The way that the tiled landscape slowly reveals itself is one of the great joys of the classic tabletop game Carcassonne. It is also what allows me to rethink the game in the terms used by philosopher Martin Heidegger in his essay ‘Building Dwelling Thinking’ (1954).
Carcassonne was designed by Klaus-Jürgen Wrede and first published in 2000. It implements an easily accessible tile-laying mechanic. Players take turns to draw square tiles from a shuffled stack. These each depict part of a landscape, and will feature some combination of city, road, monastery, field or river. Subsequent board game expansions have introduced further elements, including travelling bazaars, castles, watchtowers and more. Players place their drawn tiles in such a way that they continue the landscape already created by the tiles placed on previous turns. By the end of the game, a whole world will have revealed itself across the game table.
It is this process of drawing and world building that suggests the game can be rethought in the terms of Heidegger’s essay. I shall explore this view of the game in the analysis that follows, almost – and knowingly absurdly – coming to understand it as a philosophical case study. I briefly consider the linguistic analysis in the first part of Heidegger’s text before looking in more detail at his examples of world building and the creation of space.
Heidegger begins his argument in typical fashion, exploring the ways we commonly understand what it is to build and to dwell, and then showing how the original sense of these words has been obscured or lost in language.
He first highlights our common-sense notion that we build buildings so as to dwell in them. Specifically, he explains that whilst not all buildings are dwellings in the narrow sense (importantly, he cites bridges as an example), they do all nevertheless remain, as he puts it, ‘in the domain of our dwelling’. So, he says, a driver is at home on the road. Here, we might already turn to our game box, and to those figures we make highwaymen. These people – these meeples – are placed on roads by players and remain there until the road is complete. This is to say that they dwell there. In the game’s own terms, a highwayman cannot reside anywhere but on a road, and a meeple dwelling anywhere else is not a highwayman (although it is not only highwaymen that dwell on roads – they can be joined by builders).
Heidegger goes on to argue that, contrary to our common understanding, building does not allow for dwelling but is grounded in the notion of dwelling itself. From here, he moves into a mytho-philosophical discussion whose parameters and complexities quickly exceed the rules of our game and therefore also the scope of this present article. Suffice it to say that, at the very simplest level, his concern for dwelling on the blossoming earth is reflected in Carcassonne’s farmers who, once placed, dwell in their positions for the entire game, and in the introduction of elements such as pigs and sheep in the game’s major expansions. Equally, the game also reflects a concern with dwelling under the sky and the changing seasons, or at least its makers can be seen to do so in the stand alone sequel, Carcassonne: Winter Edition (2012).