Behind the Board: Jordy Adan, John Brieger, and Keith Matejka on Cartographers Heroes

Luke: Hey everyone, and welcome back to Behind the Board! Today we’re putting our interviewing capacity to the test, as we’re talking with 3 – count ’em – 3 of the awesome people behind Cartographers Heroes, the sequel to one of our favorite roll-and-writes.

Why don’t you guys introduce yourselves?

Jordy Adan: Hey everyone, I’m the designer of Cartographers and co-designer of Cartographers Heroes.

John Brieger: What’s up, folks? I developed Cartographers and co-designed Cartographers Heroes.

Keith Matejka: Hello hello! I’m the designer/publisher/owner of Thunderworks Games, as well as the publisher of both Cartographers and Cartographers Heroes.

Luke: An impressive crew we’ve gathered today! Before we jump into the group questions, I’ve got one specifically for Jordy to start things off.

Jordy: Fire away.

Luke: One of your first designs, Cartographers has skyrocketed in popularity since its release. What’s it been like seeing one of your flagship releases succeed in such a big way?

Jordy: It’s been amazing. Before the release of [Cartographers and Rolling Ranch], I was designing tabletop games just for fun. I was really into games as a hobby. Now this still holds true, but I also make games professionally, for a living. I feel Cartographers‘ popularity helped me to quick-start my path into the industry and opened many doors for me in the industry.

Luke: Opening the floor to everyone, how would you recommend aspiring designers strike out into the world of board game design in the year 2020?

Jordy: This year was crazy! Designers had to adapt and migrate to digital platforms. It was great to see this different approach to prototyping and showing games to publishers, especially for people like me, that live in a country where getting to a convention in the US/EU is quite expensive. I highly recommend that new designers learn digital tools, like Tabletop Simulator and Tabletopia, for quick prototyping and playing new games.

Keith: 2020 is a tough year to break into game design, to be honest. Conventions are often one of the best ways to meet publishers and network with other designers. Many publishers are accepting pitches, and the relationships you build at conventions can be priceless when trying to get a game signed. It might make more sense to just focus on doing design on a handful of games and get them ready to pitch in 2021. 

John: Without conventions, you’re relying a lot more on email and open submission calls to get your games in front of publishers that you don’t already know. One thing I’ve seen some colleagues doing is making pitch videos, and then including an animated GIF from the video in the body of their email — so even before the publisher has opened or watched the submission, they see a snippet of play.

Luke: For those inspired by the Cartographers series, do you think that the want for more roll-and-writes and flip-and-fills is quickly fading, or do you expect to see more people begging for new ways to experience this genre in the near future?

Keith: I think the roll/flip and write games are still doing well, though I don’t think there is as much room in the market for all-new roll/flip and write titles as there was one or two years ago. A lot of games in this genre were released roughly around the same time to capitalize on the surge in popularity. I expect the most popular games in the genre to continue to do well, while lesser performing titles will fade if they haven’t already. 

John: Keith nailed it. I think as the genre grows, we’ll continue to see people innovate and push the boundaries in roll and writes, as well as more games that integrate roll and write mechanisms into other genres. Like when deckbuilding first arrived on the board game scene, there was a rush of games, but we still continue to see new deck builders with unique takes on the genre flourish.

Jordy: As a lover of the genre myself, I still get excited about new roll-and-write games. But for each game I get excited about, there feels like there are a million others that get overlooked. I think eventually the number of new releases will settle down, but experimentation and innovation within the genre will continue forever.

Luke: So what are the tenents of a good roll-and-write/flip-and-fill? And how did this design philosophy of experimentation factor into the creation of the Cartographers system?

Jordy: For me, a good roll and write emerges from three aspects: allowing for flexible player counts, good cost/benefit, and innovation.

To start, Cartographers can be played, theoretically, at any player count possible. Of course, there are physical limitations to that, but just that possibility is enough.

Cost/benefit comes from the number of matches you can play before exploring everything the game has to offer versus its price. Having different scoring objectives allows the game to feel fresh for a long time, and the game is cheap to pick up.

Lastly, innovation can come in two forms: a new mechanism, like how Dominion introduced deckbuilding, or exploring an already existing mechanism/set of mechanisms further in a fresh new way. Cartographers does the second, adding a bit of interaction to a genre where you’re mostly minding your own business. Plus, it’s thematic, while most roll-and-writes aren’t.

Luke: Was Cartographers Heroes always something you intended or making, or was it born from the success of the original?

Keith: Cartographers Heroes came out of the success of Cartographers. John and Jordy both had ideas for how we expand the game and do different interesting things at the end of the Cartographers development cycle.

As soon as we saw how much players were enjoying Cartographers, we got to work on building more content for it, leveraging some of the cool ideas that just didn’t make it into the original game. We were also looking at how people were playing the game and we tried to make sure to include elements that players really wanted to see as well as creating more thematic moments for players.

Luke: Tell me a little about the genesis of the Hero cards. They have to be important if they made their way into the title!

John: The new monsters with abilities came first when brainstorming ideas for the expansion, and the heroes were added as a way to help balance out the added difficulty of the monsters. The heroes were all very similar during development; all heroes destroyed adjacent monster spaces. It was our graphic designer Luis who suggested having each hero have unique hit patterns. This was what really allowed them to shine as unique characters with flavor. I’m really happy with where these ended up.

Luke: Do you consider the Hero cards to be the equivalent of the Ruins cards from the first edition of the game or a little something extra to sprinkle into games?

