Accessibility TL;DR. Cartographers is accessible to colorblind players. Low vision gamers might struggle with font size and style of the scoring cards, but only four are used each game and they do not change through the course of a single play session.
Introduction and Gameplay
Cartographers is currently at the very top of my “Verb-and-Write” favorites list, among such standouts as Super-Skill Pinball, Rolling Realms, and Aquamarine. Designed by Jordy Adan and published by Thunderworks Games, it plays 1-100+ in 30 to 45 minutes.
Cartographers includes several point-scoring “decrees,” two of which are active to score each season (round). Players flip cads to reveal the polyomino shape(s) and type(s) (Forest, Village, Farm, Water) they can choose to add to their map. Also in the deck are Ambush cards with monsters that can disrupt each player’s scoring strategy.
Heroes Expansion. Cartographers Heroes is a stand-alone expansion that bring more of the same, adding new Ambush (monster) cards with additional features, and introducing heroes who can vanquish those monsters.
Solo Mode. Playing Cartographers solo changes one element and adds another. Ambush (monster) cards are semi-randomly added to the map (versus being added by opponents in multiplayer). At the end of the game a solo player adds up their score, then they subtract the “value” of each scoring card that is indicated at the bottom-right (similar to the Button Shy -Opolis series of games) to determine a solo score and an official title that can range from Oblivious Inkdrinker to Legendary Cartographer. I have proudly achieved each and every title available.
Base Game Ratings
It is rare that I post number ratings of games on this site, focusing instead on the visual accessibility elements. Given my love for this game, I wanted to share a little more in this review. Following are my ratings of the base games (Cartographers and Cartographers Heroes), and later in the article I review and rate each of the six map packs. I’m using the Board Game Geek rating system and definitions (e.g., 7=good game, usually willing to play) for my 1-10 score.
Focused primarily on solo play, I like the original Cartographers (Rating: 9.5) a little more than Cartographers Heroes (Rating: 8.5). The Ambush cards are less impactful than in multiplayer games, making Heroes less useful. And the new Ambush monsters have not been as interesting for me during solo gameplay, though I do enjoy the theming: Dragons, Trolls, Gorgons, and Zombies.
Like many roll-and-write and filp-and-write games, Cartographers is generally quite accessible for colorblind players. All colors are double-coded with symbols, and I choose to complete my game sheets with a single pencil or pen. One exception is the color printing of Map Pack 6, which I found too dark to be nearly unreadable (more on that later).
My primary visual concern is the size and font used for the scoring condition cards. As illustrated below, this important information is in VERY SMALL ALL CAPS ITALICS that I found difficult to read, and all numbers are spelled out in words instead of numerals.
Map Pack Reviews
The variability of scoring combinations is so high that replayability is amazing. I’ve played dozens of games at this point, and I’ve never played an identical game setup twice. Beyond that, Thunderworks Games has released 6 Map Packs that introduce new game elements, maps, scoring conditions, heroes, and/or monsters that change the game just enough to make it even more interesting.
I thought it would be fun to play each Map pack sequentially (I was right). I played maps 1-6 with Cartographers rules, and then again using the Heroes base card set. This still did not allow me to experience 100% of the map pack content (e.g., some include 3 scoring cards and instruct using one per game), but it provided a solid base for my own solo-focused ratings.
Following is my personal review of each of the 6 map packs available at the end of 2022.
Nebblis: Plane of flame
Nebblis: Plane of Flame introduces a volcano to the map and adds 3 volcano cards that requires lava-like destruction of spaces adjacent to the volcano or to other lava-destroyed spaced on the map. Different than Ambush or Heroes cards, the volcano cards stay in the deck for the entirety of the game, which can result in a lotta lava.
I’ve learned that I like verb-and-write expansions that cause a little more pain. On my first play there were not too many volcano cards, so the impact of the new board was minimal. But more showed up with I added Nebblis to the Heroes content, which added new and interesting choices. I also discovered during this play (probably my 50th or more) that I’d been playing Ambush cards wrong for years – cycling them back through the deck every season instead of putting each aside after it is drawn the first time.1 Rating: 7
Affril: Plane of Knowledge
I love the publisher’s thematic description of Affril: Plane of Knowledge:
When a rift opened and strange creatures rode through on their bat-like steeds, you knew you’d only have one chance to map this plane. You leapt through, finding yourself standing on a network of purplestone archways, rising from a vast, gray sea.
