Gatherers. If the art style doesn’t bother you, it might well be the only Carcassonne you ever need.