If you are a cartography lover and you also enjoy board games, don’t go further. I have invested more hours than I am willing to admit looking for board games that rely on maps, and I have valued them according to 3 very simple criteria:
- Cartographic level – It analyzes the accuracy of the map and what it represents. Many games reproduce places in the world, and in that sense I will be more critical when assessing this variable. If it is an invented map, then I will focus on the complexity of the space, the realism, and the detail.
- Thematic level – This is the historical or narrative context of the game. These are usually graphic details that are found around the map and that enrich the immersion in the game.
- Impact level in the game – I have tried to see how important the map becomes for decision making. In some games the map has an illustrative role, and in others you need to read the map correctly to have an advantage. Let’s simplify the question like this: If we remove the map from the board, to what extent can we carry on playing the game?
I should add that, as a casual player, I have my favorite board games, and my assessment is inevitably biased. Even so, I have tried to be impartial and stick to the criteria mentioned above, without going into evaluating dynamics, re-playability, and other characteristics that are also important when evaluating a game. Again, I am not valuing the game as a whole, I am assessing the cartography itself and how important it is to the game.
All ready. Let’s begin.
Board games with basic cartography
The geographical component is very present in the boards of the most famous Eurogames. The Settlers of Catan presents us with a hexagonal landscape that Walter Christaller would be proud of, compartmentalized into production tiles to accumulate resources and expand your network of villages and cities through roads. The expansion versions of it also offer the possibility of navigating and exploring other islands for later colonization, and even improve characteristics within the cities themselves. Catan perfectly synthesizes the essence of strategy games through space and territory occupation.
Another of the most famous games is Carcassonne, it is inspired by the medieval city of Carcassonne (located in French Occitania). Unlike Catan, this popular title does not use cartography as the background of its development. Not quite. In this game, it is the players who are building the map that gives life to the game, so that the final result will be the direct consequence of the decisions and strategies that have been made throughout the game. Although the cartography in Carcassonne is very basic, the symbology is varied and effective.
Speaking of Carcassonne, I also wanted to tell you about Isle of Skye. The mechanics of the game and the cartographic details are very similar, but the setting seems simply magnificent. If you know the Scottish island of Skye, you will understand what I mean. The geographical beauties of the island are very present in the map tiles (mountains, rivers, castles, sheep, Highlanders, boats), and even the vividness of the colors seems very accomplished. As in the Occitan city, on the Isle of Skye we will have to build the map through our actions and strategies.
Outside the medieval theme, we can travel a few years back, between 136 and 65 million years ago, to enter the evolutionary competition of Evo. If you like dinosaurs in addition to maps, take a look at this board game. Again, the cartography is basic, but the details of the landscape are very elaborated and the differentiation of biomes in each plot gives it a fairly complete geographical dimension. Ultimately, the climatic factor and the location of our dinosaurs will determine the survivors who will become the birds of the 21st century.
Struggle of Empires… Alright. I have had trouble assessing the cartography of this game. Although it represents existing regions and continents, the presentation and details do not do justice to a game that is strategically very interesting. This time I am going to refer only to the 2004 edition, not without first mentioning that there is a deluxe edition released in 2020 that significantly improves the cartography and the rest of the board (and also worsens your pocket). Struggle of Empires is a resource management game where the map determines the strategies of the great empires of the 19th century (Spain, Great Britain, France, Russia and Austria), so the impact of the map in the game is medium-high, as you can see in the graphic at the end.
The first version presents a map that appears to be drawn freehand and colored with pencils. I’m not saying it sarcastically, I’m honest, it was the first thing I thought. In fact, aside from aesthetics, cartography does not prevent the good development of the game.
The thematic level is also quite poor: you can see some ships in the sea and small mounds that represent the areas of greatest relief, but little else apart from the blue of the oceans. The environment of the map in this edition is incredibly sober, which never ceases to shock me in a 2004 game, which rather seems to be taken from decades ago. The goose game’s board is, without a doubt, much more animated.
Although I emphasize that the cartography is not particularly remarkable in the previous titles, the truth is that it turns out to be the central axis of the game. It is not just a space occupied by the players’ pieces, on the contrary, a good reading of the map and the interpretation of the movements of your opponents are necessary to win. That is why I have valued its impact on the game as medium-high, and high in the case of Catan.
Balanced board games
The group of board games that I have chosen for this category contains a reasonable balance between the quality of the cartography and its impact on the dynamics of the game. At this level, the maps we find are more elaborate and represent easily identifiable regions of the world, although in some cases the shape of the continents or the location of the elements have been distorted in favor of the game.
