Mapping Out Cartographers

It’s been a while since I got to one of these solo reports. But here it is, my look at

image by BGG user kmatejka

Cartographers is a 2019 flip-and-write game designed by Jordy Adan and published by Thunderworks Games. The game is set in the same world as Roll Player, except instead of building characters, you are building maps. The game is playable by 1 to 100 people, though the irony there is that if you HAVE 100 people, you can only play twice – one for each side of the sheet. That is, unless you get more sheets.

At the start of each game, you’ll randomly choose four objectives and place them in slots marked with A-B-C-D. Each objective comes from a different set – farms and water, forests, villages, and mapping. Players also get a map sheet they can title with the name of their land, their cartographer, and even their family crest. The deck of Explore cards is shuffled, with one random Ambush card. This process is repeated at the start of each season.

On a turn, you’ll flip one of the cards from the Explore deck. Usually, this card will give you a terrain type and a shape, sometimes with a choice of one or the other. You can draw the shape and terrain type anywhere on your map, though not over mountains, wasteland, or anything else you’ve previously drawn. All players will be using the same card, but you obviously can go to different spots with it. If you draw a Ruins card, you’ll draw another, and what you draw must go on top of a Ruins space.

You also might draw an Ambush card. If you do, you pass your map in the direction shown on the card, and your neighbor will draw the shape for you, probably in somewhere highly inconvenient, before passing it back. In the solo game, Ambush shapes stay in the orientation shown and are draw as close as possible to a given spot on the map.

As you play, you’ll be able to collect coins from surrounding mountains or drawing certain shapes. These are marked on the bottom of your map, and will be important for scoring.

After drawing your shape, you’ll draw another card from the deck. Keep an eye on the numbers in the upper left corner, however, because when these breach a certain threshold, the season ends. At that time, you score the two objectives for the season, as well as points for your coins and negative points for empty spaces touching the Ambush monster. You’ll continue from there to the next season, and the game ends after the fourth season. At that time, the player with the highest score wins. In the solo game, each objective card comes with a number. You add the four numbers together to get your target score, and if you exceed that, you win (with a chart to tell you how well you did).

image by BGG user Hipopotam

So that’s Cartographers. And while this map is colorful and illustrated, I’d like to emphasize that the game only comes with plain pencils and no artistic ability is needed. Still, it’s fun to play around with that stuff.

But wait, there’s more! I’m also going to talk about

image by BGG user kmatejka

Cartographers Heroes came out in 2021, and was a standalone sequel to the original, this time adding John Brieger as a designer. The game came with new stuff – new objectives, new maps, new Explore cards, new Ambushes, and a slightly different target score for one the seasons (Summer went from 8 to 7).

The only real new thing added to the system was the Heroes cards. These are added at the beginning of each round, just like Ambushes. Heroes are placed anywhere, and will be able to fight monsters from Ambushes if they show up in the range of that Hero.

Heroes also has an omission from the original game – there are no Ruins in the Explore cards. Which is strange, especially since there are Ruins printed on the maps. Presumably, this is so you can use the maps in the original game as well, but I don’t know why they wouldn’t include the Ruins cards in this game. You can combine the two, but only in certain ways – Objectives can be combined, as can Ambushes. You’re only supposed to use one set or the other of Seasons or Explore cards.

image by BGG user Akuden

Since Cartographers and Cartographers Heroes are essentially the same game, I’ll be referring to both of them as Cartographers for the rest of this post. If I’m specifically talking about one or the other, I’ll call them Original or Heroes.

There’s a lot to like about Cartographers. It’s kind of a puzzle game, where you’re trying to work out the best way to fulfill your objectives in order to get maximum points. There’s a bit of luck pushing involved as you don’t know what cards are coming out when, but there’s also strategy in trying to line things up the way they need to. A lot of times, you’ll be playing for the later seasons – it’s OK to try and do the best you can for the B objective, but that won’t be scored again after the Summer season, and you might get some really good opportunities to set up for the Fall and Winter scoring.

