Cartographers, released in 2019 by Thunderworks Games, is a highly acclaimed game with a seal of excellence from Dice Tower, a best new designer nominee from the 13th annual Dice Tower awards, a Golden Geek nominee, a Flip and Write game of the Year award from Tantrum House, and a Brawlers Choice award. While this game has been out for a few years, it feels fresh and new every time I play.
Cartographers is a straightforward draft and draw game for 1 to 100 players, provided all players can see the drawn cards. Without an overhead projector or similar technology, however, a more reasonable upper limit is 12. The game is well supported with a number of available alternate maps, which also functionally serve as expansions.
Players are tasked by Queen Gimnax to map her new lands. Complicating matters are the pesky bands of brigands also exploring and trying to claim territory, ruins needing to be accounted for, and time itself in the form of 4 seasons. In group sessions, players tally their ending points, and the highest score wins. In solo play, each of the queen's mandates has a silver star representing the minimum number of points necessary to meet the queen's expectations, and the player must score higher than all 4 mandates' star values combined.
While this is not a rules guide, the average turn has a player draw the first card from the draw deck and play it face up. Unless this is a bandit [bugbear, goblin, etc] or a ruins, the card will either have 2 colors or 2 shapes. Each player chooses a color/shape and draws this, ideally to maximize the points they can earn for the season. If enough of the time icons have appeared to signal the changing of the season, a bandit is added to the draw deck, the next mandate pair is focused on, and a new card is drawn for the new season. Each season will see between 3 and 8 cards drawn, with about 2 minutes needed for each card's shape to be selected and drawn on each cartographer's map. Games tend to last between 30 minutes and an hour, depending on the mood at the table.
I incorporate Cartographers into my evening watercolor meditation routine. While there is an element of "take that" when playing with friends in the form of encountering brigands, direct contribution occurs rarely in the game, which makes the gameplay ideal for meditation. It's easy to focus on the people you're playing with and their conversations instead of on the metrics of the game, and I kind of like that. The competition itself comes in only at the final counting, and briefly if a bandit is drawn. Otherwise, it's a meditative solo practice that can be shared. As such, I most enjoy this game when played by myself while watching Twitch streamers on the computer or while my love is cooking dinner and we're chatting about our daily adventures.
The art on the cards has a somewhat dreamlike feel, as though one is looking through someone else's eyes at a snapshot of their world. It tends to focus color on the matching colors that would be drawn on the map, so a pure green with two shapes would be very green. While a green red option with one shape would tend to have imagery that is green and red. The maps themselves on which the play occurs are very straightforward in a way that would normally be too simple for my tastes, but the flow of the game is greatly benefited by the simplistic design. Because the map design is so simple and almost empty, in group play, emphasis is given to the persons sitting around the table. In solo play, filling in the map and playing the game feels very similar to drawing a mandala. The mathematical puzzle and tile placement elements of drawing where shapes and colors should go feeds a part of me that craves challenge while the simple and elegant beauty of the cards and the open possibilities of a freshly started map really do appeal to me. It's easy to let go of all the worries I've been carrying throughout the day when I sit down and play Cartographers.
The game comes with four pencils of sturdy make and with decent white erasers, but I prefer to play this game with colored pencils, watercolor, or other more vibrant mediums.
This is a game for a quiet evening after a busy day. This is a game for folks who, at the moment that they are playing, are overjoyed to be in the presence of their fellow humans, and enjoy solving puzzles during parallel play. This is a game for whenever life feels stressful and sitting quietly is too big an ass, but meditation of some sort will absolutely help. I don't recommend this game for high energy parties, and I don't know that it's a great icebreaker game. It's a little too slow for people who are brand new to gaming to really understand why this game is so special, but for folks who want to sit and quietly engage their minds and each other, this game absolutely hits that balance.
I give this game a glowing Northern Star and a golden Compass Rose.
Cartographers is available now from our webstore.