Carcassonne was one of the first modern board games I ever played. I loved the novel ideal of building the map you play on. However, with only 72 tiles in the base game, games of Carcassonne at higher player counts felt too short, and after several plays it just felt like I wanted more from the game.
Thankfully, Carcassonne has an entire extended family of expansions to keep those base tiles company, and considering how much air the game comes with, it’s easy to just chuck them all into one box! As it stands, there are eight large expansions for the updated version of Carcassonne, so it doesn’t really make much sense to throw the kitchen sink at it.
I’ll be going over a few of these expansions, and also give my opinions on how well they play, and how much they add to your road building, city stealing and farm warfare.
Inns and Cathedrals - 80/100
Inns and Cathedrals brings forth 18 new tiles, enough meeples for a sixth player, and a new type of meeple: the giant meeple. Giant meeples count as two meeples when deciding on who scores contested territories.
The tiles introduce two new different concepts: the titular inns and cathedrals. Roads with inns on them make them score slightly differently: if you complete a road with an inn on it, each tile of road scores two points instead of one. However, incomplete roads with inns score zero points at the end of the game.
Similarly, cathedrals are city tiles which connect to cities on all four sides. Completing a city with a cathedral causes each tile and shield to score three points instead of two, but incomplete cities with cathedrals score nothing at the end of the game.
The majority of tiles in this expansion are roads, which serves the purpose of reducing the number of gigantic “mega-farms” in the game, which I’d say is also a welcome addition in terms of game balance.
This expansion helps balance the base game a little better, as roads start being more attractive options for scoring when they were often not as valuable as cities in the base game. Introducing the giant meeple enhances the fight for control in Carcassonne. While I personally enjoyed this, players who prefer passive games of Carcassonne wouldn’t be as affected by this addition.
In a similar vein, the cathedrals are often used as aggressive tiles, being placed in large opponent cities to prevent them from scoring these cities. So, while it does add an additional layer of planning to the game, this expansion does make the game a little more cut throat.
Traders and Builders - 80/100
Traders and Builders introduces set collecting to the game of Carcassonne. The game comes with a bunch of city tiles with one of three symbols on them, one of three different resources that that city produces. Upon completing a city with these symbols, the player who finishes the city collects the tokens that are indicated on the city.
Here’s the rub: it’s the player who finishes the city, not the player who controls the city, that gets these resources. That means you start getting players to finish other players’ cities. At the end of the game, the person with the most of each resource receives a bonus 10 points, meaning 30 points are up for grabs!
Two new meeple types are added to the game: a pig, and a builder. The pig is deployed onto a farm in which you’ve already got a farmer, and if you finish the game with control of the farm you’d score an additional point per completed city the farm touches. On your turn, instead of placing a meeple, you can choose to place your builder on a road or city that you’ve already got a meeple on. In subsequent turns, if you expanded the road/city with your builder on it, you take another turn immediately (only once, you can’t keep expanding the same feature to keep taking extra turns).
The builder is great, it adds yet another thing to think about to the game, and gives you even more decisions to make. Do you play it safe, or do you take a risk and expand the feature with your builder? On the other hand, the pig’s contribution to the game is less unique. Although it’s a fine addition, I’ve never been really excited or compelled to play with the pig. It does look cute, though.
Traders and Builders adds a lot of new mechanics to Carcassonne, and I love the set collecting mechanic it brings to the table. Seeing someone complain that you completed their city for them, just because you get a few resources, never fails to put a smile on my face – they’re complaining while moving their meeple up several points on the score track!
The Princess and the Dragon - 65/100
This expansion comes with a whopping 30 new tiles, plus two new wooden meeples: a dragon and a fairy. The dragon first comes into play when a player draws and places one of the six new tiles that has a volcano on it. Some of the new tiles contain dragon symbols, and when placed this causes the dragon to move. The dragon moves six spaces, eating up any meeples it finds along the way. The dragon itself is controlled by all players in the game. First, the player who placed the tile with the dragon symbol on it moves the dragon one space. Then, each player in clockwise order takes turns moving it one space.
The second wooden meeple, the fairy, starts the game as a neutral character. Whenever a player places a tile and doesn’t place a meeple, they gain control over the fairy, and can put it on a tile where they already have a meeple. The dragon cannot enter a tile with the fairy, so keeping the fairy serves to protect your knight sitting in his giant city from being burnt to a crisp. Secondly, if you start your turn in control of the fairy, you gain one point.
The princess comes in the form of six new city tiles with a princess symbol. When adding to a city already occupied by a meeple, the active player must return one of the meeples back to their owner.
The last thing that this expansion adds (wow it’s a massive one) are magic portals. Magic portals allow players to place meeples anywhere on the map instead of on that tile. The only rules to this are that you can’t place meeples on completed features or on features which already have meeples on them.
