Carcassonne Board Game Guide: Competitive Map Building

To my mind, Carcassonne is the best tile-based board game you can get. It’s full of twists and turns; everything can change right up until the end.

It’s a bit like an aggressive board-game version of SimCity. The object (of the base game) is simple: build cities, claim roads, inhabit monasteries, and don’t let anyone share in your success! Only selfishness, brutality, and utter disregard for years of friendship will seal your victory. Maybe. Probably not.

simcity franchise
Sim City

It’s best with certain expansion packs; here, things really start to get crazy! This Carcassonne board game guide focuses on the base game, of which there are a few variations and house rules options.

Bottom Line Up Front

In Carcassonne, you take one face-down tile at the start of your turn. You’ll place it on the table, ensuring all the relevant edges mesh with other tiles already in place.

If currently unoccupied, you can choose to place one of your meeples on your piece, occupying either a city (Knight), a road (Highwayman) or a monastery (Monk). There are a couple of extra things to know, but these are optional to the base game. You’ll find more about Farmers, Abbots, and the River in the Optional Extras section.

(Pre-2014 versions of Carcassonne had cloisters instead of monasteries. These are synonyms; two names for the same thing.)

In short, every space you occupy is worth one point per tile. Completed cities are worth two points per tile. Once a road, a city, or the area around a monastery is finished, your meeple automatically returns to your hand.

Carcassonne finishes when the last tile is placed. The winner is the person with the most points once you’ve tallied everything up on the scoring track.

carcassonne board game big box

What’s in the Box?

The Carcassonne base game involves the following pieces and tiles:

  • 72 tiles (including the starting tile)
  • Five bags of colored meeples (blue, red, green, yellow, black)
  • A scoring track

If you buy the Big Box version (which I’d recommend), you’ll get all sorts of extras. These technically form parts of the expansions.

carcassonne big box look inside
Image by Ben Kitchen

Before You Get Started

There isn’t too much you need to know before starting Carcassonne. The only thing I’d recommend is finding a sizeable playing area.

A large table or floor space should do it. If you and your friends are careful, you’ll create a nice, tight, compact square. In my experience, it doesn’t usually go that way. The map tends to expand in whatever direction the game demands.

If you reach the edge of your playing space, it won’t matter too much, but it’ll limit how the game progresses.

For your awareness, an average round – once you’ve learned how to play – typically takes us around 30 minutes. While you’re picking it up, allow a little longer.

Playing Carcassonne

Carcassonne starts with the start tile. This has a darker back than the rest of the pieces. When you turn it over, you’ll see a straight road and a city section on one edge.

This tile is placed first, in the center of your playing space.

The remaining 71 tiles should be shuffled and stacked or placed into a box. Put the scoring track off to one side, with one meeple of each color sitting on the 0 space.

You’re now ready to play.

Each turn, you go through three phases. These must always be completed in this precise order:

  1. Draw and place a tile.
  2. (Optional) – place a meeple on the tile.
  3. (If applicable) – return any meeples occupying a now-completed structure to the respective players’ hands.

Placing a Tile

Officially, the youngest player starts. I’ve mentioned a more fun variation in the House Rules section below.

The starting player draws a face-down tile and places it next to the start tile.

The touching edges must match up. For example, a road must be continuous, traveling from one tile seamlessly into the next.

Each tile will only have one of three possible edges:

  • A city section
  • A road (entering/leaving through the edge’s center)
  • Plain old grass (field)

This appeals to the artistic side within most of us. Everything must match up (see the link to Patchwork). It’s easy initially, but you’ll need to be more tactical as the board expands and fills in.

Choosing whether to Place a Meeple

Once you’ve placed your tile, you have the option of placing one meeple on it. Remember, you don’t have to, and sometimes you won’t be able to anyway.

You may only place a maximum of one meeple per turn.

