Hexplore It’s unique mix of dragons, dry erase markers, math, and maps that matter

, | Game reviews

All right, let’s get this out of the way. The name “Hexplore It”, or “HEXplore It” if you want to get technical. Why would someone call this game that? Maybe it’s a warning that the map has hexes, but who’s still scared of hexes these days? I’m more scared of square tiles. Can I move diagonally? Does it cost extra? Why not? There’s less to remember with hexes. The Hexplore It developers went further, though. One of the faces on each die is marked with a HEX logo. Replacing the 6 on the d6 makes sense, since a hexagon has six sides, a six-sided die, fair enough. But how do they explain the 1 on the d10 being replaced by a HEX logo? And more importantly, why would a crunchy, in-depth, detailed, hardcore fantasy saga get a name that sounds like something inflicted on third graders forced to learn geometry? Fortunately, the folks who made this game gave it the subtitle “Valley of the Dead King”, which is a much more sensible name for a hardcore fantasy saga. They’re currently Kickstartering a sequel subtitled “The Forests of Adrimon”. Think of Hexplore It as an unfortunate prefix.

Hexplore It isn’t a dungeon crawler. It’s a continent crawler. A bit of a survival game, too. Each turn, the characters roll navigation to determine if they’ve gotten where they meant to go. Then they roll exploration to determine if they found any loot along the way. Finally they roll survival to determine whether they need to dig into their rations. These rolls are affected by how cautiously they moved across the map of hexes. For instance, if they traveled recklessly, you have to decide whether to roll exploration for loot or survival for saving up food. You can’t roll for both because your adventurers were in a hurry. But they got to move six hexes. However, if they camp, you get a bonus to all their rolls. But they got to move zero hexes.

A row of flipped up Circumstance cards — you’d be hard pressed to come up with a more anodyne name for the sorts of things that happen in the Circumstance deck — looms over you each turn. They’re face up, in a row, just looming. Look what might happen, they murmur ominously. You roll a d6 each turn to determine which one you’ll have to resolve. Will it be the Phase Beasts? Or a Flash Flood? Or Bandits? Or maybe you’ll get lucky and roll the Lucky Rabbit’s Foot card at the end of the row? One of the advantages of moving slowly or camping is that you can discard the Circumstance you rolled. So what if I roll the monster, the flood, or the bandits? I’ll just discard it.

But sometimes you get a situation where all five cards are boons. I’ve got Trailblazing Boots, Accalon’s Astrolab, Cave System, Fisherman’s Luck, and a Treasure Chamber showing. A flipping Treasure Chamber! Do you know how much gold is in there? Because I don’t. It involves making a lot of die rolls and adding up numbers to calculate how much gold is in there. It’ll probably be a lot.

So naturally, I’m happy to run around at top speed and resolve whichever one of these five propitious circumstances I roll. Did I mention that you roll a d6 to determine which card you resolve? Five cards, but a d6. So what happens if you roll the 6? In that case, you draw the top card of the deck. Sometimes something unexpected happens.

Naturally, I roll a 6. Five helpful cards, and I have to blindly take whatever is sitting on top of the deck. Oh well. It can’t be that bad, can it? A dragon. It is that bad. The dragon is one of the most powerful non-boss enemies. My characters are no pushovers. But still. A dragon. In the ensuing fight, everybody but one character dies. A class called Divine One is saved by her Divine Wrath ability and her racial ability as an illumon. I don’t know an illumon from an illithid, but the card tells me they’re shrouded in light and natural healers. I’ll say. And now she’s the lone survivor. Last “man” standing among the corpses of a dragon and three adventurers.

Hexplore It has a couple of options for resurrection. Closest at hand is a shrine. Shrines sell Reincarnation Scrolls for 10 gold pieces each. That’s affordable. I looted 48 gold from the dragon, and before that some gold from Storm Wolves, Strangle Vines, and exploration rolls.

