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Why Games Work: Carcassonne and Isle of Skye

When deciding whether to purchase a game, one of the first things to evaluate is the basic flow of play. It also happens to be the main thing a designer tries to get perfect. The flow of play refers to how well a game moves from turn to turn and how easy it is for players to understand and make progress in the game. Multiple things can trip that up and bring a game to an unenjoyable halt.

This new article series seeks to explore the basic play of several games and get to the core of why they work. I’ll take a game or two in comparison and break down the basics of the game so it’s easy to see what the game does well and where it might stop and ask a little more. This series is part review and part analysis. The main point being that understanding the design choice of the core of a game will provide an understanding on how to judge other games.

For the first in this article series, let’s look at the recent winner of the Kennerspiel des Jahres for 2016, Isle of Skye: From Chieftain to King, and it’s ancestor, Carcassonne which won the Spiel des Jahres in 2001.

Carcassonne is a game about laying down tiles and scoring points for completed structures on groups of tiles. Castles, roads, farms, and abbeys all score points, but the main thing that sets it apart is that you must have a meeple (yes, this is the game that brought meeples into the world) on the structure at the time it scores.

The core element of Carcassonne that makes it so popular is that play is simple. Draw a tile. Place a tile. Score points. There really isn’t anything complex at first glance. It’s just fun to make matches (exactly like jigsaw puzzle solving) and have little guys on the board. There are elements of strategy, but that also brings about some of the frustration.

What keeps Carcassonne on the shelf at times is that it succeeds primarily as a two or three player game. With four or five players, the game is too disjointed and too chaotic. If you manage to start building a castle, it’s very hard to develop it well and forget about counting on a certain piece to fill in a spot. It becomes a quick point grab because the risk of waiting for the right piece (there’s a bit of push-your-luck if you’re trying to get a certain piece) is just too high. With more players, it also means that you don’t get as many turns (the deck of tiles is fixed for all player counts), and that long downtime starts to make the simple play drag.

Fifteen years later, millions of meeples sold, herein walks Isle of Skye. It’s unclear whether Carcassonne’s flaws were some of the basis for Isle of Skye, but it does recognize that the good parts of Carcassonne are worth reuse, while the bad parts are an opportunity to improve.

Isle of SkyeEssentially, Isle of Skye understands that for every player in a tile-laying game, there are some tiles that are more desirable than others. The game sets up an economy around those tiles where players set the prices and gain income for gold tiles they’ve already placed. Add in some goal-based scoring that varies from game to game and you’ve not only added some replayability, but you’ve also added a crucial element of player interaction. Carcassonne depended on passive interaction where one player might get a tile before another and then use it to their advantage. Isle of Skye allows players to partially and directly affect the ability of other players to complete their goals. These are the kind of masterful game design decisions that allow for memorable Isle of Skye games.

The other thing that Isle of Skye does which Carcassonne has implemented through expansions and themed versions is add more icons into the tiles. By driving some scoring based on these icons, it enhances competition for tiles throughout the game. The icons also break up the art so that it feels more like an aerial view of a living world than the flatter landscape of base Carcassonne.

If you’re considering Isle of Skye due to its newfound accolades, I strongly recommend Carcassonne as well, but for greater longevity and theme, I recommend Carcassonne: Gold Rush or Carcassonne: Over Hill and Dale.

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