For a game about making maps, Cartographer Heroes has some issues finding itself. Sitting down to play, there are some great fantastical elements of drawing and creating a fantasy kingdom, but at the edge of the experience lingers feelings that the game’s elements simply do not tie together that well. Perhaps following this intuition, one begins to see cracks in something that really should have been pretty simple. The overall feeling one cannot shake is there is such a good idea here, but it failed to go to where it should have.
Cartographers Heroes is a ‘Flip and Write’ style game where players flip a card each turn representing various types of lands in an unexplored kingdom, and have to draw this on their map sheet. These cards may be forests, oceans, towns and so on, and each player draws the Tetris-like blocks on their map with the intent of achieving goals set at the beginning of the game. Yes, there is a bit of a strange inconsistency considering you play as a ‘cartographer’ but the game seems to revolve around more about being a planner, as each player can put the currently revealed land anywhere on their map, meaning the land being explored oddly looks very different for each person.
Each games starts with four random goals set in front of the players, and they all start with the same blank map, and at the end of the game the king will decide out of all these vastly different maps, which one probably resembles what the land to the west actually looks like. In seriousness, the winner is determined from the starting goal cards which range from having the longest line of forests, farms being next to water, or blocking off entire rows or columns on the map. There is a good variety of these. The rest of the game revolves around flipping and drawing ‘explore’ cards, which are in short supply unfortunately.
The game is played in ‘Seasons’ and each season has a somewhat random set of cards that are flipped, but typically resolve to around 4-6 cards a season. These explore cards are flipped one at a time, drawn onto each player’s map and then the next card is flipped. The pace is pretty fast, however the very small amount of explore cards causes pretty bad repetition throughout the game. Seeing the little hamlets or woods is cool, it’s not as exciting seeing it for the fourth time in the same game 20 minutes later.
The titular heroes, and the monsters, are ultimately a letdown. When a monster flips up, everyone passes their map to the left or right and draws the monster somewhere on their neighbor’s board then gives it back. These monsters amount to very minor ‘take that’s’ and are more of an annoyance than anything, especially because part of the fun is coming up with your own kingdom. Having a random zombie placed off in the corner doesn’t feel right. There are also heroes that pop up and enable you to draw a few X shapes over the monsters. To say it feels tacked on would be a bit of an understatement.
The only player interaction at all is the placement of monsters, which leads to the very strong reality of this being mostly a solo experience. The game goes quick enough and it is fun watching everyone’s maps come together. The monsters feel gimmicky and do nothing beyond blotch someone else’s nice kingdom they are drawing. In a way, imagine a game where the goal is to draw a picture, and halfway through, each player gets to draw a big fat line right through it. It’s kind of pointless, and you are left with the subtle sense of having done something wrong.
A strange feeling happens as you play the game more. The very core of the game is actually pretty fun, it appeals to a wide range of people, and it’s satisfying drawing the lands. The enjoyment comes from the varied goals and trying to plan the perfect setup. What Cartographers Heroes lacks, obviously so, is more explore cards. They get used too many times in a single game, and given how many total varieties one could imagine, it is disappointing there are not at least double or triple of them.
For a play through or two, Cartographer Heroes provides a fun change of pace compared to most board games, however, its problems arise fairly quickly due to its repetitious nature. Fundamentally, it’s a solo game and the monsters/heroes are more of a distraction. Drawing the perfect little kingdom is a fun experience, but the game really needs more explore cards for new things for the players to draw.