So the illumon Divine One enters the shrine, looks for the aisle selling scrolls, finds the shelves with reincarnation ones, studies the packaging to make sure these are the ones she needs, checks to see if there are any cheaper off-brand scrolls — there aren’t — and takes three of them to the checkout counter. She’s in line behind a halfling buying a bunch of Luck Stones. A goblin who’s saved up enough money for Exotic Maps gets in line behind her. She nods politely and he shoots her an irritated look. The light she’s shrouded in is too bright for him. He makes a show of holding up his hand to shade his eyes. She smiles and shrugs apologetically.

The halfling is counting the coins out of his purse one at a time. Five. Six. Seven. Eight. He could have done that before his purchase was rung up. She sighs quietly and considers the impulse buys on either side of the checkout line. Mystic Tonics are always good for recharging mana. Teleportation Runes are arguably game breaking — more on that later — but she might as well grab a couple while she’s here. Do we need rations, she wonders. How are we on rations?

The amount of food a character eats, as well as how much food he can carry, is determined by race. Ogres eat a lot. Pixies eat a little. The undead and mechanical constructs don’t even eat. I was running a party with two gluttons — a troll and a dwarf — and two culinary abstainers — an angel and an illumon. Making survival rolls means your food lasts longer, but we try to keep a full pantry whenever possible. Starvation is no joking matter. Have you ever tried to use one of your masteries when you’re starving? Because they don’t work anymore. It’s terribly inconvenient to be a healer who can’t heal, a tanker who can’t tank, a DPSer who can’t DPS, or a pet class who can’t muster up a pet. A party adventures on its stomach.

But before the illumon Divine One does any ration shopping, she realizes she has no idea how much food she’s going to need, because the situation is about to change. She pays for the Reincarnation Scrolls and heads out to the parking lot where the three corpses are draped over their mounts. The party started on foot, hoping to buy cheaper mounts when they got to Hagh-Grindish, the dwarf city. In this world, the dwarf city is known for its horses, which the local Grey Slime preys on until you kill it. It’s one of the boss monsters scattered around the map. You pretty much have to fight some of them to level up enough to take on the Dead King and win the game. Meanwhile, the Dead King runs around trashing cities. And Hagh-Grinidish got trashed early on. Now it’s crawling with undead who don’t sell cheaper mounts. So the party bought full priced horses from the elf city. Which is also about to get trashed. The Dead King is on his way now. He’ll be there in two turns.

The illumon Divine One opens the box with one of the Reincarnation Scrolls and reads the directions on the back a second and then third time. She needs to get this right. This isn’t resurrection, which Divine Ones can do without having to buy any scrolls. But her resurrection only works in battle and only if she has enough mana. She ran out of mana while fighting the dragon. Oops. Or, OOM, as the case may be. She laughs quietly at her own joke. OOM, she says to one of the horses. Heh.

If she had resurrected everyone, they would just pop up good as new. But these scrolls reincarnate. So the corpses will crumble into dust and each class will reincarnate as a random new race. She will no longer be in a party with an angel, a troll, and a dwarf. She will now be in a party with…?

She carefully reads each scroll in turn, and she’s soon joined by a leprechaun Sorcerer, a minotaur Rabble Rouser, and a grey dwarf Tinkersmith. The leprechaun fumes quietly, peeved at his demotion from a heavenly angel to the diminutive and greedy gold-monger of Irish lore. The former troll stumbles around a little on his minotaur hoofs, trying to get his footing. Is this what it’s like for women to walk in high heels, he wonders.

Hey, I’m still a dwarf, the Tinkersmith says, looking down at his stubby arms. A Grey Dwarf, they correct him.

I’m sorry, is this getting tiresome? I can do this all day. I’m a sucker for theming. I don’t even mind if the theming is buried, as is the case with Hexplore It. So long as it’s in there somewhere, by golly, I’m happy to dig it out. And there’s a lot to mine in Hexplore It. A lot buried under numbers and tiny map graphics and decks of cards and sometimes novice game design.

