Explore, Build and Fight in “Here Be Dragons” Board Game

Every gamer is at heart an explorer and adventurer. Venturing into the unknown, sword in hand, ready to take on whatever they may encounter. Study the earliest maps of the world and anywhere the cartographers weren’t sure about they’d include pictures of sea monsters and dragons, with the inscription here be dragons. That’s the inspiration for the fun resource building and world exploration board game “Here Be Dragons: Into The Unknown“. Designed by Kim Aberg & Kim Jansson and published by Todys Games, it’s also a fun introduction to more complex tile-laying world exploration games like Xia and The Legend of Drizzt.

The game can be played by 2-4 adventurers and there’s also a solo mode. I cover the solo mode in this review. Fortunately, the gameplay is almost identical, the primary difference being that in solitaire mode you aren’t fighting other players for land, just expanding your world as fast as possible before you encounter one or more of the powerful bosses. “Here Be Dragons” also has the great benefit of being quick and easy to set up…

HERE BE DRAGONS: INTO THE UNKNOWN BASIC SETUP

Each player receives a Player Board that lets you track your score and weapon development, along with settlement tokens. There are 80 hexagonal tiles placed in a cloth bag and are then randomly withdrawn and added to the map (meaning every single game has a unique world to explore). 20 dice are included for battles, and there are Event cards and Monster cards, the former divided into Quests and Spells, the latter into level 1-2, level 3-4, and level 5 monsters. Spread out on the table it looks like this:

here be dragons board game - solo game setup

Since I’m playing the solo game, of course, there’s only one set of tokens (blue), along with one player board. Cards with the “E” on them are Event cards, cards with an “M” are monster cards (split into three piles based on level). Notice the four blue tokens on the lower right; those are my settlements, starting with a village, then, left-to-right, a town, fort, and citadel. You can build one village, then upgrading it requires that you have established districts on the board; every three districts produces an upgrade. The bigger the settlement, the more victory points are gained and the more gold is produced each round.

In the center of the photo is a black dragon head token and purple card. That’s The Devourer, and not only is it monstrously strong, but once it appears, all the tiles on the board begin to get corrupted, losing all their production value, discarding any district cubes (which affects your ability to upgrade your settlement), and flipping over to expose the corrupted side. Once it’s spread and every tile is corrupted, you’ve lost, game over. Finally, the gray tokens denote monsters who are residing on a hex and must be defeated if you enter that location. Monster tokens also apply if you encounter a dungeon, as I’ll experience a bit later in the game!

Critical to the game is improving your fighting ability. This is done by earning and then spending gold. Here’s the top portion of the player board with all the possible upgrades:

here be dragons board game - tech tree close up

You start out with two battle dice – the sword with the ‘2’ by our two cubes. To upgrade to a Dagger, for example, which adds another battle die to each skirmish costs 3 gold. To then upgrade that to a Sword, which adds yet another die costs an additional 6 gold.

The lower portion of the board is where you keep track of everything other than your weapon strength and capabilities…

here be dragons board game - lower portion player board

This tracks, top to bottom, victory points, gold, resources, influence, and health. There are lots of different ways to play Here Be Dragons and lots of optional additions to make the game harder. For this writeup, I’m going to use the solo rules and play to attain 10 victory points before The Devourer attacks or I lose so many battles that my health goes to zero. Worth knowing is that 10 influence points can be converted into a victory point, a handy way to bump ahead as needed.

While exploration is the name of the game, you want to encounter and overcome monsters as frequently as possible too. Each monster has a unique Monster card:

here be dragons board game - monster cards

The Amphiptere is a level 1-2 monster, the Wyvern is a level 3-4 monster, and the Void Dragon is a level 5 monster. Top left is how many battle dice they bring to a fight (and how many health points you’ll lose if you are defeated in battle, so that Void Dragon can sap 50% of your total health in a single attack!) Overcome the beast and you earn everything on the top right, gold, resources, influence points, even victory points.

here be dragons board game - event cards

Event cards, shown above, have a similar design. Those with a small bag symbol are Items and are held by a player until needed (max of 5 in your hand), while those with an eye symbol are Quests and are available to all. In the above, Blackmail in solo mode allows you to place a district cube for free, while Bloodmoon rewards 4 gold, 3 resources, 2 influence, and 1 victory point if you find and defeat a wolf!

PLAYING HERE BE DRAGONS: INTO THE UNKNOWN

The game really isn’t that complex, though it retains all the core ideas of Dungeons & Dragons and many other dungeon crawler-type board games. A turn consists of moving to a new space, adding a hex tile as needed, drawing and playing an Event card, reaping any income due from your settlement, then building and attacking as desired. On my first move, I drew a pretty tough opening tile:

here be dragons board game - first tile placed

This is a mountain tile adjacent to the starting ship tile, its discovery rewards me with 2 resources (the ‘2’ on the bottom) and is a lair for level 3-4 monsters (the top icon). I can’t really take on higher-level monsters in the very first turn, so we’ll leave them undisturbed.

