When people think of area control games, they think of games like Risk as the classic one. Risk can be a very long game and a very swingy game that someone could be knocked out of early. Even with all of that, I liked Risk…
There are so many roll and writes or flip and write games out there, how do you go through and find the good ones? In some ways, you just have to guess and find the style that you like. Wouldn’t it be nice if there was a map to find the good ones?
Cartographers is a mapping flip and write game where you are trying to create the best area of land for scoring. Your cartographer goes out and is trying to place Tetris style shaped pieces and other shapes onto your map. These shapes are different types of land, and depending on how the land is laid out, it is going to allow you to score throughout the game. But watch out for monsters, if can you can’t get them surrounded in your map, they are negative points, and your opponents are going to be the people who are putting the monsters onto your map.
Cartographers is scored over four seasons, each with two different scoring criteria. In spring you score A/B, summer – B/C, fall – C/D, and winter – D/A. So you have to both be planning ahead and trying to score as much as you can on each round. The first round is generally lighter scoring, because you haven’t built up anything for either the A/B scoring. And the scoring can be having squares surrounded but not filled, having forests surrounded, having six or more buildings next to each other, etc. These can really change up how you play the game, and help make it unique because maybe in spring I am not set-up to use something right then, but I can plan for the summer. Or you can really focus on a couple of them in hope that they are going to score you more points. Plus, you can get coins by surrounding mountains or using smaller areas, and those give you points each season that you have them. And the monsters are going to be negative unless they are completely surrounded, and each spot open by them is a negative point, and that can add up fast.
Now, there are a ton of roll and write or flip and write games out there, is there anything that makes Cartographers stand out from other games? First, there is no down time, not something that makes it stand out, but something that is nice. On each card flip you are placing land on your map or a monster on your opponents map. So you are always going to be able to play, and even if you can’t fit the shape, you then get to place a single square of any type, which you’ll be able to fit for sure. I also like the scoring throughout the game. Cat Cafe has a little bit of this, as does Welcome To… but Cartographers leans into that a whole lot more. And the scoring changes for each season which adds to the puzzle nature of the game. I think if the scoring was just static, the season scoring wouldn’t work. So like Welcome To… the scoring is going to change up every time that you play the game. Finally, having other people put things on your map and you putting things on other peoples is really interesting and different. You can really mess someone up with a monster and give them a lot of negative points.
The theme works fairly well in this game. I think that the land types being next to each other or surrounded, etc. for the scoring makes pretty good thematic sense. I think that you can argue the mountain being surrounded gets you a gold can make a bit of sense if they are paying you for completing a percent of the map. The monsters, however, being negative points if they aren’t next to anything seems backwards. I think that any that they would be next to would be negative because you don’t want to be by monsters, but I understand from the point of the game, that doesn’t work nearly as well. Like most roll and write games, the theme is a bit abstracted away, but as someone who likes drawing maps, I don’t mind, and I think it works well enough. I can get that itch for making Dungeons and Dragons maps out of my system with Cartographers, which is technically set in the same world as the game Roll Player.
I also think that while this roll and write is a bit more complicated than some other roll and write games, that it isn’t going to be hard to teach, and the visual representations on the board are easy to see and the different terrain types are easy to draw. I’m not sure that I’d lead with this game for a roll and write if someone hasn’t played any, but if they know what a game like Second Chance is, Cartographers is a logical next step. And just teaching it to someone who isn’t familiar with roll and writes would probably work, might just be a bit slower teaching than you’d expect for a roll and write game.
Overall, I think this is a very good roll and write/flip and write. It gives you some challenging decisions, and I really enjoy how the scoring works. I think that the scoring and the monsters make the game feel different than most other roll and write games. Definitely feels a bit like a mash-up of Welcome To… and Second Chance, and that’s great, because I really like those two games. I definitely would recommend this one for the theme, which is light, but easy to sell, and the mechanics.
Overall Grade: A-
Gamer Grade: B+
Casual Grade: B+
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Normally I do these reviews on games that I really enjoy. However, I thought it would be interesting to do a TableTopTakes on Dominion, a game that I have enjoyed but now that I don’t enjoy as much, and it’s still a very popular game.
