This review was written for version 1.10 of Hexographer; check the comments section for updates.
Inkwell Ideas has created Hexographer, a java-based hex map creator, which does pretty much what you'd expect a tile-based hex map software package to do, plus a great deal more. Author Joe Wetzel provides a free version you can use online, but after you draw a few maps, it's a fair bet that you'll want to support his efforts to develop the software by picking up the (affordable) Pro version.
What It Does
Being java-based, Hexographer runs on Windows, Linux, and Mac platforms. The package is bundled with a variety of terrain hexes in the Known World Gazetteer style, and a fair assortment of space hexes similar to those used in Traveller sector maps. But the hex tiles are only the tip of the stylistic iceberg: Hexographer does more than just plop down tiles in a blank hex grid—Hexographer gives you options that you'll soon find indispensable.
When you create a new map, Hexographer accepts a number of inputs: size of the hex grid, size of the hexes, hex alignment (vertical or horizontal), and map type. This latter bit lets you generate a map of random terrain (and Hexographer does a pretty good job of creating realistic landscapes), or you can "seed" the map by weighting different terrain types, including island chains, sparse oceans, or simply a blank grid. You also have the option of loading a previously saved Hexographer map, or you can import any other map in PNG format to "trace over" with hexes.
The editing interface is clean, and (bonus), you can zoom in and out of the map window as well as pan across it. Editing is as simple as selecting a tile and placing it on the map. But you have a lot of control over what actually appears. For example, you can toggle each hex's terrain icon on and off, leaving just the background colour (which you can customise). You can also change a symbol icon's colour before you place a hex, which lets you colour-code symbols for ease of reference (e.g., different coloured cities to show nationality, different coloured mines to show ownership, different coloured ruins to show age, different coloured dungeons to show difficulty, etc.). The colour chooser includes a reference table listing all of Hexographer's "default" shades and what they're used for, so you can ensure that your colours are consistent (of course, you have the option of selecting from the full palette). Hexographer also has toggles to show elevation (in a quasi-3D sort of way), political borders, and hex numbers. All this makes it easy to save out separate maps (in PNG format) for GMs and for players.
Hexographer also provides a useful array of cartography tools. The Terrain Wizard lets you "sketch" out a map by placing a few terrain hexes on a blank map, then filling in the gaps on its own. This is useful if you have a general idea of the type and location of terrain you want on your map, but haven't considered the details in between. Hexographer also includes many tools useful for what I would consider post-production work in other mapping packages: adding and editing map labels (with font selection, formatting, colour, and rotation), applying text styles (for consistent labelling), and the addition of roads, rivers, coastlines, and borders (all of which can be drawn freehand or via "snap-to" mode to assure alignment with hex vertices). You also have full control over the format and appearance of hex numbers.
Another welcome feature is the ability to create templates. This tends to be problematic in tile-based mapping packages because template features are over-written when you start placing tiles. However, any borders or lines you create on a Hexographer template are preserved, even if you place terrain tiles on top of them. This means that you can recreate any paper-based hex templates (e.g., large hexes with smaller sub-hexes) within Hexographer with a little effort, finally porting the old hex map standards of Judges Guild, Columbia Games, and TSR from paper to computer screen.
All of these features are available in the free, online version of Hexographer (simply go the Hexographer site and fire up the tool in your browser). However, if you go with the Pro version you'll find some additional benefits:
First and foremost, Hexographer Pro works offline, which is useful when the Internet is beyond your reach (unheard of, I know, but it happens). The Pro version also lets you customise hexes and add your own tiles (any PNG will do). You can also expand an existing map by adding rows or columns (which is great for when the party outgrows the current area). There's also a Map Key tool that dynamically generates a legend, incorporating all the terrain, symbols, and lines on your map. The best Hexographer Pro feature, however, is the ability to add notes to each hex, which is a smart way to keep track of what's where—you can enter your own settlement details, encounter descriptions, NPCs, basically anything you want. What gives this feature much potential is Hexographer's handy export command, which bundles all your notes into a single HTML file.
At the time of this writing, Pro sells for $7 (US) for a 1-year license, or $25 (US) for a lifetime license. Get the Pro version and you'll quickly see where your money's going: author Joe Wetzel has updated the software at least twice since I discovered it two weeks ago (with enhancements, not just bug fixes). Given his constant attention to improving the tool, Hexographer's features-to-dollar ratio is higher than with some other mapping packages I've purchased, and unless you're going to stop making hex maps a year from now, it's well worth the extra expense for a lifetime license.
What it Doesn't
Despite all its features, Hexographer does have room for improvement. One is a user interface issue: Hexographer has no Save As command. Sounds insignificant, but it will affect how you're probably used to working. Basically, Hexographer's Save command works like Save As in other software, which means that every time you save your map, you're given Hexographer's default folder and filename, even if you've previously chosen a different save location and filename. It's a minor issue that has no impact on functionality, but it takes some getting used to.
There are a few features that I'd like to see, but they're enhancements and far from mission critical. I've asked Joe (who quite amicably accepts user input) about the ability to apply "blank" hexes coloured to match a desired terrain type, but without the terrain icon (this is to prevent a symbol from competing with underlying terrain). Also, given the "post-production" capabilities within Hexographer, it would be great to see an option for two-colour labels (i.e., a main colour with a border highlight).
However, these are fine points and would simply hone an edge that's already razor sharp. Given the author's openness to user input, and the frequency with which he updates Hexographer, I imagine these (and other requests) will garner some attention within the Hexographer community before too long.
This is going to sound a little over the top, but I assure you that I maintain absolute objectivity when I say Hexographer is the best hex mapping software I've seen. Ever. It's highly customisable, it includes a bevy of useful features, it's regularly updated, and it's very easy to use. It's also quite affordable. In this day of increasingly user-friendly RPG software, Hexographer has the potential to single-handedly revive the hex map. If you're one of the many GMs who liked hex maps all along, but couldn't find the right software to make them, Hexographer is the tool you've been looking for.