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Since the dawn of time designers have attempted to translate the real-time strategy game to the tabletop. The few noteworthy successes – StarCraft and The Ares Project – stand out amid a string of abject failures. That transition from manic clicking to turn-based rumination is a rough one. It’s about damn time we have a third entrant for that hallowed group.
Heroes of Land, Air & Sea is a big ‘ol game. This is, of course, ironic because it’s the latest project from Scott Almes, the man behind the Tiny Epic series from Gamelyn Games. Here, we have scads of miniatures, a huge board, tons of cards, and of course 3D airships and boats and castles for those vehicles to assault. All of this fuels Orcs, Elves, Dwarves, and Humans throwing down in the name of lord victory point. On the whole it’s impressive and provides a great deal of personality.
Looking beyond the attractive face reveals a design focused on growth and destruction. There is a blend of civilization building with aggressive area control that is delightful. You’ll erect buildings in your capital city that give tiered asymmetrical abilities. You’ll recruit heroes to unleash hell upon your hated rivals. And you’ll craft rickety ships of air and sea to carry your troops to the beaches of the enemy.
The core action economy is the first twist. Each player possesses two actions for the round which they can select from a plethora of options. You can research spells, tax the people to fill your war-purse, march across land, and sail across sea. The delicious curve-ball consists of utilizing peasant units to participate in other player’s actions.
Those familiar with Carl Chudyk’s Glory to Rome will feel right at home. One player chooses an action and the others have the option to spend a resource to perform the same in turn. Peasants in this instance are a key commodity as you can hold them in reserve to follow in this manner, or you can push them out across the map to control territory and farm the land. Balance is key as keeping too many lounging around your capital and out of work will slow your engine and impede progress. The opposite problem means you’re trailing in the action economy and have less maneuverability. This manipulation of peasants as a resource adds a touch of city management that cements the worker concept of the RTS genre in a meaningful way.
This is a true 4x title and one of the few entries in this genre with a fantasy setting. Tokens of fortune and danger are randomly placed in territories expecting to be explored. Towers are idling, ready to be constructed and exert dominance upon the countryside. A plastic army of loyal conscripts is on standby. Blood is anxiously awaiting its time to escape flesh.
That last note, combat, is one we should unravel a bit. This is a dice-less game, which means half of you are booing and the other half are doing cartwheels. Combat is resolved through combining unit strength with the value of a tactics card and comparing to your enemy. Each player has a symmetric selection of maneuvers such as Siege, First Strike, Conscript, and Barricade. These options have a native strength value added to their side in the conflict, but more interestingly they possess text which lists conditions to be played and abilities that counter other cards. This adds an extremely interesting layer of double-think as you attempt to deduce your opponent’s angle. There’s even a CCG-like feel here as you push against the enemy and brace yourself for the reversal.
This decision is informed by the resource pool. Each tactics card requires an expenditure of mana, ore, or food which may affect your decision process. There’s a clever system here where you can sacrifice troops to pay for the cost of a card, discarding the specific figure(s) sacrificed at the end of battle as casualty.
While combat is mostly smooth, there is one crook in the road that gives pause. Casualties are incurred upon the loser of the battle, but the formula to work out damage is unintuitive. You total the natural strength of everything you possess in the conflict, and then must lose half rounded up. This isn’t overly complicated or intense mathematical theory, but it often elicits a pause and will take a few attempts before it becomes clinical and internalized.
Beyond that learning curve, the overall appeal of that dramatic card-based combat system combines with the other disparate pieces – area exploration, civilization building, fantastic 3D bits – very wonderfully on the whole. Everything makes sense and the game boasts very little downtime due to the action economy. Furthermore, play is satisfying as everything grows in power and effectiveness as the game wears on. Your capabilities in the final act dwarf those at the outset and it feels wondrous.
And now we’ve come to that bend in the round. The one design decision which gives pause is the end game. The goal is to amass points and you will do so for nearly every action you perform during play. You’re incentivized heavily to battle, develop your technologies, and grow your armies and holdings.
The end of the game itself doesn’t care about your victory points; it’s triggered by completing one of the 4x paths. This includes revealing every exploration token, a player getting all their units or towers out, and the rare event of destroying another’s capital. There’s a sense of attempting to follow the actions of play to a natural conclusion, but it doesn’t quite work.
The issue is that none of these vectors will complete unless a player puts effort into following them through. This can be problematic because scores are entirely public with no mystery. Thus, Aaron may want to avoid revealing that last explore token on his continent so he can keep the game going and have a shot at coming back. Likewise, you can attack another player who is close to recruiting all of their units to halt their progress. This negative progression can have an undue effect on the timeframe of the experience. A turn limit in the vein of Eclipse would have been more prudent and lead to a more climactic end state.
While that may sound like a large fumble, it’s ultimately something we can deal with through the course of play. Occasionally a game will get drawn out and overextended, but it’s a small price to pay for the delightful encounters we’ve experienced on the journey.
You should be able to work past that final niggle, ultimately realizing this is an experience which is surprisingly remarkable. It offers a compelling blend of 4x and real-time strategy repurposed into a turn based environment. It’s difficult to imagine an area control game managing to break away from the crowd at this point, but Heroes of Land, Air & Sea does just that. Ogle the chrome but don’t dismiss the beautiful inner-workings.
Have you played Heroes of Land, Air & Sea? Let us know in the comments! And be sure to join host Becca Scott on Game the Game every Thursday here on Geek & Sundry to watch the best boardgames played with fantastic guests!
Image Credits: Charlie Theel
Editor’s note: A sample of the game was provided by the publisher