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Cartographers is nice, but my Roll-and-write world is getting crowded (Review)

I bought Cartographers last year during a board game shopping spree, because it was part of BoardGameGeek’s 2021 people’s choice Top 200 Solo Board games.

TL,DR: After about 10 game sessions, the vast majority of which were solo, I find Cartographers to be “ok”, lightweight, relaxing and enjoyable with my morning coffee. It will stay on our shelves for the occasional game, but it doesn’t draw me to “play more” like other roll-and-write games such as Voyages do.

(by the way I’m using the term “roll-and-write” loosely here, Cartographers is technically a flip-and-write…)

Cartographers: Gameplay

In Cartographers, 1 to 100 players are competing to draw the “best” map of the land. Each player gets an empty map sheet, made of a grid. Each turn, a card is flipped from the main deck, revealing a pattern and a type of land that they have to write on their map. It might for example be a “T” shaped pattern of the “river” type. Generally, players can draw the shape with whatever orientation they want, and wherever they want on the map.

4 “goal” cards determine how points are scored for the maps, with objectives such as “count 1 point each time a “river” square connects with a “field” square. Or “count 2 points for each square of your biggest ‘city’ zone”.

The game is split into four seasons, with scoring happening at the end of each season, forcing players to pivot their strategy at the end of each season, depending on which scoring cards are used for a given season.

Occasionally, cards are drawn that throw a wrench in your cogs. For example, “monster” cards allow a player next to you to draw a “monster” pattern wherever they want on your map. (there is no other direct player interaction beyond those monster cards. In “regular” turns, everybody has to draw the same shape, but on their own map). In solo mode, a simple but effective rule dictates where and how you’ll draw the monsters on your map. Monsters contribute to negative points and you’ll want to “surround” them with other types of lands in order to mitigate that.

The game plays quickly once everybody understand the rules, and more players don’t impact the session duration much, since everybody works on their own map. In solo mode, I’ve been averaging 40 minutes for each session, but once one gets used to the game I’d say 30 minutes is the average.

Cartographers: Opinion

Cartographers is…ok. It was the first roll-and-write I ever bought (not counting old sessions of Yatzee with my parents), and I was initially excited at the idea that I would have “produced” something at the end of my gaming sessions. I also was curious as to how the game would expect someone who’s as bad at drawing as me, to “draw” a map.

Calculating my final score in a solo session

And for this, my first sessions of Cartographers where really exhilarating. The game wasn’t stressful, intense, or a huge brain burner like other games I had tried around the same time (thinking of Final Girl for the stressful aspect, and Under Falling skies for the brain burner), so it fit really well in my collection.

But as time went by, I discovered more roll-and-write games that I now find more compelling. Voyages for example, also has the concept of a “map” but somehow feels more immersive to me.

Don’t get me wrong, I think my game library has space for more than one “roll-and-write” game, and Cartographers is sufficiently different from e.g. Voyages that I would keep both in my library. But nowadays, if I’m feeling like playing a board game while I’m going to use a pencil, Voyages is my choice, simply because of the variety it offers.

And maybe that’s the issue with Cartographers, that variety isn’t there. After a handful of sessions, I feel I’ve seen all the shapes, all the goals, all the monsters, all the cards. The “skills” mini expansion adds some of that variety, and maybe I need to try that next.

Cartographers is a simple little game, and that will work for many people, including me once in a while.

Finally, probably a minor complaint, but I’m pretty sure that for $25, the creators could have included colored pencils instead of the gray ones. This is a missed opportunity, considering how cute the maps can look when colored.

The game is much more fun with colors

Cartographers Review – Conclusion

Cartographers is a simple and relaxing little game, that will give you some challenge, whether solo or in a group. It works well as a family game, too. The resulting maps you produce feel pretty gorgeous, at least in our first sessions. After a handful of sessions though the variety wore off for me, and I felt less compelled to play it, in comparison to other roll-and-write games. Would recommend buying only on sale.

What I liked about Cartographer

  • The solo mode is a bit of “beat your own score”, but works basically as well as multiplayer. It’s one of the rare games where I feel if you like multiplayer, you’ll probably enjoy solo as well, no question.
  • Very relaxing with a cup of coffee, lightweight play without much stress, unless you’re really out there to optimize your score to the max.
  • You can produce gorgeous maps (I recommend using colored pencils), whether you’re an artist or not. It feels satisfying to look at, at the end of a game.
  • It worked well as a family game, with even our 5 year old taking part (she did not exactly draw the right shapes, but had fun coloring them)

What I didn’t like about Cartographer

  • Although I enjoyed Cartographers a lot, I don’t find myself compelled to play it often, compared for example to Voyages, which in my opinion offers more variety
  • The game is way more enjoyable with colors on it. Why weren’t colored pencils included in the box? (see my complaint about the price below)
  • Call me cheap, but the game’s MSRP is $25 and feels a bit high to me given the content. For $5 + $5 worth of paper and ink I get Voyages. For $30 I can get Gloomhaven Jaws of the Lion. I feel like the sweet spot for Cartographers should be closer to $20?

Games mentioned in this article

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Final Girl
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Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion
Check on Amazon (affiliate link)
Under Falling Skies
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