After all is said and done, this expansion does add a lot of chaos to Carcassonne. The dragon itself adds a chaotic take-that mechanic to the game that some may find fun, but I find it doesn’t really fit well with the spirit of Carcassonne. I will admit that the dragon meeple does look absolutely amazing, though. The fairy does help in somewhat curtailing the randomness the dragon adds, but I find it’s not really enough to prevent the game from turning really ugly.
On the bright side, the way the fairy changes ownership is pretty neat, as it offers a consolation to players who are unlucky enough to draw tiles that they can’t add meeples to.
The Count, King and Robber - 70/100
This expansion is a mixture of several smaller expansions that were released before, and adds several new modules that you can add to your game as you see fit.
The Count introduces the city of Carcassonne to the game of Carcassonne (finally! Wait, weren’t we building Carcassonne all this time?). This city acts as a new way to start the game, replacing the old starting tile from the base game. The city is split into four quadrants: the castle, cathedral, blacksmith and market. Whenever you place a tile that scores points for one of your opponents, but leaves you empty handed, you may choose to place a meeple into one of these four quadrants. Each quadrant is tied to a type of feature (castle – cities, blacksmith – roads, cathedrals – monasteries, market – farms). Whenever a feature is completed, players with meeples in the respective quadrant can choose to put these meeples into that feature. Then, the feature scores.
The King and Robber adds a simple mechanic: the first player to score a city/road gets the king/robber tile respectively. From then on, whenever someone scores a larger city/road takes control of the king/robber tile. Then, at the end of the game, whoever has control of these tiles scores extra points.
Another simple addition is shrines. Shrines are exactly the same as monasteries, but when placed adjacent to monasteries, the two features compete. The first feature to finish scores nine points as per normal, but there are no points to be had for second place.
Finally, this expansion also includes the River II expansion, which was an old expansion that was once released as a mini expansion in and of itself. This river is similar to the river included in the base game, but with a fork in the river and lakes with features on them.
Ranking the Carcassonne Expansions
At the end of the day, when I sit down to play a game of Carcassonne, I’m looking for a relatively relaxed game with decently weighted decisions to make, but without really making huge overarching strategies. After all, to most people, the novel idea behind Carcassonne is that, at the end of the day, you are collectively building a gorgeous map. Yes, Carcassonne can be played aggressively, and yes sometimes you should make somewhat aggressive moves.
In my opinion, expansions should ideally offer more of the same good stuff that came in the base game, without adding too much complexity – like the brilliant Artisans expansion for Five Tribes, or the Merry Men for Sheriff of Nottingham. Often when expansions try to add too much to the game, they just feel cumbersome and squashed, sometimes even slowing down the elegant gears at the core of the game.
That being said, if you feel like adding more to your Carcassonne experience, both Inns and Cathedrals and Traders and Builders add a wonderful layer of depth to the game. The former adds a layer of risk to your game, and also gives you the opportunity to indirectly slow down your opponents. The latter adds a nice little set collecting mini-game within the game that gives you more to think about when completing cities.
The count of Carcassonne is a little less necessary in my opinion, but the various expansions do fit in quite nicely to the base game. The count continues the Traders and Builders conundrum of helping other people score points in exchange for a ridiculously flexible and useful power. This adds a really neat mechanic to the game that does begin to take us away from base Carcassonne but does also make the game a lot more exciting. I’m not the biggest fan of this module, but it can be fun to tinker around with every so often.
The River II (in the Count King and Robber) adds to the existing river of the base game, which is always nice. It adds even more beauty and variation to your map at the end of the game, which I love, and also solves one of the problems encountered in the river expansion included in the base game. By putting features at the lakes, playing with the river no longer causes the formation of gigantic mega-farms. This is a welcome addition to the game, and although I wouldn’t play with it all the time, it’s something I’d always consider when playing with four or more players.
The next module, the shrines, are a blast. I personally enjoy the theme of this. Having a religious monastery and a cultish shrine compete with one another is absolutely hilarious. It also does try to stop monasteries being clustered around one another, as is so often the case in the game.There isn’t really much to the King and Robber. It feels pretty unnecessary, but it does promote people trying to build super long roads and cities, which is pretty sweet.
All in all, I do like some modules of this expansion more than the others, but most of them are great fun to play with, although the count is something I’d only play with once in a while. The shrines are fun and simple enough to play with at all times, and the second river is a marked improvement over the original.
I feel less fond of the Princess and the Dragon. It does add a whimsical, fantasy feel to the game that in theory sounds wonderful, but the sheer amount of chaos it adds makes it feel like a different game. You could definitely get it to spice things up, but it feels less like building on what makes the game great and more like gilding a lily. It’s an expansion you think about throwing in once in a while, whereas the other two are expansions you could easily just throw in and treat as part of the base game.
You've seen the individual rankings above, but please do take your time in considering what I said about each expansion before deciding on which to get. If chaos and unpredictability are things that you enjoy, by all means start throwing in that fire-breathing dragon. These rankings reflect my personal opinion on these expansions, and how they add to the game of Carcassonne while maintaining what I enjoy most about the game.