I found the separate islands to be a fantastic twist to the standard maps. Affril also introduces another use for coins. Instead of only being points each round, on this map coins could instead be spent to open up the portals to other islands.
There is some dependence on the scoring cards for this map to be at its best. Since the map design is so different than the others, a few scoring conditions might be too simple or nearly impossible. Overall, this is an awesome map pack I’d recommend to anyone who plays Cartographers. Rating: 9
Undercity: Depths of Sabek
Undercity provides a minor change to the base game – an above-and-below-style map that limits each shape’s placement either above or below ground. It also requires every new shape to path back to the original gate. This map didn’t add much for me. I can take it or leave it, and I’d rather play the other options, including the base Cartographers and Heroes maps. Rating: 5
Frozen Expanse: Realm of Frost Giants
Queen Gimnax sent you to this cursed place with the fruits of a past expedition: the torn scraps of a map, partially finished by another cartographer who did not survive the journey.
Frozen Expanse adds “Scouted Spaces” that can only be filled with certain types (indicated by faded marks of one terrain type). This tightens up the choices, and then rewards players for successful use of those special locations. The Frozen Expanse maps also add large frozen lakes that offer multiple coins when surrounded. Custom Ambush and Hero cards round out the new elements.
I like this map a lot – particularly the placement limitations. In my first game the new Ambush card didn’t come up, but my second play included new Ambush and Hero cards, which were fun. The new rules are easy to remember, and I like how Frozen Expanse increases the weight just a little. Rating: 8
Kethra’s Steppe: Redtooth & Goldbelly
Kethra’s Steppe adds two beacons to the map and a fifth beacon-focused scoring card that provides high-risk, high-reward opportunities for big points.
Like most map packs, Kethra’s Steppe has a different map on each side: K1 (shows in the picture above) and K2. I found K2 particularly challenging due to the placement of the wastelands, which are spaces that cannot be used for scoring. I loved everything about this map, particularly the addition of a new scoring opportunity. Rating: 9
Hornhelm: Wasteland Market
The new element of Hornhelm is the market. From the publisher: Of particular interest to you are the merchants selling specialized gear that can increase the speed of your labour and the accuracy of your maps. Improve your tradecraft by equipping yourself with items from the wasteland market.
This time the back side of the map is a market of 9 items, and the pack included a deck of merchant cards that open up the ability to purchase skills during the game. Some of these skills add ____ in a journal, and these ____ result in bonus points at the end of the game.
Accessibility Assessment. This might’ve been just my copy, but the colors on the back of the map sheets (the market items) were very dark, did not match the card colors for the same icons, and as such were difficult for me to read. I was able to zoom in with my phone, then add my own supplemental markings for clarity.
I liked the idea of the market but found most of the skills themselves lackluster. Since the market didn’t open until Summer (the second of four rounds), just 3 of the 9 skills were available each round, and only one item could be purchased each round, the market wasn’t as impactful as I wanted it to be. Rating: 6
Cartographers Map Generator
But Wait, There’s More! Along with the 15 different maps in the published versions of Cartographers, Cartographers: Heroes, and the six map packs, Cartographers Map Generator allows users to input the number of mountains, ruins, and wastelands to generate a randomized map to print and/or share with friends.
Accessibility. Cartographers is accessible to colorblind players. Low vision gamers might struggle a little with font size and style of the scoring cards, but in each game these only need to be read and understood once. The Hornhelm Map Pack might includes some hard-to-distinguish colors on the market sheets.
Favorite Map Pack. This was a tough one, as I enjoy most of the map packs and truly love two of them. For newer players I would recommend Affril as an good map pack and first expansion to Cartographers. After playing through all of them several times now, my favorite map is Kethra’s Steppe based on its addition of beacons and new scoring opportunities.
Cartographers, Cartographers Heroes, and all six map packs are available everywhere games are sold.
Image Credits: Box art images: Thunderworks Games. All others: Brian Chandler
1 I think this accidental Ambush variant offers an interesting challenge, at least in solo mode since Ambush placement is semi-random (it would be too brutal in multiplayer, I imagine). I encourage solo players to give it a try and let me know what you think!