In Dominion, you are building your deck up to be able to buy as many victory points as possible. The downside is that those victory points clog up your deck. On your turn you are playing down cards that give you additional actions, card draw, number of cards you can buy, and money. At the end of your turn, you draw up a new hand of cards and you repeat the process. Doing this, you are getting cards like Marketplace, Council Room, Estates, or cards like Copper, Gold, and Silver that give you money.
In terms of a pure deck building game, Dominion is a pretty good game. The issue is that it had a dull theme on it. It looks like it’s a trading in the Mediterranean game with poor artwork and a dated looking card design. And with Dominion, that theme “works” because the game itself has nothing to do with the theme. Why the Council Room gives you draw of 4 cards and an extra buy action and the Festival gives you 2 coins, 2 more actions and another buy action, who knows. And really who cares, you are just trying to build an engine of cards to be able to buy estates as quickly as possible.
But, like most deck building games, you are really looking for a very small combo. You are looking for ways to get as much money into your hand as consistently as possible while avoiding getting dead cards. There is a strategy to the game, but with a bit of luck of the draw when you start the game, one person is going to be down the path to victory faster than everyone else, and there are going to be no catch-up mechanisms. Now, a good strategy game, that’s fine, but there’s enough luck with the shuffle of the deck that now it doesn’t matter that you figured out the strategy, someone was able to get the combo going a turn faster than you, you won’t win. And if you don’t notice the strategy, you can figure out half way through the game who is going to win because they figured out the right combo of the cards. Now, again, Dominion is an abstract deck builder with a pasted on artwork and theme that aren’t needed, so if you want that puzzle and hope that you can get your engine rolling faster with a little luck in the card draw, Dominion is a great game for that. It’s meant for you to min-max your cards and find the ways to empty out your deck to just have what you need, more power to you.
For me, I’ve gotten rid of Dominion though. I think that there are other deck builders like Clank! In! Space! or Xenoshyft: Onslaught that I have on my shelf that are a lot better. Now, there’s a bit more going on in those games, so it’s probably not as good for teaching deck building, but I’m not teaching deck building too often. And I think some of what bugged me about Dominion was that there are a plethora of expansions for the game, but they really don’t add that much new, and the new and additional rules that they add, they aren’t thematic, or are they used all that often, because they add to the complexity of Dominion. Dominion being more complex pushes it away from being that introductory deck building game, which means that unless you have people who live and breath Dominion, there are those people out there, I know one of them, and always want to play it and play it with other people who love it, those cards and rules aren’t going to be needed.
Dominion is significant to the hobby, and I recognize that. It really helped create deck builders, and without it, games like Xenoshyft: Onslaught or Clank! In! Space! might not exist. And Dominion has helped get people into the hobby, but some of the love for it that it’s gotten over the years, it just doesn’t resonate with me. That might just be my taste in games coming through, but I think that there are plenty of better deck building games out there, and while Dominion might have been a good introductory deck building game to teach the concept, I think that there are better ones out there, and an early year of Harry Potter: Hogwarts Battle is going to be just as good for deck building if not better. Or even something that’s definitely more complex like Xenoshyft: Onslaught, because it’s cooperative, could work decently well in that teaching role. And with both of those games, they feel like they have more theme and that you are doing something more. The veneer on Dominion has now become too thin when it comes to theme.
Overall Grade: C-
Gamer Grade: D
Casual Grade: B
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I am not always a huge word game fan. I’m not going to lie, I generally do pretty well at them, but a lot of word games aren’t about the words you know, it’s about recognizing patterns. So you can often end up with someone who has a much larger vocabulary not doing nearly as well in a word game. Letter Jam takes some of that away as it’s a cooperative word game where you are trying to figure out your own word.
