Stefan Feld’s Carpe Diem is so clearly riffing on many of the same ideas in his masterpiece The Castles of Burgundy that I can’t help but compare them. I could play coy with you all, but let’s face it: both are tile-laying drafting games that incorporate all of the Feld-isms you expect, with play over multiple resetting rounds, that victory point vegetation people like to complain about, lots of very tight, marginal decisions, and some truly awful art. While I’m being upfront, I’ll just say that Carpe Diem is not as good as CoB, but that doesn’t mean it’s bad, only that it’s up against one of the most finely crafted games of all time.
Let’s start with the most obvious difference between the two games: tile shape. Castles of Burgundy uses the mighty hexagon, which we all know is the bestagon. Carpe Diem downgrades to the clumsy square, a lessergon compared to the bestagon hexagon. Squares are fine, I guess, and deserve respect for their prominent role in many great games of the past, but, like when someone tasks me with selecting the music at the party, they bring the festivities down a notch.
Feld is too much of a professional to haphazardly use the lesser geometric form, however, and Carpe Diem with hexagons would have to be a very different game indeed. Fundamentally, the tile laying here is about connecting matching sides to form various buildings and landscapes. Buildings are always simply two halves which, once connected, give you a reward. Landscapes can be up to 4 tiles in size, just like in real life, and they give you other rewards. Look–there’s no way to make a description of this game sound exciting. You place tiles, get stuff, and then turn that stuff into points. But any veteran eurogamer knows that despite a drab exterior, some games of the place/get/transform variety can be intellectually thrilling. And this one’s pretty good!
Despite their irreconcilable geometrical differences, both Carpe Diem and Castles of Burgundy meet back up at one fundamental principle: both are games about trying to write checks and then cash those checks, idioms be damned. In Castles of Burgundy, whenever you start trying to fill in a region of any decent size you’d better complete the task before the end of the game or you’re throwing a bunch of points away. Carpe Diem simply replaces regions on the board with structures on the tiles. An incomplete structure counts for nothing, each one left at the end of the game only a taunting reminder that 20 minutes ago you made a mistake.
Of course (to extend the metaphor), if you’re too conservative with the checks you write, it doesn’t matter if you cash them all because you’ve been slow and dull and therefore unworthy of victory. Both games are about pushing the line; stretching out how much you can accomplish as far as it can possibly go in a land of uncertainty.
People who don’t like dice will find their absence a welcome relief. Now it’s only the other players who will screw you over as they snipe the exact tile you needed to score those extra five points. Carpe Diem’s tile drafting is deftly done, as you move a little meeple person around a circular display. You can only move one space in either direction unless you spend a precious loaf of bread, allowing you to plan a complete drafting route in each of the game’s four rounds–a route that will certainly be disrupted by your opponents at some points. I see echos of other drafting sequence games like Patchwork or Circle the Wagons here.
The other highlight of Carpe Diem is the scoring system. Instead of a rigid scoring system you actually draft how you score at the end of each round, and once a given scoring combination is selected by anyone, it can never be selected again. At the start of the game a semi-random selection of cards are laid out in a grid. When it’s your turn to pick how you’re going to score you select an intersection between two of those cards and score both of them. Here’s the kicker: if you are unable to meet the scoring prerequisites for either card (which usually involve certain structures being built or depositing certain resources) you lose points.
The system has layers. You might want to target a couple of high scoring cards early on, focusing on meeting their requirements exclusively, but by doing so you lose flexibility to pivot if an opponent drafts the space you’re eyeing. You also lose the chance to score those cards late in the game where you might be able to score them multiple times over, maximizing gains from your structural investment. Every bit of Carpe Diem is under the shadow of this system, because if you’re not targeting specific scoring criteria you’re simply building for its own sake, and that’s not very profitable.
And that’s where Carpe Diem reveals itself to be far more interactive than it first appears. The drafting, when done well with an eye to what your opponents might want, is full of tough tradeoffs. The scoring similarly places you in uncomfortable situations, where you find yourself debating over the value of being able to draft your scoring criteria first versus gathering more resources with which to score.
Unfortunately, at the end of the game, when the scores are added up, you might find yourself wondering if all of that thought was really necessary. Carpe Diem has one of the most vicious point floors I’ve ever seen. After you get the hang of the rhythm of the game after a couple of plays you’re going to be fighting over just a couple of marginal points in a game where you’re scoring over 100. Most of my games have resulted in the difference between first and last a mere 5-10% of the winner’s total points. It makes CoB, with its ~180-250 point range, seem wildly variable in comparison.
I do think the game accurately measures skill, which is the purpose behind points in the first place, but I wish it was meaner. I wish there was more space to fail with wild abandon. I wish the setting wasn’t selected by blindly throwing a dart at a list of dull game settings. Also, is it too much to ask to have different tiles actually look different from each other? It’s 2021: we’ve moved past having various colors of dirt distinguish pieces from each other.
Those who hate “point salad” games stopped reading after the 2nd word of this review. If you do like the style, Carpe Diem has a lot to offer. It doesn’t have the mathematical purity of its older cousin. In fact, in some ways it’s both sloppier and more rigid. The bread resource in particular feels like a design band aid. But every time I play I, without exception, forget all of that and retreat into the warm embrace of the puzzle solving corner of my mind.