A big part of the appeal of Hexplore It is map-based lore, but it’s not immediately apparent. The exploration is similar to chestnuts like Mage Knight and Magic Realm before it. Move to map edges to add cardboard tiles of hexagons that build a randomized fantasy kingdom. But shouldn’t games in fantasy kingdoms be like poring over the maps in the front of Fellowship of the Ring before you read it? There’s this, and there’s that, and here’s the other thing. Cities, lairs, shires, rivers, forests, mounts of doom, the building blocks of magical fantasy lands where places matter. But random jumbles of terrain type are the opposite of places that matter. They’re interchangeable places that just happen to happen.

Hexplore It is curiously coy about this stuff. For instance, if you don’t flip over the character boards, which there’s no reason to do, you might not even see the game’s lovely — and only — artwork. As you build out the map, it’s just a few terrain types, with nary a label to identify anything beyond the occasional number. City number 5. Shrine number 3. Lair 8. Little crumbs of detail in some of the hexes are just ornamental doodles. This is worse than a wargame about some generic patch of Western Europe.

But that’s not the case. Hexplore It starts out bland, and only fills in the detail as you play. Everything on the map, every number and especially every little doodle, is something somewhere. The cities have names and gameplay implications. The lairs have unique powerful bosses with special abilities. The shrines each have specific game-breaking powers. That little drawing of a tower sitting in the middle of nowhere — you thought it was just ornamentation — is referenced on a quest card. Those little squiggly lines on some of the mountain hexes are dwarven mines, and if you get the quest to escort the halfling party, they’ll give you an awesome reward if you take them to each one. Until you get the quest, you know the squiggly lines are something, but you don’t know what. Those little caves, that valley behind those impassable mountains, that three-hex lake, even that stretch of highway near the Bandit Prince’s lair. They’re all something, somewhere. They’re all things you’ll eventually play if you keep playing.

Hexplore It only doles out its lore as it matters, accompanied by some nugget of gameplay. It all accumulates from game to game. The first times you play Hexplore It, it’s all discovery. Ah, so that’s what those patches of crystal are. So that’s why the Grey Slime feeds on horses. So that’s what’s down in that deep crevice. Oh, so that’s what the Frozen Portal token does. The later times you play Hexplore It, you know these things. It’s like poring over the maps in the front of Fellowship of the Ring, but after you’ve read it. The folks who made Hexplore It know I’m a sucker for theming.

So now my party has recovered at the Shrine of the Traveler. It appears on the map tile as a shrine symbol with the number 2 on it. Normally when you explore, you blindly draw and place a terrain tile. I know from previous games there’s a quest here that changes how exploration works. It lets you go through the terrain tiles and pick whichever one you want. That’s an appropriate power bestowed by someplace called the Shine of the Traveler, but you won’t know that until you draw the quest. It hasn’t come out this game, so my leprechaun, illumon, minotaur, and grey dwarf have to discover tiles the usual way.

I’m going through everyone’s character board, calculating the carnal regime changes after their reincarnations. The Sorcerer goes from an angel to a leprechaun, which is -1 health, -1 energy, -1 navigate skill, +4 explore skill, and so on. I love this stuff. All this writing and rewriting. Each character has a dry erase board printed with its basic stats. When you add your race card, and later as the stats level up, as the character buys gear, as she loads up on Mystic Tonics and Luck Stones, as she eats and buys food, as she takes damage in battle, you erase and write new values. Erase and write. Erase and write. Erase and write. It’s like the olden days of sitting around a table with your character sheet in D&D. “Okay, you take 3 damage from the orc’s attack,” the dungeon master tells you. You cross out the 17 next to your hit points and write 14. Later, when the cleric heals you, you’ll cross out the 14 and write 17.

