I'm Morgan McGuire (@CasualEffects). I've been working on computer graphics and games for 20 years at great places including NVIDIA, Williams College, Brown University, and Activision.

See my home page for a full index of my blog posts, books, research, and projects.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

McGuire House Rules for Carcassonne South Seas

Carcassonne: South Seas
Carcassonne: South Seas by ZMan games is a tile-placement game for 2-5 players. I find that it takes 20-60 minutes depending on the number of players when using our house rules below for faster play and setup/cleanup, and works well for ages five and up.

South Seas is based on the core mechanic of the Carcassonne series but is a standalone game incompatible with previous games and expansions. It is a little more accessible than the previous games. This is due to tile designs that force collaboration, eliminating end-of-game scoring, and fewer meeples (pawns) to work with.

I don't find these changes to be a net improvement. The advantages over Carcassonne are slight, and a lot is lost in exchange for them. South Seas has a shorter playing time when using our house rules, offers some variation in theme, reduces some mental arithmetic, and adds fun resource tokens. It lacks depth and increases variance. The tile designs force players to help each other more often, but because many possible tiles don't exist there are often frustrating gaps in the board (i.e., uncompletable features) and features are often small. A group of regular adult board game players will probably not enjoy South Seas as much as Carcassonne, but casual players and children may prefer it.

The game rules are confusing as printed, so I'll give a complete, streamlined description below. There were also some poor design choices in the pieces. So, I recommend that you permanently modify your set before your first game:

  1. Mark the front face of the starting tile to make it easier to find. When you put away the other tiles at the end of the game, store the starting tile separately, with the resource tokens for faster setup next time. It already has a different back face, however that isn't helpful during cleanup when you only see the front faces.
  2. Store the tiles in a bag instead of in face-down piles. This saves the setup time of making the piles and allows you to sweep them off the table into the bag for faster cleanup.
  3. Mark the larger (3x) resource tokens with a dot, since the size difference alone is too subtle for quick counting and the size is ambiguous when you're only holding a single token.
  4. Make extra 5x resource tokens, such as coins or other counters. For three players there are barely enough resources and you must constantly trade with the bank to keep the resource supply liquid. With five players, you'll quickly exhaust the supply. Changing the value of the provided resource tiles doesn't help--you need both enough to stockpile and to make "change" on purchases.

Components and Concepts

Tiles: cardboard squares with pictures of fish, boats, wooden walkways (with shells), islands (with bananas), and open sea. These are played each term like dominoes to build the world.

Features: market islands (small islands drawn on a single tile), seas (blue areas that may cover multiple tiles, unbroken by other graphics), banana islands (which may cover multiple tiles), and walkways (wood "roads" that terminate at rocks and islands and are decorated with shells). Market islands are complete when they are surrounded by eight other tiles, forming a 3x3 grid. All other features are complete when there is no way to expand them with another tile (whether or not such a tile actually exists or is available).

Ships: cardboard cutouts showing a mixture of resources, a point value, and a background picture of a ship. These are worth points and collecting them is the goal of the game. The icons drawn on the ship's sail indicate the cost of purchasing the ship. "A" and "B" icons are for two, three, etc. of a kind. For example, "A A A B" means three of one kind of resource and one of another kind. The pie-chart icon is a wildcard meaning any resource.

Resource tokens: painted wooden icons of fish, shells (scallops), and bananas. These are the currency of the game, used to purchase ships (points). At the end of the game, every three are also worth one point. The larger tokens marked with the dots count as three resources.

Meeples: colored human figures that are placed on the board to indicate ownership of areas.

Fishing boats: tiny cardboard rectangles, each with a picture of a single boat. These are placed on fish on the tiles during play to mark them as consumed.

The game requires a medium-sized flat play space, about 1m2 in area. Each player requires a small area in front of themselves*  to store points, meeples, resources, and their current tile. The contents of these individual storage areas are public information and should thus be in full view of the other players at all times.

