Cartographers Showed Me How Fun Roll and Writes Can Be
The ongoing pandemic lead me to expand my tastes in gaming more than I initially expected. Despite how many good games there are on the market, I have a tendency to lean toward the genres that are tried and true to my group. For that reason we’ve mainly stuck with deck building, worker placement Ameritrash, and the occasional area control game. While we’re always open to new things, we have never been interested by roll and writes. The central mechanics feel as old and uninteresting as Bingo. However, I started hearing a lot of talk about this game called Cartographers and what a fun game it is and at such a low price point, I decided to give it a go. Since it arrived in our home, we’ve lost count of how many time’s we’ve played it, but it was enough to go out and buy a replacement pad of score sheets.
For our readers who stumbled on this from the video game side of WTMG, welcome! You may or may not be wondering what a roll and write game is, so I’ll provide some context. Roll and writes are a genre of game where players roll a set of die that’s results are either shared or exclusive to the player who rolled them. Players will then record the die results on their score card in a way that maximizes their point value. Before Cartographers, the only roll and write games I played was Yahtzee (which we played on the dreaded family game nights that ruined board games for me) and Cat Café with our friends at Board Game Squad (which I admittedly enjoyed more than I thought given the name). Maybe it was FOMO or maybe it was Cat Café but I ignored my preferences and gave Cartographers a try.
Set in Thunderworks Games’ world of Roll Player, Cartographers sets players off into the uncharted lands of the far north in service of Queen Gimnax. You’ve been sent off into the wilds to create maps of the north so the Queen may claim the land for herself. When you arrive, you find that you’re not alone and that others are seeking control of the land. If you can map out and claim the best parts of the northern territory for yourself, your reputation will surely earn you favor with her majesty.
Setting up for a game of Cartographers is a breeze. Each player takes a blank score sheet where they’ll draw their map throughout the game. Should players choose to be more creative than myself, they can give a name to their character, to their new territory, and give it a sigil.
To setup the rest of the game, players should separate the ambush and explore cards from one another as they share the same card back. Once the explore cards are separated into their own deck, one ambush card will get added to the explore deck and then it all gets shuffled up together. Seasons cards should be placed face up next to the explore deck with spring on top followed by summer, fall, and then winter on the bottom. The edict cards should be laid out in order left to right and below them, the scoring cards. The top card from each deck below the edicts When it’s all setup, it should look like this:
The object of the game is to be the cartographer with the highest score by cleverly placing Tetris-style shapes. During each of the four rounds, or seasons, players will flip over the top explore card and draw the shape and terrain type depicted on the card.
To play a round of Cartographers players will flip over one explore card at a time and then draw the terrain types on their card in the orientation presented on the card. If there are ever two terrain types or shapes on the card, players must choose only one of the existing options. They will then draw that that shape in any blank space on their map while, to the best of their ability fulfilling score card conditions.
There are four primary terrain types: forest (green), water (blue), farm (yellow), and villages (red), each with their own suggested symbol. As a side note, I’ll often follow Cartographers’ recommended symbols so there’s no contest or discrepancy, but if you’re even more artistically challenged than I am, you can use colored pencils to color code or simply write in letters like “V”, “Fr”, “Fa” and “W” instead. Whatever makes it easiest for players.
These terrain types will be used to fill in each players map as dictated by the revealed explore cards. It may seem random, but all of the objectives will be clearly laid out ahead of time beneath the edicts. These cards will guide players in their placement. As a brief overview, the edict cards drawn for this example are scored as follows:
- 1 reputation points for every forest space drawn adjacent to the edge of the map.
- 2 reputation points for every water and 1 reputation point for every farm adjacent to a mountain.
- 8 reputation points for every grouping of 6 or more villages.
- 6 reputation points for every row and column on the map that’s been completely filled.
In some instances where there is more than one shape available, the smaller shape will have the icon of a coin next to it. Any time that players choose this shape over the other option, they can mark it down on their score card that they’ve earned a coin. Likewise, players will also earn a coin whenever they surround a mountain on all four sides with occupied spaces.
Each season has has a set amount of time associated with it, identified by the number in the top left of the season card. Every explore card will have a similar number on it. When the total of the numbers on revealed explore cards equals the number on the season card, the round has come to an end and scoring begins.
