Carpe Diem is a game by legendary designer Stefan Feld. It's a game of open drafting, tile placement, and end-of-round objectives. Despite some shortcomings, I love it.
What's It All About?
It's set in Rome, 1 B.C. and as an influential patrician, you are aiming to improve your city districts by adding profitable buildings and beautiful landscapes. Who am I trying to kid? It's completely themeless. Carpe Diem is a Euro game and fits neatly into the point salad genre, a game where pretty much everything you do gains you a few points. Those constant little pops of pleasure, meaningful decisions, and a great sense of tension make this an excellent game.
How Does The Game Play?
In Carpe Diem, you move your patrician meeple around a circle, visiting spots where you can choose to take one of four tiles. These tiles are not replaced as they are taken so your choices gradually dwindle. It also makes it incredibly painful when another player takes exactly the tile you want. But that's not the end of the tension. I'll come back to that later. You then add your tile into your player area connecting fields to give you resources and connecting buildings to give you bonuses.
There are small banderole tokens on the player boards that grant you a movement on the banderole track when you put a tile on top of them. Woo! Sarcasm aside, the banderole track is actually really important because it dictates player order and it is generally vital that you are going early in the turn order. To add to the puzzle, there are icons around the side of your player board. If you match these with the appropriate building or field type, you get extra points.
End Of Round Objectives
When all of the tiles have been taken, there are some end-of-round objectives. This is my favourite part of the game. You have to place one of your tokens between two cards and then score those two objectives. If you can't fulfil an objective then you lose four points. There is a lot of tension here as you are willing the other players not to take the only spot where you can fulfil both objectives.
This is why turn order is so important. It is also vital that as you are playing the main game you don't take your eye off these objectives and just get swept away by building pretty, well okay, not-so-pretty, buildings and fields.
How Does It Look?
Okay, we can all see the huge elephant in the room. The huge elephant that's been covered in mud, algae, and a non-proprietary brand of Marmite. Yes, the game looks terrible. The colour palette can at best be described as dark. I wonder whether the artist had intended the components to look brighter but the printing process has rendered them darker than expected. Everything is just so murky.
Take for instance the banderole tokens that sit on the player's board. The tokens are dark grey and the board is dark brown. Mmmm. To add insult to injury, on the token, there is a tiny icon of what could possibly be described as a dog's bone. I think it's supposed to be a scroll but it's hard to tell. To make matters worse, the bread tokens look like dried-up slices of orange. Not good.
The art of Carpe Diem also creates some usability issues. The icons used around the side of the player boards for brown fields and brown buildings are confusingly similar. This can lead to the player building the wrong thing in the wrong place. Luckily, it's not too hard to remember to look at these icons carefully to check whether they are a building or a field.
Let's get all of the negatives of Carpe Diem out of the way. The component quality is also not the greatest. The tiles are made from relatively thin cardboard that is line with the other games from Alea and Ravensburger. The aforementioned banderole tokens are possibly the worst component as they are so small and so hard to see on the board. The meeples are okay and add a much-needed splash of colour to the proceedings.
Learning The Game
The rulebook meanwhile is excellent which makes learning the game easy for a mid-complexity game. The left half of each page gives the full rules while the right gives a brief version which can be used as a refresher when you revisit the game. I find this very useful as I can quickly check up on rules that I have forgotten.
How Complex Is Carpe Diem?
Carpe Diem is in line with other Stefan Feld games in terms of its complexity. It's certainly not a simple game but neither is it a huge heavy game. Carpe Diem takes about 45 minutes to play at 2 players and 90 minutes at 4 players. There are quite a few things to keep in mind and juggle, such as the end-of-round objectives, keeping up on the banderole track, and fulfilling the achievements on the edge of your player board.
It is a game of forward planning. Which objectives do I think I can meet? How will I get the resources/buildings/fields I need? Will that help me in the subsequent rounds? There is a fair amount to think about and some crunchy decisions to make. But the game flows smoothly and is great fun to play.
Is There Much Variety?
Replayability is good. There are 60 different objectives cards and only twelve at most are used in any one game. The frames that fit around the player boards also change the achievements that you need to fulfil. There are different strategies you can try too: do you go for building lots of villas that give you lots of end game points, do you build fountains that reward you for having certain tiles on your board, or do you focus heavily on scoring points from the end-of-round objectives? Every game is a new puzzle and is something that I enjoy getting my teeth stuck into.
The player interaction in Carpe Diem is perfect for me. In general, I get very engrossed in the puzzle of the game and choose the perfect tile for me. Then someone will throw their hands in the air and say "I needed that tile!". Saying that, hate drafting is entirely possible, taking a tile or objective that you know that someone else wants. Yes, this is annoying but it's not in the same league as take-that cards in other games. I don't tend to like a lot of player interaction, so this game is spot on for me. It's not a multiplayer solo game and neither is it a harsh take-that style game.
Does The Game Scale Well?
I prefer to play this game at three players, but I also love it at two. Four-player games can go a touch too long and it's harder to plan in advance because there are three other players who can take the tile you want. But even so, it's still enjoyable at four players.
Carpe Diem has grown on me and is now one of my favourite games despite it not being a looker in any sense of the word. I love the puzzly nature of working out the path to take to get the resources and buildings I need to fulfil objectives, being mindful of where I think the other players will go. For me, this is one of Stefan Feld's best games and is up there with The Castles of Burgundy. If you like the sound of this game, don't be put off by the look. It really is an excellent game.