Cartographers – A Roll Player Tale is the brand new flip and write board game from publisher Thunderworks Games. Designed by Jordy Adan, featuring artwork by Lucas Ribeiro, the game plays with “1 – 100 Players”. Note there are only 4 pencils included in the box, everyone just needs their own sheet and to be able to see the central deck. Lasting around 30 minutes, Cartographers sees players drawing a map of the local area, with fields, mountains and even monsters out there! However, is it fun sketching out maps with Tetris like blocks? Let’s find out!
At the start of the game each player takes their own map sheet, with the group of players communally deciding whether to play on the wilderness or wastelands side. The 4 types of scoring cards are independently shuffled with 1 of each type selected. These 4 scoring cards are placed underneath the A – D edict cards, in any order. With one of the abmush cards added to the explore pile this deck is shuffled and the game is ready to begin.
Each turn is split into three phases, with all of the players simultaneously completing them. First, players explore with the top card of the explore deck flipped over and revealed. If this is a ruins card then an additional card is drawn, otherwise once a card has been revealed it’s onto the drawing phase. Each standard explore card depicts either a terrain type and two polyomino shapes, or two terrain types and a single shape. Each player draws this shape onto their map, with the whole shape needing to fit. If the player cannot fit the shape they must instead draw a single square of any terrain type, not limited by what was depicted on the explore card. If a ruin card was drawn first, and the player can, the shape must overlap one of the 6 ruin spaces on their map sheet.
The only break from this logic of flip a card then draw are the ambush cards. When these are drawn the players pass their maps in the indicated direction around the table, with an opponent drawing the monsters on the map before passing it back. Each season has a limit, with each explore card adding up as they are drawn. When the season limit is reached the season ends, with edicts and more to be scored.
At the end of each season the two edict scoring cards indicated by the season are scored. For Spring this is A and B through to Winter where D and A are scored. These range from scoring per forest space at the edge of the map, through to having a village of 6+ size. The players then score points for the coins they have collected. These are earnt for surrounding the mountains on the map and for choosing to use specific shapes on the explore cards. If players have monster symbols on their maps they also lose 1 point per empty adjacent space. At this point the explore deck is reshuffled, with an additional ambush card added in. The four seasons play out the same way, with players slowly but surely filling out their maps. The winner is whoever has the most points after winter, with ties broken by the fewest points lost via monsters.
There isn’t a huge amount of interaction between players, with the monsters being the only real time players drag their heads up from their own sketched maps. Monsters are a take that style element that doesn’t dominate the experience, yet they also cannot be ignored thanks to the amount of points a player can lose. The way they are shuffled into the deck one at a time each season, chances are they won’t appear for the first season at least. It’s quite a different game when they come early, with them taking up a lot of space that’s otherwise free for players to use for point gaining.
The variety from one game to the next from monsters pales in comparison to the scoring cards. While the cards flip from the deck in different orders, it’s the scoring cards that force players to draw each map differently. These aren’t railroaded choices either. With a number of the cards in the deck featuring two different terrain types there’s the choice of which of the objectives to work on. The importance of these choices is then compounded by the ability to work on an objective that won’t score for some rounds to come or the current edicts which score at the end of the round. The A scoring card is especially interesting as players will score it in the first and last round. Above all of this, no matter how many scoring cards change from one game to the next the choices will be impacted by simply re-ordering them.
Cartographers is a rather good looking game, independent of how well players can do the little sketches for the likes of water, forests and housing. As long as the locations are recognisable by their symbol then the game works, and anything above that creates quite a cool looking map. One instant upgrade would be to get a range of coloured pencils or pens, to add that splash of colour from the cards onto the map sheet. Unless the boards were laminated this would add the issue of not being able to rub out mistakes, though lamination could have also upgraded what is a decent production. There are double sided map sheets though, with a minor difference between the two sides – so players can finish one game then flip it over to instantly play again.
With 3 ways to earn points in every round and then potentially, via monsters, a need to avoid losing points, it’s easy to get a sense of satisfaction in Cartographers. Not to say that the game freely gives this away but players can gain points for a range of things, making the choices on each turn interesting. Whether it’s from connecting mountains with clusters of forests or simply surrounding a monster to not lose points, there are lots of little victories along the way. Regardless of winning or not, you will have drawn out little villages, lakes or quirky rivers, so there’s always that feeling at the end of the game that you have made progress.
Being able to flip and rotate the shapes allows them to be used to maximum effect each and every time. The issue with this is that some will get analysis paralysis, as they think through every possible location and rotation it could be drawn in. With the different objectives there’s rarely one single best placement, more a few good possibilities. Therefore, if you find yourself often really thinking through every choice, Cartographers may slow to a plod, and the normal fast paced flip and write gameplay may not be as smooth for you.
Cartographers captures players’ imaginations with the maps that they draw, whilst the gameplay offers plenty of choices on every turn. Each card flipped presents options of where to place the new terrain shape, thanks to the ability to aim for future objectives or the current edicts. Regardless of your artistic ability, the sketches on the map sheets are easy to read – with those with some flair to their drawings making phenomenal looking maps. No element of the game feels out of place, with it being easy to teach without streamlining out choice from the design. Cartographers is certainly on the right road to being mountains above other flip and write titles!
(Editor’s Note: Cartographers was provided to us by Asmodee for the review. The game is currently available from local board game stores! Find your local store here.)