Game: Cartographers

Release Year: 2019

Publisher: Thunderworks Games

Designer: Jordy Adan

Player Count: 1 to 100 players

Play Time: About 45 minutes (can be longer if you immerse yourself in the drawing aspect)

Rules Complexity: Simple

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Shrugging off and overlooking Cartographers was one of the biggest board gaming mistakes I've ever made.

Okay, that's a bit dramatic, I admit. But it's true: every time I saw Cartographers recommended, I'd look into it but soon close the tab for one reason or another. It seemed too artsy. The theme wasn't interesting. How could this be fun?

What a mistake that was!

With Cartographers, Jordy Adan has crafted a real classic with longevity, one that comes together in a streamlined package with absolutely no bloat. I find it both mentally engaging yet relaxing, and it's so easy to pull out on a rough day.

Keep reading to learn more about how it plays, what it feels like to play, how much replayability it has, and whether Cartographers is right for you.

This review is based on my own personal copy of Cartographers, which I bought brand new from Cardhaus. Not a free review copy.

The Gist of Cartographers

In Cartographers, these explore cards dictate which shapes you can add to your map. You can place them anywhere you want, but you won't score much if you ignore the scoring cards.

Cartographers is a flip-and-write game with Tetris vibes: turn by turn, you're presented with polyomino shapes that you need to fit into your map. These polyomino shapes come in different terrain types: Forest, Village, Farm, and Water. (There are two other special terrain types, too.)

Each turn, an explore card is flipped over that reveals the same choice to all players: either a single shape and two possible terrains, or a single terrain and two possible shapes. Every player makes their own choice for their own map.

On the left, the explore card gives you one shape but two possible terrains for it. On the right, the explore card gives you one terrain but two possible shapes for it.

Why does this matter? Because the placement of terrain is what scores you points. The more you're able to arrange your terrains according to the four scoring cards (which are randomized every game), the more points you'll earn.

But what's more interesting is that Cartographers is played over four seasons, and each season ends with scoring only two of the four scoring cards. So, it's less about what your map looks like at the end of the game and more about how your map progresses from season to season.

The scoring cards determine how your terrains will earn points in a given game. The diagrams and text clearly explain how many points you earn for doing this or that.

There are two more ways to affect score: first, by collecting gold coins (which continue to earn points in all future seasons), and second, by having monsters added to your map (which subtract points for every surrounding space that isn't filled in by terrain).

At the end of the fourth season, everyone tallies up their points from across all seasons and whoever has the most wins.

The Core Experience

Cartographers is a mechanically simple game. You flip the next explore card, then make a single, double-layered decision: which shape/terrain combo are you going to use, and where are you going to place it on your map.

The first decision you'll have to make. Based on the scoring cards, you'll have to decide which shape/terrain you want to use, where it's going, and whether you're going to rotate/flip it or not.

At the start of Cartographers, you might not know how to make this decision. After all, there's an entire map of empty spaces brimming with possibilities before you, and that shape can go anywhere. You can flip it, turn it, or reverse it however you want, so the world is your oyster.

But here's one of the reasons why the scoring system in Cartographers is so brilliant: it always provides you with direction.

During the first season, only scoring cards A and B matter. When this season ends, you only get points for how well you fulfilled cards A and B—so, at the start of the game, you should work towards those two missions. You have something to go off, and this guidance is invaluable for easing you in.

In any given season, you only have to worry about two of the four scoring cards. For example, in Spring, you only need to worry about scoring cards B and C.

But at the same time, it's not like you can completely ignore the other two scoring cards. Sure, cards A and B might be important right now, but those other cards are going to come around eventually. Shouldn't you prepare for them, too?

Which brings me to the second reason why the scoring system is so brilliant: you have both immediate goals and future goals.

There's an ebb and flow as you move across the scoring cards, from A+B (in Spring) to B+C (in Summer) to C+D (in Fall) then finally D+A (in Winter). Each scoring card is urgent for a time, only to lose its importance soon enough.

In other words, you're shifting gears with every season, which affects your decision-making process. The same explore card could show up in multiple seasons—because the explore deck is shuffled between seasons—but you'll treat that card differently because your situation won't be the same each time.

But there's another element that keeps you on your toes: ambush cards that put monsters on your map.

Ambush cards are "bad shapes" that get added to your map. You have to neutralize them by surrounding them with terrain. If you don't, you'll lose points every season.

Mixed into the explore cards are ambush cards, and when an ambush card is flipped over, players pass their sheets to their neighbors, who then add the indicated monster shape anywhere they like on the map. Then, all sheets are returned to their respective owners.

