The game: Carcassonne: South Seas, by Klaus-Jürgen Wrede, published by Hans im Glück in 2013.
Elevator pitch: First game in the Carcassonne Around the World series: an independent Carcassonne game set in the South Seas, featuring familiar Carcassonne game play with novel scoring system.
What’s in the box? Usual Carcassonne-size box contains tiles, meeples, wooden resource tokens (clam shells, bananas, fish) and cardboard ship and boat tokens.
What do you do in the game? Draw a tile, place a tile, place a meeple on the new tile if you wish and can. Once an island, road, market or sea area is complete, the area is scored, player gains resources and the meeple comes home. In the end of each turn, player can turn in resources to collect a trading ship tile, which is worth 2–6 points. Game is over, once the tiles or the trading ships run out. Resources count one point per three resources in the end, and the player with the highest score wins.
The usual Carcassonne rules apply: tiles played must fit in on all sides and meeples cannot be placed on areas with existing meeples. If you want to share in, you must place the meeple on a separate area, then join the two areas. Everything but the scoring is familiar from earlier Carcassonne games. The scoring is new, but simple. The most unusual part is the fishing areas: those can be scored unfinished, if you place a tile with a rowing boat in the sea area. In that case the meeple comes home, and one fish symbol is covered on the tiles, making the sea area weaker.
Each player only has four meeples (compared to seven in the original game), so placing the meeples takes more care. However, if you don’t place a meeple, you can take back one from the board, which makes things a little bit easier.
Lucky or skillful? On par with the original Carcassonne, that is some luck is involved, as usual, but skill and knowing the tile set are certainly of use. Skilled player should win often enough to make competitive play meaningful, but at the same time the game works as a family game. This new version adds one source of luck (the random availability of trading ship tiles) and feels a bit softer and perhaps slightly more luck-heavy than the original.
Abstract or thematic? The South Sea theme is fun and got the Belafonte Banana Boat Song immediately playing in my head (sorry if you caught the bug now as well). I like the blue look of the game, it stands out nicely from the more usual green. That said, the theme makes just about as much sense as in the original game, that is not much.
Solitaire or interactive? Like in Carcassonne, you can play the game in a more aggressive way, or more peacefully. However, in my experience South Seas has a lot less build-up than the original game, and quick scorings are more common, partly because you have fewer meeples and don’t want to tie them up for a long time. That means there are fewer options to barge in on someone’s island, and the rowing boat scoring means there’s no competition for the large fields (which some most certainly will see as a positive). This is one of the biggest differences between South Seas and the original Carcassonne, and it makes the game less interesting to serious gamer types, and perhaps better as a lighter family game.
Players: 2–5. The whole scale works, but I know I prefer the faster two- or three-player games, where I can get more turns.
Who can play? South Seas is slightly less complex than the original Carcassonne, and easier for children. The field scoring tends to be the hard part in the original game, and the fishing is easier here. My seven-year-old son has no problems playing South Seas, and we haven’t played the original Carcassonne with farmers yet (we should probably try, but while he would understand the rules, I don’t think he could handle the farmer strategy well yet). So, South Seas works well as a family game. This also means it’s less interesting for hardcore gamers than the original Carcassonne and some other stand-alone games (like Hunters & Gatherers).
Length: 20–30 minutes.
What’s to like: Solid Carcassonne game play, with new scoring mechanism and new ideas. The seas are fun and interesting, and the new scoring is good too. The game looks really nice, and is easy to play with the whole family.
What’s not to like: Softer and easier than the original game, so hardcore gamers will find this less interesting.
My verdict: I quickly reached five plays, and since my son got interested in this game, I’m sure this game will easily get 10–20 plays. Is it a keeper? Well, it’s too early to say, but at this point as my son prefers South Seas to the original game, this is what we’ll play. In the end, I do find the battles for the control of the largest fields and the more competitive play the original game offers more interesting than the more mellow South Seas, but that’s why I rate the original game higher than this one – I don’t think I’ll be playing South Seas 13 years from now, but I’m still playing the original Carcassonne (and I still have the original Carcassonne I bought in 2001 and play without expansions). Also, I have a feeling that when the next Carcassonne Around the World game comes around, this one will get replaced.
As a family game, South Seas is easily going to see enough play to justify the price. For hardcore gamers, other versions are better. If you want just one Carcassonne game, I think the original is superior (some would probably say Hunters & Gatherers, and some would say Ark of the Covenant). If you like the original game with lots of expansions, South Seas is going to feel a bit bland (but you’ll probably want to try it anyway).
On the scale of Enthusiastic, Suggest, Indifferent or Avoid, Carcassonne: South Seas gets Suggest.