Fiiiish! Well, that mightn’t be the world’s most inspiring battle cry, but it’ll have to do. At my command (“fish”) my ships unleash a salvo of cannon balls against my monstrous foes – which range from trident-wielding fish people to overly hungry sharks. Another command (also “fish”) sees my crews desperately repairing my ships, trying to patch enough damage to stay afloat just that much longer. A game of tactical naval battles, with a large dash of bizarre humour thrown in, Here Be Dragons gives players command of increasingly diverse and eccentric captains and their fleets. The game takes the idea that old maps, which marked unknown regions with doodles of monsters and the words ‘here be dragons’, were being literal. The premise of the game: in order to get to the New World, it was first necessary to scour the seas of the monsters blocking the way.
In effect, Here Be Dragons is a computerised tactical board game – and a very solid one at that. While the essence of the game is straight-forward (each turn consists of multiple phases: rolling dice, ordering attacks, and activating any special skills or abilities – like “fish”), there is a large amount of depth. Careful, considered decision-making is not only rewarded, but is a necessity. For example, in each turn players must assign dice to each of their units or face a damage penalty. Whether or not dice can be assigned depends upon the value of the dice and the skills/abilities relating to the relevant unit (for example, some skills require a roll or 1-3, while others a roll of 5-6). As players can see every unit’s abilities and their requirements, players with the initiative (which allows them first choice in any phase) cannot only deny their opponents the use of a particular skill by taking the dice they need, but also leave them with dice they are unable to assign. Further tactical depth is added by the fact that whoever takes the highest value of dice loses the initiative, certain rolls grant additional effects when assigned (a roll of 1 heals one point of damage, and a 6 adds a bonus point of damage for that turn), and there’s a slowly accruing ‘ink’ ability which lets you re-write the ship’s log and tinker with the value of individual dice. If this sounds daunting, worry not, as Here Be Dragons expertly eases players into the game, with the first few missions acting as an ‘invisible tutorial’.
Also, the AI is no push-over, and later battles see players outnumbered or facing foes possessing a range of particularly nasty abilities (such as being able to simultaneously inflict damage whilst healing themselves). This provides a stiff challenge and forces players to think several moves ahead in order to emerge victorious.
Backing Here Be Dragons’ solid tactical gameplay is its visual style. Perfectly fitting the game’s subject matter, giving it a unique look and a certain level of charm, the visual style is that of an animated, cartoon-like map. Breaking up tactical combat is the light-hearted story and humour. While it’s not laugh-out-loud material, there’s bound to be one or two things which cause a chuckle, if not from the cast of highly eccentric characters – including a pirate Christopher Columbus, a fanatical preacher, and the delightfully mad Captain Fish – then from the many references. During my play through, I spotted oblique (and not so oblique) references to James Bond, Star Wars, Monty Python (including an ability labelled ‘Ni!’), Pirates of the Caribbean, and The Man of La Mancha.
All in all, this is an enjoyable, light-hearted, and tactically deep game suitable for the entire family. ■