Hot on the heels of Catan, Carcassonne is the second bestselling European board game to make the transition from cardboard box to Xbox Live Arcade digital download. This time, players, in what's best described as a mix of cartography and cooperative jigsaw-puzzle solving, step into the role of medieval land developers in southern France. Up to five rivals draw and place pieces of terrain in the countryside. These tiles bear segments of roads, fields, and castle walls. Slowly, as these competing barons collaborate to develop the unspoiled lands, fortifications and trade routes materialize. Strategy enters the picture when players place one of their seven followers to claim these constructions. The player whose hirelings stake out the most real estate wins the game. Clever placement can usurp ownership of a partially built castle, or freeze out an opponent's agriculture business.
In spite of these seeming complexities, the matches play out very quickly. Unlike in Catan, there's no wheeling and dealing, so skilled players can rapid-fire through a round with little dilly-dallying. A handy tutorial does an ample job of teaching new players the intricacies, and single-player matches against A.I. opponents let newbies practice without getting pummeled by ruthless online competitors. Because there's no hand to keep secret, up to four can play on the same couch. Still, most of the action is happening over broadband, where there's room for five.
Beyond the game: Carcassonne took home the Spiel Des Jahres board-game critics' award in 2001. 2003's winner, the Arabian-themed Alhambra, is the next planned to hit Xbox Live.
Worth playing for: In real-world play, the end-game scoring of farmers, unfinished fortresses, and partial roads feels like a tax audit. Automated calculation of these vital but fiddly details makes for a breezier, less math-intensive experience.
Frustration sets in when: There's little wrong with this adaptation, but one minor nitpick: It's impossible to adjust the number of players in a match without dropping the game and re-inviting opponents.
Final judgment: Carcassonne is proof that cleverly designed, imaginative strategy games not only have a place in the video-game world, they're direly needed.