  • You can choose to place a meeple on any road, city, or monastery in the tile you’ve just set down. You can’t drop one of your meeples in any other tile previously put down.
  • You may only place a meeple if that road or city isn’t currently occupied or claimed by anyone else’s meeples. For instance, if you place a tile with a road, follow that line to where it ends (in both directions). If there’s nobody else on it, you can claim it.

You’ll only get your meeple back once the road, city, or area around the monastery is complete (explained below). Be careful: they might get stuck!

You must follow the order listed in the booklet, as mentioned above. If you’re placing a meeple, this should be done before scoring and taking any back. Otherwise, you’d have an extra meeple in hand.

Once you’ve placed a meeple (or declared that you won’t be), your turn is over.

carcassonne big little meeple red
Image by Ben Kitchen

Continuing Play: More Tiles and More Meeples

It’s now the turn of the next player, going around clockwise. They should repeat the process, drawing a tile and choosing where to put it, adding a meeple (or not) depending on their plan. Picking an unplayable tile is very rare. If this happens, place it back in the stack and draw again.

In a nice, friendly game, you’ll all work on building your own structures and leave each other to it. But they’re no fun, eh?

In reality, it won’t take long before others start trying to join in with your roads, cities, and monasteries. They might even try to steal the points for themselves.

Of course, you can’t directly connect. You wouldn’t be allowed to place a meeple in that case. But you could put a relevant tile nearby in the hopes of being able to add another to fill in the gap sometime soon.

Oh, and also, just having a meeple in a structure doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll win it. Others can work their way into your roads and cities. Whoever has the most meeples wins the points. You all get the points if multiple players have the same number of meeples.

For example, if an eight-tile road has one yellow and one blue meeple, both yellow and blue players get eight points. However, if it has two yellow meeples but only one blue, the yellow player gets eight points, while the blue receives nothing.

Ouch. I’ve been there – many times.

It won’t take long before things start to get very tactical.

Play continues clockwise, with each player contributing to the map and adding their meeples.

Scoring and Taking Meeples Back

Your meeples are locked into the structure they’re in. You can only get them back once you (or another player) complete it.

  • Roads are complete when they have a start and an end.
  • Cities are complete when the wall wraps around the entire area (no matter its size).
  • Monasteries are complete when each adjacent and diagonal space (all eight in a square around it) is filled with a tile.

Once a structure is complete, you automatically take your meeple back and score on the scoring track. It doesn’t matter if you completed it on your turn or someone else did – you always get the points.

Taking your meeple back doesn’t replace your option of putting a meeple down.

Each completed structure gets the following points:

  • Completed roads – 1 point per tile.
  • Completed cities – 2 points per tile + 2 points for every tile with a coat of arms (shield).
  • Completed monasteries – 9 points (1 per adjacent and diagonal tile and 1 for the monastery tile itself).

Move your meeple on the scoring track the relevant number of spaces. This keeps track of your score as you play.

carcassonne scoring track
Image by Ben Kitchen

Ending the Game

The process continues until all the Carcassonne game tiles have been placed. Once the last one has been played, that’s the game!

It’s now time to tally up what’s left on the board. Apply the following scores to all incomplete structures:

  • Incomplete roads with a Highwayman meeple: 1 point per tile.
  • Incomplete cities with a Knight meeple: 1 point per tile.
  • Incomplete monasteries with a Monk meeple: 1 point per adjacent or diagonal tile + 1 point for the monastery itself.

The person with the highest score wins, and will likely suggest all losers remember this moment by immortalizing it in a wall-hung certificate. Just me? Oh. Sorry. Don’t do that.

Play again as many times as you like – every game is different.

Optional Extras (Included with the Base Game)

These days, the following ‘extras’ and expansions usually come included with the base game. They’ve become part of Carcassonne’s identity.

Option 1: Farmers

As well as placing Knights, Highwaymen, and Monks, you could also play with Farmers.

Playing with Farmers doesn’t require any extra expansions. You use the same meeples as usual but play them in a flat, lying-down position.

A Farmer should be placed in an unoccupied field on the tile you’ve just put down. That is, follow the boundaries of the grass set out by city walls, the edges of the map, and the River (if applicable – see below). No other Farmers should have claimed that space yet.

