This week we had two new players, Matt and Dan, who joined me to try out the Carcassonne expansion The Plague, a free give-away in spielbox issue 2010/6. It turned out to be a good expansion that changes the game substantially (meeples can move and get killed!) and gives it a wargame feel (with an army of fleas).
The expansion adds 6 tiles with plague outbreaks, which are placed as normal but without meeples on them. The expansion also includes 18 flea tokens. During your turn, you choose an existing outbreak and expand it by putting a flea adjacent to an outbreak or another flea. If there are meeples on the title where you place the flea, they are returned to their owners without scoring. To escape the plague, during your turn you can move one of your meeples as far as you want, as long as it stays on the same road, city or field it is on and doesn't cross tiles with fleas.
When we run out of fleas to place, we have to move those on the board, which can break the connections to the outbreaks. Basically, the outbreak tiles and the fleas superpose on Carcassonne a very dynamic connection game that each player tries to control to their advantage. Of course, there is some luck of the draw: whereas the outbreak tiles are drawn in quick succession or far apart makes a difference.
It's a very thematic expansion: death is always a few turns away and this changes radically the players' outlook. Quick point gains (small cities, short roads) become very desirable but, as before, making many points requires farmers and large cities, and these become very hard and risky to finish. Monks are especially vulnerable: they can't move out of their monastery and can only hope for lucky draws of tiles to complete the monastery as they watch the fleas approach...
As you can see from the photo of the final layout, my red farmers earned me 30VP, but keeping the fleas away for many turns was a tense business. You move your meeples but there's a point where they get cornered and you desperately hope for the right tile to come up and expand that side of the board. As you can move only one meeple per turn, you sometimes have to decide which one to sacrifice. Decisions, decisions... On the 'bright' side, running out of meeples to place is not a problem with this expansion.
With only 3 players it is possible for two to gang up on the third, but it didn't happen in our game: we happily killed each other's meeples in a fair distribution. We sometimes kept close to each other, as the photo shows, for mutual help in keeping those fleas at bay.
One nasty turn is to first expand an outbreak to kill an opponent meeple controlling a road, city or farm, and then place a tile (with your own meeple!) to extend and control that road, city or farm. Nobody likes to share points.
And yet, maybe cooperative players will be more successful. We didn't do it, but on hindsight I can think of a 'double-whammy' advantage: if two players share the building of a medium or large road or city, together they may keep the fleas at bay and complete the city or road sooner (and time is of essence in this expansion) to score a good amount of points. With 4 or 5 players it's probably wiser to cooperate with the players sitting opposite than those sitting next to you, to avoid having 2 or 3 successive opponents quickly expand the outbreak in your and your partner's direction, before you can do anything.
To sum up, a very good expansion that captures well the short lives during medieval times and puts many of the basic tenets of the base game (getting an early control of roads, fields, etc. but keeping meeples to place later) on their head. The game becomes a cutthroat, dynamic, tactical and tense affair: you need to choose even more carefully where to place the tile you drew and you can never appear to be in the lead, or else watch the fleas come your way and die!
I wonder whether the game will be better or worse with more players. On one hand, a more crowded board makes things more interesting, and may force an interesting mix of cooperative play and last-minute backstabbing. On the other hand it might get a tit-for-tat or gang-up affair, or the outbreaks might get too chaotic.
Definitely an expansion worth further exploration.