The process of scoring is different for each season. In spring, edicts A and B are scored. In the above example, edict A says that players get one point of reputation for every forest space along the edge of the map. Edict B, says that players get one reputation for every farm space adjacent to mountains and two reputation for every water space adjacent to mountains. Players also gain one point for every coin they’ve earned throughout the game. Once the season’s scores have been tallied, they’ll be written into the scorebox for spring on the bottom of their card. Players will then proceed to the next season.
To setup the next season, players need only to add a new ambush card to the explore deck, shuffle it back up, and reveal the next face up season card. At the end of summer, only edicts B and C will be scored.
At the end of each season, only two of the four edicts will be counted. In Spring, it’s A and B. In Summer, it’s B and C, fall is C and D, and finally in winter, A and D. This structure means that as the game progresses, players will be able to ignore entire terrain types, helping them make more informed placement decisions.
Edict A scoring cards will always be related to forest terrain. Edict B will always be related to farm and water spaces, C with villages, and D with the orientation of filled in spaces. The strategy is recognizing which edicts will be counted and when. Even though players won’t earn points for the placement of their forests (edict A) every round, they’ll be awarded in both the first and the last round. Ignoring forests may benefit players in the short term to prioritize immediate scoring, but could result in a weak last round.
If you look at the pattern of scoring, you’ll notice that after the second round, water and farm terrain won’t award any reputation points again. For that reason, water and farm terrain types can be ignored from then on. Approaching Cartographers with such a degree of forethought is how players will find the greatest level of success.
All of the information necessary to plan ahead is available to everyone at the very beginning of the game. The winner will be the player who plans the farthest ahead and leaves themselves room for a backup plan. The only thing that would throw players for a loop are the dreaded ambush cards.
Ambush cards introduce a bit of a take-that mechanic to Cartographers which I would normally disapprove of. I find that games with take-that can too quickly become mean-spirited competitions that can spoil the joy of the game. I know of people prefer to remove the ambush cards altogether but I would argue that in this case they actually they improve Cartographers.
Whenever an ambush card is revealed, players will pass their scoresheet either clockwise or counterclockwise (indicated on the card). Once all players have their neighbor’s score card they’ll draw purple monster terrain in whatever spaces match the orientation on the ambush card. During the scoring phase, every empty space adjacent to a monster deducts one point from the player’s score.
To maximize the the negative effects of the ambush on opponents, it’s best to either place them in the middle of nowhere or block key scoring squares. In any other game, this level of sabotage could shift the atmosphere if game night into an unpleasant one. What makes this a friendlier interaction is the fact that every player is doing this at once, eliminating the likelihood that an individual player would feel targeted. Ambush cards are also the only time that player decisions have any impact on one another.
My favorite part of Cartographers is just how easy it is to teach. My mother, who never plays games, insisted we play one over Christmas. Naturally, I wanted to bring a game that would be short and easy to teach to avoid the frustrating process of not only teaching a new game, but a game to someone who didn’t have the foundational concepts to build from. Within ten minutes of setting up the game I’d explained the game for us to effectively play. As the game went on I went into greater detail about the game’s strategy and pointed out the moments when specific terrain types were no longer relevant. While she didn’t outright win, she did come in second place, even when she learned along the way.
Cartographers is an exceptionally easy game to teach to new players, especially shares the same goals and explore cards. Of all the games in my collection, it’s by far the easiest one to teach as you go. My approach is to explain each explore card as it comes up and explain how each one can be applied towards an edict and leave it to players to decide for themselves.
Cartographers is an excellent addition to any board game collection. It’s an easy game to teach, easy to re-play, and it’s a whole lot of fun. It genuinely made me reconsider my stance on roll and write games. Even better is the upcoming Cartographers Heroes expansion coming from Thunderworks. The expansion is set to add new edict conditions, more complex ambush cards, and additional maps. For anyone interested in late pledging the expansions, they’re still available here. Otherwise, the base game is ready available at most online retailers that sell games. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go work on my drawing abilities so my friends stop making fun of me whenever we play.
Player count is limited only by the number of score sheets remaining.
30 – 45 minutes.
Paper and pencil
Cartographers is what I believe is the best example of “easy to teach, difficult to master” that WayTooManyGames has covered so far. It’s an easy game to learn but there’s a degree of scoring forethought that will take some practice.
Cartographers‘ artwork is as simple as it is effective. Clear illustrations and card layouts make components easy to read at a glance for even the newest players.
Each edict has four different score cards that keep the game feeling different each time and with a short play time, it never overstays its welcome.