A few turns later I reveal a forest where I can find level 1-2 monsters. A roll to see if I encounter one and I do! The card is flipped and it’s a Corrupted Warrior:

here be dragons board game - battle monster win

By this point, I have managed to upgrade my weapons so I have three dice for each battle (the black dice) while the Warrior has a single die, as denoted on the top left of its card. I roll all four and then it’s a simple process of pairing up highest to lowest from both dice pools. My 6 beats its 5 so I defeat the Corrupted Warrior! WOOT! I earn 1 gold and 1 resource (top right of the card). The reward for defeating this Corrupted Warrior wasn’t just gold and a resource, however, because one of the Quest cards matched up with this task:

here be dragons board game - victory point from quest card

Killing this level 1 Warrior also yielded all the quest rewards too, meaning that, in total, the victory was worth 4 gold, 3 resources, 4 influence points and a victory point. That’s pretty good for a dice roll, when my win comes from attaining 10 victory points total!

Ya know what they say about being lulled into a false sense of confidence, though, right? Because it wasn’t much later that I encountered the Dungeon! This is a beast of a tile because you have to defeat a level 1-2, a level 3-4, and a level 5 monster to clear the space. I quickly defeated the level 1-2, but that level 3-4? Well…

here be dragons board game - dungeon and monsters

I had four fight dice, but the Elfling Chief wins ties, so his red 6 beat my black 6, his red 5 beat my black 4 (twice!) and, well, my black 4 beat his red 3, until the next roll where it was 3 red die versus mine. The long and short of it was that I did not succeed, and this cost me four health.

From the jaws of defeat to the pinnacle of victory (well, almost), I then drew a Watchtower tile:

here be dragons board game - watchtower

Watchtowers are fantastic because you immediately reveal every empty adjacent tile and reap the rewards of any and all tiles that yield something. A quick collection of resources that allowed me to drop a couple more district cubes (you can annex areas even if your player isn’t present) and build my settlement up to a citadel, yielding 2 victory points and 2 gold per round.

At that point I was really close to the win, as you can see: 9 victory points, 9 influence points (remember, 10 influence points = 1 victory point) and The Devourer still hasn’t appeared on the map to battle…

here be dragons board game - almost winning

In fact, defeating a lowly level 1 monster proved enough to win the game because of another Quest card:

here be dragons board game - quest card for the win

By this point, I had an impressive 5 battle dice, against the Elfling’s 1 die, well, it wasn’t much of a competition. The Eyes in the Dark Quest gained me another victory point and that was good enough for the win!

THOUGHTS ON HERE BE DRAGONS: INTO THE UNKNOWN

There’s a lot to like about this fun and straightforward area exploration game with its simple battles, challenging tech improvement tree, and engaging mix of tiles and terrain. It’s also pretty easy with just the basic rules in solo mode, so you’ll quickly want to ramp it up with more monsters and variant rules (all detailed in the rulebook). Multiplayer would be a very different game because of the inevitable competition for resources, particularly competition to annex tiles that would allow players to develop settlements.

There are, however, a couple of problems with this first game from the production team at Todys Games. The rulebook is confusing and could do with a rewrite by a native English speaker. Just as importantly, the bag for the terrain tiles is way too small for all 80 hexagon tiles. The result is that there’s no shaking or mixing up possible: I found myself dumping it all into the lid and using that to randomize the tiles, then jamming them all into the bag. I presume that it was originally sized for smaller tiles? A significantly larger bag would be a boon for gameplay.

Here Be Dragons: Into The Unknown also suffers from a problem that a small percentage of board games have; the components don’t fit into the box once you’ve punched everything out and played a game or two. There’s a tray for organization, but it doesn’t have space for the hex terrain tiles, whether in the bag or not. Add those six (thick) player boards, and everything else and you won’t be closing the lid neatly ever again. Most game designers are really good about ensuring that the boxing up experience is pleasant – and some are fantastic with their post-game organization – but Todys Games did not manage that with Here Be Dragons. A possible solution would be to bag components and discard the organizational tray.

Still, those are admittedly just quibbles. Overall this is a really fun game and I’m going to keep playing solo mode with tougher and tougher scenarios and monsters for the joy of exploration and (hopefully) victory. If you like tile-laying exploration games, this is definitely one to consider for your collection too.

Here Be Dragons: Into The Unknown, by Todys Games. About $71 for the full Adventurer Bundle. Coming to Kickstarter!

Disclosure: Todys Games send me a copy of the game in return for this candid review. Thanks!

dave taylor vertigo film swirl backgroundPlanet Dave is run by Dave Taylor, who has been writing about film, cars, games, and his lifestyle for many years. He's based in Boulder, Colorado and assures readers he's only occasionally falling into a gravity well or temporal distortion field.

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