Roll-and-write games, as well as their cousin the flip-and-write, have always been popular for their relative simplicity, flexibility, and ability to adapt to any size of game as well as solo play). But they’ve gotten even more popular during COVID, when those same properties made them perfect for socially distanced and digital play. I’ve always struggled with the genre, mostly because I’m a little turned off by the lack of player interaction in most games. But Cartographers Heroes, which debuted on Kickstarter today, has some interesting mechanics that help it stand out from the pack, the kinds of mechanics that helped Cartographers clean up in multiple award competitions last year. I was lucky enough to be sent a preview copy by the games publisher Thunderworks Games, and was able to get hands on with the new game.
What’s In The Box?
As with most games in the genre, the components for the game are minimal, but those that are included are of extremely high quality. The centerpiece is obviously the map, on which each player makes all of their decisions and plays. They give you a lot of them (which is good), but they’re all double sided as well. One side is fairly standard, but the other side of each map is the “Wastelands” map that adds extra obstacles to the game. The new expansions add even more variations, with Nebblis- Plane of Flame (the one I reviewed) adding volcanoes, Affril- Plane of Knowledge changing the map entirely to focus on islands, and Undercity- Depths of Sabek adding above and below ground sections. They definitely capture the “fantasy map” aesthetic, with the chance to draw your own coat of arms at the top being a nice little touch.
The cards that represent the different parts of the map, as well as things like the seasons that delineate the phases of the game, are all beautifully illustrated and easy to read. The game uses a fairly simply system of symbols and minimal wording so it’s pretty easy to learn the game and get into it. The use of shapes and lines also help to make it a little more color-blind friendly. The art for the special cards like Ambushes is even more impressive, capturing a truly epic feeling that makes what could be a visually basic game something special.
How’s It Play?
The game is a fairly standard “flip and write,” where players must fit shapes onto their grid dictated by what Explore cards are drawn each round. Some of these shapes are fairly simple (think tetrominoes), but some are very wonky. Players will also sometimes have to decide what kind of terrain the shape is, and all of that is dictated by the “Queen’s Edicts.” These cards show what different combinations of shapes and terrain are needed to score the most points, with different “edicts” scoring depending on the season. You can’t go in on one card, for instance, because you’ll only get points for that card twice during the course of the game. There are a lot of score cards and explore cards, more than you’ll see in one game, so you can replay the game quite a bit. All of the components in Heroes as well as its expansions can be mixed in with the base Cartographers game to create even more chaos.
Certain other aspects of the game dictate your choices as well. Coins, which score you points every turn, are earned by using more challenging (usually smaller) shapes as well as surrounding the mountains that obstruct your shapes. Heroes, of which there are four in the base game, fill one space up but also can defend against monsters that also show up as ambushes in the Explore cards.
Those monsters, by the way, are one of the coolest things in the game. They make you pass your map to another player and then that player gets to put a a big points-gobbling beastie on your map and ruin your carefully laid plans. As I may have mentioned, one of my biggest problems with games like this is the lack of player interaction, so this mechanic went a long way towards making me love this game more. Plus, Heroes gives the monsters special abilities that add more variance to the game.
A Note On Expansions And Solo Play
The Map Pack expansion I received, Nebblis, contains brand new maps that add a hot (get it) new volcanic element to your map making. Not only are the layouts different, but the Volcano cards that get added to the Explore deck are even more annoying than Monsters. Erupting in a certain pattern, the lava destroys and fills those spaces so they’re completely unusable to you. And they keep expanding. It’s not a challenge to the point where it becomes unplayable, but it definitely feels like a step up in difficulty. I also received the “Skills Mini-Expansion,” which adds in a set of new cards that can be bought and used to change the way the game is played. They’re not game-changers unless used correctly, but they’re yet another nice bit of competition as well as another use for coins beyond easy victory points.
I also gave this game a few tries solo, and had quite a lot of fun! Without the competition, it becomes a much more laid back puzzle game, as ambushes are a tad less chaotic and you’re not trying to beat other people’s scores. I think that in some ways it was harder, as you’re not comparing yourself to anyone and can thus make some mistakes. It also was a faster playtime, and you could easily knock out a game in about 20 minutes if you needed to. Or you can just work it at while you watch TV or a movie, almost like a crossword. It’s pretty versatile.
I think Cartographers Heroes has a lot of things that people are going to like. It’s a great introduction to the genre thanks to its fairly simple rules and accessible design, but it has lots of little things that will get experienced players excited. The ability to combine with the original Cartographers also means it’s a great boon to fans of the old game who want to get some more juice out of it. While it doesn’t solve all of the issues that some might have with roll/flip-and-writes, it does include interesting mechanics that even hesitant people (like me) can appreciate.
You can find out more at the game’s Kickstarter, where the base game and Skills Mini-Expansion will run you $22 (not including stretch goals). Add-ons include the new expansions as well as the original Cartographers and it’s various mini-expansions and cards. Or, for $90, you can get the whole lot in a big, shiny Collector’s Edition!
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Images and review copy thanks to Thunderworks Games