Carcassonne is one of the best-known modern board games in existence. Since its release in 2000, it has sold over 10 million copies! It’s an incredibly popular tile-placement game, for one reason above all others: it’s so simple to play. Anyone can learn how to play Carcassonne. And, thanks to this tutorial, you too will have no problem teaching it at your next games night…
A game of Carcassonne lasts around 45 minutes. The aim? There’s a bunch of square tiles in the box, with different features on them. Roads, fields, monasteries, and walled cities. Like the actual medieval citadel. You’ll compete to build up the French countryside in a communal manner, but you’ll score your own completed features. Once the last tile gets placed, there’s some end-game scoring, and the player with the most points wins!
As of 2014, Carcassonne also includes two mini-modules in the box: The River, and The Abbot. Later in this post, I’ll teach you how to play Carcassonne with these variants. Firstly, however, let’s take a look at how to play Carcassonne in its original base game form. It’s a perfect ‘gateway game’ for board game beginners and younger players.
Set Up The Carca-zone
Give out the coloured meeples* to players. Place the scoreboard on the playing surface within easy reach of everyone. Everyone places one of their meeples on the zero on the score track. You’ll each start Carcassonne with seven meeples of your colour. (There’s an extra meeple in each colour, ‘wearing’ a mitre hat. That’s the Abbot; keep those in the box for now. We’ll get to Abbots, later.)
Turn all the square tiles so they’re face-down. 13 – the minority of them – have dark backs. 12 of them are the river tiles. (Again, keep those in the box.) The thirteenth is the ‘start tile’. Flip this face-up in the middle of the table. Shuffle the light-back tiles into a few stacks, face-down. Pick a random first player. I use the smartphone app, Chwazi, for this. This person picks and looks at the top tile from one of the stacks. Now you’re ready to play!
*Did you know that the term ‘meeple’ originated in a game of Carcassonne? Shortly after Carcassonne’s release, player Alison Hansel created a portmanteau. When describing her wooden pawns, Alison blended ‘my’ and ‘people’ together – ‘meeple’. The term grew in popularity and is now a worldwide term for wooden silhouette player pieces!
Turns Are Easy As One, Two, Mee(ple)
Your turn in Carcassonne couldn’t be easier. You pick up a tile and place it next to existing tiles in the growing communal landscape. Whichever way you arrange the tile, the landscape must always match the neighbouring tiles. To start, you’ll place your tile next to the Starting Tile, along one of the four edges. The options will soon explode after a few tiles get placed!
Once you’ve picked a spot for your tile, you can then opt to add one of your meeples from your supply onto that tile. It will either be on a road, city, monastery, or field. Sometimes, tiles show a combination of two or more of these things! There are restrictions, though, if an earlier-placed meeple sits on part of that feature. Luckily, there are clever and competitive ways to work around this, which I’ll also explain below…
Last of all, if you complete a feature, you have to score it. You move the corresponding scoring markers along the score track. Then you return the meeple(s) on this feature back to their owner(s). The game continues with the next player’s turn, in clockwise order. So, what’s the deal with placing tiles, then? And what’s the difference between scoring, say, a city and a road?
Place Yer Meeples: Roads & Highwaymen
If you have a tile with a road on it you can place it next to another road tile, further elongating that road. Once placed, if you have a meeple in your supply, you can sit it on this road, as a ‘highwayman’. Only one highwayman can occupy each individual road. They like to operate alone!
If you have no meeples left in your supply, you cannot place one on this tile right now. This also means that neither you nor anyone else will ever get a chance to place a meeple on this tile later. It’s a one-time opportunity. On the other hand, you don’t have to place one of your meeples on this tile. You have a limited number of them – and herein lies the core decisions of Carcassonne.
Roads score when both ends of them get closed off. Examples of this could be when a road meets a T-junction or a crossroads. Some roads terminate at city walls or a monastery. When you complete a road, count the number of tiles this road stretches along. The meeple on this road scores you one point per tile. For example, a road that spreads along four tiles scores four points.
At the end of the game, there are no penalties for incomplete, meandering roads. Highwaymen still score one point per tile their road passes through, regardless.
Cities & Knights – Wall-To-Wall Action
Many of the tiles have city walls on them. If you want, you could rotate and place this tile so that it connects to (or even completes) an earlier city segment. You cannot place this tile in a manner where it would intersect a road. Neither could you have it so the city walls don’t align with adjacent tiles.
Once placed, if you have a meeple in your supply, you can sit it inside the city walls as a ‘knight’. Like highwaymen and roads, only one knight may occupy a city. Some city tiles have a coat of arms on them. These are worth extra points! If you can complete a city’s walls, you must score it. You get two points per tile that the city spreads over.
