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Cartographers: A Roll Player Tale (2019) — Solo Review

Designer: Jordy Adan
Artist: Luis Francisco & Lucas Ribeiro
Publisher: Thunderworks Games
Player Count: 1+ Players
Play Time: 30 to 45 minutes

Grab your colored pencils! In this review of Cartographers, I touch upon gameplay mechanics, replay value (here I am writing about a five year old game), the nuance between map-making and map-drawing, and muse on why this has become a standard for the genre.

board game box cartographers jordy adan a roll players tale
Cartographers box cover and components

Cartographers is a flip-and-draw game loosely based on the universe of the strategy game Roll Player—hence the subtitle “A Roll Player Tale”—also by Thunderworks Games. While thematic elements and artistic production tie the two games together, Cartographers stands on its own, requiring no prior experience with Roll Player.

The player is a mapmaker in the service of Queen Gymnax, sent to chart the unexplored northern wilderness lands. Over four rounds, or seasons, the player sketches a map of these lands based on the randomized draw of a card from the explore deck, determining which polyomino shape and terrain they must draw that turn. At the end of each season, the player scores points by completing objectives related to the arrangement of terrain types on their map.


Each turn the player flips the top card of the explore deck, revealing a card featuring a terrain type and polyomino shape they must draw somewhere on to their 11 by 11 map sheet. As long as the shape does not overlap with an existing feature, the player is free to flip, turn, and rotate the polyomino to make it best fit before they draw. Certain explore cards offer a choice between two shapes or terrain types.

Cartographers game components, cup of espresso, and colored pencils on a green playmat surface.
Sample solo game set up

There are four primary terrain types the player will encounter: forests, villages, farms, and water. Mountains, and sometimes wasteland terrains, however are already fixed features on the map. And beware of ambush cards lurking in the explore deck; these introduce monster terrain that can disrupt the player’s cartographic plans, and detract points from their score. Each season lasts until the total value of flipped cards exceeds the time threshold of the current season, at which point the season ends and the player scores points for the objectives they have fulfilled that season.

Every game of Cartographers features four competing objectives that the player must attend to when designing their polyomino puzzle. One objective always pertains to farm and water tiles, another to forest tiles, the third to village tiles, and the final objective examines the overall arrangement of all filled-in tiles on the map. Before the game, the player randomly selects one objective of each type and assigns it to a slot (A through D) in the edict. Only two of the four objectives will be scored each season—objectives A and B in Spring, B and C in Summer, and so forth. This grouping of objectives paces the game and provides some depth to the puzzle.

20 game cards arranged in column s by type cartographers board game
Edict cards and objective cards arranged by type

Solo Variant Changes and Scoring

After completing the Winter season, the player calculates their points by totaling their scores from all four rounds and then deducting the number found in the lower corner of each objective card. These numbers represent the points the player should feasibly score from that objective throughout the game. Scoring higher on a particular objective will net the player points while underperforming on an objective will sink their score. This means that gameplay difficulty may feel different from game to game depending on the overall challenge rating of the objectives.

This scoring method resembles that of the puzzle game Sprawlopolis, for those familiar with it, which also features variable objectives from game to game. The final tally represents the player’s score, which can then be cross-referenced with the score table in the rulebook to determine their rank, ranging from Oblivious Inkdrinker to Legendary Cartographer. Scoring in a solo game of Cartographers differs from multiplayer gameplay, where all players' scores are compared to determine the winner.

The only other change for solo play removes the gotcha element of ambush cards. When an ambush card is revealed in a multiplayer game, all players pass their sheets to their neighbor, who then gets to choose the location on the map sheet where the ambush takes place. Solo play uses a simple flowchart to determine the location on the map affected by monster terrain. If there’s no legal place to draw it, the ambush is simply ignored, making ambushes feel significantly less potent in solo play.

four purple game cards
The four ambush cards that are added to the explore deck before each Season

Mapmaking or Map Design?

Upon first glance, Cartographers may seem like a condensed journey into the universe envisioned in Thunderworks Games’ Roll Player, especially with its subtitle, "A Roll Player Tale." The cover art featuring an aged mapmaker gazing over a pastel-hued countryside evokes a feeling of grand discovery. Players might find themselves wondering which of these vibrant territories they'll explore during gameplay. However, the captivating imagery and apparent inspiration from Roll Player serve only as a thin veneer for the polyomino puzzle that lies beneath.

