Games Where You Build The Map As You Go

There is little so exciting in gaming as a half explored map. It’s the same feeling that led golden age explorers to strike out across the here-be-dragons parts of the oceans and scale dangerous mountains to see what was over the horizon. These days we can do all that from the comfort of home by just scrolling Google Maps, but there are some great games that recapture that feeling, and that rely on you not knowing how the board will end up looking. It’s a great mechanic, here are some to check out!

CARCASSONE

When laying the first tile for writing about games that build maps, well, it just had to be Carcassonne, the game that turned building a map into the game itself! One of the all time great “gateway games” and a timeless classic that has gotten so many people into the hobby, this is a game that chopped up a map of castles, fields and roads in medieval France (yes, we’re back here again) and gets you to rebuild them, but unlike a normal jigsaw, you can build it however you want (well, with a few exceptions…)

Carcassonne has you draw a random tile each turn and add it to the table to expand upon what others have placed, but, of course, you are hoping to build this map in a way that will maximise your score and hamper others, can you finish that road you have two workers on? Can you merge castles with an opponent? Especially great with 2 players but good at any number, if you’ve never played it but always meant to, definitely give it a go. If you have played it, good isn’t it?

INIS

The board in this gorgeous game of tribes in ancient Ireland starts as 3 hexes, randomly dealt, and in each round one or two more get added, bringing new options to the players and drawing impressed “oohs” from passersby as the art really is that good. A key way to win is to get clansmen into six different areas so the expansion of this board is a crucial part of the game and incredibly satisfying to see as the raggedly cut tiles tesselate beautifully.

Inis is a fantastic, fast paced but deep game of card drafting, careful planning and negotiation. You see, these are reasonable people out here in ancient Ireland. You can send your army into a neighbouring map piece and yet have all players simply agree not to fight; maybe you’re all there to enjoy the festival, take in the mountain air, or drink from the waters of Tír na nÓg. Or, actually, you can just fight, and if you win, maybe a bard will write an epic tale of your victory! (That’s a real rule by the way, and who wouldn’t want that?)

XIA – LEGENDS OF A DRIFT SYSTEM

But now, to space! A sandbox game (you may well know) is one where you can run around and do whatever you want, with a few rules splashed around just to keep you on course. They’re some of my favourite games and I’m sure we’ll sort you a list soon of the best ones, but for now, here’s a sneak peek of one of the greats as “Xia – Legends of a Drift System” (you gotta say the whole name) also has one of the most stupid and fun map building rules I’ve played.

In this game, you are piloting a spaceship through an expanding galactic map; to explore a new hex you can either spend a lot of space energy to see what the new tile is first before deciding whether to land on it or not, or… you can gamble! For a lot less precious space energy you can simply flip the tile and that’s where you are. Sometimes it’ll be lovely, peaceful space, but more often than not you’ll crash into an asteroid belt, get caught in the pull of a black hole or just, straight up explode as an ice comet barrels into you.

A game that uses a D20 for movement was always going to have a lot of swingy turns, but that level of danger and fun in flipping a tile is pretty infectious and I’ve yet to see a game where every corner of the map hasn’t been successfully uncovered, often to the sound of laughter and exploding ships.

7th CONTINENT/CITADEL

An adventure game in the style of an old Jules Verne story, 7th Continent sees you play as an explorer in the 1900s that discovers a new landmass and you must explore its dangers to lift curses from this new continent. If you’re a fan of those old school card indexes, the ones you’d pull out of a wood drawer, you’ll be right at home here as everything you’ll use, from items to events to your own ability deck is a beautifully designed square card. These games are proper ‘choose-your-own-adventure’ style but rather than a book to read from, you’ll find more cards along the way. 

The map itself is preset so, okay, you’re not actually building the map as you go, but I thought it worth a mention as the feeling of exploration is so well done. Can you successfully climb that cliff? How will you get across the river? You need to explore to succeed and each map tile uncovered might hold the clue you need, or just some precious items.

The gameplay itself can get a bit tricky with more than two players and 7th Continent has a bit of an issue with having to make camp too often, all issues supposedly fixed in the brand new sequel 7th Citadel (yet to play it), but in terms of pure narrative and that feeling of being an explorer abandoned on an unknown map that you must uncover, this hits the spot.

What’s that? You’ve explored all these places and wondered if there were any more mysteries left on the map? Ah go on then, let me jot down two more question marks on your map… 

CASCADIA takes the tile laying, world building idea but has players making their own little mountainous national park land. The twist here is that not only will you score for creating the biggest connected land regions, the tiles also let you know what animals can live there. Plus each tile comes with a random animal token you need to place. Balancing the dual aspect of building your build while populating it is a great puzzle. Can you get those salmon all the way along the river? Let’s hope so, they’re counting on you! 

And, quickly back to space (hurray!) for TERRAFORMING MARS a crunchy, beloved Euro game with some famously clunky card art that sees you work together to build habits (board tiles) on a map of Mars whilst also looking to gain the most profit for your mega-corporation.

Filling a barren board with lush green and blue is very satisfying and if you terraform it enough, you can have pets!

Written by Tom Bell.

If you want to pick up any of these games, check if they’re in stock at Zatu. Buying them there supports No Rolls Barred via our affiliate partnership. Read more here.