Through much of human history, our world was imagined with all manner of mythical creatures, making every trek to foreign lands, every time you step in a boat fraught with danger. Here Be Dragons steps back to those times, making those imagined monsters real. You play as a fleet of captains sailing the Atlantic Ocean ahead of Christopher Columbus, clearing the path to The New World from whales, krakens and even Neptune, the God of the Seas.
You journey across a living map made to look like ancient scrolls from the time, tackling these monsters in turn-based battles. You need both luck and strategy to progress through the game. A set of dice is rolled for both you and your enemy to share, with one die per ship in play. The first to claim their dice is the player that used the lowest cumulative total from their previous turn, which in game is called ‘initiative’.
Turns begin with the Salvo, which can be best described as a melee attack, before moving on to special attacks. This is where you strategically use the die to perform actions on a ship-by-ship basis. Each ship will have two options for actions; either an attack or healing. Some will require two dice to take effect, and thus two turns, while others will only need one, allowing them to be more instantaneous. Furthermore, most actions require specific rolls, either a range such as 4-6, or even limited to one specific number. The attack format is fairly intricate, and took me a few battles to understand the mechanics, but once I did, the game became much less frustrating and far more enjoyable.
As the game progressed, more attacks had special effects such as causing the enemy to bleed, be poisoned, causing additional damage in subsequent turns, or be pinned, which blocked their attack for a turn. If you can’t use a die or chose not to, you can sacrifice them and take one damage point to all of your ships for each one you give up.
You can also find and pick up ‘bottles of grog’, two per turn and one per enemy killed, which can be used to pay for extras. These included affecting the die, giving you the ability to re-roll or increasing and decreasing the value of a die, or affecting the gameplay. This could include healing, or towards the end of the game, the ability a sunken ship, which made the game remarkably easier – it’s much more difficult to win the battle with only one ship, after all.
As if this wasn’t detailed enough, certain battles have landscape affects. Rolling Fog or a Sea of Acid can inflict damage or potentially render your attacks useless. All of these elements combined created a challenging and genuinely enjoyable game to play.
As you clear the path for Christopher Columbus, Here Be Dragons tries to take on a satirical tone, but widely misses the mark. In fact, I couldn’t find any real satire through the game, which instead uses basic caricatures that rely on the same singular joke for each captain. Columbus’ depiction was especially disappointing, making him nothing more than a complete moron, as if he were a child exploring in a park and not traversing dangerous oceans. The rest of the playable captains followed suit, each having a single character trait they follow so closely that the spoken text end up being difficult to read.
The plot is lost in this this tight characterisation and is barely apparent in between the awful jokes. I didn’t even realise that I’d reached the final battle until the credits started to roll. While this isn’t exactly the end of the world, it left a feeling of incompletion to the ending of the game and was more disappointing than aggravating.
The monsters are one of my favourite elements of this game, each well thought out and beautifully depicted (in stark contrast to the captains). Each has their own special abilities that works with the mythical aspects of their being. Mermaids can seduce you, blocking attacks until you pay to remove it, while a Hydra will regrow its head after being killed. While nothing with mythological origins can be truly realistic, they were at least true to the legends surrounding them.
That is nothing on the artwork of the rest of the game, though. Clearly inspired by cartography, the sepia toned world inspires exploration and travel. The splashes of colour are far and few between, using what looks like black ink to show the world you inhabit, as if you’ve fallen directly into the map. It’s gorgeous.