In the cartography of Risk and Ticket to Ride we have two good examples. Risk‘s world map is quite complete, we can identify the continents −with the exception of Antarctica− and its position is the most widespread among the cartographic projections −in this case I think they have been based on the Robinson or Winkel-Tripel projections. However, the location and size of some territories have been conveniently adapted to facilitate the player experience. I will explain.
Unlike a real world map, the continents are much closer to each other on the Risk board. Are they trying to form a new supercontinent? I don’t believe that. It is very possible that the creators of the game have put aside the cartographic rigor to highlight the connections between territories and make it clear that from Brazil you can attack Africa, or that from Iceland you can invade Europe or Greenland by sailing in 5 minutes time.
The oversizing of the territories in Risk is another detail that we cannot miss, although I understand that placing more than three figures in Japan or the British Isles would be almost impossible. The only price to pay is for a geographer to splutter during the game. It happens to me.
In Ticket to Ride I have mixed feelings. It seems to me one of the most committed games geographic-wise, and its theme is one of the richest in terms of details and symbols. At a cartographic level, I love the wide variety of maps that the series offers: United States, Europe, Asia, Scandinavia, Switzerland, Spain, United Kingdom, London, Poland, India… the World! We can literally play it on a world map. All this without mentioning the wonderful contribution of the fans, including maps of Castile and León (Spain), Mexico, China, Latin America, Italy… And the list goes on.
But, as usual, I finally found something quite annoying: the position of cities on the map of Europe. Barcelona has moved to Valencia in this game, with the Sagrada Familia in tow, and even Madrid has been transported to a different region towards the south. And not everything remains in Spain, beware: they have put Sarajevo in Kosovo! In Days of Wonder’s offices they have a very peculiar sense of humor. Finally, it should be noted that Paris appears a little further south, disguised as Orleans, and that Constantinople has changed banks, but these are perhaps minor details compared to the above.
Surely there are more errors in the rest of the maps, but at the moment I am more familiar with the one for Europe and I have not been able to include any more. If you think of other similar cases, I would love to read your comments at the end of the post.
Alls things considered, it must be said that these controversial changes have their origin in the fit of the train cars across the map. I guess it is another price to pay to enjoy such a beautiful rail and maritime network.
In The Voyages of Marco Polo I cannot hide my admiration for the iconography and thematic fit that they have made in Devir. As in Risk, the cartography loses precision in favor of other decorative but necessary elements, which precisely make the immersion in this euro so special. If I had to blame one thing on the map, it would be the scarcity of landscapes that represent as vast an area as Asia and Eastern Europe. It is true that the deserts are in their place, and that the Tibetan plateau and the Himalayas are correctly represented with many more mountains, but I have to admit that finding only dunes, meadows and mountains it is a bit disappointing. They could have included major rivers like the Ganges, or the Tigris and Euphrates.
Luckily, the land and sea routes are connected by different types of settlements (oases, markets and cities), which add a little more complexity to the the game, and at the same time show the most traveled places during the Silk Road. It is important that the game takes into account some geographical factors that determine the movement of the player, not only due to the length of the routes to reach Beijing, but also when paying an extra cost if the trip presents difficulties.
Board games with good cartography
We are raising the level of cartography and we arrive at 13 Days: The Cuban Missile Crisis. This game is set at the climax of the Cold War, where we have a map-board centered on the Atlantic, and that leaves out most of Asia and all of Oceania. The focus of the game is clear on the map: Cuba and the range of the nuclear threat.
The cartography itself is not very remarkable. After all, we are more than familiar with the Mercator projection and the Eurocentric view of the world. However, the reason why 13 days has a good map is the harmony between the theme and the cartography. The typescript of the numbers, the faded color of countries and oceans, the sepia tone of old photos, and the confidential envelopes here and there. All these elements together transport me to a historical and terrifying moment, during 13 days of anguish for the world.
In contrast, the map has little influence on the development of the game. It is a good base to place your cards and give it that enriching context that I mentioned before, but in no case will you have to plan your movements according to the cartography.
Now I have to tell you about what has been a revelation to me: T.E.G. Independencia, the historical challenge of American emancipation. To be honest, the first time I saw the map I didn’t know what part of the world I was looking at, and I came to think that it was some island or archipelago in the Caribbean. Indeed, the islands of the Caribbean appear in the cartography, but never in my life would I have imagined that Latin America could be represented in this way.