* I use "them" as gender-neutral singular in my game writing, an increasingly popular practice in academia and journalism.


  1. Each player takes four meeples of the same color
  2. Weaker players take a mixture of 1-8 starting resources
  3. Place the starting tile in the center of the play space
  4. Place four blindly-chosen ships face up beside the play space
  5. Remove some number of tiles and set them aside. For three players, I recommend removing about half of the supply. For five players, you may wish to remove only four. Ideally the number of tiles remaining will be an integer multiple of the number of players, but it is tedious to arrange that and a single extra turn is seldom significant in this game. The removed tiles are not in play, and players should not see which tiles have been removed. Removing tiles shortens the game and prevents tile counting by players who know the exact distribution in the full set.
  6. Each player blindly draws one tile from the tile bag
Handicaps, removing tiles, the bag, and players holding a tile at all times are house rules.


The game ends when the last tile has been placed and the player who placed it ends their turn. The goal of the game is to have the most points. Ships are worth their face value. Every three resources are worth one point (there are no fractional points). Tiles on the board are worth no points. The basic strategy is thus to place tiles so as to gain resources and then use those resources to purchase ships.

Play proceeds around the table in turns, where the current player is the one holding the bag of tiles. On your turn:

  1. Place the tile that you are currently holding. Placed tiles must touch at least one edge of one existing tile. The edges of the new tile must match all previous tiles that they touch.
  2. Optionally do one of the following:
    1. Remove one of your own meeples from the board, returning it to your "hand"
    2. Pace one of your own meeples on the tile that you just placed, following the placement rules below.
  3. If the newly-placed tile contains a fishing boat, award fish resource tokens: These rules for resolving fishing are house rules. The printed rules are ambiguous on several points here.
    1. Identify the sea feature that contains the fishing boat. It will typically cover several tiles. Walkways and islands separate seas.
    2. If any meeples are in that sea feature, the players with the most meeples in the sea feature own it and each receive a number of fish resources equal to the fish in the sea feature. Place a fishing boat over the largest number of fish in the feature after awarding resources.
    3. If the sea feature is complete, remove all meeples from it.
  4. Award resources for all newly-completed features and then remove all meeples from them:
    1. The owners of a feature are the players with the most meeples on it. Ownership can be shared when there is a tie. When there are multiple owners, each owner is awarded the full value of the feature.
    2. Walkways award the number of shells shown on them
    3. Banana islands award the number of bananas shown on them
    4. Seas award the number of fish shown in them
    5. When a market is completed (surrounded), it awards the current highest-point value ship. Immediately replace that ship with a new one chosen blindly from the supply
  5. Optionally purchase at most one ship and immediately replace it with one chosen blindly from the supply.
  6. Draw a new tile from the bag and pass the bag to the next player. This is a house rule. Drawing up at the end of the turn allows players to think ahead and then immediately place at the start of their turns, which speeds the game. It also allows other players to see the upcoming pieces, which slightly increases strategic play, especially at the end of the game.

Placement rules

Meeples may only be placed on the tile just played. You can only place a meeple from your hand. Placement within the tile matters--you are placing on a feature within the tile, not just on the tile.

Meeples can only be placed on features that are currently unowned (recall that the features may span multiple tiles). This includes the rule that you cannot place on a feature that you already own. However, it is common to place a meeple on an unowned feature that is near, but not yet connected to, another feature, and then join them together on a future turn. Doing is often an effective strategy.

When placing on a sea feature (fishing), lay the meeple down flat. While I have no wish to imply that fishing is a lazy activity, this helps distinguish fishers visually and if the board is accidentally bumped.

Morgan McGuire (@morgan3d) is a professor at Williams College, a researcher at NVIDIA, and a professional game developer. His most recent games are Project Rocket Golfing for iOS and Skylanders: Superchargers for consoles. He is the author of the Graphics Codex, an essential reference for computer graphics now available in iOS and Web Editions.