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April 2, 2004

Game Night Report: "Carcassonne: Hunters & Gatherers"

Posted by Mike on April 2, 2004 11:32 PM

Al and I decided to make Friday night Game Night around the house. Game Night entails a standing invitation to the local game geek posse, but there's a cold going around right now so we scratched the mass invite and settled in for a round of our newest game purchase: "Carcassonne: Hunters & Gatherers" (H&G), which comes well recommended for two players (though up to five can play).

H&G is what's referred to as a "German-style" game. Thanks to Ghoul and Nate, who offered some commentary on just what German-style games are, and to Nate especially for recommending H&G's forebear ("Carcassonne") as a good introduction to the genre. For a little more on German-style games, there's also a thorough Wikipedia article on the subject.

The premise of H&G is pretty straightforward: Each player leads a tribe of hunters and gatherers settling a region comprised of rivers, meadows, and forests. Each player has a limited number of tribefolk plus a pair of huts, which can be used to control rivers.

Game play is also very simple: Players take turns drawing land tiles and laying them on the table. Each tile can have a piece of a forest, river, or meadow on it, and the tiles have to be played such that the edges of a given tile mate with its neighbors: rivers to rivers, forests to forests, meadows to meadows. When a given geographic feature is completed, the players who have a hunter, gatherer, or fisherman inhabiting the feature get points for each tile comprising the feature (unless one player enjoys a majority of tokens). Not only is there scoring during the game as features are completed, but there's a special end-scoring phase during which players get points for placing huts on river systems and occupying meadows with hunters. Thanks to the end-of-game phase, there's a bit of long-term planning involved: Players only get two huts to use for control of river systems, and only five hunters to place in meadows, so it pays to hold out for large rivers and meadows.


H&G had a quick setup once we punched out all the land tiles and sorted out the pieces. The tiles are made of sturdy cardboard and the illustrations are rendered in a pleasant, simple style. The hunter/gatherer/hut pieces are small, colored wood tokens.

Things move along pretty quickly. The rules were easy to get the first time around (though I think we missed a few minor nuances we'll probably get right the next time we play), and we got through our first game in about 90 minutes, from when we first took the cellophane off the box to putting the last piece away. A pair of experienced players who don't have to stop and re-check the rules every few turns could probably burn through a game in around 30 or 45 minutes.

If I had to use one word to describe our first H&G session, it would be "pleasant." Unlike "Risk" or "Monopoly," there's less of a sense of head-to-head competition (though a game could go that direction depending on the temperament of the players) and more opportunity for each player to simply work on building a large meadow or long river. Huts, which are placed on rivers and create a monopoly on the fish resources the river offers, are the one zero-sum piece in play: When you play a hut on a river, the other player is frozen out of that river for purposes of end-game scoring. It's possible for gatherers and fishermen to compete over forests and segments of rivers, but the limited pool of tokens each player has makes it hard to get too out of hand pursuing this strategy, and you risk missing out on plenty of scoring opportunities off in your own neck of the woods.

There also seems to be a nice bit of potential for rising tension in the game. Compare again to "Monopoly" or "Risk," where much of the tension of the game leaks out in the final quarter or so of the action as the player with the obvious upper hand goes into mop-up operations or just starts collecting insane rents for the three hotel stretches down around Marvin Gardens. The air is sucked out of the room pretty quickly, but no one wants to be a spoil-sport and deprive the winner of hard-earned total victory, so it becomes a painful slog. With its end-game scoring and a set game limit (there are only so many land tiles to play), H&G has room to reach a nice pitch as players try to wrap up forests and rivers or complete meadows and cash in, or just gamble on how many gatherers they'll need to commit to keep the other player from landing a big score. The narrow victory the winner of our game this evening managed wasn't clear until the very last points were tallied.

One thing that makes H&G nice for a non-gamer is the simple metaphor driving the whole thing, which made it distinctly non-off-putting to Al, who's not a fan of games heavily entrenched in the fantastic. To the extent the box says "stone age hunters and gatherers" are involved, you might think anthropology geeks would have an especially good time, but unlike even "Magic" or "Cosmic Encounter," there's no real need to embrace the milieu or be very conversant in the narrative elements to enjoy the game, which is just about making "rivers" and "forests" connect so you can count "fish" and move a token around the score board. A lot of game geeks, who come to the culture along with plenty of background in fantasy and science fiction, tend to overlook a few questions non-f/sf people will tend to ask, like "What the fuck is a 'barrow gnome'?" Gamers with the appropriate background will tend to brush aside questions like that by saying "just pay attention to the numbers on the cards, not the monsters," which is fine but misses the small but cumulative advantage of knowing with near-intuitive speed that an "Ogre Berserker" will probably crush a "Goblin Henchman" in nine out of ten fantasy settings. Beyond that, a lot of the simple humor of imagining the Ogre Berserker smashing the Goblin Henchman will be lost, turning the game into a lot of math.

So, overall impression: Pleasant, fun, not in-your-face competitive (though a game could take that turn with the right personalities), rewarding of long-term planning but also winnable on aggressive short-term play. If it's reflective of the overall German-style gaming experience, I'm sold and I'll be heading back down to Bridgetown Hobbies for more of its kind soon.