Review – Cartographers (Digital Edition)

Cartographers (iOS). Brettspielwelt GmbH, 2020. Jordy Adan, Designer. Lucas Ribeiro artist.

Has this ever happened to you? You walk into the game store to pick up a specific game (or three) and there’s that one game: the game that looks interesting enough that you almost buy it, it you’ve already committed your budget for the month. Then, on the next visit, the same game sits there, again, just outside your game budget. It doesn’t even have to be an expensive game…it’s just not what you planned to buy, so once again, you pass it up.

For me, that game is Cartographers.

I know…it’s a very inexpensive, fairly light game that you can solo. But I’ve already spent my money (again) and I’m still not sold on the verb-and-write genre. Still, I like the whole map-making thing, and it looks like a fairly easy game to set up and put away. It calls to me, but I never answer.

That is, until I realized that Cartographers is available on iOS. $20? Just outside my budget. But $4? OK, I’m in.

What’s Going on Here?

The Queen has tasked you, her trusted cartographer to explore the unmapped lands, discovering the features she desires to improve her Kingdom. Every season, you’ll be given a land feature to place on your map, careful to place it strategically to score as many points as possible from the four scoring conditions You’ll earn bonus points for surrounding mountains, and the earlier you score these, the more points they’ll be worth.

But all is not well in these unexplored lands. Occasionally, you’ll run into monsters that will cause you to lose points if you don’t surround them with land features. These monsters represent the tribes and clans that call this undiscovered country their home. They…already live here? And we’re…colonizing their lands? Wait a minute…

There are three game modes: A completely random set up, which is strictly a solo game; a pre-determined map that changes weekly and random cards; and a mode where everything is pre-determined. The pre-determined modes change weekly and feature leaderboards so that you can compete all the random people who are also playing the app.

What’s Good Here?

Like just about every digital implementation of a board game, it’s really nice to be able to open the app and have the game set up already. With Cartographers, I don’t think this is a big of an issue; while I’ve never played the physical version of the game, I don’t imagine there’s a lot of set-up. Still, on the tablet, it’s ready to go at a tap of a finger.

As far as gameplay? Well, I really like it! Looking at the scoring conditions and trying to figure out what will score you points now and what you should try to set up for later is a challenge and the monsters throw just enough of a wrench into your plans to keep you on your toes. There’s something satisfying about placing a lake near a farmland to score points this season, all the while knowing that you just completed a path from the left side of the map to the bottom, which will score you points two seasons from now.

Specifically with the app, it’s a pretty game. The tiles for the land features are bright and colorful, and there’s nothing ambiguous about what features you’re placing. Also specifically with the app, the game calculates the score for you, something which can be sort of complicated if you had to do it on your own.

What’s Not So Good?

There only two main issues I have with the Cartographers app, and one of these isn’t even the app’s fault.

The first issue I have is the dearth of scoring cards. After about three games, I felt like I had seen them all, and even though the various combinations of cards and the order in which they are applied changes from game to game, it felt lacking. Like, if they dropped a $1.99 expansion with even 12 more scoring conditions and nothing else, I’d pick it up immediately. A game like this…well, it doesn’t necessarily rely on lots of condition cards for replayability. I mean, the other cards are also randomized, so no two games will be exactly the same (unless you’re playing one of the weekly, predetermined setups). I’d just love to see…more.

The second issue is that you never really play this with other people. Sure, you compete for a high score, but there is no interaction. In the tabletop version, when you draw an ambush card, everyone gives their map to another player to draw the monsters. In the digital version, the computer places your monsters, and you don’t get to place any monsters anywhere. This could be solved with a simultaneous play mode, but there isn’t one here.

And honestly, those are my only two problems with this game!

What Do I think?

For its price, the digital version of Cartographers is a great little game that’s fun without taking up a lot of time. Sometimes it feels a little more like a puzzle than a full-fledged game, and the lack of real multiplayer forces it to be a rather solitary activity. However, I’ve been playing it a lot, getting a few games in here-and-there before bed or while watching TV. Cartographers is far from a heavy game, but there’s enough depth to keep me coming back, even if I wish there were more to the game.

7/10 victory points.

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