Full disclosure: A review copy of Cartographers was provided by Thunderworks Games.
So I often get an opportunity to play games before they launch, but it’s rare for me to get a chance to play a game before it’s even done. (I’m a bad playtester, for reasons outside the scope of this review. That said, it’s an important thing to do, so I still go to Protospiel and other playtest events from time to time, when I can.) At BGG.CON 2018, I was pleasantly surprised by the opportunity to try Cartographers in a very beta form. I was kind of enamored with it (as I tend to be with flip-and-fill games, but what can you do), and kept bothering them to let me review it once it was ready, and, now, here we are. So let’s check it out!
In Cartographers, you are mapmakers combing the land on the Queen’s behalf to chart out the various facets of the realm. You will find lost lands, ruins, rifts, and even areas full of monsters if you look closely enough, but you need to make sure you’re charting out areas that follow her royal decrees. If you succeed, you’ll be named the greatest mapmaker in the realm!
Not much. There are double-sided sheets; give every player one.
First, shuffle the Ambush cards:
Shuffle one of them into the Explore Cards:
Shuffle the Scoring Cards within their own stacks:
Reveal one card from each stack under the various Edicts:
If you want to use the Skills mini-expansion, shuffle the Skills, set out three:
Also set out the Season Cards: Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter, in that order.
Once you’ve done all that, you’re ready to go! There’s no start player.
A game of Cartographers is a flip-and-fill game, a spin-off of the roll-and-write genre similar to Welcome To or MetroX or Let’s Make a Bus Route. In this one, you’ll flip cards and add the shapes and terrain types to your map in order to meet scoring conditions on the cards each season. Whoever does the best job doing that will win the game! Let’s dig into how that works.
So, on a specific turn, you’ll flip the top card of the Explore Deck. It can be one of three things:
- Ambush Card: A monster attacks! Remove this card from the game, and pass your sheet to the player indicated by the arrows on the card. The player who receives your sheet must then add monsters in the shape indicated on the card. Our house rule is that they must also draw monsters in the spaces, you know, for flavor reasons, but you do you. If they can’t fit a monster anywhere, they can add a 1×1 square anywhere on your board and add the monster terrain type. Fun stuff.
- Explore Card: Generally, these either give you two shapes and one terrain type or vice-versa. If it offers two shapes, choosing the smaller one will give you a coin, which you should mark on your board. You may flip or rotate the shape as desired and add it anywhere on your board (even if it’s not adjacent to any pieces). Like the Ambush Cards, if you can’t fit it anywhere, you may place a 1×1 square of the chosen terrain type anywhere on your board. Note that if you do so you can’t claim the gold from taking the smaller shape.
- Ruins Card: When you draw a Ruins Card, the next Explore Card must be drawn on one of the Ruins spaces on your board. If you can’t, you must draw a 1×1 square of that terrain type anywhere on the board, instead (even if you could fit the shape elsewhere). Ambush Cards don’t apply to Ruins; resolve the Ambush first and then draw a new card.
Naturally, there are some other rules:
- No overlapping. You cannot draw on a filled space. Any previously filled space, Mountain, or Wasteland space counts.
- Cannot go off the edge of the board. You have to stay completely in bounds.
- Mountain bonus! If you surround a Mountain on all four sides, you instantly gain a gold that can be filled in on the track on the bottom of your board.
Each Explore Card has a number on it between 0 and 2; once the sum of those numbers exceeds the Season limit (8, 8, 7, 6, respectively), the Season Ends. Move on to the scoring phase.
When Scoring, follow the Edicts that are active for this season:
- Spring: A & B
- Summer: B & C
- Fall: C & D
- Winter: D & A
Once you’ve scored those, give yourself a point for every coin and lose a point for every open space next to a monster square. After every player has scored, move on to the next Season by shuffling a new Ambush Card into the Explore Deck with all the old Explore Cards. Note that this means that if you didn’t see an Ambush Card this round, there is now more than one in the deck.
When Winter ends, the game ends, too. Total scores; the player with the most points wins!
The only major changes are these:
- Don’t give yourself a title. You’ll get one at the end of the game.
- Ambush rules: When an Ambush is drawn, you’ll add it yourself following a simple algorithm: start from the corner indicated and follow the arrows. Don’t rotate or flip the shape; draw it as printed, if you can. If you cannot, start one square in and try again. Keep repeating. If you can’t draw it at all, ignore it. This is also a solid way to reduce player interaction if you find that the take-that of choosing where to add a monster to your opponent’s board is unpleasant.
- Final score: At the end of the game, your score is your final score minus the points on each of the Edict Cards. Hope you can get a positive one!
Player Count Differences
There aren’t really any; it doesn’t affect your game beyond “you might have different people adding monsters to your board”, which would also be irrelevant past 3+ players. There’s still good player interaction, though, if you want it, so that’s nice. I’d recommend this at any player count; it lacks the racing element that I think breaks down after 6+ people.