When I first heard about Hexplore It, I wondered why more games don’t use dry erase boards. After playing Hexplore It, I realized why more games don’t use dry erase boards. It’s messy. It’s a distinct kind of fiddly. You have to mind your hands. You have to be careful not to smudge the writing when you’re reaching for cards or lining up your dice or setting aside some player aid you just checked. Erasing and writing, erasing and writing, erasing and writing. Playing Hexplore It with the mandatory four characters — more on that later — is a lot of paperwork. And I don’t mind in the least. I revel in how it feels distinct from other boardgames. I say this as a guy who loves taking notes, making charts, writing lists. I routinely have a pencil behind my ear and a legal pad at hand. A dry erase marker and white boards suit me just fine. Erase and write, erase and write, erase and write. A fantasy saga spilled out and spelled out in dry erase ink. Just watch where you put your hands.

These laminated character boards allow Hexplore It to be a game about numbers crunching. It’s very nearly algebra. Each character is a set of stats and each character’s ability is a formula based on those stats. The Priest heals his Defend rank plus his Mastery rank. The Berserker attacks for his Attack rank plus X, where X is the points of health he spends. The Guardian defends multiple characters at half his Mastery for 1 Energy per character. The Rabble Rouser — an actual thing — attacks for his Attack rank plus three per food consumed up to half his Mastery rank, but next round. So M+(3*F with a maximum of M*0.5) at n+1 where n = now.

Does this sound too complicated? Or even just tedious? Maybe Hexplore It is not for you. Or does this sound like an intriguing alternative to the elegant simplicity of healing with 1d6, defending with 2d6, and attacking with the 3d6? Instead of deciding between +1 to your fireball skill or +1 to your Intelligence stat, do you like the idea of being able to improve any ability a couple of overlapping ways that will also improve other aspects of your character? Can you appreciate that no character’s Attack rating is just an Attack rating? The Priest has a Smite, the Apothecary has an Acidic Concoction, the Oracle has an Evil Eye, and the poor Minstrel has an Untrained Assault. Okay, fine, these are just different names for their attack ratings. But can you tell that the folks who made Hexplore It know I’m a sucker for theming?

In the end, it’s all pretty simple, and the character boards have spaces to track the result of the formulas. Helpful icons remind you what’s relevant to any ability. On the Rabble Rouser’s board you’ve written the value of his Impressive Belch (don’t worry, that kind of humor is unique to the Rabble Rouser and not indicative of the game’s tone). You don’t have to mess around with this during battle, because battle is a time for messing around with other maths. The dragon has 135 hit points, my characters’ attacks do 6, 24, and 10, but the dragon blocks 8 from each, so that’s 0, 16, and 2, but the 10 attack has three points of piercing, so now that’s 0, 16, and 5, so the dragon takes 21 damage and now has 114 health. The action scenes in Hexplore It are played out on a dry erase battle board that may as well be a sheet of scratch paper. Erase and write, erase and write, erase and write. You weren’t doing this in Gloomhaven or Imperial Assault!

Brace yourself for 23 character classes and 30 races. 31 races if you count the young gold dragon that doesn’t fit in. It’s some sort of promotional card that must have been cut separately from all the other race cards, because it literally stands out when you put it in the deck. Feel that little ridge? That’s the young gold dragon. It’s also absurdly advantageous. Hexplore It doesn’t seem to mind this sort of thing. More on that later.

Despite all the possible combinations — let’s see, using the whiteboard, I see that 23 times 31 is a really high number — each character is ultimately just a set of stats and two special abilities. Along with the usual suspects, some clever abilities define some of the classes. The Necromancer can control undead versions of the monsters you’ve killed in battle. The Apothecary makes potions every turn. The Scoundrel spends his time in battle gathering loot, but if he must, he can do a backstab every other turn. The Cartographer’s overhead view minimizes monsters defenses. A Tinkersmith draws a hand of race cards to use their special abilities at will, each representing a little machine he’s made.

