Making Maps with Wonderdraft

Making Maps with Wonderdraft

There is something magical about maps. I probably inherited this from my father, but from when I was a child I'm drawn to atlases and have been drawing my own fantasy maps. As an author, I again find myself drawing maps to get a feeling for the world my characters are living in. This is part of world building. In a previous article I reviewed a great tool for world building, Fantasia Archive, which helps keeping all the bits of information together. In this article I will dive in to another tool, Wonderdraft, that is fantastic for drawing realistic maps. At the end I will also share the map I made in Wonderdraft for my current work in progress.

The Good

Wonderdraft is like drawing software – think Photoshop – but optimised for making maps. When you open the program, a blank map is shown and you can start filling in the basics: water and land masses. There are many styles to choose from. For example, the image below shows Wonderdraft in action while editing a map in the ‘adventure’ theme.

Wonderdraft in action

It’s just a little doodle I put together in less than an hour for this article. There are more formal or modern styles available too.

The map is organised in layers, much like a normal drawing program lets you organise and manage graphical elements in layers. Water and land each have their own layer, but there are additional layers for paths (the shipping lanes I drew in), symbols (anything from buildings to geographical features and dragons), regions, labels and overlay (which lets you add a frame, a scale, a grid and more).

Drawing the land masses is quite easy. You can either generate a random landmass (choosing from a few templates such as ‘continent’ or – my favourite – ‘archipelago’ – I just love archipelagos) or draw coastlines with the mouse. If you choose the latter, don’t worry about putting in all the craggy little bays and coves that define a natural coastline. The program will do that for you. Perfect if you imagine yourself an aspiring Slartibartfast and feel the urge to design some beautiful fjords.

If you’re happy with your map, it can be exported to a PNG, JPEG or WEBP image file for further consumption.

The program comes with a whole lot of default assets – a fancy name for the graphical symbols that can be used in the map. But if that’s not enough, there are hundreds – if not thousands – of assets available online too, free and paid. Be sure to check with the creators whether it is OK to use their assets in your commercial projects though! IANAL – short for I Am Not A Laywer – and as per the FAQ, the maps you create with the basic version of Wonderdraft are free to use in commercial projects, no royalties or fees required.

The Bad

While the program keeps track of where you put which symbol – you can delete, move and change each individual symbol to your heart's content – it is essentially bit-map based. That means that when you create a map, you choose the resolution (the pixel width and height), and you’re stuck to that. Zoom in too much on that image, and you’ll see blurriness and pixels. There is no export to a more print-friendly vector based format.

As a corollary, it’s a bit awkward to zoom in to your map to create more detailed regional maps. To do so, you have to cut out the part of an exported map that you want to zoom in to, then import that back into Wonderdraft and retrace the outline of your land masses using the blurry cut-out as a template. Doable, and not that much trouble, so a fine work-around.

It also means you want to choose a high resolution from the get-go if you intend to use the maps you make in print.

Another thing that I found very very annoying was the sheer amount of assets you can find online to extend Wonderdraft! No, I’m only joking. It’s great that there is such a lively community around this bit of software. Whether you want to draw pirate treasure maps, modern looking topographical maps or something more sci-fi, chances are there’s a slew of asset packs available for that.

Unlike Fantasia Archive, this software is not free or open source, which I prefer. It’s not expensive though. You pay US$29.99 once, and then the software is yours to keep. Including any future updates.

The Ugly

Wonderdraft is not a light-weight program. It will stress your computer, and you need a good graphics card to get the most out of it. On my not-so-modest-but-slightly-outdated laptop that I’m typing this on, it makes the fan go wild and I can feel the machine heating up even when editing a relatively simple map. If I configure the program for maximum detail, the mouse cursor lags behind for several seconds. Don’t expect to run this comfortably on your ten-year old PC with a budget graphics card.

Conclusion

If you, like me, like a bit of a visual feeling of the environment your characters occupy, I can wholeheartedly recommend Wonderdraft. It’s cheap, it’s easy to use and it creates beautiful maps.

As an example, below is the map for my current work in progress. I used the more modern ‘black & white’ theme, and restricted myself to a few basic assets to keep from cluttering the map. The map itself is quite a work in progress, it's a bit too cluttered to my taste, as it is.

Let me know what you think! Do you draw maps? Do you use Wonderdraft, or are you using something else? Send me an email at gmc@metro.cx!

Work in progress map of my current work in progress

Find Wonderdraft here.

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