- Follow the edicts. I mean, it’s not that difficult to do that, I suppose, but that’s a pretty clear piece of strategy advice. There may not be much you can do (we had a Forest Edict in round 1 but drew no Forest cards, for instance), but trying to set yourself up for future wins is important.
- It’s worth considering whether you should work to score this edict or a future one. Generally speaking, I’ll always work towards a future one unless we’re in the first round of the current one (each edict scores over two rounds). If we’re in the first round of the current edict, I’ll still get two sets for it, so it’s worth doing. This is a bit simplistic of an approach, though; there may be considerations based on whether or not I’ll score more points if I pick one or the other, which is always worth evaluating.
- Coins become progressively less useful. A coin earned in round 1 is worth 4 points (since it scores every round) and that decreases in value each round. Naturally, this means that I’ll occasionally focus on getting coins to the detriment of scoring on edicts (which is totally fine … sometimes) if I think I can get enough. Note that this specific piece of strategic advice breaks down aggressively if you’re playing with the Skills mini-expansion, as that allows you to spend coins each round for various effects. In that case, certain Skills might be worth spending the extra time to get coins, if you can.
- A 1×1 square isn’t the worst thing. In certain edict scenarios it can be quite useful, or you can use it to potentially patch a hole. I once scored 12 points off of a single 1×1 because it filled in a row and column that I got 6 points each for. That was handy. You’d just rather get them later in the game when you’ve already filled in most of your map.
- Don’t forget to cover threatened areas. If you let the monsters consistently attack, you’re going to lose a lot of points, quickly. It’s better to take a few negative points now rather than risk taking a few negative points for the whole game, if you can patch those spots quickly.
- Similarly, try to place your monsters as inconveniently as possible. You really want to like, make it hard for your opponent to ever fill them. The better you do, the more points you lose, so that’s always a useful incentive for players. It’s mean, but it’s fair.
Pros, Mehs, and Cons
- The art is very nice. To be expected from the Roll Player series, but, still very nice nonetheless.
- Pretty easy to set up. That’s generally good for games in this genre. I’d say it’s harder to set up than, say, MetroX, but about on-par with Welcome To.
- The drawing component is really fun. I liked it a lot in Harvest Dice and Rolling Ranch, and even here I find it to be very pleasant. Artistic folks will really enjoy getting to express themselves along those shapes (and their maps will turn out really well, which is also cool. Forcing everyone to draw the monsters is just one of my small joys.
- You end up with a cool map every game, which is really nice. If you want, you can even use it as a starting point for building out a D&D area or using it for a storytelling game of some kind; I really like that aspect of the Roll Player universe, personally.
- Very nice spatial puzzle. It’s pretty similar to Tag City, in that regard, which I like very much, but it has more scoring criteria than area control aspects to it. They’re both super fun games, though.
- The lack of a racing mechanic makes higher player counts more tenable, in my opinion. I appreciate that you don’t have 100 people trying to all race to score something before anyone else, and that’s something I generally like in this style of games (the lack of a race mechanic, I mean).
- The mini-expansion is pretty neat, also. I like having to manage the gold puzzle about whether it’s worth points or not each Season to buy one of those nice abilities.
- I almost wish the game were a bit longer? I think it’s because I enjoy playing it so much that I’m always a bit bummed the game ends, honestly. I’d be interested in an Isle of Skye-style scoring where we had a few more scoring cards in play each round, as well, because it always bums me out that certain card types become less valuable as the game progresses.
- A few more Edict Cards would be nice. I worry that I’ll eventually feel like I’ve played through a few of the combinations (there are 256, so I’d be hard-pressed to actually have played through all the combinations, especially if you shuffle them so certain edicts come later in the game), but I also understand that these are probably very difficult to develop. I suppose this just means that I’m hoping for an expansion, at some point.
- A few more people of color couldn’t hurt. There aren’t a lot of people in this game, but there definitely aren’t many like, people of color. I get that that’s sort of an Unfortunately Common Fantasy Trope, but it would be nice to see a more diverse world, since I know Roll Player has that in it.
Overall: 9.5 / 10
Yeah, overall I think I love Cartographers. It’s a wonderful blend of the like, spatial elements that I like in Tag City with the randomized scoring conditions that I really like from other games (Gartenbau, for instance, recently). What I think sells me on it is the subtle task of drawing the various symbols required to make the map look good. It’s a small touch (as opposed to writing F for Forest or R for River), but it makes the map feel a lot more personal and vibrant, which really sells it for me. Generally, I love it when a game finishes and you feel a sense of accomplishment, and I think everyone does in Cartographers. You may not have fulfilled the most edicts of the Queen, but you still made a rad little map and you’ve got that going for you, which is great. I think rewarding creativity (and encouraging it) is an easy way to make a good game into a great game, and Cartographers has that motivation at its core. If you’re looking for a fantastic flip-and-fill game, Cartographers is it, for sure! I’m really hoping that there’s an expansion sooner rather than later.