Full Disclosure: I received this product for free, in exchange for the review. I have done my best to honestly represent its quality here.
Like all good game masters, fantasy cartography is dear to my heart. I’ve been making maps of worlds and dungeons since I was a small child. Not good maps, mind you. I lack any semblance of artistic ability, but I always enjoy seeing an environment grow and come to life. Role playing games have given that little hobby of mine new dimension, as I actually get to see others explore my worlds, interact with them, and provide them with a depth and context that I could never create on my own. Often, as my worlds take on more epic proportions, I wish I had some way to immortalize them. I once spent a month re-drawing an entire world by hand, then laminating it, just for that purpose.
So a little over a month ago, when I was approached by a company called Banners on the Cheap to evaluate their products for mapmaking purposes, I jumped at the chance. There’s a lot to like about the idea. Not only do you get to see your world laid out on a huge surface, but vinyl has a nice weightiness to it as a material. It’s certainly not as cool as having your map painted on leather or something more reminiscent of a fantasy setting, but being more durable than paper is a huge plus in my eyes.
Based on my conversations with BotC prior to agreeing to the deal, we did hit upon one snag. There was some concern that the printing process they use might not be rated for cartography. Maps have details which are much finer than those found on a typical banner image. Truth be told, one I learned that, I didn’t expect to be happy with the product. I even spent a few idle moments drafting a disappointed review in my head. None the less I spent some time in Hexographer expanding my current game world. I then uploaded the map to their website and waited for it to arrive. A couple days ago, this is what I received:
Wow. Just…wow. I’m still feeling a little bit of shock over how cool this looks. That’s my game world, and it’s huge! 3’x3′ didn’t sound quite so large in my head. I could hang it on a wall if I wanted, or lay it out on a table for my players to move around on during gameplay.
Here’s another photograph, with the Pathfinder Core Rulebook used as a reference, just to give you an idea of how massive this thing is:
I chose to use a map made with Hexographer for a few reasons. Firstly, it would be the most personally useful to me–so I had some selfish motivation there. As I mentioned above, this is my current game world. Having a nice big version of the map will be an interesting tool to use as I plan adventures. Rather than examining landscapes on a computer monitor, I can do it on a table. Which is how I like to plan my games anyway.
My biggest reason for choosing a Hexographer map, however, is that it was easy to scale. I could have uploaded my Negune world map (which is far more sentimental than the map I ended up using) but I doubt it would have printed well. My pencil scratches look alright on an 8.5″x11″ sheet of paper, but I doubt they’d look quite so good when blown up to this size. On top of that, Hexographer takes my (lack of) artistic talents out of the equation. Many GMs are familiar with Hexographer, and what maps produced with it look like. My hope is that having a ‘baseline’ for the art, which everyone is familiar with, will help my clumsy photographs convey the quality of the printing.
Regarding that quality, there is some fuzziness which may not be apparent in the larger shots above. Personally it doesn’t bother me. The lines are crisp, the icons and text are easily legible, and unless I look closely I don’t really even notice it. However, the more artistically inclined might find the grainy texture disappointing. I’ve done my best to capture it in these two pictures. Please forgive my amateurish lighting in the second photo:
Now, for myself, I tend to stick to large scale maps like this one. Maps which cover miles upon miles of terrain. However, I know that others like mats which represent a single battlefield. So in their interest, I tested the mat with wet-erase markers. It worked just as well as my blank battle mats do, so that’s a huge bonus:
Drawing a cute lil’ ship in the water. Sail, little ship! Sail!
This ship is immune to even the most diligent of finger rubbing!
Oh no! Water! The ship’s one weakness! Which, in retrospect, is a terrible weakness for a ship to have!
For those same people, I also placed a mini on the map to give them an idea of what the scale is like. For the record, this map’s hexagons are set to 200px by 200px in Hexographer.
“By Vecna’s Balls! With the ship gone, I will surely drown in all of this armor!”
Regarding the service itself, I really only have nice things to say. Uploading my map was extremely simple. I just selected the size of the banner I wanted, and uploaded an image. I was then shown how the image would be positioned on the banner, and fiddled with my image until it looked the way I wanted on the preview. I received the product over a week earlier than they estimated. And the price is easily affordable. With the mounting grommets (which are an extra I tacked on) the map above cost less than $25. More than you’d probably want to spend on every gaming session, but not so much as to be unreasonable if you were planning something special, or hoping to immortalize your game world. And there are smaller sizes than 3′ by 3′ too. A 2′ by 2′ banner is priced at about $10!
Normally, when I review something, I tend to be pretty harsh. I’ve sometimes even worried that I’m too harsh, since I doubt Robin D. Laws would like me very much if he and I ever met. But I don’t see much to dislike here. This is a cool service which fills a niche within the role playing community. The company itself is actively reaching out to us as potential clients by asking tabletop bloggers to review their products. And it’s pretty damned cheap. I do most of my printing at Office Depot, and I’ve occasionally had simple paper printings which cost more than $10 just because the paper was larger than 8.5″ x 11″.
So, yeah, in conclusion, I hereby give my recommendation to Banners on the Cheap as a resource for printing maps. And if anyone ends up using it for a more artistic map, let me know! I could add the picture to this post to give people a better idea of what to expect.