These monster shapes are minor nuisances that can be neutralized by filling in their surrounding terrain spaces. But they will cost you points if you ignore them, so it's another factor to consider when placing your terrains.

And did I mention that the seasons get shorter? Whereas both Spring and Summer average about 8 explore cards each, Autumn averages about 7 cards and Winter averages about 6 cards. Fewer cards means fewer shapes to place that season, which means fewer opportunities to finish your terrains.

Each season ends when the explore card values add up to the season's limit. For Spring, the season's limit is when explore cards sum up to 8 or more.

With each season, the game feels like it speeds up, ratcheting up the tension as you scramble to complete the scoring cards you've been putting off, hoping that the right terrains show up in the remaining explore cards.

Cartographers lures you in with such a gentle start. You feel like you have all the time in the world to work out your strategy. You think you have more than enough moves remaining to accomplish your plans... but no, it's never enough. The end of Winter sneaks up and yanks the rug out from under you.

And before you know it, you're tallying up your overall score and comparing how you did with everyone else.

In Cartographers, everyone faces the same exact order of explore cards from start to finish, yet people will start diverging from the very first flip. By the end, everyone's maps will look totally different and score totally different.

Now, despite all of the above, Cartographers is actually a relaxing game.

In between these turn-to-turn decisions, you're really just filling in squares and watching your map unfold before your eyes. The act of drawing in the terrain—and even coloring them in, if you're using colored pencils or markers—makes for such a nice moment, a breather that keeps the mood calm.

You don't have to have art skills to enjoy Cartographers. You don't even have to be all that creative! If you want to, you can play it straight as nothing more than a spatial puzzle game and it will be perfectly fun. Even so, seeing your map at the end, even if you've lost? So satisfying.

The Repeat Experience

Cartographers is a polyomino spatial puzzle game, but it stands out because it's not like most polyomino spatial puzzle games.

Whereas most games in this genre focus on filling up the board, Cartographers is more interested in how you organize your shapes within the board. In fact, you can't even fill everything up because the game ends long before you have enough shapes to do that.

Meaning, it's a different kind of spatial puzzle. Instead of trying to pack all of your luggage into a suitcase with zero leftover space, it's more like shifting your furniture around to maximize the feng shui of your living room. You're working within the space and putting terrains in the right spots in relation to each other.

Example of a finished map. Notice there's still a lot of empty space! Because of an early ambush and the scoring cards in this game, I ended up clumping near the top right.

So, while other polyomino games feel like direct problem solving in pursuit of "the right answer," Cartographers feels more like a creative exercise. There is no right answer—or at least it never quite feels like there is—so it's up to you to lay out your terrains however you want.

This leniency and freedom in Cartographers is what makes it so easy to take out and explore all over again. (Even if you somehow box yourself into a corner such that you can't place a certain shape, the game still allows you to fill any single space with a terrain of your choice. You always make progress.)

Cartographers also has variable setup, which certainly helps with replayability but it isn't the main reason for its replayability.

If you were to play two games of Cartographers using the same exact scoring cards with the same exact explore cards coming out in the same exact order both times, you'd probably end up with vastly dissimilar maps.

There are 16 total scoring cards (4 of each type) but you only use 4 of them per game. By mixing them up every time, Cartographers offers a good amount of replayability.

Why? Again, it goes back to the idea of creative freedom to experiment and play around within the ample amount of room within the map.

The scoring cards are designed so well, with most points coming from how you position certain terrains around other terrains. You don't always know if an early terrain placement is good or bad until several turns later when you're trying to play future terrains around it. You're essentially setting up your own scoring possibilities, and that's what keeps each play feeling fresh.

That said, the variable setup (with randomly chosen scoring cards randomly assigned to each season) is good and makes it even more replayable.

But to be completely honest, I don't even care about the points in Cartographers. I mean, yes, I'm playing to maximize points and trying to optimize my terrains, but there's a real sense in which I'm not actually doing that.

Because, simply put, the act of drawing on the map is fun.

A bunch of my past games. Cartographers is definitely best when you're using colored markers.

Once I decide where a particular shape needs to go—which is an engaging process, to be sure—I only care about one thing: drawing it in, doodling some details, and maybe even coloring. It's almost Zen-like for me.

No other board game gives me this blend of spatial challenge, creative problem solving, and meditative relaxation. That's why I keep returning to it.

The Solo Experience

Cartographers is a fantastic solo game.