Keith: I think they are different, but of similar weight. Drawing shapes with ruins in mind and drawing heroes are just different mental puzzles to enjoy. The Cartographers games support being able to stack both systems on top of each other, but we wanted to keep them in separate boxes. Ruins for the original game. Heroes and more complex ambush cards for the Heroes game.

If we had kept the ruins in the heroes box, the complexity would be significantly higher than the original game and we wanted to make sure the Heroes box is still very approachable for new players.

Luke: Where did the idea of Ambushes with special abilities and effects come from? Should we expect to see more down the road?

John: I had come into the Cartographers Heroes design cycle just as I had wrapped up development on Roll Player‘s Fiends and Familiars expansion, and designing special abilities for the Lenticular monster promos. I had been thinking a lot about how to deepen some of the theming ties to the world of Roll Player with this expansion, so where Cartographers featured primarily Minions, I wanted the new Monster ambushes to feel unique and thematic, capturing that sort of “here be dragons” mapmaking feeling. 

I wouldn’t be surprised to see more unique monsters down the road… 

Luke: In regards to this second set of Skill cards, was there a specific theme or focus when designing these that makes them different than the original set?

John: I designed the original Skills Mini-Expansion to build some additional connections to the world of Roll Player. The new set of Skills can be played on its own, or combined with the base set for even more variety. Jordy had shown me some ideas for new Skills via Facebook Messenger, and a few of the cards in Skills Mini Expansion 2 are based on those. Manipulate, which breaks the revealed shape in two, was one of his designs.

Luke: The map packs are a huge and exciting addition to the game system. How did you decide on the different map packs to release, and which one would you say is your favorite?

Keith: We set a goal of doing three map packs early. It felt like a good number to start with, and then, if they do well, we can explore (ha!) doing more.  Fans have really been liking how they mix up the gameplay and give them a different feel.  They also allow us to explore the Roll Player Universe a little with each one, which is super fun.

I personally really like the Nebblis pack out of the first three. I just like the idea of a volcano erupting and destroying what the cartographers already mapped. It makes me laugh.

John: The Affril map pack is based on Jordy’s original submission for the Cartographers expansion – there was a time when we thought maybe the entirety of Heroes would use the island shapes. It definitely is the map pack that changes the most about the way the game feels as you play.

Luke: What do you believe is the strongest element of the Cartographers design as a whole, especially now that so many different bits of pieces can be added or swapped in and out?

John: I think what makes Cartographers so satisfying is, that at the end of the game, you have a physical artifact of your play – the act of playing a game of Cartographers is truly the act of making a map. It’s a sort of meta theming that I don’t know if players always recognize. I think at some level, people feel satisfaction about having that map completed at the end of play in a way they might not if the game was, for example, all polyomino tiles that went back to the box.

Jordy: I agree with John, seeing what you’ve created when the game ends is fulfilling. Also, making the map is quite pleasing; there’s just the right amount of decisions and interaction so, in the end, the map feels like something you’ve created instead of it just being a byproduct of playing the game.

Luke: Are there any elements or ideas you hope to bring to the Cartographers experience sometime in the future?

Keith: We’ve been talking about different ideas as to how to expand the line even further if there is an appetite for it in the market. I think doing more map packs that have new mechanics and are set in different parts of the universe is a no-brainer.

John: I don’t want to make any promises on Keith’s/Thunderwork’s behalf, but Jordy and I did a brainstorming call and came up with some pretty wild ideas. If people continue playing and enjoying Cartographers, I hope we’ll be able to bring some of them to market.

Luke: Last question for the day: what do you hope players new and old will get to experience from playing Cartographers Heroes?

Jordy: I hope new players get to experience how fun and enjoyable it is to make your own maps while seasoned players can enjoy the fresh new content and explore all the possibilities they allow.

Keith: I just think mapmaking is a cool thing. I have fond memories of drawing out dungeons when I was a kid, and I love that element of world-building. Yes, I want players to enjoy maximizing their reputation by figuring out the puzzle of the game as best they can. But more importantly, I want players to end the game with a piece of artwork they created during the game. When players create something as part of the process of playing the game, I think that’s awesome.

John: For new players, I’m just excited for them to get to experience Jordy’s amazing game for the first time. I think it really tickles your brain. For returning players, I think people will appreciate the changes that the new monsters and scoring objectives bring in, and having more than double the content for the base game for scoring really broadens the setup possibilities.

Luke: Wow, guys, this has been awesome! Thanks so much for taking the time to talk with me about all this. For those interested in learning more, you can check out our review of Cartographer: Heroes, or you can head straight over to the Kickstarter page!

Are there any projects of yours folks should be looking for in the near future?

Keith: Well, keep an eye out for Roll Player Adventures to be released next summer. The next project after this in the Roll Player line is the first expansion for Lockup, entitled Breakout.

There are two additional projects on the horizon for Thunderworks Games outside of the Roll Player Universe coming in the next year. First, Cape May, a city-building game set in New Jersey, USA around the early 1900s featuring the illustrations of Michael Menzel. The second is a theme park building game featuring the artwork from Vincent DuTrait.

In terms of my design work, you can keep an eye out for the next game in the Skulk Hollow line called Maul Peak. Pencil First Games is the publisher, I believe they plan on running a Kickstarter in the winter or early spring.

John: In addition to Cartographers Heroes, another game I developed is on Kickstarter as of writing: Kabuto Sumo by designer Tony Miller. It’s an innovative dexterity strategy game that I think brings something genuinely new to the table.

Luke: Fantastic, I’ll be sure to keep an eye on all these! And if you, readers, would be interested in us covering any of these games in particular, feel free to let us know in the comments. Thanks as always for reading, and we’ll see ya’ll next week!

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