The board game Carcassonne is undeniably one of the classics – the Medieval, landscape-building game has kept millions occupied over nearly two decades. The prospect of Carcassonne on the Switch had us very excited, but we found the final product only scores slightly better than an incomplete city.
For those who haven’t played Carcassonne before, the premise is quite simple: you have a pile of tiles with features representing parts of Carcassonne’s landscape, including fields, cloisters (‘churches’), roads, inns and parts of cities, often with several features on the same tile. Each player gets a random tile on their turn, placing it adjacent to another (ensuring it continues the scenery), and can choose to put a 'Meeple' down on the tile just laid. As each feature is completed, players score points for any Meeples they have present: roads, one point per tile; cities, two-to-six and cloisters, two-to-nine – fields can really rake it in. The objective is to score the most points through tile and Meeple placement, preferably helping yourself while hindering the other players, or even stealing their points by expanding your cities and roads into theirs.
At the time of writing, the Switch has the River, Abbot and Inns & Cathedrals expansions available – a good mix for those starting out with the game for the first time. The numerous expansions hopefully coming soon as DLC will bring further depth by introducing fantastical princesses and dragons (the latter of which eat your Meeples), catapults that have you physically launch tiles at the board, and even resource-gathering elements where you collect goods from completed features. There's no denying the physical edition is a stellar game, but the Switch version has laid foundations that are a bit hit and miss.
Those new to Carcassonne will need to find the tutorial and rules sections hidden away in the options menu before starting. The interactive tutorial takes all of two minutes and gives the most basic overview of the controls, while the rules are an electronic version of what you’d expect in a physical version. A bit more could have been done to expand the tutorial to cover the mechanics of the expansion and to make it more obvious to find, but after a few games you’ll suss out the nuances of Carcassonne.
On playing the first game, it was frustrating to discover you cannot rename any of the players (you’re known as 'player1', 'player2' and so on) – with up to six players, this gets confusing, and it also means no stats are saved down from previous games. Having AI players (preset with one of four different play styles) is a good, albeit expected, inclusion that bulks out the ranks with decent players. Similarly, being able to choose which expansions to play with is nice, but it lacks the depth of specifying which parts of the expansions you’d like to play with. For most this will be fine, but for those who just want more tiles without more rules, they will be hoping the format changes for the expansions. Thankfully, we found that our typical house rule of ignoring fields as scoring features (due to their ability to eclipse others on the scoreboard) was tucked away in the options when starting a game, which we discovered after several expletive-heavy games.
The presentation of the board itself is done well, and is the nicest part of the Switch version – you can view things top-down or at an angle, and each completed feature comes with its own animation (seeing coloured flags pop up on completed cities is a nice touch). The movement speed is a bit of an issue and the lack of touch controls is a shame for handheld, but these aren’t major setbacks. We were originally going spare at the annoying ‘hints’ that showed us where tiles can go, as well as crosses on spaces where no remaining tile could be placed, but, just like the fields scoring, we eventually found how to disable this. While these features are great for some, we found them limiting enjoyment; you don’t have the glee of someone failing to notice the perfect place for their tile, and seeing what features cannot be completed changes some of the strategy, just like card-counting does. These features are good to have for newbies, but you'll soon turn them off.
As you progress through the turns, there are a few more frustrating moments, like being unable to undo a tile placement if you don’t have a Meeple to place or recall, or the AI taking an inordinately long time (we clocked an average of 27 seconds) deciding where it will place its next piece. The constant Joy-Con rumble will also be an annoyance for some, as it cannot be turned off. Yet, while there are several negative points like these, there are a few things the Switch does better than the physical game: being able to suspend multiple games is really useful; the ‘Meeple Finder’ feature where your Meeples jump up and down makes it easy to see when your features are and the scoring system throughout the game is a massive help, with the end-of-game scoring being presented really well; probably the only thing we dislike about the physical game of Carcassonne is the sheer faff and effort to keep up with the scoring (we run out of fingers).
Unlike the mobile phone version, online play is noticeably absent on the Switch. We feel Asmodee is missing a trick here as there is a real opportunity to build a strong online community with the forthcoming range of board games. The lack of wireless play doesn't affect the game as much; wireless play may have made turns slightly faster, but it didn’t bother us in docked or handheld modes.
Not to mix historical context here, but Carcassonne on the Switch feels Spartan; it is bare of furnishings that would make it truly shine. The core mechanics are great, and this a good investment for those looking for a board-game fix that doesn’t occupy space or require setup time, but it could be so much more. The presentation of the board and the scoring system aside, most aspects of this game are too basic – online play is absent; you can’t personalise the player names, and no stats are recorded for bragging rights. You can enable the expansions, but not the individual Meeples / scoring features; the AI is sluggish; options are hard-to-find in the menus and you can't turn off the HD rumble. If the developers address these flaws and make accommodation for house rules before all the expansions arrive, then Carcassonne would easily become an area of beauty on the Switch’s map. For now, there are better ways to play this classic game, but if you only own a Switch, then it's worth a look.