Because it’s so focused, it’s surprisingly easy to manage. This means it’s easy to play as a solitaire game in which you control four characters. Which you better do. Even if you’re playing coop with another friend, you better have four characters between you. But what if you go up to five or six characters? One of the first inklings you’ll get of Hexplore It’s unfortunate loosey-goosey design is how poorly it scales. This is a game where playing with more characters makes the game easier. It’s that simple. Two is easier than one, three is easier than two, four is easier than three, and so on. The supposed increase in difficulty for more players is more than offset by the advantage of having more actions in battle, more options to roll dice for quests, more options for carrying food, more uses of the one per character inventory items. Is this a shortcoming? Not necessarily. But it’s definitely an example of the game’s lack of tuning. If a game doesn’t have a fixed number of characters (Dungeon Alliance, Kingdom Death: Monster), it should scale carefully to the number of characters (Gloomhaven, City of Kings).

I’ve been playing a lot of these meticulously designed fantasy games lately, like Gloomhaven, Unicornus Knights, Dungeon Alliance, City of Kings, Kingdom Death: Monster. Your objective is always clear in those games. You always know what you need to do and when you need to do it. Those designs have drive and purpose. I can’t say the same about Hexplore It. There’s a sometimes disappointing laissez-faire sensibility. You run around adventuring and at some point you should probably go kill that evil wizard. But maybe explore this cave first. Or do that quest to rescue those dwarfs. Or take out that boss a couple days travel to the south. There’s no sense of urgency, which can be the kiss of death in a boardgame. Good pacing is feeling like you always need one more turn, one more die roll, one more spell point, which makes each turn, each die roll, and each spell point valuable. Pacing doesn’t work if you don’t really have to be anywhere at any particular time. Pacing doesn’t work if time and therefore resources are freely available with minimal consequence. Hexplore It has all the time in the world. It ends when you get around to ending it.
Part of this feels like inexperience on the part of the designers. The objective is to kill the Dead King, and he’s supposed to run out the clock by smashing cities before he goes gunning for your party of adventurers. Not that he can catch them. The game is full of ways to kite him to your heart’s content. I almost feel sorry for the Dead King. He’s like the little kid whose backpack got snatched away and now two bullies are throwing it back and forth. He runs from one to the other, whining for them to give it back. “Come on, you guys, stop it, my asthma medicine is in there!” Ha ha, now we’re over here on this side of the map. Ha ha, now we fast traveled eight hexes because we have horses and the Blessing of Haste and a pocket full of Luck Stones to make sure we don’t get bushwhacked by any unfortunate Circumstances, all of which are completely undercut by inexpensive baubles. Ha ha, now we’re on this tile. Ha ha, now we used our boats to get across water. “You guys,” he implores. The game will end when you get around to ending it.

But this lack of urgency also feels intentional. For better or worse, the sandbox vibe of “hey, just do whatever, it’s your adventure” sets Hexplore It apart from Gloomhaven, Unicornus Knights, Dungeon Alliance, City of Kings, and Kingdom Death: Monster, all ruthlessly regimented and timed the way you’d expect in a challenging boardgame. Add to this vibe all the writing and erasing and writing and erasing and writing and erasing on the character sheets — err, boards — and you’ve got something that feels like a tabletop RPG on a Friday night with a dungeon master who has nothing else to do this weekend. Do you want to explore that ruin, fight the Goblin Emperor who lives in that deep crevice, liberate that elf city, or fight the final battle against the dead king, the dungeon master asks. There’s no right answer. He’s up for whatever you decide.

(If you’d like to support reviews like this, please visit my Patreon campaign at www.patreon.com/tomchick. If you’d like to win your very own Hexplore It, I’ll be giving away a brand new copy to one of my Patreon Supporters on April 15. )

  • Hexplore It

  • Rating:

  • Boardgame
  • 23 character classes, 30 races, maps that matter, and lots of math using dry erase markers.