Symbols are an essential part of all hex mapping systems; they are the basic tiles that make up the map. There are various ways of dealing with symbols, and how they are used depends largely on the features of the program in question: does it use raster or vector art (or both)? Is there an easy way to snap the tiles to a hex grid? Is it possible to update the symbols without redrawing the whole map? And so on.
My mapping system has seen two major revisions so far. The first version was started in Illustrator 8 back in 1999 but abandoned due to slow editing speeds. I resurrected it in 2005 and revised it to use the Patterns feature. This yielded some good results, but also numerous problems. The second major revision was made possible by the new Symbol feature in Illustrator CS, which solved most of these problems. (Illustrator 10 may also have had the Symbol feature, but CS was the first version I used that included it.) It also changed the way my mapping system works quite radically.
This tutorial covers the use of Symbols in CS versions of Illustrator. I will write a separate tutorial at a later date to cover the previous system.
The concept of Symbols is quite simple: if there is a piece of art that you want to place multiple times in your artwork, you can define it as a Symbol. The definition is held in the Symbols palette, and you can place as many copies (aka instances) of it as you like; all the copies remain linked to the Symbol definition.
Consequently, should you want to change any of your art, it's a simple matter of making the changes and then replacing the Symbol definition in the Symbols palette with your new design. All the linked copies will automatically update. This makes Symbols excellent for hex mapping, because you can revise your hex art whenever you like, and it will only take a few clicks to update each map with the new art for each hex.
Symbols can hold both vector and raster art. My Symbols are all vector-based, which means they stay perfectly sharp no matter how far you zoom in, and you can generate a raster image at whatever resolution you like.
One other thing to keep in mind is that Symbols reduce the file size of your maps, because the file only needs to keep one definition of the art for each Symbol on your map.
Using Hex Symbols
There is one major problem with using Symbols for hexes: all Symbols are rectangular, regardless of the shape of their contents. This means that it is not easy to slot them into place in the grid. (Note: CS4 revised the Smart Guides feature so that it's often quite easy to fit hexes to the grid, but it's also easy to get the alignment slightly wrong, so the advice that follows is still very relevant.)
The solution is to start with a pre-constructed grid comprising of hexes (simple hex shapes with a thin stroke set to 75% Multiply Transparency on the Hex Grid layer) and Symbols (instances of the "Blank" Symbol, which contains an unstroked/unfilled transparent hex, on the Map layer). The grid is already in perfect alignment, and need only be copied and pasted (or trimmed) to the desired size. Aligning a copy of the grid involves copying and pasting both layers (making sure the Paste Remembers Layers option in the Layers panel options is ticked), making sure you have both layers of your copy selected, and then using Smart Guides to line up the anchors of the hexes so that they snap together perfectly.
Once your grid is in place, you won't be doing any more placing of hexes; from now on, you will instead select an existing hex Symbol and use the Replace function to replace the Symbol with whatever symbol you want. In Illustrator CS, CS2 and CS3, this involves selecting the hex Symbol(s) on your map that you want to change; clicking on the new hex art in the Symbols panel; and finally clicking on the "Replace Symbol" button in the middle of the bottom line of buttons in the Symbols panel. In CS4, this button has vanished, but there's now a new Replace Symbol button on the context-sensitive Control Panel (under the menu bar - the one that changes depending on what you have selected).
That's basically it. You can continue selecting and replacing symbols until your map is complete.
(This section will cover how to replace symbol definitions; how to select all of one symbol type; how to edit symbols; how to rename symbols and so on.)
This post is a work in progress. I hope to add some illustrations, but for now I'm out of time.
Please let me know what you think! If some parts are hard to understand, let me know and I'll have another stab at explaining. Would it be easier if I included numbered lists of instructions to follow - perhaps in addition to the current text, as a summary for reference?