I love unique games: people were screaming to the heavens about Death Stranding, but I could sit back and appreciate the “art” in its somewhat flawed gaming package. I also love video games that were created from board games. I have a love/hate relationship with a certain dice game that got the better of me from back in 2016 called Tharsis, a brutally difficult punch-in-the-scrotum of a video game.
So, imagine my delight at getting an email in my inbox about a quirky dice game about the intrepid (see also: suicidal) captains tasked in clearing a path through the sea of merfolk and giant worm monsters a full two years before Christopher Columbus’ fateful 1492 voyage to the New World?
Yeah, they had me. But did the game live up to the premise?
There’s your Here Be Dragons storyline, in a nutshell. The game is told by a barkeep narrator, detailing your story through a series of vignettes of various captains and their missions to move forward and deal with the threat of pirates, merfolk, and other various ne’er-do-wells plaguing the Atlantic Ocean. This is not a serious story in the slightest, with each captain having a series of…tics associated with them. One of the captains that you control can only say the word “Fish” (he goes by Captain Fish), until the first signs of battle, at which point he becomes “fabulous” and starts singing greatest hits of disco karaoke from The Village People. Another one has a dead parrot as a pet that he talks with as if it’s alive. A third is simply a woman dressed as a male pirate because she’s afraid no one will take her seriously if they find out she’s a woman. It’s…something else.
How is the dice gameplay? Pretty solid. Each chapter of Here Be Dragons seems to incorporate a new mechanic or gameplay device to keep things pretty active. The game is turn-based combat, where your two ships are forced to battle with a variety of enemies across a variety of scenarios. The games’ rules are brought in very much like a frog being tossed into a pot and bringing the heat up slowly over time. By the time you realize there is so much going on, you look back on how you first started like, “Wow, I’ve learned a lot of mechanics here.” Everything is well described, everything you think of as far as “quality of life” is addressed. Every time I would think to myself, “Boy, wouldn’t it be nice if the game did X, Y, or Z?”, I would mouse over to where I would find that the team at Red Zero Games had already taken care of my concerns.
The pace of combat is simple. Here Be Dragons uses a communal die roll, each player and enemy gets one die: two ships, three enemies = five dice. The dice are rolled, then based on who has initiative, they get to select dice first, slotting the dice into spots onto their side, whether using number to increase cannon damage, repair your ship’s hulls, and prepare various skills. After both sides select dice, you trade attacks and then trade out skills (heals, spells, etc). Then the dice are rolled again, and the generally, the side who had initiative first gives it over to the other side. I’m simplifying things a lot here, and there’s a lot of nuance to it, but you should have a general idea of how it goes at this point.
Is Here Be Dragons fun? Yes, of course. Like any game of chance, there is nothing better than lining up the perfect “wombo combo” on your enemy, getting in that last-minute heal to save the day, or cleverly using your dice to defeat the enemy. It can be a blast.
However, I’ve been so trained in the art of run-based crawlers like FTL or Void Bastards, that only having a single-player campaign and no way to build out your ships, select skills, and see how far to the New World you can get in a run is a shame. You get assigned story-based ships and skills with each chapter, and each time, just when you start getting used to a layout or build, the chapter ends and you’re saddled with a new crew and series of skills. You level up your ships for a few points, but then you’re right back to a new way to play. As this is a single-player game, if you get to a part where you are stuck (where I am right now), there’s really nothing more you can do except reload the chapter, try again. There are no real stakes at play; it’s literally a situation of “how many times do you have to re-run a scenario until the dice fall perfectly for you”. This game needs a run based section ASAP.
Overall, most board game players will love this handcrafted gem of a title; Red Zero Games has put together a very good digital board game, but there’s definitely a concern about Here Be Dragons’ replayability given its single-player campaign-only focus.