The rejection was immediate, visceral. It is simply unnatural, this projection is…. How do I say it? There is no projection! All wrong.
And two days later… Well, it’s funny. Interesting. Dared. Innovative. Wow! It turns out that I like it now! Do not trust appearances.
Exactly, after the initial shock T.E.G. Independencia’s map is very attractive to me, as it offers such an unusual perspective that it seems that we are recreating a fantasy game on a fictional map. This Argentine game was created in 2010 as a variant of the classic T.E.G.: Tactical and Strategic Plan of War (1978), and which we will talk about on another occasion.
The cartography preserves the historical details of the struggle for Spanish-American independence at the end of the 18th century, with the territorial division of the time and such characteristic physiographic elements as the Andes, the Mexican Sierra Madre, the Amazon jungle, etc. Possibly, the sea routes could be improved, and I do not know if the route from Baja California to Buenos Aires, or the one from the Antilles to Montevideo were very popular or not. What seems certain is that the author forgot about some of the Guianas or Brazil, since they are not even named in the map.
In addition, he includes the historical milestones where important events for independence took place, and which are key to the objectives of the game (Sale of Louisiana, Morillo’s Landing, Seizure of Monterrey …).
Similarly, the theme is remarkable. The degradation of colors and the parchment edges work very well, and the compass rose together with the network of directions complete a staging very typical of the voyages of exploration in those centuries. My overall rating for this game is one of the best: High (12/15).
We have reached the last step, where I have collected three board games that present a cartography of great detail and precision.
The map of Around the World in 80 Days could perfectly fit on the world map on your bedroom wall. It uses the classic Mercator projection and is a 19th century political map. It contains well-defined borders, accurate place names, main rivers, the network of meridians and parallels … The only thing that will make you distinguish it from a regular map will be the card slots that are placed on it, and the marked route that we have to follow to complete our adventure.
I find interesting to mention the different means of transport depending on the trip that is made. Appropriate cards should be used for traveling by boat, train, and even elephant. The only downside to the cartography is that the colors are perhaps too pale, which makes it difficult to read the map. Still, a good way to go sightseeing from home and help to reduce CO2 emissions.
Another board game with an excellent map is Merchants and Marauders. The action takes place in the Caribbean Sea, where the colonial powers of Spain, Great Britain, the Netherlands and France, vie for control of the New World’s riches through trade and pillage.
The great level of detail of the coasts, the shaded relief of the continent and the islands, and the striking blue tones of the sea are obvious. It is a very precise map and the sea is divided into different areas according to the closest port (Port Royal, Caracas, Cartagena, Curaçao, Santo Domingo…), which reminds me quite of the Voronoi diagrams. It is also quite curious that the maritime sections have the cardinal points written on their limits with the rest of the areas.
Another very enriching detail is the presence of flags in the ports, which considerably conditions the movements that the players make when crossing the warm waters of the Caribbean. A player belongs to one of the factions and, consequently, will be hunted and bombed by the rest of the empires.
As you can see, the theme is spectacular, the map is simple and colorful, but the level of impact on the game is not decisive, although it is important.
Now, if what you are looking for is a board game where the map is a headache to make your decisions, sign up for Diplomacy. This game is a classic for lovers of geopolitics, aka backstabbing.
The cartographic and historical context is the Europe of 1914, where players can control the nations of the United Kingdom, France, Italy, Germany, Russia, the Ottoman Empire, and Austria-Hungary.
As in Risk, the creators of the game have opted for an unofficial regionalization of the territories, assigning names based on the most important city or historical region (Paris, Burgundy, Piedmont, Tyrol, Galicia, etc.), and personally I like these categorizations, even if they are more or less accurate. It also has a maritime division in the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean, which limits the turns required for the movement of troops by sea.
The theme is very recurrent, like many of the board games that are inspired by war conflicts, and the impact of the map on the game is superlative.
To finish, here is a graph with the final evaluation of the board games that I have dared to rate. If it existed, the perfect game would reach 15 points, so we will have to settle for the 12 global points that Diplomacy, Merchants and Marauders, and Around the World in 80 Days have achieved. What do you think?
These are some of the board games that use cartography as the central element of their game. Much to my regret, I have had to leave out many maps that I have found, but it is only a matter of time before they end up appearing in GeographicMind. Until then, I hope you have enjoyed the fascinating connection between cartography and board games.