Games Research Network

Researching analogue and digital games

Carcassonne and Collaborative Narrative

In recent weeks, discussion within the Network has flirted with the topic of collaborative gameplay, and whether or not this can exist off the board, despite the individualised aims and objectives of the players specified by the game mechanics. For this evening’s session a group of us sat down to play an alternative version of a classic Eurogame Carcassonne: Hunters and Gatherers.

What’s most noticeable about Carcassonne as a board game is the initial absence of a board. When you start playing you’re faced with a single-face up tile and just a handful of options, but very quickly the empty table becomes a sprawl of rivers, forests, mammoths and fishermen, and it was the process of getting to this point and the narrative that unfolded in doing so that particularly caught our interest.

 Carcassonne: Hunters and Gatherers (Game designed by Klaus-Jürgen Wrede, with illustrations by Johann Rüttinger. Game supplied by Tim Cockitt).

Carcassonne: Hunters and Gatherers (Game designed by Klaus-Jürgen Wrede, with illustrations by Johann Rüttinger. Game supplied by Tim Cockitt).

There exist other modular boards that are constructed during play (games such as Shadows of Brimstone or Mansions of Madness), but what makes the experience of Carcassonne unique is that the ‘discovery’ of the map is entirely led by the stories that the players are telling with their meeples. Just when your hunter needs to find a plain upon which to hunt, one magically appears right in front of him! This can lead to weird, tangled landscapes that don’t make a lot of sense geologically, but which fit the story of the game and the idea that the gamers world is being built just for them.  Our competition to create the longest water feature with the most ponds established a bizarre super-long river that took over more than a quarter of the map, and which was almost too perfect for our fisherman.  The fact that we were playing the ‘Hunters and Gatherers’ version of this game perhaps contributed to the feeling of exploration in an artificial world, as the fantastical artwork looked like a distorted hand-drawn map of a mythical land rather than a real world, an element of narrative exploration that is perhaps absent from the original castles and cathedrals version.

What quickly became apparent was the way that this development allowed narrative to be constructed both on and off the board, as we feigned shock each time that more of the river appeared on the horizon, even though we were the ones putting the tiles down.

Our water feature starts to take shape.

Our water feature starts to take shape.

This construction of narrative by the player is completely unnecessary for the development (or the ultimate winning or losing of the game), but it undoubtedly enhances the experience. The process of narrative storytelling is perhaps encouraged by the game’s gentle mechanics, which whilst competitive were not combative, and in some instances encourage cooperative behaviour to advance the storytelling that was being created (for example the expansion of the river or the extension to an area of plains known between the players as “Tim’s Zoo”).  Other members of the Network reported never having thought of the narrative of Carcassonne before (“just the points!”), so perhaps it was the natural element of this version of the game, in contrast to the completely man-made nature of the original version of Carcassonne, that allowed for such exploratory and collaborative narrative to be developed. Collectively we were fighting to both explore and tame nature, with nature perhaps becoming a key additional player that we were both playing with and against. This deviation from the game’s central mechanics has been recognised by games designers Priestley and Lambshead (2016, pp. 99), who noticed the tendency of players to deviate from the game as imagined:

“It might be helpful to think of our book of rules as rather like a musical score or the script for a stage play… our rules exist only as text – or as text and graphics at any rate – but the game is something that only comes into being during the process of play.”

Following on from this, Hromek (2009) argues that games can be a powerful way of developing social and emotional learning. Could it be therefore that narrative that can be created in cooperation with one another during Carcassonne: Hunters and Gatherers would can further enhance that social and emotional learning, by focussing on a shared experience rather than a competitive win?

