Full disclosure: A review copy of Carnegie was provided by Pegasus Spiele.
I will say, Board Game Arena has been an absolute dream for me getting heavier games played. No setup requirements, I can play with my other content creator friends without having to leave my house, and asynchronous online play means that my house’s beautiful, blessedly stupid cat doesn’t try to eat the pieces. All wins, in my book. So, with that in mind, I’m able to take a look at the decidedly-chunky Carnegie, coming to the US via Pegasus Spiele. I’m glad to see they’re handling their own games, since I’ve played a bunch of them from other US publishers and have enjoyed them, so the centrality helps, a lot. Either way, let’s get to it.
In Carnegie, you take on the role of company owners, looking to make a country-wide business out of their humble beginnings. By developing your company, expanding, hiring more employees, and engaging in philanthropy. As you do, you’ll start to become increasingly important, and see the strength of your transport networks develop as well. Each round, you’ll have your choice of four actions: Human Resources, Management, Construction, or Research & Development. These activate different Departments in your Company, which can do everything from getting goods to moving Employees around to sending said Employees on Missions across the country. As you do, you’ll slowly develop new projects, and use Construction to build them in various cities in different regions across the US. These projects will not only earn you income, but connecting them in one massive route will earn you even more influence and prestige as you do. There’s a whole economy to develop, if you plan and execute correctly; will you manage to become a titan of industry?
Player Count Differences
The one major thing to know about in Carnegie is that with more players comes fewer choices of actions for you, specifically. The game’s 20 rounds, no matter how many players there are. With more players comes the advent of Action Choice tokens, which allow you to choose which of the four actions you’d like to take (instead of going with what your opponent picked). However, not every player gets one, and if you keep yours until the end of the game, you get a bonus 3 points. So there’s a balance there. To increase the tension, at two, there’s a neutral player that starts the game blocking many of the possible project locations and Donations, so you need to work around them (and your opponent, who is also vexed by this). Both are interesting, but both are also challenging. I’m a big fan of Carnegie at two players, however. I don’t doubt I’d still enjoy it with more players, but the additional time to play makes me a bit less keen on the four-player game. Maybe on Board Game Arena, though that would take weeks. Either way, I’ve enjoyed Carnegie the most at two, but I had fun with three, as well.
- Don’t slouch on your R&D. This is a critical path that players can overlook, largely because it doesn’t reveal immediate gains the way the other paths do (or the Human Resources path, which sets up your Employees). The thing is, Research & Development unlocks additional Projects for you to place and it helps bolster your Transport Level, which leads to more (and more diverse) income, which can consequently make it easier for you to build those Projects and place those Employees. You can usually catch at least one other player who isn’t paying attention to their R&D (or has mistakenly prioritized something else) and run that action to waste a big turn for them. Keep an eye on yours!
- Your ideal strategy is to kind of move in sync with other players. Ideally, you’re looking at what the next player is most likely to pick and setting up the flow of your game to match theirs. When they benefit themselves, they benefit you, as well. The absolute ideal is that you can ride other players’ waves and successfully maneuver such that they don’t ride yours, but if you’re playing a perfect game already, a section on Strategy that some guy wrote probably isn’t doing you any favors in particular.
- Movement is nice for getting your workers where they need to be, but it only matters so much if you don’t have the money to back things up. You absolutely have to have somewhere in the $10 range of petty cash if you want to make your Employee movement matter. You can, in a pinch, get them where they need to go and activate them later, but if I see a player with a bunch of inactive Employees junking up their Departments, you can rest assured I’m thinking about taking that Action the first chance I get. If you’re looking to conserve goods, you can move Employees onto spaces without Departments, and then build a Department onto that space later to get a one cube discount. If you have surplus Employees, it might be worth it.
- Similarly, placing some projects early in the game can pay dividends, since you get that additional project income. This is something that I didn’t understand for a bit, but when you pull an Employee back who’s on a Mission, you get (in addition to region-specific income) income from all currently-placed projects. With enough Commerce and Industry projects, you’re getting a lot of money and goods cubes every round, should you prudently place your Employees. There’s some incentive to even leaving some of them behind so that you can collect from the same location again, should it come up in the rotation.
