Cultura Pop

Cartographers Heroes, preview: it’s time to fight!

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It’s time to get back on the road, because Queen Gimnax wants to expand her reign in the Western Lands. In Cartographers Heroes, sequel of the acclaimed Cartographers: a Roll Player adventure, a draw&write game (variant of the roll&write mechanics) from the same publisher Thunderworks Games, from 1 to 100 players will have to fill their maps mapping explored lands to satisfy the Queen’s Edicts and gain Reputation points to win the games.

Cartographers Heroes, currently on Kickstarter for just a few days more, is a game that can be played as a standalone game or can be combined with the original game, Cartographers. Using many of the same rules as the the prior game, Cartographers Heroes introduces the titular Heroes, new Monsters, new Edicts, new Skills in a mini expansion and 3 brand new maps, each introducing new rules.

The new Western Lands

Things are different in the Western Lands than in the Norhtern ones (setting of the first Cartographers). The base rules are the same: at every turn, a new Exploration card shows the players what terrain and in which shape they can draw on their map; every player can rotate or mirror the chosen shape before drawing it anywhere on their map.; when the total Time resulting from the explored cards is equal to or greater than the Season allowed time, the Season is over and points are scored following the Season-specific Edicts, before moving to the next Season – unless it’s Winter, which is the last Season in a game. Even the Ruins are still on the map, even though they are not used in this game, and are there to ensure compatibility with the previous game,

Hic sunt leones – again

Like in the North, Western Lands are still unexplored and dangerous. Every Season, players can be Ambushed by monsters roaming the lands.  When an Ambush card is drawn, every player must draw a Monster-type shape on the map of one of the other players. This is surely one of the most interesting elements: the ability to interact with other players, ruining their plans and, at the same time, having to adapt one’s own to face the Monsters.

Unlike in the previous games, Monsters have unique behaviors in Cartographers Heroes: the Monster shapes drawn are marked with the initial of the depicted monster, and each type introduces new rules. From Zombies that expand at every Season change into every empty spaces adjacent, to Trolls that destroy one space after every Season ends. Sure, there’s a little more bookkeeping at the end of a Season, but there’s also much more fun.

We need a hero…

The titular mechanic introduced by this game involves Heroes. At every Season, a new Hero gets added to the exploration deck. When a Hero card is drawn, players can draw a Hero-type shape on their map. The Hero card also identifies which spaces are targeted by the Hero: monsters that were already placed in those spaces as well as those that will be placed in a future turn are destroyed, in a mix of strategic placement and tactics. In some ways, Heroes are similar to Tash-Kalar, the game from Vlaada Chvátil, although with much simpler shapes.

The edicts of the insatiable Queen Gimnax

Cartographers Heroes has a new set of Edict cards, still divided in the same four categories, although many of the new edicts demand a different gameplay than the previous ones. New Edicts require a much more global view of the map, since they don’t reward just grouping terrains together: from getting points for every column where players have the same number of water and farm spaces, to getting points for every free space adjacent to at least a house group, the new edicts often result in a more fragmented map, making it difficult for players to place shapes without ruining the patterns and plans carefully prepared. A new level of challenge for Cartographers’ veterans.

As a confirmation, in Solo games, the “handicaps” to be subtracted from the final score for each Edict are much lower than in the past, showing that the designers knew that it’s harder to get high scores with these Edicts.

An inconstant experience

Like in the original game, the order in which cards show up can greatly influence the way a game goes.  This is not a real issue, since a certain level of randomness is an integral part of the game, and since the duration of a game is short, but it’s undoubted that some cards are penalized if they are not drawn at the right moment: drawing an Hero before you have monsters on the map can still be useful, but it’s much more fun to destroy something as soon as the hero comes into play; on the other side, drawing Zombies or Dragons in the last seasons is entirely different from having them come out at the beginning of the game.

New skills

The new mini-expansion Skills 2 introduces new abilities. Rules are the same as the Skills expansion: 3 skills randomly selected at the beginning of the game can be used by any player willing to pay the skill’s cost with gained coins, giving up the Reputation points granted by the coin. New Skills are similar to the old ones, with a couple of exceptions covering new mechanics, like an hero always available or a skill to destroy terrains.

