Drawing terrain on a hexed grid is an activity I find to be calming, engaging and immersive. I wasn't aware of the appeal of mapping until last year, when I first played Mike Heim's 1872: The Lost Crows. 1872 was the latest in a series of one-page roll 'n' map games that the designer has been putting out since 2016. Each of them takes place in the same year, in a different century and setting.
A party of people or a solitary figure is always 'lost', and you have to help them find their way. Random events may benefit or harm them, and the various types of terrain affect the ease of their movement. A new game by Heim, 1472: The Lost Samurai, is currently taking part in the 2020 Roll 'N' Write Game Design Contest on BGG, and is ready for playtesting. This motivated me to go through the series and play every game released so far. A few hiccups with the rules hindered my progress, but I did try them all and recorded my impressions (presented below in the chronological order of each game's release).
1572: The Lost Expedition - The game that laid the foundations of the series. Total disaster for me, given my gaming tastes. First of all, I could not understand a couple of key rules. I had to look for explanations in threads where other people encountered the same problems.
You are playing as a group of Spanish Conquistadors lost in the mountains. Your goal is to survive long enough to reach the coast and signal for help. You are supposed to roll a number of dice and allocate them to actions. The fact that you have to roll for every single action phase, and not just the ones that you allocate dice to, should have been made clear in the rules. I also had trouble figuring out how movement works. Again, not sufficiently explained.
I started playing, tried to make some progress in a way that seemed correct but quickly lost interest. There is almost zero decision space in the game, besides boosting some numbers with your rolls. If my experience wasn't ruined by frustration with the rules, I might have given The Lost Expedition a proper chance and finished it. The premise is good, and the theme is reminiscent of Werner Herzog's film 'Aguirre'. Gameplay is entirely luck-based, however, which makes me reluctant to revisit it.
1672: The Lost Crew - In this game, you are controlling four members of a shipwrecked crew somewhere in the Pacific. Your goal is to sail to the end of the map and reach the Indies. You use coins to represent the characters, and start with full water and food supplies, and the hull of your boat in good condition.
You place your 'workers' on the action spots that you deem necessary for the round, and perform the actions: navigate the boat, fish, watch the weather or scout ahead. On each turn, you must consume food and water. Doldrums slow you down, and storms damage your hull. When you find an island, you gather resources and may meet the natives. Most effects are decided by dice rolls.
Once again, sloppy job with the rules. I thought that you roll for terrain when the boat moves into a new hex, regardless of sailor placement. It turns out that when you don't, the hex is automatically considered to be open seas. But I found out too late by searching the forums, so my playthrough in the image above is incorrect. Nonetheless, besides the pleasant mapping activity there is not much going on here. I felt that the game needed to be fleshed out a bit more.
1972: The Lost Phantom - Now we are talking. 1972 is a big improvement in the system compared to 1572 and 1672. You are playing as an American soldier stranded somewhere deep in the Vietnamese jungle. You have to muster all your strength to cross various types of terrain in order to reach the river and escape the VietCong pursuers.
Crystal clear rules. You first map the adjacent hexes, then roll 2 dice to see if an event takes place. These small story snippets give flavour to the game and bring it to life. Then, it's time to allocate as many dice to actions as your endurance allows. It makes sense. You need to be in good shape to cross jungles, swamps and rice paddies. You also have to be stealthy. If the enemies find you, you lose. And health can deteriorate quickly in this inhospitable environment. In my playthrough, I didn't manage to reach the final destination. A sniper got sight of me and bang! Goodnight, Vietnam.
1872: The Lost Crows - This one is my favourite. You play as the Chief of a tribe of Native Americans, fleeing your territory in fear of the US Cavalry. Your goal is to survive long enough to cross the Canadian border.
Once again you start with full resources and have to regulate how to spend them, as they get easily depleted. To perform actions, you roll pairs of dice and try to get a result of 2 or 3 when you subtract the bottom number from the top. When you arrive at specific points on the map, you consult an event chart that gives you a story bit and a choice. You cannot expect to constantly roll well, of course, which means that you have to choose the least harmful consequence.
In my latest playthrough, after advancing through the plains, I got horribly stuck in a loop and wasted many turns trying to get back on track. I think 1872 is the most thematic one in the series. I could easily imagine the tribe going through hardships, and details like the Shaman having visions and reading bad omens add to the atmosphere. If you choose to play only one in the series, I think you should pick this one.
1472: The Lost Samurai - The latest installment in the series, a WIP at the moment, but seems like a complete game to me. You are an aspiring Samurai, traveling across an island and gathering evidence that the evil master Shugodai should be deposed. To win, you must gain 8 Bushido traits (Integrity, Respect, Compassion, Loyalty etc.) and also reach the city of Gusuku on the map.
You are required to do resource management, push dice rolls for movement, and go after events to possibly gain character traits. Events are not the only source of traits, however. You can also gain them by gathering clues and forming tetrominoes(!) on a grid. This particular mechanism may be intriguing gameplay-wise but, frankly, it makes zero thematic sense.
The designer provides flavour text to read when you get an event, but when you become honorable through a completed tetromino, you have to supply the story yourself (and write it down). Battles are conducted via another mini-game in which you roll dice and subtract the bottom number from the top to see if you won. In my session, I found it hard to balance all the required elements, turned treacherous and died. 1492 adds an interesting twist to the XX72 system with the extra mini games, but I'm not yet convinced it surpasses1872. I am eager to try it again, though.
So there you have it. Five different mapping games for you to choose from. The designer recommends that you keep notes when you play, like in a journal, to further enhance the experience. I did this for both 1872 and 1972 and, indeed, it helps bring together a narrative. What really draws the player into the theme, however, is the colouring activity. And it is very satisfying to look at the result in the end. If the idea of making colourful maps intrigues you, I recommend finding your way through any of these games, and giving them a try.