- Getting a Construction Department that can get you goods cubes can pair nicely with building projects. My personal favorite is the Department that lets you buy goods cubes at a $1:1 rate (Supply Chain). Using that, you can spend $3 and send three Employees on Missions to get three Commerce or Housing projects placed in one turn (assuming you don’t have another Construction Department). That really speeds up your placement potential! And, consequently, your income, if you can play it right.
- You probably shouldn’t prioritize blocking your opponents, since it’s rather expensive, but you can potentially throw off a major move if you manage to place on the right location at the right time. Watch for opponents who make their routes vulnerable to sabotage. If you’ve already completed your major route (or just feel like being a jerk), sometimes it’s good to take the Small City that your opponent has their eye on for completing their route, forcing them to build around you (if they still can). If you play it right, you can cost them a lot of points, though they may be pretty reasonably upset.
- Try to keep an eye out for what spots on the Timeline are likely candidates to be picked next, so you can place Employees there and gain income next round. Preempt! Or, rather, just keep an eye on the general table vibe. Again, you want to go with the flow, so if you see a player moving their Employees to Construction, you may want to try and collect some goods cubes (and move your Employees there, as well). I generally keep my R&D Department constantly staffed, but that’s just, I think, a generally good idea.
- Adding new Departments can be pretty good, yes, but there are different things to prioritize both in terms of their abilities and their general location for points. You could start with New Lobby, to help you move Employees around faster (it gives new and returning Employees a new starting location), or you could try to have upgraded versions of starting Departments placed near their older versions to make transitions easy. Or just go for increased Movement to solve all of your problems! You only have 15 Employees, maximum, though, so try to prioritize. Towards the end of the game, you may not get to use your new Departments again, so it may be worth building them along the top row, where they’re at least worth 3 points each at the end of the game.
- Sometimes it’s worth it to pick an action not because it’s particularly useful to you, but it is extremely not useful to your opponent (and they’ll have to take the action you didn’t pick later). If you know that an opponent needs to use Human Resources for movement, well, why not make them do it on their turn? You can use your turn for other, more important things. If you don’t explicitly need it and they do, then just let them waste their own time. Don’t give your opponents gifts unless you feel that it benefits you more than it helps them.
- Don’t sleep on Donations, either! I think I got over 40 points in the last game I played from Donations? You can really make them work for you. Even more so, if you play with the Side B Project Tabs. At their maximum level, they add 3 points to your maximum scoring limit for Donations, which means you can earn even more money for each Donation you make. Just try to find ones that you’re already doing! Generally, unless you’re committed to the same thing as your opponent, I wouldn’t recommend trying to race them for the Donation.
Pros, Mehs, and Cons
- I really love the route-building of this game, and the limits of how you can place projects. I appreciate the cycle of moving Employees to get Goods and do Research so that you can place Projects, and then having to think about the types of Projects you’re researching so that you can place a more effective chain across the US. It’s a very smart system and it gives players a lot of leeway.
- How income and projects intersect is super interesting, as well. This took me a few games to figure out, which is a shame, considering it’s pretty critical, but placing projects leaves you with empty spots, giving you extra income when you manage to pull back Employees who are on missions. That’s a very interesting interaction flow, since it can allow you to choose how you gain income to compensate for areas that you may not have been able to get Departments set up previously.
- When the game flows, it’s incredible. It’s really satisfying to execute on a long-term plan. I particularly like when you can successfully get on the same flow as other players. If you can do that, you can rack up a ton of points. Generally, being on the same page as someone is ideal, so you’re not doing all the work of powering your company (by picking the ideal actions) yourself.
- I also appreciate how much work it takes to get Departments up and running. You have to get the Goods in place, the Employees set up (and pay for their activation!), and then you still have to pick the action that lines up with that Department to get it working. I appreciate the result when you can make it all work.
- There are a lot of ways to be successful. I mean, generally speaking, there’s a lot of points to be made from Donations and Projects, but the way you get to that is pretty interesting. You can go for Departments, you can try and leverage a perfect cycle of Missions and Income, or you can drop a lot of Projects early and accrue a lot of money and goods so that you can get the Donations and Projects for those points you crave.