That meeple is irretrievable for the rest of the game. It only scores at the very end, once the last tile has been added to the map. You’ll receive 3 points per completed city touching the ‘field’.

As usual, other players will try to join in with or steal your field with their meeples.

The nature of the Farmer means that placing one doesn’t usually make sense until near the end of the game. That way, you aren’t throwing away valuable meeples that might be needed elsewhere.

Option 2: The River

The River is technically a mini-expansion, but it’s become even more popular than the base game option. You don’t need to use it, but it helps.

It’s a new way to start the game, replacing the Carcassonne start tile (put this to one side – you won’t need it). Place the River source tile, then shuffle the rest and leave them face down.

Each player takes a River tile and reveals it, adding it to the board in whichever direction they see fit. There’s just one rule: it can’t bend back on itself.

Once the final River tile is played (hold this one back to ensure it gets placed last), the game continues as usual.

The River creates a much larger starting space, helping things get moving a little faster. You might find that people focus more on lots of small cities rather than a few larger ones.

carcassonne river
Image by Ben Kitchen

Option 3: The Abbot

The Abbot was also originally a mini-expansion, but it’s now generally accepted as part of the base game. Of course, you don’t have to play with it if you don’t want to!

The Abbot meeple can be placed as a Monk in a monastery or garden (you can’t use a regular meeple in the latter case).

The Abbot’s advantage is that you can pick it up at any point rather than waiting for the surrounding tiles to be completed. This action replaces putting down a meeple.

It makes the most sense to use the Abbot in tricky, tight situations when you place a monastery. At least you could get something! Just don’t forget to pick it back up (like I always do)!

House Rules and Bonuses

These house rules and optional extras are what my friends and I play with, so I can recommend them all. Ultimately, Carcassonne has a fair amount of adaptability, so don’t be afraid to figure out what works for you!

  1. You could equally distribute the tiles between the players at the start, but there’s no need. It can save time in that there’s no need to reach past everyone on each turn.
  2. We often play with a tile distributor I bought on Etsy for Christmas. It doesn’t add much to the gameplay, but it’s a good gimmick and makes cheating virtually impossible. We all know who you are! The link is to my specific one, which I thoroughly recommend.
  3. The most fun way to decide who goes first is the ‘throw-meeples-on-the-table’ technique. Yes, that’s literally all there is to it, and it’s a widely accepted way to start a game. Whoever has the most meeple standing on their feet (there aren’t usually more than two or three) goes first. If there’s a tie, you keep doing this until someone wins.
  4. An even more diverse way to use the River expansion is to shuffle the end piece in with the rest. Thus, you sometimes end up with a tiny starting area; other times, you get a vast space. It’s just the luck of the draw.

You might read about others who introduce score-changing house rules. For example, you could score completed roads at two points per tile instead of one. I’ve also seen suggestions that roads ending in a monastery could be worth more.

Personally, I wouldn’t recommend this. Yes, roads are kind of worthless, but you still need to play some meeples as highwaymen. The value difference between them and monasteries and cities brings an aspect of risk and reward.

inns and cathedrals expansion

For point-altering rule changes, use the Inns and Cathedrals expansion. It’s great fun and implements an even harsher risk/reward incentive.

carcassonne tile distributor
Image by Ben Kitchen

Tips to Know in Advance

After playing many games of Carcassonne, here are my top tips. In reality, these should be things I take note of because I rarely win. I’m having too much fun being irritating.

Carcassonne involves an awful lot of luck (drawing tiles blindly). It’s also highly variable and plays out differently every time you play. 

Anyway, here’s what I think would help me improve* my game.

*a lot

carcassonne river start of game
Image by Ben Kitchen

#1 Don’t Be Overly Aggressive

I like the ‘leeching tactic’, as my friends lovingly refer to it as. I can’t say they’re wrong to be annoyed. I get a great kick out of sharing or stealing someone else’s hard work.

