Hexplore It - the Valley of the Dead King

Component and rules preview



If you ask me and about a few million other hobbyists, roleplaying is awesome. Ask the same people what the biggest issue with roleplaying is, and you’re liable to hear stuff like getting the group started, keeping the group together, syncing the schedules up, finding the time to prep for the sessions…
Time really does put a damper on my RPG get-togethers lately, even after switching to online/hangout mediums. And, at least in my opinion, RPG/boardgame hybrids have done little to entice people to use them as placeholders for “the real deal”.



So you can imagine my surprise when, in April 2017, I was completely taken with a neat self-titled “hero building adventure boardgame” by the name of Hexplore It, the fact that it was completely based on and around hexes also warming me up to the idea.
A short, successful Kickstarter campaign later, and I was fully expecting well over a year to pass until I got the game, seeing as this was designer Jonathan Mariucci’s first step on the crowdfunding scene and such delays are to be expected even from more experienced producers. Imagine my surprise when not only did I get this well ahead of the campaign’s 1-year anniversary, but also way earlier than I expected the delivery to take place! And looking awesome, to boot!

A cooperative (optionally Vs.) experience pitting the party of good guys against a horrible villain (the titular Dead King) and his various minions, Hexplore It marries several standard-fare RPG tropes and component parts: choose a class, choose a race, buy some gear, and get to questing, with the final goal being to either defeat the Dead King or be made dead (in a decidedly unkingly way) yourself...
With level progression, a straightforward combat system, and a neat way to blend in things like supplies and tracking without the need for a GM, this all amounts to an interesting hexperience and a take on the genre that should be accessible to newbies and deep enough to satisfy the vets as well, which will help its reach across many types of gaming groups.

Let’s dive right into the box…




Components

Right off the bat, the first thing that hits is the heft of the box. Weighing in at a whopping 3.3kg (Fury of Dracula times 1.65), it’s chock full of cardboard, dice, dry erase markers, and a snazzy insert that fits everything quite neatly. Definitely one of the better inserts I’ve seen this year, alongside the one in Firefly Adventures.



The quality of the map tiles is precisely what is needed for pieces of this size - it doesn’t set any new standards in the industry, but it’s not flimsy either so you won’t have to deal with bendy bits, and the same can be said for the cards. Everything is printed out clearly, crisply, and my bespectacled eyes couldn’t pick up any jarring printing mistakes across the batch.



The player and combat boards are dry-erase friendly which is one of the game’s big selling points: you actively run through it while jotting down your character’s progression and keeping track of combat on erasable, reusable boards. I’ve tested the markers supplied with the game a few times and they don’t seem to leave a mess behind, but repeated use will have to occur before I get an informed opinion on this all. For now - I like!



Bears mentioning that the content we have to deal with here is astounding: with dozens of races and classes, the total unique combinations of characters you can get from these adds up to a respectable 352 after the game blew through a ton of Stretch Goals and added in plenty of interesting items and content. Between that and the various ways you can set up the map and the different game modes available, replayability with this one is through the proverbial roof.



One of the SGs was adding miniatures for the hero party as well as the Dead King, with the backers voting for the Reaper Miniatures models that were eventually added to the box. Lovely bit of backer engagement there.
The dice themselves were also a nice surprise: where most games of this nature opt for just using dime-a-dozen polyhedrons whose plastic is borderline see-through and feels flimsy (yes, once you’ve owned enough dice, you can tell when they feel flimsy!), the dice in here are sharply printed, the material seems solid and of good quality, and they’re all just a pleasure to fiddle with and chuck around. And some of them are purple!


Artwork

Emanating from all this are heavy high fantasy vibes, which I can’t help but like. While the character portraits themselves don’t feature much during gameplay (being printed on the underside of the character class pads), they’re still beautiful to look at, characterful, and definitely helpful in establishing the sort of adventurer each player will portray during the game.



The style of the gridded map itself is a combination of cartoonified terrain and what could almost be classified as stylised satellite imagery. I like that it doesn’t try to go the way of mimicking old-timey maps, or leaning into the fantasy map trope that 9 out of 10 boardgames go for. In a market that loves its fantasy almost as much as they do cube-pushing, standing out in every way possible is more of a necessity than a recommendation, and Hexplore It manages that.

The iconography and various symbols used on the map and/or card backs are easily distinguishable, and make shuffling around for various information a breeze. The fact that the skills are also colour-coded in fairly distinct hues, and them being laid out in the same order on any and all cards that feature them is a bonus when colour-blindness is involved.


Rules

I was genuinely excited when I saw the rulebook format.
Tiny, easy to flip through, and with concepts that start and end either on the same page or a 2-page spread, it’s very easy to find what you’re looking for (the index helps, too), and the fact that it doesn’t take up half a table between the learn-to-play, main rulebook, rules reference et. al. can only be seen as a positive. A few typos have made their way in, but nothing too major, and definitely nothing to pose readability concerns.
I do hope you like your hex puns, though, cause there are many of them! I found that quaint and funny for the most part, but some people may find it eye-roll-worthy at times.
Just remember the game is built around the concept of ‘hex’ and uses that. A lot.



The game itself flows very easily, with several logical steps being taken by the characters each turn: from choosing the way they move, to interacting with towns, foraging for food, and dealing with any random events they may trigger or come across, or fighting any battles that may occur.
The Death King himself moves around automatically (at an ever-increasing and ominous pace) laying waste to cities and giving a sense of dread to proceedings, sending the players into a carefully-negotiated canter towards equipping themselves, trying to save fallen towns, and planning two or three turns ahead just to pre-empt any nasty surprises.
It’s a very interesting risk-reward system that both encapsulates the essence of what Roleplay adventuring is, as well as doesn’t go too much into the nitty-gritty so that the experience just rolls on happily and without major stumbles.



The classes themselves are as diverse as snowflakes, with anything from the classical Wizards, Warriors, Clerics, and Necromancers represented alongside things like Tinkersmiths, Scoundrels, and Cartographers. These are spread across five main class archetypes (assist, healer, sapper, striker, and utility) each with their own special actions, buffs, debuffs, bonuses, and a myriad specific ways of fudging the rules or the components themselves (hello, beastmaster!) to either benefit the party or hurt their opponents.
And the races don’t disappoint either, with elves, orks, dwarves, and trolls lining up against less-seen ones like ursimars, illumons, gremlins, or minotaurs, each sporting preferred enemies, food ratings, a different array of skills, and a specific, unique ability.
I won’t spoil too many of the mini-bosses themselves because they’re all awesome in their own right and I had fun discovering them (and then stopping so that I won’t give myself too many spoilers), but bears mentioning that they’re also very diverse and have their own, unique flavours to act in accordance with in combat.


First Impressions

As a boardgame, Hexplore It looks like it can hang with the best of them in the mid/upper-mid complexity tier as well as be easily toned down for beginners if need be. It’s versatile, packs a ton of content, and tries to be truly unique in a genre oversaturated with the same kind of experience, managing to do so in presentation as well as gameplay.
As a Kickstarter boardgame, this is one of the best first productions I’ve seen in a while, and I’d go as far as to say I haven’t been this pleasantly surprised since Stonemaier Games debuted Viticulture way back in the day. A solid start to proceedings, and a genuinely fun package all-around!

We’ll be playing this one over the weekend and will come back with more fully-formed thoughts on the experience as a whole, so stay tuned for that!
Furthermore, we’ll be having a chat with designer Jonathan Mariucci, the results of which will also be found on our website in the near future… Is that talk of the Hexplore It universe getting bigger very, very soon I hear?