- As you’d expect from an Ian O’Toole game, Carnegie is absolutely beautiful. I really like the color scheme; it’s very pleasant to look at, and feels like you’re looking at something that’s genuinely classic in vibe and feel. I think there’s some expansion content, and I’d love to see what that looks like, as well. It’s just a nice-looking game. It makes me happy when heavier games don’t necessarily look drab.
- The project construction tabs are goofy, but fun. I like them a lot. It’s just a very silly physical setup. You’ve got these player boards with cardboard feet on the back and a piece of heavy paper covering that up, and the project tabs are these double-sided tabs that slide into the spaces between those feet, which is very funny. It’s a little bit goofy, but I appreciate the effort put into making the game feel pretty seamless in that regard. They are cool, when you’re using them, though when I was doing photography I had to think about the maximum extension length of the tabs and how that would effect my photography.
- I’ve been playing Carnegie a lot on BGA, and I do appreciate how much of the setup it takes care of. The game plays pretty quickly and efficiently, there; I’ve played the overwhelming majority of my plays on BGA and, compared to my in-person plays, it’s very quick. Granted, that’s because it handles pretty much every part of the setup and mechanical portions of play, but it’s appreciated.
- There’s also just a lot to do, which is a lot of fun. I have had six wildly different games, which has been great for me. I need to try starting in different cities (I keep starting in Chicago, which is comfortable, for me), but I really enjoy the practice of trying different Departments and Project Tab sides and combinations and such.
- Surprisingly intuitive, which I respect. I say this mostly because, bless her, Suz Sheldon taught me this game over a handful of BGA games, and I did a significantly-worse job reading the rules than I thought that I did. I basically understood nothing from the first game, and managed to figure it out by game three, which, for a heavier game, is a real testament to the design, I think. Could I have read the rulebook more thoroughly? Sure. Did I? No. And was that okay? This time. I’m not planning to make a habit of it.
- I think I would have liked a bit more historical context to things you were doing as players. Just names of companies or projects that you built in various locations; I think that would have been nice. Learn something about Carnegie beyond me reading his Wikipedia page for this review. Seems like a fun opportunity.
- If you play a game where you and your opponent(s) are completely off-sync, it feels pretty bad. Essentially, what happens is that you get to play a significantly smaller portion of the game. It’s … not great when that happens. It’s like walking wearing shoes that are two different heights. That synchronization was pretty critical.
- It can be a bit annoying, at two players, for Departments that I like to get knocked out of the game before it starts. It’s not the worst thing in the world, granted, but there’s definitely some variance that can occur between games if you’re losing sixteen Department tiles before the game even starts. There are a few tiles that I like having in my Company, and losing those to random chance is gently frustrating.
Overall: 8.5 / 10
Overall, I think Carnegie is a blast! As with many games of this weight, it’s a bit outside of my normal gaming space, but I appreciate that platforms like Board Game Arena still give me a means by which I can enjoy them (just because my most proximal gaming groups won’t normally be as keen on playing this one). That said, there’s a lot to like about this one. Route-building is one of my favorite mechanics in board gaming, and I think that the process of building a coast-to-coast set of projects is really fun! There’s so much to do to actually get there, and executing on that strategy is intuitive to learn and extremely satisfying as it progresses. It’s, essentially, a multi-step engine; you build up Departments to have Employees go on Missions to earn you money and goods cubes so that you can bring those Employees back and have them go out again to build projects. Those projects earn you points and boost your income so you can repeat the cycle all over again. The game is made more interesting by an action selection process where each player chooses an action for everyone to perform, making the game feel semi-cooperative when it’s good and deeply competitive when things aren’t going your way. Learning to intuit what your opponents want and profiting from that is deeply satisfying, though, and I think that’s what makes the core of Carnegie feel so fun. If your opponent is having a good turn, fine, but if you’re having a good turn as well, it feels like a gift! I was impressed by how clear and intutive I found Carnegie, but that may be a credit of good graphic design and a very patient coplayer for my first few games. If you’re looking for something on the more complex side of board gaming; you enjoy some engine-building, action selection, and economical games; or you just want to build a massive company that runs like a well-oiled machine, Carnegie might be right up your alley! I’ve certainly enjoyed playing it.
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