Here Be Dragons Review02 Mar 2020 0
Here Be Dragons Review
Released 30 Jan 2020
In the last decade, we’ve seen a significant increase in board games making their way back into mainstream experience. In particular, the eurogame aesthetic gained significant traction.
It can be best described as games with a high level of abstraction between the choices and 'actions' taken by the player and of the in game representation mechanically of that action. Visually, they became known for a very abstract nonrepresentational style.
Here Be Dragons is very consistent about the copy they use to describe the game:
Here Be Dragons is a satirical turn-based strategy game featuring unique "living map" graphics, where you lead a group of crazed captains and eradicate legendary monsters in order to allow Christopher Columbus the discovery of the New World.
All of that is true but it doesn't really get to the heart of this game. HBD is inspired by that kind of game play, like other recent games like Dicey Dungeons and Tharsis; games where players allocate dice to activate actions which have special effects determined by the assigned die.
The framing conceit is that you are the captain of a small fleet of ships, each of which has 2 or 3 actions available actions with special effects, and you proceed through a series of set piece storylines which force a change of captain and the ships (and thus powers) in each, against a particular type of enemy group which changes by mission with their own thematic powers.
Along the way you manually click on the board when you see 'bottles of grog' floating in the water after destroying an enemy or getting off a particularly good attack, which let you activate 'rewrites', the ability to affect your powers or the dice (e.g. spending two bottles in order to increase a die or decrease a die by one, or force a reroll, or activate a power without sufficient dice). This is the only mitigation against the random dice pool and setting the ease of getting these bottles is the only method the game uses to tune difficulty.
At the beginning of a turn a D6 for each ship on the board is rolled and whoever has Initiative allocates dice first. You gain Initiative for the round by having the lowest sum of dice on your ships at the end of the allocation phase. The tension is whether to take all the high dice for yourself and give up Initiative. From a design perspective, this pressure is somewhat impeded by the fact that not all ships get particular good out of high dice. Any side that is left with dice that they can't allocate takes a point of damage to each of the ships at the end of the round.
After the allocation phase, there is a shooting round in which the Cannon stat on each of your ships is compared against the Armor stat of a given target and damage is inflicted if your Cannon is higher. In the Actions phase, any actions with enough dice allocated to activate go off and generally do damage which ignores Armor as well as triggers some special effect.
Finally, in the Special Effects phase, any effects like Poison, which gives damage over time, are activated and then the round begins again with die allocation.
That's all the dry stuff. Around those mechanics is a pile of goofy writing, ironic comedy, pop-culture references, and absolutely insane characters which are carried along on very cute, cardboard cutout-style art and its ludicrous nautical story about how Christopher Columbus could never have achieved the discovery of the Americas without these fleets of mad men clearing the way across the ocean, wrestling it free from the control of hideous sea monsters. Going into that would lead very quickly into spoiler territory so we'll simply say that not everything is exactly what it seems – except for some things which are exactly what they seem.
From a technical perspective, HBD is not a particularly demanding creation. It has strong and obvious roots which go down into mobile game sensibility. In fact, I would be extremely surprised if the game did not end up on tablets and mobile phones. On the positive side, this means that the actual physical interface isn't that complicated. It's made up of dragging and dropping dice or clicking on ships to then click on their target.
Who They Are
It shouldn't really come as a surprise that the developers have built a game which is effectively a mobile board design on the PC because the creator started as a co-founder of the company responsible for the digital adaptations of Neuroshima Hex, Eclipse: New Dawn for the Galaxy, and Caylus, all of which are adaptations of already extant board games. The rest of the team is rounded out by a group the website is unashamed to refer to as nerds and geeks. Working out of Warsaw, Poland, HBD is their first game.
What I Think
Let's start with the absolute gold. The presentation of the game, the art, even the sound design, is great. The writing is consistently funny and the creators have a sense of plot and where they want things to go, which is obvious from the beginning of the first story. Despite that the personalities of the characters aren't really important in and of themselves but only influence the way some of their action mechanics are chosen, the energy invested in establishing them is not wasted. You will enjoy playing the next mission just to see how this mad story plays out. It's cute, it's enjoyable, and the experience surrounding the mechanics is excellent. But those dice.
Here Be Dragons spent quite a while in Early Access, finally dropping out and into full release on January 30th 2020. It's no surprise that the audience for their EA was excited but some real reservations bubbled to the top.
Mechanically, RNG becomes more important than your tactical considerations as the game progresses. Especially in tactical setups where your enemy is completely invulnerable and un-targetable by any of your effects for one reason or another, there is often little you can do to better your position than hold out and wait for RNJesus to bless you. (Ghost pirate ships, I'm looking at you. Being unable to be targeted combined with being absolutely free to themselves fire their overpowered cannons without dropping their stealth is an absolute nightmare.) This can be extremely frustrating. The limited ability to manipulate the dice rolls on the table with your Rewrites, even with more of them available by being on Easy difficulty, doesn’t entirely help.
The game is kind enough to notice that you have failed on a mission several times in a row and will offer to allow you to set the difficulty down at the Restart button, but there's nowhere to go down from Easy.
Beating each of the missions allows you to change your ships in that story in one way, choosing from just a few options, but I never got the feeling that there was anything other than 'one right choice' in each of those selections and if you didn't pick the one that the developers wanted you to, you wasted your time – and you probably wouldn't know that until you pounded your head against whatever wall was vexing you. In order to change that selection you have to go back to the mission screen and reselect a previous mission in that story and nothing in the interface suggests that you can or should be able to do so. For this part of the game there's very little feedback which would guide you to realize your problem.
Perhaps more frustrating than RNG needing to go your way is the fact that I ran into several game bugs where the game simply stops in the middle of resolution. The UI remained responsive, I could activate menus, but the game itself simply didn't move on to the next phase of play. I couldn't nail this down to something consistent that could be reproduced, but most of the times it happened to me were in stories 9 and 10. The early game was flawless.
To sum up, I spent a fair amount of time with Here Be Dragons and enjoyed it quite thoroughly – right up until the moment that it felt like my decisions and my planning were absolutely and utterly at the whim of dice with situations deliberately set up to frustrate rather than challenge me. Some of the last few missions were unsatisfying because it felt like I won not because I made good decisions and marshalled my resources but because I had a lucky fall of the dice. It's at that moment my experience soured a little bit. Your mileage may vary.
If you're looking for that almost Roguelike feeling where you keep playing until everything falls together and you feel great because you have carefully managed your risks and rewards until RNJesus blesses you and you can capitalize on it, this very well may be something that you will play for years. If your tolerance for frustration is somewhat lower, this might be something that you want to avoid.