The nature of a shared experience is something that might often be taken for granted in a tabletop game, but is one which many digital games strive to achieve, often falling short. Krzywinski, Chen, and Røsjø (2011) note that many tabletop games that are converted into digital versions do not retain their original fun factor, even though the game mechanics are exactly the same. They argue that part of this reason may come from the lack of direct manipulation interfaces (i.e. touching tiles and physically moving meeples etc.), but after the experiences of this particular game of Carcassonne it might also be argued that for most digital versions of tabletop games, the mechanics do not yet allow for the collaborative storytelling that transforms a game into a narrative. Perhaps the best way to determine the effectiveness of collaborative narrative in the digital version of Carcassonne is to try it for yourself, the app can be found here, and we would be very interested to hear about your experiences. Does the digital experience equal that of the analogue version in terms of narrative development, or does it somehow stunt the collaborative experience?

John Lean & Sam Illingworth

(With special thanks to Tim Cockitt for providing the game, translation and historical insights)


Hromek, R. (2009). Promoting social and emotional learning with games: “It’s fun and we learn things”. Simulation and Gaming, 40(5), 626-644. doi:10.1177/1046878109333793

Krzywinski, A., Chen, W., & Røsjø, E. (2011). Digital board games: Peripheral activity eludes ennui. Paper presented at the Proceedings of the ACM International Conference on Interactive Tabletops and Surfaces, ITS’11.

Priestley, R., & Lambshead, J. (2016). Tabletop Wargames: A Designers’ and Writers’ Handbook Barnsley: Pen and Sword Military.


  1. Sorry to have missed this – it looked like a great game and I like the idea of games being a starting point to develop other narratives.

  2. Thanks Rachel, I think that one of the things we really discovered in this session was that we were able to develop a strong narrative even when the game didn’t explicitly “call for it”. 🙂

  3. Good essay. It’s interesting to think about how the narrative experience feels undermined by the mechanics, and to consider where collaboration fits in the process. I’ve often found “storytelling” games (CTHULHU’S VAULT and ONCE UPON A TIME) pretty unsatisfying in their gameplay experience, even if the storytelling part is pretty fun. The best of these games, for me, is MACHINE OF DEATH. One card game that works really well to include narrative is, I think, is Keith Baker’s GLOOM. The gameplay is satisfying mechanically, but the game is really only fun if you tell stories about what happens to the poor subjects of terrible luck in your family.

    Your comment about the weird shapes of rivers in your game reminded me of two other things:
    1. In Neal Stephenson’s novel REAMDE, he suggests a MMORPG world where the digital features (like gold) are created through a simulated planet-forming period that uses real geological theory to map out the subsurface of the game so that mining will be more realistic later. It’s interesting to think about how expertise in other fields like hard sciences could feed into game design. I think TERRAFORMING MARS pursued that, to a degree.

    2. It might be interesting to compare the collaborative experience you employed here with a game that requires some collaboration, such as BETWEEN TWO CITIES (by Matthew O’Malley, Morten Monrad Pedersen, Ben Rosset). In this game, each player grafts city tiles to build two cities, one to their right, and one to their left. The players seated on either side of them also contribute to these cities, so in order to get the most points, players must collaborate with the people on both sides. The game uses rules to build a pleasant city, such as penalizing you for putting a house by a factory, or rewarding you for putting offices by pubs. The tricky thing is that each player’s final score is the lower-scoring city that they helped build. So you’re driven to make both cities as good as you can, knowing that your opponents are also working on other cities that are competing with yours. It’s an interesting mix of competition and collaboration. It has almost no narrative, though.

  4. Thanks Brendan. I must admit I was surprised by the idea that Carcassonne would generate narrative (I wondered if it was in part due to the version being used) but it sounds like it added to the gameplay rather than detracting from it so a good thing all round. One thing we’ve been discussing is the connection of game and narrative (I’ve been reading Jesper Juul’s Half Real which offers a really interesting account of the relation).

    Your suggestions for storytelling games are really interesting. Sam and I have been playing Gloom and we’re planning a session (which we hope to podcast) working with some of our creative writing colleagues to see what sort of stories emerge. We’re also hoping to try out Once Upon A Time with some undergraduate students who are working on fantasy literature (along, perhaps, with Braggart and Hobbit Tales). And I’m definitely going to look out a copy of Between Two Cities, that sounds really interesting.

    Cheers – Paul Wake

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