Cartographers (Game Review by Brandon Kempf)

  • Designer: Jordy Adan
  • Artists: Luis Francisco & Lucas Ribeiro
  • Publisher: Thunderworks Games
  • Players: 1-100
  • Time: 30-45 Minutes
  • Times Played: 8 (1 solo)

“I want those mountains closer to the forests! And a river running through it” 

-The Queen

Anyone who follows me, or has read more than a handful of my reviews, knows that I am a verifiable geek when it comes to roll and writes or flip and fill games. There is usually a low barrier of entry, and tons of variability in play from game to game. So when last July came around, I knew I had to pick up Cartographers from Thunderworks Games. On top of it being in a genre of games that I really like, it was a flip and fill game based in the same universe as Roll Player, of which I was already a fan? That made it a definite purchase around Gen Con (RIP) of last year. Now that it has been nominated for the Kennerspiel des Jahres Prize I do admit to feeling a bit like a Johnny Come Lately, but rest assured good reader, I feel the same way about Cartographers now, as I did after that first play back in August.

Thematically, you are a cartographer working for the Queen who has just reclaimed lands. You are tasked with mapping the lands, and making sure that the Queen has her land demands satisfied the best. She’s fairly picky about what type of lands she wants, and where she would like them in these reclaimed lands, so you better pay close attention. 

Cartographers is played over four seasons, and if you are familiar with games like Isle of Skye, you’ll recognize the way you score your points. At the beginning of the game, there are four Edicts chosen at random. These Edicts will tell you what lands that the Queen prizes, and where she wants those prized lands to be. Each Edict card will be assigned to a letter – A, B, C or D. At the end of each season in Cartographers, you are going to score two of those edicts. In Spring you’ll score the Edicts on A and B, in Summer you’ll score B and C, Fall scores C and D and you finish up in Winter scoring Edicts D and A. So each Edict is going to score twice over the game. 

Each player is given a map sheet to map the lands as they are discovered. The map sheet starts exactly the same for each player. You’ll have mountains and some ruins marked on the map already. 

Each Season, a set value of Explore cards will be drawn, this value is noted on the Season card. 

Each time that an Explore card is drawn, there are three steps to follow. First step is to flip the top Explore card for everyone to see. This is called the Explore phase. 

On the Explore card you will note a couple of things. First is the terrain type and second is the shape that can be drawn on your map. This brings us to the Draw phase. Everyone will draw the type of terrain shown on the Explore card, in the shape that is also shown on the Explore card. If there is more than one choice, the players can choose what to draw. The shapes can be rotated and flipped as needed on the player’s map. On the card above, note the shape on the left and the coin. If the player chooses to draw that shape, they are also going to be marking off a coin on their map sheet. Coins are worth points equal to the amount of coins the player has claimed each scoring phase. If you fill in the four adjacent squares around a Mountain on your map, you also gain a coin. If for some reason the player cannot draw the shapes on the cards, they may then fill one, 1×1 square, on their map sheet with the chosen terrain. 

There are a couple different types of Explore cards that can be drawn along with the normal ones. Rift Lands mean that each player draws a 1×1 square anywhere on their map of the terrain type on the card. If a Ruins card is drawn, immediately draw another Explore card and draw one of the available shapes on their map so that it overlaps one of those pre-printed Ruins that is on your map. If you cannot draw the shape and overlap a Ruin, you must draw a 1×1 square anywhere on the map of the terrain type shown on the card. Ambush cards are the last different type of Explore card that can be drawn. Ambush cards are monster attacks and they note a couple shapes on them and a directional arrow. When an Ambush card is drawn players will pass their maps to the player in the direction of the arrow on the card. That player now gets to draw the ambush on their opponents map in the shape shown on the card. After each season, any empty space adjacent to a monster drawn on your map sheet is worth one negative point. 

After everyone has drawn the terrain shape on their map you check to see if the season ends. If the sum of the numbers on the top left of the Explore cards are equal to, or greater than the number on the top left of the Season card, the season ends and players will total their points based on the Edict cards of that season. 

If there is another season to be played the Explore cards are reshuffled, minus any revealed Ambush cards, and a new Ambush card is shuffled in. If Ambush cards are not revealed during they will accumulate in the Explore deck and could in theory come out at any time. 

At the end of the Winter Season, do scoring as normal and then add that together with the points scored the previous three seasons and the player with the most points, is the winner and the Queen’s favored cartographer. 

The Flip and Fill genre of games has been really hit and miss for me. I loved Silver & Gold, but I loathed the randomness of Avenue and it’s Kokoro off-shoot. Cartographers is a far more substantial game than those games, and it manages to outshine them in almost every way. Never in a game have I felt the complete sense of lack of control like I did in Avenue.

Cartographers, on the other hand, makes you have to plan ahead even more than something like Silver & Gold does. The scoring works perfectly. You have to plan for the long haul, knowing that certain cards may be more valuable than others, but also knowing that the immediate scoring has to be maximized each and every season. It’s tough, but the way that the edicts are done helps it all work out perfectly. 

Components wise, this is typical roll and write, or flip and fill stuff. A pad of 100 map sheets, double sided with one side being more of a basic game and the other side having a wasteland of unusable squares in the middle to create more of a challenge. Pencils wise, you’ll notice that my score sheets in the photos, I don’t draw the terrain, I use a set of colored pencils instead. In the box, you simply get four golf pencils and are told to draw symbols on squares to know what they represent. I’m not artistic, so I just went with colors and it works perfectly for me. Cards are the only other component and they are a fine quality, although they are a bit thin and my fat fumbly fingers have marred a couple of them already trying to pry them off a solid surface. 

