Jordy Adan
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InteractionComponents & Design

“But, your majesty,” the Master Mapmaker stammered, “surely you must understand. I don’t create the lands I draw on my maps. I merely put on parchment the landscapes that I find.”

“And what,” the Queen asked, her voice icier than any glacier he’d ever mapped, “stops you from mapping those rivers and lakes that I ask for. Do you go chasing waterfalls instead? Do we need a new master mapmaker?”

“Your majesty, I can draw all the rivers and lake you could ever want on the maps.” The Queen’s lips quirked upwards, and the Master Mapmaker wondered, not for the first time, if such hypotheticals might be a dangerous conversational gambit with an absolute ruler who had never had their wishes denied. “That doesn’t mean they’re really there,” he hastily added, embarrassed by the squeak his voice had turned into by the end of the sentence.

Welcome to Cartographers, a roll-and-write game – draw-and-draw game, to be entirely accurate – that puts you in the unenviable position of the master mapmaker above. Queen Gimnax has sent you to the northern lands to map them, and with authority untempered by knowledge, has given you clear instructions what she expects you to find.

The full name of the game is Cartographers: A Roll Player Tale, but you don’t need to know Roll Player to enjoy it. It’s set in the same fantasy universe, but that’s the only connection between the two games. There are plenty of other reasons to get to know Roll Player, but that’s for another post.

The map is not the territory – how to play Cartographers

Cartographers is a Bingo style roll-and-write game. Every round someone draws a card, then all players put what that card shows on their score pad.

Cards tell you two things about what you can put on your map: a type of landscape to draw – forest, village, farmland, or water – and the shape that landscape will take on your map. There are very few rules how you can draw that landscape. Basically, it can not cross the edge of your map grid, and it can not cover another space of landscape. Other than that, anything goes, you can even flip and turn it any way you like.

There’s an important question, though: what are you trying to achieve? That’s where Cartographers turns awesome, because your goals change from game to game and from season to season. Cartographers comes with four sets of four goal cards each. You draw one from each set and randomly assign them the letters A through D. Then you play four seasons. In Spring, you score goals A and B, in Summer B and C, in Fall C and D, and finally in Winter D and A. You know all the goals from the start, so you can plan for the later ones.

Goals are as diverse as “score lotsa points for having full rows or columns” to “score points for every space in your second-largest village” to “score points for farmland spaces adjacent to water and for water spaces adjacent to farmland”.

To spice things up a little more, there are some extras. The most obvious are the mountains on your score pad. Surrounding one of them with landscape spaces gives you a coin that is worth a point at the end of every season. Then there are Ruin cards in the deck of landscape cards. When you draw one of those, then you immediately draw another card, and that landscape has to cover one of the ruin spaces on the score pad.

And then… there are monsters. Until now, Cartographers was a typical multiplayer solitaire game. Monsters change that. When a monster card comes up, it tells you to pass your score pad to the left or to the right. That player then draws the monster shape in a most inconvenient spot, then returns it. At the end of a season, empty spaces adjacent to monsters spaces score minus one point each.

After four seasons, the game ends. There’s no special endgame scoring, just add up the four season scores for your total, highest number wins.

Wait, that’s all? Our Verdict

I admit, Cartographers fooled me. Usually, my impression of a game after reading the rules turns out pretty accurate after playing the game. I read the rules for Cartographers after it was nominated for Kennerspiel des Jahres, and I though “that’s nice, doesn’t sound that special”. It took me about half a game to revise that opinion.

What I underestimated from reading the rules is how much of a dilemma the different goal cards put you in. It’s not only that you could put things in a way to score some points now or more points later, you’re always looking where you might build opportunities for later, or block them, and hoping that the landscapes you want will come up before the end of the season. Better than that, your priorities shift with every season. Goals come closer, goals rotate out of the game after you’ve scored them twice, the situation keeps changing. With all the different combinations of goal cards, every new game is different, too.

And then there’s the icing on the mountain range, the monsters. Passing your score pad to another player to get a monster four times at most doesn’t sound like a lot of interaction. It might even be fewer, if you don’t draw all monster cards. But believe me, it’s plenty. Those monsters have a huge impact.

What they don’t impact is the game time. Just like regular pieces, all players put monsters at once, so even this bit of interaction doesn’t change Cartographers‘ no downtime design.

And that’s Cartographers: you can play without downtime, you have a huge replayability, you have some interaction with a huge impact. The best bit, though, is that you learn it in minutes, yet it still deserves the label Kennerspiel because it’s choke-full of complex, impactful decisions.

My first impression – pre-first impression, really – of Cartographers was wrong, and I’ve rarely been so happy to be proven wrong.

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