Theodolite Not Included
If you’re anything like me, your attitude toward the roll-and-write genre has charted a course from, “Oh, this is neat, and we can all play at the same time!” to “Hm, is this a way of tricking me into showing my work on my seventh-grade algebra homework?” to “Okay, that’s enough of these things.” At first I wondered how long a pad of 100 sheets could possibly last. What a fool I was to think it would stop there.
That said, Cartographers may be the first R&W since Welcome To that hasn’t driven me to mindless groaning.
As you can already tell from the above picture, Cartographers takes a page from the book of Alexey Pajitnov, the inventor of Tetris better known for first recognizing that human beings have a lobe in their brain that’s totally gaga for fitting polyominoes together. Jump forward three and a half decades and designer Jordy Adan has cast everybody as cartographers (surprise!) trying to assemble a fantasy kingdom from little chunks of forests, towns, waterways, and farmlands. Yes, it’s nonsense. If mapmaking worked like this, we’d all live in a boxy paradise with right angles demarcating where our village meets the forest.
Set that aside, however, because Cartographers manages to tap into our primal need to put things into their proper order, and it succeeds courtesy of three wrinkles that prevent the game from narrowing into a single optimal path. In other words, you’ll be doing a lot of solving, but it’s not likely that you’ll solve Cartographers.
There are two things right in front of you at the outset of every play: goals and the current season. Unsurprisingly, these are the first of our wrinkles.
Let’s start with the season, because it provides the framework around which everything else is suspended. Each season revolves around two things: how long it will last — eight “time” for spring and summer, a little less in autumn and winter — and which two of the game’s four objectives you’ll be pursuing. Every round involves flipping a card. This consumes some amount of time and displays which shape and terrain you’ll be placing.
This has two immediate effects. Firstly, you’re never entirely sure how long a season will actually last. A single card can consume as much as a third of your season or nothing at all, forcing you to consider competing possibilities; namely, either that you won’t have many shapes to work with or that you’ll have a whole bunch to cram into your map. The shapes themselves are the second thing. Sometimes you’re given a choice of shape or terrain, but the reality is that at some point you’ll need to make a tradeoff and wedge something into an inopportune corner. The only reassurance is that everybody else is facing the same conundrum. Or at least that you all started out with the same map and sequence of cards.
It’s both a help and a hindrance that your blank map is full of possibilities. There are mountain spaces that block your terrain — but when built around on all sides, provide a “coin” that awards a point every round. Naturally, this encourages you to build around mountains as early as possible. But they’re spaced apart, and often not as ideal as carefully slotting everything into a corner, much like preparing to drop a line to form a Tetris. Meanwhile, ruins are doubly loaded, similarly prohibitive unless you draw a special card that forces you to lay your next terrain atop a ruin square. The moments of their appearance are either precious or galling.
Of course, the map alone wouldn’t matter much without goals. That’s the second wrinkle. Every game features four, which rotate according to seasons. In spring you’ll be chasing A and B, summer B and C, all the way around to winter’s D and A. The real trick is that they’re sorted according to four categories, guaranteeing that everything will matter at some point. There will never be a game where forests don’t rate, or cities, or certain arrangements of filled and empty space. And although they take a moment to parse — and contain at least one very unfortunate graphic design error — they allow for a nice tension between chasing goals now or preparing big sweeps for later on. Sometimes both at once, based on the terrain trickling from the season deck.
Perhaps the best thing about these goals is that they’re tangible in a way that roll-and-write games often miss. You’re still doing sums and figuring out which tile will pull the most points, but it’s applied math. Tucking forests away at the border, or establishing two huge cities, or terraforming tons of isolated farms and bodies of water. Their intersection is what gives each puzzle its flavor. One of those goals alone is fine and dandy; but also trying to create diagonal stripes across the map? Now that’s interesting.
The final wrinkle is the possibility of player conflict. I know, I know; how does a roll-and-write do that? Cartographers has an answer that’s uproarious, both because it’s laugh-out-loud funny and sometimes infuriating. Whenever you draw a monster card, you pass your pad to the next player, and they get to scratch a toxic polyomino onto your pad. These can be mitigated by building around them, but otherwise every empty space adjacent to your new goblin pals will subtract points.
This may prove divisive, and wimps can leave them out of their deck entirely. But in practice these monster tiles are essential. With a keen eye you can see where your opponent is planning to complete a region or leave a quadrant untouched — and then despoil it, even while somebody else despoils your own precious ambitions. Goals give you something to strive toward, but monsters give you something to mitigate. And although I wouldn’t call it meaningful player interaction, in that everyone pretty much plops them into obvious spots rather than really doing anything proactive, they still provide one more crucial decision, a balance between picking up new points or erasing negative ones.
Is Cartographers a perfect flip-and-write game? Oh, I don’t know. It’s good, that much is certain, but it still suffers somewhat from the limitations of the genre, with the added caveat that you’re waiting for your resident artist to put the finishing touches on their Mirkwood. Part of me wonders if we’re waiting for this genre to get past its boom and move into its honing stage, with a shift in emphasis from quantity to quality.
Or maybe I’m just being a curmudgeon. If I’m going to play one of these games, I want it to be contain meaningful tradeoffs, minor gambles, and visual impact. For now, Cartographers fits the bill better than any other roll-and-write-alike I’ve played thus far.
A complimentary copy was provided.