I am not sure if the small expansion that is in my copy comes with the retail version or not. The expansion adds some Skills to the game. At the beginning of the game three skills are randomly drawn, and each season a player may pay the coins noted on the skill to use one of the skills. These skills of course will allow you to break the rules in your favor. Allowing you to draw shapes differently than assigned or different terrain types than what was drawn. They add a bit more flexibility, which is always welcome in games where sometimes, you are just going to paint yourself into a corner. We haven’t used the skills too much early on, the need to have more flexibility grows as the game progresses, so most of the time any skill use is saved for the Fall and Winter seasons. 

I love that Cartographers adds some player interaction to the game with the Monster Attacks. Sure, it’s a bit of negative interaction among players, and some folks won’t like that, but it takes what is ultimately a very solitaire game and ramps up a bit of tension. One word of warning, if one person is being nice to the person passing the map to them, it can certainly be a benefit to that person, especially if everyone else at the table is like me and finding that perfect spot to hit the player with as many negative points as possible, and also making it difficult to fill in those empty spaces around the monsters. 

Thematically, Thunderworks Games has taken another activity that role players seemingly love to do, and made a full game out of it, making maps. Much like they did with Roll Player and creating characters, Jordy has managed to distill the thrill of crafting maps for your roleplaying group and made it into a game all unto itself. Sure there may be a bit of a thematic disconnect knowing that you aren’t really mapping anything in as much as you are creating a map to best suit the edicts, but really, that’s not that bad, it’s almost like creating a map to best suit your group, knowing what they like and what they dislike.  

Cartographers, as mentioned above, was nominated for the 2020 Kennerspiel des Jahres. Competition is pretty tough this year for the KdJ, with OG favorite, The Crew landing in the same category. It’s a bit bizarre, how the Spiel jury chose what game went in which category, but we’ve already covered that so I won’t continue on, it is not for us to decide. Cartographers completely slipped my mind when we were discussing possibly nominees, and that’s a shame. I think part of it is the fact that I am not aware of German releases, and another part of it is that I didn’t pay as close attention to the jury’s reviews leading up to the nominations as I used to. No matter what though, Cartographers definitely deserves the recognition that the game is getting. It’s a fantastic and original take on a genre of games that could be seen as “jumping the shark”, and thanks to that recognition, it has seen some increased play time over the last week, let’s hope that continues. 

Thoughts from the Opinionated Gamers

Larry (3 plays):  For me, Cartographers is a reasonably frustrating game.  For one thing, there’s too much going on, at least in a game this fast-paced.  Four completely different ways of scoring, some of which are less than straightforward, is too much for me to wrap my head around, at least when it comes to a cohesive strategy.  It doesn’t help that my spatial reasoning is poor.  So I tend to focus on two of them, with perhaps a glance at the third.  This approach makes me less than competitive and, worse, doesn’t let me feel like I’m playing the entire game.  Then there’s the map creation.  I’m a lousy artist and drawing something that would look recognizable in that small a space would take way too much time, so I try to get by with abbreviations for the different terrain types, which usually confuse my opponents and sometimes myself.  It’s just not a game that is well suited to my abilities or the things I like.  It’s harmless enough, so if others want to play, I won’t veto it, but it’s long enough that I feel like it represents a wasted opportunity and that it’s 45 minutes that I could have spent on something much more enjoyable.

Alan (7 plays): I have found this a very straightforward easy game to get into and that I’ve introduced to many people. This includes regular gamers and those who are new to the scene and they have all enjoyed it and appreciate it really quickly. I think the attraction of drawing your own map and filling in privately but sharing it publicly is an attractive feature. I have played at all multiplayer options and found it fine at all levels. I think it’s one of the better flip and write games and it’s small enough to pack into a bag so it can easily be played as a closer in a game session.

Mark (9 plays): I’m delighted that Cartographers both works as a multi-player game and as a solitaire game – a feature it shares with Roll Player. It also will work quite over webcam/Zoom/whatever with a number of folks… when an ambush card shows up, each player can just use the solitaire rules for monster placement. 

Thunderworks has just announced some more Cartographers stuff as well:

  • A 4 card mini-expansion that has four different ambush cards (to add more variety)
  • A stand-alone game (Cartographers: Heroes) that will be Kickstarted in Q4 of this year that can be combined with the original game

And, yes, Brandon, the Skills expansion does not come in the retail copy of the game. (You can get it from the BGG Store, though.)

Patrick Brennan: Yet another flip-and-write game of drawing polyomino shapes on your sheet that works perfectly fine but induces little urge to play again. Each game has different scoring conditions, but each turn is the same experience – flip a card, and ponder your map to determine the best place to draw that shape and terrain type given the score conditions in play and what’s possible to come out next. It’s the pondering that is ponderous. And rather futile; you’re still beholden to the luck of the cards. Play it out, tally the scores, that was fine, let’s move on to something more challenging, sociable, and fun. I did like how the changeable scoring conditions encourage you to develop your map differently each time though, and that would be the attraction over others in the genre.

Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers

I love it. Brandon Kempf,  Alan How, Mark Jackson

I like it. Chris W.

Neutral. Larry, Patrick Brennan

Not for me…  

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3 Responses to Cartographers (Game Review by Brandon Kempf)

  1. Jacob Lee says:

    Is Patrick the hardest to please of the OGers? I’ve noticed for years a trend that before I finish reading an article my head anticipates he will be less than enthused. I’m not a fan of roll and writes so I might not like this one either.

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