Heroes of Land, Air and Sea is a whimsical 4X-lite game which "captures that real time strategy feel." Which means it sort of feels like Warcraft, but with the aesthetics of a Victorian amusement park, and leans a bit more tactical than strategic.
I absolutely cannot deny that the toy factor is a significant part of the appeal of Heroes of Land, Air and Sea. Like most other games of this sort, it comes with piles of minis, but what really turned my head was the "3D cardboard constructs," especially the boats and airships which wouldn't look out of place on an old-fashioned carousal, or at Tivoli Gardens.
The base game comes with the four standard fantasy races - Elves, Dwarfs, Orcs and Humans [yawn] - but the expansions come with the Lionkin and the Birdfolk, both of which were irresistibly cute, plus a floating island and a sunken city. So, of course, I ended up buying all of it, because I must have all the pretty toys. So now I have 3 huge boxes of minis, and boats and airships - and I am completely unapologetic about any of this, because I know that several of you who are reading this have just as many boxes of creepy, but beautifully painted, Warhammer toys. And don’t even pretend that the games you play with them would be just as much fun if you were playing with cardboard chits, wooden cubes, and a handful of lose change. That’s just utter nonsense.
So what do you do with all these lovely toys – starting with nothing but few peasants, a tiny capital and the unique ability of your race, you build the best civilization in the world.
You start by sending out some of your peasants to explore, farm and collect resources, usually with a warrior or two for protection. You keep a few peasants at home to build buildings which advances your civilization by giving you more unique race specific abilities, allowing you to build heroes and boats and airships, and allowing you to hold and cast more spells.
If you manage things well, before too long you will be bumping into your neighbors, and possibly killing their peasants and warriors, and taking over their lands to farm and mine. And from there on out it is all about expanding and crushing your enemies with your warriors and magic spells or digging in and pushing them back; heroes battling to the death; boat loads of orcs appearing on your shores to storm your capitol; airships full of Lizard Folk landing in the middle of unexplored islands and trying to colonize them, with other races close on their heels racing to do the same. And the whole world dissolves into chaos, until one race finally achieves one of the game end triggers.
Then you tally up your points to determine who has built the greatest civilization.
I find managing and guiding the evolution of my fantasy civilization challenging, and I am entertained by the epic narratives of the waxing, waning and warring of all the civilizations in this fantasy world. However, some people find it all a bit annoying and frustrating.
First off, it’s difficult for some players to remember that this is a 4X game, not an area control game. Throughout the game, as well as at the end, players receive points for every “X.” Some view this as an overwhelming point salad. Others just get pissed when after all the points are tallied, that the winner is not the seemingly huge empire that expanded across the world attempting to exterminate everything in its path, but rather a tiny, seemingly beleaguered, kingdom that managed to exploit its limited holdings most effectively and develop the most technologically advanced civilization.
Additionally, by mid-game, the special abilities provided by buildings, heroes and spells are so abundant that they are nearly impossible to track. Each race has something like 25 different special abilities that they can potentially develop. This makes the game feel like it grows increasingly chaotic and unpredictable with each turn. You get a lot of “You can do WHAT!!!”
Hopefully, that is not followed by an indignant, “Well, if I knew that you had that super power, I wouldn’t have used my super power (which you were completely unaware of) to do this totally unexpected and surprising thing which had it been successful would have utterly crippled you for the remainder of the game, because it never entered my mind that there might be a bit of balance in this game that would prevent me from doing such a thing.” << Yeah, don’t play with this person.
Unfortunately the flip side of that person, is the one that needs to take a poll of every player’s special abilities, spells and resources banked, every single time they need to make decision. They may also repeatedly ask what the distribution of the deck is. << Don’t play with this person either, unless you fancy the game being stretched out into 6 hour slog.
Personally, if I were interested in playing Heroes of Land, Air and Sea in a super competitive manner, I’d take some time to learn these various abilities and pay some attention to which ones my opponents have developed, but I’m not, so I haven’t. And the truth is that although the abilities are different, all races have a roughly equivalent ability or counter ability. It’s more about getting a sense about the areas in which each race tends to have a slight advantage and considering those advantages while developing your own civilization. For example, in a recent game I learned the hard way that Orcs typically are going to have an advantage massing armies and attacking capital cities, so if the Orcs are in the game, you probably need to play a bit more defensively than if they are not.
But even if I am crushed by Orcs, I still enjoy building and nurturing my civilization, watching the history of this fantasy world unfold, and playing with all the pretty toys. And next time I will be better prepared. Or maybe, I’ll be the Orcs.