Borrowing from Hanabi, Letter Jam has you give a fellow player a word while someone else creates and scrambles up a word for you. You place your word face down on the table in front of you, and then carefully, so you don’t see it, you put it so that everyone else can see your first letter. Players then pitch their ideas for words that they can make. For example, in a six player game, someone might be able to make a five letter word that uses four people and a wild card letter. Whereas someone else might be about to make a four letter word that just uses four people and no wild card. As a group you then decide what makes more sense to give as a clue. When you decide on what clue to use, the person who is giving the clue places numbered tokens in front of the players and on the wild card, if it’s used, and you separately write down what you can see if the word if your letter was used. When you think you know your letter, you can lay down your first letter and then go onto your next letter, but if you feel like you made a mistake later, you can’t go back. After a defined number of turns, with each person giving at least one clue, you try and have everyone arrange their letters into a word, might not be the word they were given, but as long as it’s a word, you get those points.
Letter Jam is a clever game because it’s a cooperative game that has little to no troubles with an alpha player running a game. Yes, a person might give more clues, but they are going to need to get clues at some point in time so that they can guess their own letters. As long as you have a couple of people who are confident in giving clues, you can really have them give more of the clues, but because Letter Jam makes everyone give a clue so you can unlock an extra turn, that means that everyone is going to be involved in every part of the game.
Letter Jam also works well because you don’t feel like you have enough time. You have that limited number of clues, and you might be coming up with really good clues, but that means that you are going to be rushing through your letters later in the game. So, you rarely ever know for sure what a letter is, but you have a good guess, and if you have a five letter word in front of you and you can nail down a couple of them for sure and have the others down to two letters, you are doing pretty well. The game has ways to allow you to “cheat” by allowing one person to use the wild card letter, but that is only for one person.
For me, though, the highlight of this game is the strategy for giving out clues. If you watch the No Pun Included review on Youtube, he gives an example where the four letters he can see are “M”, “A”, “L”, and “E”, and while you can spot a lot of words in that combination, if you are a player who can only see “M”, “A”, and “E”, because you have the “L”, you have a ton of different options if the word given as the clue is “MA?E”. It could be “made” or “make” or “male” or “mace” for all that you know, plus even more options. So there is strategy in giving clues so that you cane give good clues. In the example they gave in No Pun Included, there aren’t many great clues that they could give for that combination of letters. So instead of saying that you have a four letter clue, maybe you want to sit back and let someone else give a clue to hopefully get more unique letters later on when you can give a clue. And the Wild Card, while it sounds great, is often a trap. Let’s say that you’re giving a clue with the same letters as before and you really want that person to guess their “L”. So you come up with the word “earl” for your clue, but it is going to use the wild card. That means, when you give the clue for the person trying to guess their letter, the word looks like “EA??”, they are going to be more likely to assume that their word is “ears” or something that is plural than they would that their word is “earl”. The clues are always a struggle and it isn’t until you’ve played it multiple times that you really start to figure out how to give good clues, and this is where your vocabulary could get you into trouble. If you are spelling a word that I don’t know what it is because it’s not in my vocabulary, it might have been the perfect clue to get me my letter, but I’ll never figure it out, so you can’t go too far in that direction.
The letter game really does hit that great balance between being a pattern game as you try and recognize the missing letters or understand how the letters you have might make a word and what word that might be, but it’s also a spelling and vocabulary game because you have to be able to come up with those clues that narrow down the letter for the people who are getting the clues. And because it’s cooperative, you either win together or you do poorly together. In fact, there is no real “lose” condition, there are just rankings for how many points you got. In a lot of ways that is like Just One which is another great light game that you can play with everyone. And while I think that Letter Jam is a trickier game and not going to be as easy for everyone, it’s going to be a game that you can pull out with most people.
As you can tell, I love this game. I think the concept of it is extremely clever, and it’s a word game that works for most people. I can see pulling this out with parents or with friends, and it would go over well. It’s a game that I wish I had picked up at GenCon, and I would have, but the first time we demoed it there, we unfortunately had a very bad experience because of the person giving the demo. I was excited for the game, so we wanted to give it another chance, and when we did, that was a great experience, but by then it was sold out. I’ll be waiting to see this hit the shelves of my FLGS (friendly local game store) so that I can pick it up.
Overall Grade: A-
Gamer Grade: B+
Casual Grade: A
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