Maps – Cartography review

Give Emma a game that the enjoys and you’ll get a well crafted write up. Give her a game that she loves and her mind will explode over the keyboard. We gave her an advance prototype of Cartography, currently on Kickstarter, and it ended up like that old advert for Maxell tapes from the eighties.

"What's a tape, Michael?" - Countless LMDS Readers

“What’s a tape, Michael?” – Countless LMDS Readers

Shut up, insolent children! Shut up and read!

Right, no more review openings where I want to provide you with some context for who made the game and when, and then realise I know nothing whatsoever about anything and have to go and do research before I can actually write. I know exactly when Cartography came out, because it hasn’t yet. Currently on Kickstarter/soon to launch on Kickstarter/recently on Kickstarter/currently shipping from Kickstarter (delete as appropriate, depending on when Michael puts this up) [Oi, I’m on time for once! – Michael] Cartography is a tile-laying abstract strategy game for two players, with games taking anywhere from ten minutes to an hour, depending on how bloody-minded the players are. The most distinctive components in the game are its lovely triangular tiles – they’re made of a pleasingly-weighted wood and interlock, giving the whole thing a very satisfying jigsaw puzzle feel – each of which contains a varying number of dots, separated by walls and towers. The rules are simple enough – on your turn, you add one of these tiles to the table, then place one of your counters on a dot. Dots you play on have to have empty spaces connected to them, and if you surround a group of your opponent’s counters with your own, theirs are removed and added to your score. Players can pass if they don’t think any move will benefit them, and the game ends when both players pass, after which you score the number of counters you have left on the board, plus the number of your opponent’s counters you’ve captured. That’s it.

Now, those among you more well-versed in the history of board games may here be pointing out that those are basically the rules of Go, and the ‘designer’ of this game and its supporters are clearly uneducated philistines who won’t consume any media older than they are. In which case, wow, you’ve got a bit of an anger issue. But you’re largely right about the rules – as acknowledged in pretty much every piece of writing about Cartography, it is heavily influenced by Go, with Jon Adams (the designer) seeking to make something between classical Go and Carcassonne, but I think the complete transformation of the board from a 19×19 grid to a shifting array of triangular tiles and walls has completely changed the game, if you’ll pardon the semi-pun.

As an aside to those of you who have no idea what I’m talking about – Go is an East Asian strategy game, originating in China about two and a half millennia ago, and it’s like a thousand years older and orders of magnitude more complex than the (in my eyes) overrated exemplar of classical strategy, chess. Plus, what other game can boast this much history/mythology, including one famous game where one player was given three moves during the game by ghosts, and the other vomited blood on the board, then died after conceding? [That happened to me in a My Little Pony CCG tournament – Michael] What I’m saying is, you should probably check it out.

Anyway, to get back to reviewing games that didn’t come out thousands of years ago, Cartography. Yes, a lot of the gameplay feels a lot like Go, but let’s look at the things that make it different. Naturally, this is the board, as its constant evolution during play means that a) you’re never totally sure of your position, as your opponent could suddenly open up new fronts you weren’t expecting, and b) every game is different, offsetting a lot of the dry mathsiness you get in abstract games. Also, the change from a square-based grid to a triangle-based one, as well as the addition of walls (which stop adjacent spaces being counted as adjacent) means that any of your friends who do play Go won’t just steamroll all over the newbies, as a lot of the standard strategies and shapes don’t work any more. Also, I like the simplicity of the scoring as opposed to Go – in the latter, it’s all about the empty territory you have (either actually or effectively) surrounded, and calculating that can be a bit of a faff, but here, it’s just about stones on the board, both making counting up easier and the gameplay more aggressive, as players have more of a tendency to fill up spaces in their own groups for more points, making them more vulnerable to attack. Another advantage the modular board brings is the variability of play length – a game of Go can take anywhere up to several days, depending on how hardcore the players are, but here, the rulebook states that you can effectively create a time limit by putting a cap on the number of tiles that are available, with each adding about a minute to play time. Now, I’ve only been able to play short games, since my demo copy only has like 15 tiles instead of the full 40, but I cannot wait to get a full copy and see how quickly I can melt my brain with the whole set.

Normally, this is where I’d be listing the game’s shortcomings, but I’m having trouble on that front. Probably my biggest problem is that the rulebook’s a bit fuzzy on some points, but that’ll almost definitely get ironed out when it goes to publishing. Apart from that, the only reservation I have is that it might be a little too heavy for some people – this is definitely on the brain-burny end of abstract strategy, but if that’s your bag (and oh, is it mine), Cartography should be right up your alley. If, however, you prefer not to think series of moves ahead in your games, and hate the idea of somebody resigning because they can see how one bad move will come back to bite them in eighteen turns’ time, maybe not the one for you. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to write some new Problems of Life and Death…


Throw your money at Cartography here! Designed by Jon Adams, the standard set plays with two people only, but there’s also a four player set available. As an aside, I played against Emma and lost my mind as well as the game. I assume the four player game would have driven me to murder (in the best possible way, of course).


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