And I’m not convinced that Cartographers makes me feel like a mapmaker, exploring and charting unknown lands. By revealing the top card of the explore deck at the start of each turn, the player learns the terrain type and shape that they must draw. Then the player picks a spot on their map sheet to sketch that polyomino. These operations seem a bit out of order. Shouldn’t the cartographer choose first the area they are exploring and then explore there, revealing the terrain and landscape shape they must add to their map? How different would the game play if the player had to pick an area on their map to explore and then draw a card to figure out the terrain and shape that must be placed there?

eight game cards labeled with letters A through D to match the season to the objectives that are scored that season.
The four edict cards and the four season cards

The core strategy of Cartographers is in the arrangement of the spatial puzzle on the map sheet. The player has some agency to choose one terrain type or another and one polyomino shape or another on some explore cards, but otherwise, exploration in Cartographers is largely relegated to the automatic draw of a card. Perhaps this is why the gameplay experience feels more like an abstract puzzle game than an exercise in cartography—map design, rather than mapmaking.

This idea of map design is well supported by the components. In particular, I adore the map sheets. The subtle weathering effect on the paper and the thematic legend, title bar, and scale entice the player to lean into their artistic impulses. In other words, the map sheets look really cool and invite the player to treat the act of sketching their terrain polyominoes like an artistic endeavor.

My copy of the game did not include colored pencils like some versions do, but I wasn’t about to miss an opportunity to liven up my map, sketching my water tiles blue, my forest tiles green, and so forth. While some games encourage players to speedrun and take turns as swiftly as possible, Cartographers has the opposite effect. I found myself relishing the opportunity to embellish my map, as a pure ancillary artistic act. And I'm not alone; the <>BoardGameGeek<> page for Cartographers is overflowing with stunning cartographic creations. Crafting a beautiful map is perhaps just as rewarding as scoring well. In this way, solo Cartographers can be either a tricky spatial puzzle or a more casual creative affair.

sheets of paper featuring a grid of colored and unmarked squares arranged into patterns
Completed map sheets from my previous games

A Paragon of the Genre

Cartographers released about five years before the writing of this review. And I’m revisiting this game now for good reason: it’s aged very well. The gameplay is simple and straightforward, and for a puzzle game, it does not conjure up a great deal of analysis paralysis. Even multiplayer, simultaneous turns means that the game goes by quickly, and there’s never downtime where a player couldn’t be reviewing their map or embellishing some creative details.

The objectives structured with a staggered layout also creates a very intelligent puzzle for the player to consider, and results in some distinct variability between games. Since only two objectives are scored each of the four rounds, the player needs to not only find a way to quickly fulfill the immediate turn’s objectives, but must always keep in mind how they will set up the board to score well on later rounds. The best move is always going to change depending on the priority of the objectives. Does the player sketch the terrain shape here to score a few points immediately, or draw it there and push their luck scoring more points later?

eight game cards and other components cartographers
Objectives assigned to different positions in the edict

The resulting scoring system is more or less balanced from game to game, despite some inconsistencies where some objectives score much better than others depending on which position in the edict they occupy, especially in the first round (Spring). For instance, among the objectives that check all filled-in spaces of any terrain type, the Borderlands objective, which scores 6 points for each completely filled-in column or row, is a real challenge to score in the first round compared to, say, Lost Barony, which scores 3 per tile edge of a square of filled in spaces and is usually able to net at least a handful of points after just a few turns. On the other hand, some scoring objectives do not scale as well as others in later seasons. Wildholds scores for each cluster of at least six village spaces, but I have found that it is challenging to score it more than once or twice even if it is in the C or D position on the edict compared to the other village objectives. However, differentiating each objective by a different terrain type that it pertains to helps to prevent game scores from swinging wildly due to the objective placements.

New objective combinations require new strategic approaches to designing the map in each game. And for the solo player, this is a really important replayability factor. This lets the solo player set their own challenges. Instead of just beating their own score game after game, they can try to beat their score on each unique combination of objectives, and with the objectives in different places in the edict.

a sheet of paper decorated to look weathered with an 11 by 11 grid where the player will draw their map
Blank map sheet (front side)

Cartographers: a Game of Choice

The player will never be able to accomplish everything in a game of Cartographers. The accelerating pace of the game and disruptions from ambush cards will foil even the best strategic plans. The game rewards hedging bets and mapping towards each objective a little bit, while being adaptable to the draw of the explore deck. The sequence of cards flipped and the previous cartographic choices the player made both impact the player’s next decision.

Cartographers is a game of choices despite a random card draw determining the next move in the game. Which terrain type to pick. Which polyomino shape to choose? And of course where to draw it on the map. And these choices matter. Just one questionable polyomino placement can wreck a map for scoring purposes. But to some gamers that doesn’t matter. While Cartographers boasts a compelling, if not straightforward, puzzle, the gentle gameplay experience of drafting an attractive map is satisfying enough for some gamers. And that’s why I believe Cartographers has garnered the reputation it has, especially among solo gamers. 

four cards featuring different artworks of landscapes and polyomino shapes
Fishing Village, Rift Lands, Hinterland Stream, and Treetop Village explore cards

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