What is this game about?
Cartographers, designed by Jordy Adan and published by Thunderworks Games, is a roll and write set in the Roll Player universe. In Cartographers, you are trying to earn a good reputation and win the respect of Queen Gimnax by mapping territory... and finding specific terrain types and layouts that are of interest to her. Each player gets a blank map, and all players share the same information: four "decree cards" that clarify what the Queen's priorities are, plus shared exploration cards that give players shapes and terrain types (forest, water, farmland, etc.) to place on their maps.
In Cartographers, you can place your land anywhere on the map and in any orientation... but if you aren't careful, you can end up stuck later in the game. Rather than have dead turns, however, players who are unable to place terrain may instead draw in a 1x1 square of any terrain type. Some cards also allow you choose between differing terrain shapes and to potentially earn coins. Coins contribute to your reputation, and play a bigger role in the Cartographers mini-expansion, which allows you to spend coins to take special in-game actions.
To add spice to the game, the criteria that are scored at the end of each turn rotate with the seasons, which means that player priorities will shift throughout the game. So while decree cards A and B are important in the Spring, C and D are scored in the Fall—part of the game is balancing your current opportunities while also thinking ahead about future scoring rounds.
The last fun twist in Cartographers is addition of ambush cards. Every round, an ambush card is shuffled into the deck, and when you draw one, players pass their maps to their neighbors. Then your opponents get to choose the placement of the ambush—brutal. Not only can ambushes mess up your plans, but empty spaces adjacent to monsters in each scoring round will cost you points.
How does it play solo?
Cartographers is mostly a non-interactive game, so solo is played and scored in essentially the same way as the multiplayer game. The only major exception is the placement of monsters when drawing ambush cards. Each ambush card will indicate a corner of your map, and in solo play, you begin in that corner and move around the edge of your map until you find a legal placement for the monster terrain.
The other fun touch for solo play is that while in the multiplayer game players choose their own names and titles, in solo, the Queen will assign you a title at the end of the game—and it gets more insulting when you do a bad job! On the bottom right of each decree card is a number. At the end of the game, you calculate your total number of reputation stars, then tally up the numbers on the decree cards and subtract the total from your score. The difference between the numbers is your rating, and your rating will determine your title. I particularly like this touch, as some scoring conditions are more challenging than others and this method provides a way to see how well you actually did, especially when scoring conditions can differ drastically. When playing against others, you just compete against each other, but in solo it is very nice to have a way to gauge your play without that feedback.
I really like Cartographers, and it is definitely one of my top five roll and write games at this point. It's puzzly, engaging, and different enough between plays to keep things interesting. I appreciate that there are no dead turns (you can always place a 1x1 square), and I also like that in solo there is a way to determine how well you did even when scoring conditions vary so much from game to game. Cartographers is well thought out, and it plays smoothly. After several games, I am still happy to take it off the shelf. In fact, although I have an advance prototype now, just pre-ordered a "real" copy—and I plan to laminate some of the sheets, because this game is going to hit the table.
I do have very minor quibbles with the ambush cards in solo, just because the AI can't be as mean to you as your friends will be. However, it works, and monsters are still a huge pain in the rear. Also, like all roll and writes, Cartographers is luck driven—so if that's not your thing, consider yourself warned that sometimes you just won't get the cards you need when you need them.
Do I recommend it?
Yes. If you like roll and write games, Cartographers is a must-try. It's thematically interesting, puzzly, and challenging in all the right ways. Its solo mode is also satisfying, especially because it gives you actual feedback on how well you did!
Overall Rating: 4.5 stars
5 stars — I love it!
4 stars — I really like it.
3 stars — I like it.
2 stars — It's okay.
1 star — Meh.