New maps

Cartographers Heroes can be further expanded thanks to three additional map packs, that not only change the topography of the map, but add Exploration, Edicts and new mechanics:

Nebblis: Plane of Flames

the great volcano Astmork looms on the players in this fire-inspired map. On top of having a 2×2 volcano on their maps, in Nebblis players will have to manage the lava flow: three new Exploration cards are added to the deck and will force players to draw connected lava terrains, destroying empty and occupied spaces encountered.

This variant, included in the preview copy, closely resembles the Volcano expansion from Railroad Ink – Red box.

Affril: Plane of Knowledge

The map is now divided in 6 islands, and players will have to explore them as soon as they will be discovered. Players have to connect the new islands to the main one or to one already discovered by paying a price in coins, otherwise they will soon run out of spaces to fill with explored terrains. Since the map is drastically different, the Pattern Edicts (diagonals, rows, columns, etc.) have to be replaced with the Affril specific Edicts.

Undercity: depths of Sabek

This map has Above and a Below areas: this time the Queen asked to map the undercity below the capital, Sabek. This variant map twists one of the base rules in Cartographers, the freedom to draw the shape anywhere on the map. In Undercity all the shapes have to be connected to the gate between Above and Below, imagining the city made by tunnels and caves, like a giant ant colony. Naturally the original Pattern Edicts can’t work with the new map, and so they have to be replaced with those provided with the Undercity expansion.

Materials

We tried a prototype of Cartographers Heroes, so the look and feel is not final, but we know that in its final version it will carry over lot of details from the Cartographers edition, starting from the box (compact and portable) to the quality of cards. On Kickstarter, just for a few days more you can finance a Collector’s Edition box, that will not be available outside of the Kickstarter campaign, to contain all the Cartographers Heroes material, including additional maps that normally would be delivered without a box.

We were able to try also the new neoprene playmat, inspired by the cover art of Cartographers Heroes: although the gameplay would not be impaired by not using the playmat, it is really a pleasure for the eyes. The only note to make would be about the position of Seasons card, far from the Explorations card and close to Edicts: it is true that Season cards indicate which edicts have to be considered for each Reputation scoring at the change of Seasons, but they contains info about the Time limit for Exploration, so it would have been more sensible to have them close to both Edicts and Exploration decks, to check at a glance if the explored cards’ total is below the Season’s threshold.

In conclusion: is it worth it?

Cartographers remains one of the most fun game in the roll&write / draw&write family, partly because of the satisfaction that comes from drawing maps, partly because it’s one of the few games that doesn’t feel like a group solitary. Cartographers Heroes maintains the same game feeling and remains a pleasure to play. Even if it’s a standalone game, for certain aspects il looks like an expansion, to the point that it can be combined with the previous game, mixing elements as you see fit. We will give two different answers to the questions “is it worth it?” or “who will like it?”, depending on the target:

If you own Cartographers: A Roll Player adventure: it is totally worth it!

Cartographers Heroes is a good sequel, improving on Cartographers in many aspects. The Ruins mechanic is not missed, while new Monsters are funnier than before, Edicts are more challenging and new maps bring a sense of freshness to the game. Those who have worn out the first Cartographers – like the author of this article – or those that just appreciate the game but would like to expand it or renew it will find exceptional value in this sequel. Recommended!

If you don’t own and/or you never played Cartographers before: maybe Heroes is not the easiest way to enter this series.

Roll&write genre became very popular thanks to its accessibility: often these games don’t require a huge experience in board games, and many of them have been labeled great gateways thanks to their simple rulebooks.

Cartographers Heroes introduces numerous dynamics, and requests more expertise from the players to manage everything that is going around, with harder-to-meet Edicts. Stepping in Cartographers’ world through Heroes will mean starting from an intermediate level, while those with less expertise in modern board games could benefit from a more gradual approach to the complexity.

Of course it’s not a difficult game, so this is not an insurmountable entrance barrier. Cartographers: A Roll Player adventure (the original game) still is the best entry point to this series, but as soon as players will have played a few games, eventually integrating Skills to vary the experience, they will be ready and eager to jump to the more complex Heroes rulebook. So…why not both?