Before Carcassonne, there was Bus: a board game classic that rewards patience and planning with meaningful connection
A personal history of a worker-placement pioneer, 20 years, two continents and multiple generations in the making.
My mother moved back home to Uruguay in the fall of 2018. Since then I have seen her twice, most recently this past May. I had changed since the last time I visited her in the winter of 2018, now sporting a wedding ring on my hand and a wealth of board games under my arm. Among the games I brought was Bus.
Bus is a strange game. It’s old enough now to be considered a classic by many, but it lacks the same widespread popularity that other wide releases from the late ‘90s do, such as Tigris & Euphrates (released only two years prior). I would say, though, that the absence of Bus from the public eye is less of a bug and more of a feature. The publisher of Bus, board game darling Splotter Spellen, is notorious even to this day for small print runs of games, like Food Chain Magnate, that are your favourite designer’s favourite design.
I may be brash and way too into board games for my own good, but even I know you don’t lead a woman in her 50s into board gaming by throwing down a game about time-travelling buses and the finer nuances of route-building. You start with games like Azul, whose plastic azulejos remind her of the ones just upstairs in my grandmother’s home. Bus is the digestif. Bus is what you play after she’s gotten a few other games under her belt and can push the envelope of complexity just a little more.
Bus’ premise isn’t terribly complex, and what players can do is rather straightforward. You can extend your bus route, add more buses to your line, entice more passengers to public transit, fund real estate development, run your bus lines or stop time, leaving a fracture in the space-time continuum. Simple, really. How you do this is really the interesting thing - players don’t go around doing one thing or the other. Instead you must put down tokens claiming certain actions in an attempt to do things better or quicker than your opponents. Almost like placing workers in a queue.
Bus is a strange game. It’s old enough to be considered a classic by many, but it lacks the same widespread popularity that other releases from the late ‘90s do.
I can recall the final score of our first game: 2, 3, 4. Immediately afterwards, my mother looked at me and said, “That was a lot of thinking.” We had tried out three different board games at this point, and this was the first time she said that. This was the first game that asked her “Do you have a plan? Can you adapt it?”
Worker placement, as a genre, needs this of players. And Bus is one of its earliest examples. Our workers are not yet little meeples - a little-known game about building sections of French countryside would give them that name and shape the following year - but instead squat cylinders that mock you for not placing them and using them in precisely the way you need to. This precision dominated our time playing games.
My mom, my wife and I played a lot of Bus and other board games during our week-long quarantine when we arrived in Uruguay. We’d already been vaccinated fully but the restrictions still required seven days locked in. My stomach and I weren’t complaining; homestyle Milanesas, pasta, empanadas and other Uruguayan staples mix very, very well with cardboard and wood. The highlight of our first day out and about was discovering a toy and games store and its copies of games like Catan, Pandemic and Carcassonne. All of course imported from Spain, and all selling for around $80 USD. I leapt at the chance of a Spanish-language Carcassonne.
Carcassonne is a game that almost needs no introduction - almost. You place tiles containing wonderful features of medieval France and try to make a pretty city. Of course, while you’re doing this, you're also placing little workers around, trying to strategically score points for your castles and farms and roads - and denying your friends those same points. Cute and cut-throat, as any game ought to be.
We met with my aunt the second day after we got out of quarantine. We hung out at her apartment, ate a wonderful dinner, indulged in a bit of legal pot and played Carcassonne. My mom absolutely (if you’ll pardon the pun) smoked us. On the way home, she talked about how much the game reminded her of Bus and how easy the game was to grasp.
I wouldn’t be surprised if without games like Bus there would be no Carcassonne.
I wouldn’t say Carcassonne is much easier than Bus, but it is definitely more intuitive: grab a tile, place it down, decide if you want a worker on it. Bus needs thought. Bus needs planning for eventualities and for the will-they/won’t-they game of waiting to see what the other players do. I wouldn’t be surprised if without games like Bus there would be no Carcassonne. They both hide themselves behind a curtain of route-building and tile-placement respectively, but both are really about the plans you make and the ways you adapt them as they fall apart.
Bus and I both turned 22 this year. I visited my mother for the first time in two-and-a-half years in the throes of a global pandemic that has robbed so many of their lives. We were lucky we got to have our moment together after our plan to visit my mother in March 2020 was shattered.
Bus isn’t an explosive game. It’s quiet and builds until the moment where all of a sudden there’s nothing left for you to do but sit, wait and see.
At three in the morning, walking through the door of Carrasco airport I saw my mother: sitting, waiting and, eventually, seeing the joy of a plan that works.