Most people refer to this tactic as ‘jumping in’. If you can join your meeple (or even two!) into someone else’s city, you can share or even steal all their points. *rubs hands with glee at the thought of friends’ expressions of appalled fury*

What can I say? I’m a terrible person. However, it doesn’t always work. In fact, it never works.

For reason or reasons unknown, it doesn’t take long for the entire table to turn on me, trapping me in my structures and stealing all my hard work. (Except in two-player games, where things simply become rather tense!)

In short, my best advice is to be the gray man. I’ve given that advice in many board game guides before, and it’s no different here. Yes, you’ll need to be aggressive to win, but don’t overdo it initially, and never try leeching into everything. Only some things.

To be honest, I should have my own Carcassonne guide open and in front of me next time I play!

#2 Block and Trap Meeples

You can place tiles in strategic positions to trap opponents’ meeples on the board. This is especially important in games with fewer players; it has more impact on the overall game.

For example, a friend might be trying to complete a city. Even better, two people might have already merged together into one city. If you place a strategic road piece, it makes finishing the structure very difficult.

In some cases, it’s even beneficial to keep adding to their city, making it broader and more challenging to complete. That way, the meeples are stuck. Yes, they’ll get points at the end, but you might be getting more in the meantime!

I’d recommend blocking meeples if you run into a leecher like me. Teach me a lesson.

It’s also true from the opposite point of view – don’t let your meeples get stuck!

carcassonne game

#3 Card-Counting (Tile-Counting?) Is the Only Way to Cement Your Chances

There are a set number of tiles in the box. If you take the time to memorize these (and have a good brain for these kinds of things), you’ll know exactly what’s coming up toward the end.

‘Tile-counting’ is the only surefire way to throw a curveball in at the end. There’s even a list of all tiles in the back of the booklet (so everyone will know what pieces are available). 

If you want to win, go ahead. But I find the joy of Carcassonne comes from the simplicity of not knowing. I’d argue that it’s more fun just to enjoy some basic family fun.

(Equally, I understand that if card counting is something you’ve always done, it must be impossible to stop.)

#4 Play Defensively

Most players will try to join in with your structures (especially cities). I would be one of them, I’m afraid.

So my best advice would be to plan ahead and prepare for people like me. It’s much more beneficial to close a smaller city by yourself than to share it with an opponent (or more than one).

When you’re building a city, don’t let it get too open. Ideally, there shouldn’t ever be more than two places to add to it. This prevents those sneaky leeches (again, sorry!) from weaseling their way in.

Conclusion

Ultimately, Carcassonne is a family game, and I feel it should stay that way. Yes, you can make things more interesting, and in some cases, you should. (Check out some of the many available expansions!)

Carcassonne’s vibe, though, is that of a simple off-the-shelf-and-play game. There’s nothing too complex, no in-depth strategic approaches, and no way to control the order of the tiles. Unless you’re a massive cheat.

However you play this board game, stay true to that spirit, and you’ll enjoy it.

carcassonne board game for adults

Frequently Asked Questions

Question: What is a follower in Carcassonne?

Answer: ‘Follower’ and ‘meeple’ are interchangeable terms. I prefer to use the word meeple because it’s more fun to say. “Meeple.”
These wooden characters can also be referred to by their roles. Highwaymen claim roads, Knights occupy cities, Monks stand in the monasteries, and Farmers lie in the field.

Question: Is there a difference between a monastery and a cloister in Carcassonne?

Answer: There’s no difference between a monastery and a cloister. They’re both names for the same thing.
Up until the 2014 re-release, they were called cloisters. Now, they’re referred to as monasteries. Presumably, more people were familiar with the latter word than the former.
I call these tiles monasteries because I only played Carcassonne for the first time around five years ago. You can use either term.

Question: If you have more meeples in a structure than someone else, do you claim it?

Answer: Yes!
The structure is owned by whoever has the most meeples in it.
If there’s a tie, you all share the points at completion (or at the end if it’s unfinished).

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