If there’s any coat of arms within that city, each one scores an extra two points. (So a city that has two coats of arms in it, which spreads over four tiles, scores 12 points. That’s eight for the 4x city tiles, and an extra four points for the 2x coat of arms.) At the end of the game, incomplete cities score half: so one point per tile, and one extra point per coat of arms.
Monasteries & Monks – The Lost Jane Austen Manuscript
Some tiles are monasteries, surrounded by fields and sometimes with a road leading out of it. Again, when placing a monastery, you must align it to fit in with the surrounding landscapes. If you place a meeple into this monastery, it becomes a ‘monk’. Monasteries are only ever one tile in size.
The monk stays on this monastery tile until it gets surrounded by eight other tiles. At this point, you return the meeple to your supply and claim eight points. (One per tile that surrounded the monastery.) Top tip: if the tile gods smile upon you, try to place a monastery next to another monastery! That way, someone else (or yourself) contributes towards completing it.
At the end of the game, there’s no punishment for any incomplete monasteries. They still score one point per tile surrounding them.
Fields & Farmers – High Risk, High Points?
Sometimes, you might get a tile that isn’t of much use to you. All the roads have highwaymen on them. Your city tile doesn’t fit in any legal spots. Don’t worry, because there’s always a get-out clause. And, if you’re smart with your tile placement, it can be a lucrative one.
You can always place tiles so open fields sit next to open fields. Usually, you’d stand your meeple upright on a feature to claim it as your own. But you can also lay your meeple down in a field, where it becomes a ‘farmer’. Like the other meeples, you cannot place a farmer in a pre-occupied field.
Farmers work a little differently to the other meeples. You never get to take them back, so they’re a game-long investment. They only get scored at the game’s end. Once the last tile in the game gets placed, you’ll check your farmers. You score points, though not for the tile span of the fields. Instead, you score three points per complete city within the border of that farmer’s field. Roads are the primary point of a farmer’s border, and in rarer cases, points where dual city walls meet.
Top tip: placing a farmer early game can be a risk/reward see-saw. It’s a permanent venture, but it prevents other players from jumping in on a profitable location. The risk is other players hem your farmer in with road tiles, and it scores few or even zero points!
Oust Opponents And Pinch Points
It’s possible to share points from high-scoring features. You can even oust opponents altogether! It’s legal to place a meeple on your tile when you place it, providing it’s not encroaching on a pre-claimed feature. If you then connect and combine this feature to a neighbouring feature, such as the same road, it becomes one long road. Upon completion, if two (or more), say, highwaymen sit on this road, you both score the points for it.
Beware: this can turn into an area majority game if you’re not careful! It can get competitive (with farmers, in particular). If a player combines a feature with an opponent and one of them has the majority of meeples within, the majority alone scores it.
The Modular River Set-Up
As promised, there are also a couple of mini-expansions in Carcassonne. If you’re playing with beginners, the above instructions are enough for your first game or two, to ease people into it. But once you’re familiar with the flow of the game, you could add in The River.
Remember those 12 dark-back tiles? Ten of them feature a river, with the other two being the river’s source, and another being a concluding lake. You use these instead of the singular Starting Tile. The source tile becomes the starting tile instead. Shuffle the ten river tiles into a stack, and place the lake at the bottom.
Players take turns drawing a river tile and adding it to a snaking design. There’s a mixture of opportunities to place meeples on roads, cities, a monastery, or as farmers on this river. The only rule is that you cannot place two corners of the river back-to-back so it flows in a u-bend. The last tile is of course the lake, which brings the river to a close. Now you have a modular layout to begin placing the light-back Carcassonne tiles, as per the base game.
Much Ado Abbot Nothing
The second mini-expansion features the Abbots. Give one to each player in their colour. You’ll notice that square gardens sit on some of the tiles. They’re not a primary feature like a singular road or an entire monastery. However, you treat them like a monastery, for scoring purposes…
If you draw a tile with a garden on it, the only meeple you can place on it is an Abbot. (You can also place an Abbot onto a monastery if you want.) Gardens score identically to monasteries: one point per tile that surrounds them. The difference is that, if you decide not to place a meeple on a later turn, you can opt to recall your Abbot and score the garden/monastery for its current worth. Usually, a meeple gets locked into a feature until its completion. Sometimes, tile arrangement becomes super-specific – to guarantee finishing a monastery, for example. The beauty of the Abbots is their flexibility. Running low on meeples? Recall your Abbot!
Now you know how to play Carcassonne, one of the most successful board games of the modern era! Can’t get enough of Klaus-Jurgen Wrede’s classic? Want to throw yet another expansion into the mix? Click here to read How To Play Carcassonne: Inns & Cathedrals!
Editors note: This blog was originally published on August 5th, 2020. Updated on December 7th, 2021 to improve the information available.