The overall gameplay is 99% the same without any special exceptions or major changes to the core rules that you constantly have to keep in mind. The one gameplay difference in solo mode is how the ambush cards are resolved.

Normally, the monster shapes from ambush cards are placed on your map by one of your neighbors. In solo mode, the placement is determined by a very simple logic that's easy to remember once you grasp it:

When an ambush card is revealed, examine the grid in the upper right corner of the card to see which corner of the map is shown.

On your map sheet, starting in the corner indicated by the ambush card, and proceeding along the edges of the map in the direction indicated by the arrow, attempt to legally draw the monster shape without flipping or rotating it.

If you cannot legally draw the monster shape anywhere along the edge of the map, move one space in from the edge and attempt it again, starting in the same corner and proceeding in the same direction.

Repeat this process, moving one space further in from the edge of the map each time, until you are able to legally draw the monster shape or confirm that it cannot be legally drawn. If the shape cannot be legally drawn, disregard the ambush card.

The Cartographers rulebook (p. 12)

It's a lot of words to describe the logic, but it's actually quite simple in practice and an elegant way to handle what could've otherwise been convoluted.

The one other change in solo mode involves your final score. You still tally up every season as you normally would, but each scoring card also has a difficulty rating that gets subtracted from your total score. This final score indicates how well you played against the four scoring cards used in that game.

Is there anything innovative about all of this? Not really. But Cartographers isn't the game to play if you're looking for innovation. This mode meshes well with the score chase of the core gameplay without losing its relaxing edge, and that's why it's one of my favorite one-player games when I just want to turn my brain off.

Art and Components

Cartographers packs a lot of game into not a lot of components. With a single sheet of paper (that's double-sided for minimal waste!) and just 41 cards, you get a fully satisfying game experience with plenty of replayability.

The play sheets are cleanly designed, not just in the actual play area but with all the helpful bits: the scoring boxes for each season, the gold tracker, and the fun ways to customize each play (naming your map and drawing a family crest).

My only complaint is that the map can be slightly difficult to parse at a glance if you aren't using colors, particularly late in the game when the various terrains are clashing against each other. Is it game-breaking? Far from it! But you can't deny that the experience is oh-so-much-better with color involved.

The cards are durable and aesthetically pleasing, with graphic design that's intuitive and never gets in the way. It all just makes sense and keeps the game moving, and the scoring cards in particular have both written and visual explanations that leave no room for confusion.

While the theme is generic and forgettable, I don't think it matters here. The card designs are enough to set the mood, and that's all it really needs.

Setup and Table Footprint

Cartographers takes about three minutes to set up.

About half of that time is spent shuffling the explore cards and making sure the first ambush card is mixed in. The other half of the time is spent picking out the scoring cards (whether randomly or not) and arranging everything.

Fortunately, there isn't much to arrange because the table footprint of Cartographers is pretty small.

Table footprint overview for Cartographers. If you play with the map sheets in your lap (using a clipboard or some other hard surface), it can take up even less space.

Most of the space is taken up by the scoring cards and their respective A-B-C-D cards, which aren't really necessary (if you just remember that the scoring cards are A, B, C, and D, respectively). If you want, you can stack the scoring cards on top of the A-B-C-D cards to conserve space.

Other than that, you just have the stack of season cards, stack of ambush cards, stack of explore cards, plus the line of explore cards that have already been played during the current season.

Cartographers is small enough to play on a tiny table (as long as the sheets are played in your individual laps, possibly on clipboards or laptop trays).

The Bottom Line


Recommended Score Guide
  1. Engaging polyomino spatial puzzle
  2. Different scoring card combinations make each play feel new
  3. Easy to learn even for non-gamers
  4. Calm and relaxing, can almost feel meditative
  5. A little bit of player interaction but it never feels mean
  6. Solo mode is elegant
  1. Overall, it's a multiplayer solitaire experience
  2. Best played using colored pencils or markers (not included)

If you're looking for a game that's mentally engaging in a creative, puzzly sort of way but also relaxing, satisfying, and not at all stressful, I've yet to play a game that fits better than Cartographers.

It's easy to learn, accessible to non-gamers, and packs a lot of replayability into a small box with not many cards at all. It's a go-to pick for me when I'm too tired or burned out from work to think hard. The physical act of drawing on a sheet has a real therapeutic effect that helps me unwind and destress.

What can I say? If any of the above sounds appealing to you, I highly recommend Cartographers. My only regret is waiting so long to finally play it!

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