As someone who didn’t grow up in America, my childhood wasn’t spent being indoctrinated into an absurd level of patriotism and reverence for Chrisopher Columbus – the Italian explorer, coloniser, and all-round bastard credited with discovering the continent.
It’s probably a good thing too, or I might have been offended by the portrayal of him in Here Be Dragons, a turn-based strategy game that tells an alternate version of events leading up to Columbus’ famous voyage; with the inclusion of a few extra sea monsters.
Truth be told, the thing that first drew me to this game was the art direction. Here Be Dragons presents itself with the aesthetics of an old-timey map, all sketchy hand-drawn boats and leviathans on a browning paper background. I’m not normally interested in turn-based strategy games, but this unique and charming graphics style did a great job of grabbing my attention. I’ve got to give huge amounts of credit to the artists for that. Whatever you’re paying them, Red Zero Games, it’s not enough.
As well as the quirky art style, Here Be Dragons also goes for quite a comedic tone with its writing. The characters are weird, eccentric and their dialogue is generally entertaining, but after a couple of hours I was already sick of the Monty Python quotes. Relax, I’m not having a go at your comedy heroes, but let’s be honest: “Dead Parrot” references are the absolute bottom of the barrel when it comes to a certain strain of middle-class humour.
At first glance, Here Be Dragons’ gameplay looks like any standard turn-based combat setup; the type you might find in, say, a classic Final Fantasy game. You’ve got your fleet of ships arranged on the left, with the enemy vessels or sea creatures you’ll be taking down on the right. There are a few pretty big differences to make things more interesting, however.
A set of dice is rolled at the start of every turn, one for each unit on screen, which can be assigned to actions or used to buff your ship. Each action requires you to roll within a specific range of numbers; a “Repair” action might require a 1 or a 2, whereas you could use a 5 or a 6 to improve your ship’s attack stat. Once you have assigned your dice, the rest are distributed between the enemy party and the turn begins. Each side starts by doing a standard “salvos” attack, then each performs whichever actions have had dice assigned to them.
Here it gets a big more complicated. The party that has a lower total value of dice will gain “initiative”, meaning they attack first and will also get first dibs on assigning dice at the start of the next turn; a very valuable advantage, as it turns out. You can choose not to assign a die to one or several of your ships, making it more likely for you to maintain initiative, but for each die left unassigned your entire party takes one point of damage.
It’s an intriguing strategy system and it’s introduced gradually enough to feel fairly natural once you’re past Here Be Dragons‘ tutorial missions. I do feel like I was slightly misled though, because when the “initiative” concept was first introduced, the game made such a huge deal about it that it became my number one priority at the start of every turn. This led to me getting consistently pulverised – and I found myself completely stuck on the first mission in which the enemy monsters outnumbered my ships.
After about 20 tries, I discovered a more effective strategy was to take note of which dice values your enemies can’t use (many of them only have actions that require a 3-5, for example), and try to make sure they’re left with as many of these unusable numbers as possible. This means they take damage for each unassigned die and also don’t have as many actions to use against you that turn. That makes a big difference, even if it usually results with them gaining initiative. There is no hard and fast rule when playing Here Be Dragons though; I’ve managed to scrape my way through several strategy games in the past by basically using the same tactics for every battle, but that won’t work here. Each encounter requires a thorough evaluation of each party’s stats and attacks, then you need to think creatively to find an effective plan of action.
Having dice as a central mechanic can be quite frustrating, because a few unlucky rolls can render you completely screwed in a battle. It never feels fair to fail on the whim of a random number generator, after all. Here Be Dragons attempts to combat this with a system called “errata”, with which you can spend ink bottles (which are earned at the end of every turn or when an enemy is defeated) on re-rolling specific dice and healing your ship, then later on you can increase or decrease dice values by 1 and execute actions without needing dice at all.
Here’s a tip: it’s the skills you unlock later in the game that are actually worth a jolt. I didn’t find much of a use for the ink bottles in the first few campaigns, which was quite perplexing because Here Be Dragons‘ “Easy Mode” simply increases the amount you get between each turn. Re-rolling sounds like a useful mechanic at first, but you soon find that combating randomness with more randomness is a pointless exercise. I honestly think that over 75% of my re-rolls just ended up as the same number I started with, so I may as well have just used that ink to draw penises all over the Irish Sea.
I’m not sure why, but relying on random dice rolling in a video game feels much more unfair than when you’re playing an actual board game like Monopoly. With a physical game you have them in your hand, you feel the weight of the dice and you yourself guide them as they are rolled – even if the result is effectively random. With a computer you can’t help but imagine it as a malevolent third party in control of your destiny. Oh sure computer, I just happened to re-roll the same number seven times in a row – and I suppose it’s totally legit that the machine in control of rolling the dice is the very same machine in control of the giant Hydra I’m fighting. No conflict of interest there!
While it initially took me a while to get into, and the random nature of the encounters can sometimes be annoying, there’s a lot to enjoy with Here Be Dragons. Once the gameplay clicked, I was thoroughly absorbed; I began to relish each of my strategic victories and even enjoyed the dialogue more as I kept promising myself “just one more mission”. I’m not sure how well it would hold up to a serious strategy fan, but I was definitely considering my actions much more carefully than I would in most turn-based games. On the other hand, there is a clear barrier to entry for less experienced tacticians. If a newbie like me failed to get the hang of the dice mechanics early on I could easily see someone else being put off and giving up. That would be a shame though, because on the other side of that wall there’s a fun little party with all your favourite sea monsters.