Carcassonne is a tile-placement game in which the players draw and place a tile with a piece of southern French landscape on it. The tile might feature a city, a road, a cloister, grassland or some combination thereof, and it must be placed adjacent to tiles that have already been played, in such a way that cities are connected to cities, roads to roads. Having placed a tile, the player can then decide to place one of his meeples on one of the areas on it: on the city as a knight, on the road as a robber, on a cloister as a monk, or on the grass as a farmer. When that area is complete, that meeple scores points for its owner.
Carcassonne is considered to be an excellent "gateway game" by many board game players as it is a game that can be used to introduce new players to board games. The rules are simple, no one is ever eliminated, and the play is fast. A typical game, without any expansions, takes about 45 minutes to play. There is a substantial luck component to the game; however, good tactics greatly improve one's chances of winning. Examples of tactical considerations include:
- Conserving followers. Since each player has only seven followers, it can be easy to run out. This is especially important with fewer players, because then each player will play more tiles during the game.
- Joining in on other players' features. Often it is possible to add a separate road or castle segment near a big road or castle and join them up. This allows a player to gain points from their opponents' work.
- Avoiding sharing. An advantage can be gained by preventing other players from getting points. This is more important with fewer players, or if the sharing player is doing well.
- Judicious placement of followers in fields. Followers in the right field can be worth a lot of points. However, once placed, they are there for the whole game.
- Trapping opponents' followers. Not all possible tile configurations exist in the game. So if a player knows which tiles exist or are more common, they can create situations where it is hard or impossible for an opponent to complete some feature. The result is the opponent's follower is stuck in something half-completed.