The system is a flip-and-write game, which grew out of the roll-and-write movement. What this means is that, instead of rolling dice to determine what you’ll be writing, you are instead flipping cards. Other games that use this mechanism include Welcome To…, Silver & Gold, and Trails of Tucana (among others). The only other one I’ve played is Welcome To…, which has a different sort of variation from Cartographers. In other words, the points are written right on the map, rather than having the potential for different objectives each game. On the other hand, you’re flipping up new combinations of features and numbers every time, whereas the Explore cards in Cartographers don’t change. So they’re both variable, but I think Cartographers feels more different every time because of the shifting objectives.

You can play Cartographers with as many people as you have maps for because everyone is kind of doing their own thing. What keeps this from being multiplayer solitaire is the Ambushes. This adds the interaction of giving your paper to your neighbor, and they can mess with you by putting the monster anywhere. It’s a nice touch to keep everything from feeling too much like you’re on your own.

I should note at this point that I have only ever played this game solitaire. The Ambushes are run by an AI system in that case. The game works very well in solo mode, and it’s nice to be able to take your time in making your map without having to worry about wasting the time of others. You can be as artistic as you want to (although, as previously stated, it’s not essential to the experience).

I thoroughly enjoyed the base game when I got it, so I picked up Heroes this last Christmas. And while I like some of the new stuff, I do have a couple of gripes. First, it seems easier. I’ll get into this when I look at stats from my solo campaign, but I don’t feel quite as challenged with Heroes. I also gripe that I can’t completely mix together my sets. I want to just put everything together, but I have to keep the Explore cards separate, and that doesn’t make me happy.

My other big problem is the Heroes themselves. They just seem kind of…blah. I mean, they’re great for getting rid of some of the Ambushes, but the problem is that they come out at random times. You get a Hero before an Ambush comes out, in which case you’re just guessing where an Ambush might be, or you get one later when there might not be a great place to put it so it can take care of stuff for you. I think they’re a good idea, but not necessarily implemented very well here.

Other than that, I like the new set. The new maps are great, the new challenges are great, and I really like the new Ambushes. Unlike the base game, where the Ambushes come out and kind of sit there, each new one has a special action that triggers either at the end of the round or when it is completely surrounded. Very cool.

With my thoughts now out of the way, let’s talk about my solo campaign, my third of the year (wow, I am behind on reporting this stuff – I’m almost done with number nine as I type this). Unlike my campaigns with FUSE and Onirim, Cartographers doesn’t really have a built-in system that lends itself to a campaign (i.e. no escalating difficulty, no included expansion modules). So, I created one myself. I played a series of eight games, four with each set. In each game, I used a different set of Scoring cards. I set a goal for myself to not only win individual games, but also to beat the highest score possible. Since each Scoring card has a target score that you add up to get your target score for a game, I just added together all scores to come up with a total target score of 649 – 340 for the original, 309 for Heroes. In order to have a successful campaign, I needed to reach that total score for all eight games. I set it up so the Scoring cards were in the same category order every time (first Villages, then Farm/Water, then Forest, then Mapping).

My total final score was 775, so I got well past the target. I finished the first half of the campaign with a score of 357, just playing with the original, which means I got 418 with Heroes. In the original, I never beat the target by more than 10 points, but in Heroes, I beat the target by 30+ three times. Here are some stats:

  • My only loss, where I didn’t beat the target, came in my very first game with the original. I scored 74 against a target of 84. That was also my lowest score for the campaign.
  • My highest score in the original was 103, scored against a target of 94. This was lower than two games of Heroes, and was the same score I got in my third Heroes game (though that one was against a target of 70.
  • My lowest score with Heroes was in my first game with it (fifth game of the campaign), when I scored 93 against a target of 85. That was higher than two games of the original.
  • My highest score with overall came in my second game with Heroes (sixth game overall) when I scored 112 against a target of 76.
  • Overall, I scored 100+ four times (three times with Heroes).

From this data, it seems that perhaps Heroes is easier than the Original. I beat the Original target score by 17, but I beat Heroes by 109. It’s possible I just got that much better while I was playing, but I don’t think I would have seen that much of a jump. It’s also possible I had a layout of Scoring cards that were conducive to scoring big points. If I do another run at this campaign, I’ll randomize those every time.

Still, I had fun, and I have eight new maps of the kingdom of Donutia (which was the random name I came up with). I do look forward to playing with other people at some point, and even playing more solo. It’s a good system, and I enjoy playing.

That’s it for today. Thanks for reading!

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