From an early age I had a fascination with maps. I would pour over the maps at the beginning of novels, daydream about the maps in my video game instruction booklets during class, and leaf through each month’s national geographic hoping for a foldout of some distant place to come tumbling out.
It is no wonder then that I have a soft spot for tile laying games. When I was young, we had a children’s game Rivers Roads and Rails, wherein different tiles each had one to three of the different modes of transportation. I do not remember the rules, I am not even sure they mattered to me then. I would simply connect the different tiles in a myriad of different ways to see how the network would grow.
Even before stumbling into the game store years ago, I had developed a love for the Xbox 360 version of Carcassonne. Almost by accident I had stumbled into this great tile laying game. I was looking for something affordable that could be played with my roommates, and while the theme of laying down map tiles in the French countryside didn’t seem too appealing, the game soon won all of us over.
In hindsight, it’s no surprise that it was such a hit. Carcassonne won a Spiel des Jahres in 2001 and is a classic to this day. Much like Monopoly, it has exploded into a multitude of different themes and versions, with a Wild West version, caveman themed Hunters and Gatherers, and even a Star Wars version last fall.
In the game players lay a tile each turn, and have wooden figures colloquially called “Meeples” that they use to claim different terrain features. Meeples placed on the road become thieves, in the castle they are knights, when placed on monasteries they are monks, and those that are laid down in fields become farmers which introduce a light area control element to the game. The meeples placed out on the board cannot be reclaimed until the road, castle or monastery is complete. Each feature is completed a different way, with big castles scoring the most, but also being the most difficult to finish.
Here the beauty of tile laying games comes through. What starts as nothing, tile by tile, becomes a map busy with activity, and different every time you play. Each tile placed out into the map produces a cathartic feeling of creating order. Roads must connect to other roads, fields to fields, castle walls to other castle walls. While an intense game of Carcassonne can look a bit unorganized, larger more family friendly rounds often end with satisfyingly complete features at every corner. Above all else, the tile laying feature of the game adds a delightful puzzle like element as the orientation and features of the tile matter, much like a classic jigsaw piece.
Several other games have come along over the years to add their own twist on the tile laying formula. Taluva added a third dimension to the mix by allowing players to layers tiles on top of eachother. Each tile has three features, one of which is always a volcano. Volcanos can be stacked on top of other volcanos as an eruption to create an island with mountainous features. Here the challenge is not connecting and completing features as in Carcassonne. There are no roads or castles, but instead players try to place all of at least two of three types of buildings. Tiny huts spread from the valleys up the player-created hills, and are destroyed by volcanic eruptions. Temples require a minimum horizontal spread of villages, and towers must be placed on at least the third level of the island. The resulting play experience is still a spatial puzzle, but also a game of cat and mouse, trying to carefully place tiles that benefit you, while not simultaneously helping other players.
Alhambra, another Spiele des Jahres game of the year winner has players building their own tile cities instead of sharing a central play area as in Carcassonne and Taluva. In this way each player is solving their own puzzle, but it is by no means a solitary experience. Players must buy tiles for their cities from a central market, with four different market spaces that each accept a different color of currency cards. On a turn players can take currency cards, or build a tile. Paying for a tile with exact change grants a bonus turn, so smart money management is important along with smart tile placement. The market also plays into the scoring of the game, as players vie to have the most of each color building before each scoring round.
Finally a great game that twists the Carcassonne format is Glen More. Similar to Alhambra, each player is building their own village instead of interacting on a central landscape as in Carcassonne. The unique aspect of the game is instead of drawing tiles from a stack, they come out into a central circle. Players can select any tile from the circle, but they don’t get to take another turn until they are at the tail end of the chain. So there may be just the tile you need, but if it’s several tiles ahead, you may need to wait while other players take several turns before you get to go again. But if it’s the right tile, it just might be worth it. The game also introduces some simple resource management, as tiles produce, wheat, stone, wood, sheep or cows that are used to build other tiles, or most importantly, to distill whisky!
However, with so much more going on, Glen More needed to pare down the puzzle like elements of Carcassonne. Instead of building features, tiles have a central river running north south, and a central road running east to west. Road tiles must match road, and river must match river, but otherwise the only placement rules are much more flexible.
I have only highlighted a few of the many tile-based games that have filled the hobby in recent years. There are many more, with countless themes from building a spaceship with tiles, to the Sim City like Suburbia, to a personal favorite that captures the early plymouth settlers, Keyflower. Two of the six games just nominated for a Spiel Des Jahres Game of the Year award use tiles as a central element. There is something that’s just inherently fun about piecing together different tile elements to build a whole, be it a kingdom or a spaceship, that is your very own.