Heroes of Land, Air and Sea Review

Welcome to Aughmoore. You’ve arrived at an interesting time. It’s years since the lands ceased to provided for the races – the Elves, Dwarves, Humans and Orcs. In desperation, the once united races have retreated into solidarity in the face of scarcity, and have noticed that acts of aggression, domination and violence against their neighbours is rewarded by the land. Yes, it seems like an odd premise but don’t think about it. Just send out your Heroes of Land, Air and Sea to gain glory for your race and set you up to rule over the next age!

1-4 Players| 2-4 Hours | Designed by Scott Almes

You might have heard of Tiny Epic Kingdoms. Brought to life by Gamelyn Games, Heroes of Land, Air and Sea is essentially Regular or Large Epic Kingdoms. The game shares many similar ideas and mechanisms with its tiny sibling and is brought to us by the same publisher and designer. After an initial false start on Kickstarter in 2017, HOLAS was quite successful and went on to have a retail release, and second Kickstarter in 2018 for expansions.

A 3 player game in action

How does it work?

Heroes of Land, Air and Sea is a ‘4X’ area control, action selection and ‘worker placement’ game where players compete to expand, explore, exploit and exterminate (the 4 X’s) in an effort to end the game with the most points and thus be the new dominant power in Aughmoore.

A game is played over several rounds with players scoring points as they go, and then getting a bunch of end-game points once one of the four end game conditions is met. The game ends when either a player deploys all their units or all their towers, the land is totally explored, or a player’s Capital City is destroyed.

On a player’s turn they have a number of Capital or Command actions to choose from. Capital actions include things like recruiting units, building stuff, and taxing to gain resources, and all of these actions can be followed by other players if they have spare workers to do so. If for example, I chose to recruit, during my turn each other player could also recruit, if they had a spare worker and the resources to do so. Command actions are used to move units, move vessels, and cast spells from spell cards. The Command actions cannot be followed by other players.

Combat is a big element of the game – any time somebody moves units into a region containing another player’s units they will immediately fight for control of that region. Combat is played out in an interesting way with players totalling the strength of their armies and then selecting a ‘tactic card’ (of which every player has the same set of 7 to choose from). Tactic cards provide combat buffs but players must be able to pay for them to play them. The winner of a combat retains a territory, and the loser must sacrifice some units and return the rest to their home base. Combat is the primary way points are gained during the game.

Each round players get to do two ‘lead actions’ on their turns and a number of follow actions. After a round is over, players gain resources based on areas they control on the map and then play continues with more actions. When a player triggers the end game condition there is a final round before players total up end game points (gained from controlling territory, and faction bonuses) and see who comes out victorious!

Most of the player board (and my home island being ransacked in the background)

What do I think?

I’ve played the game 6 times now and tried out 3 of the races. I’ve also played with 2, 3 and 4 players. I can say that the game time printed on the box (30 minutes a player) is optimistic, more realistically it’s about 45 mins to an hour per player, unless everyone plays really fast, but personally I don’t mind this at all, I like a long game.

Clearing out a beach head from the sea.

The Good Stuff

  • Heroes of Land, Air and Sea is fairly quick to get into. Rules explanation doesn’t take very long and after a round or two players fully understand how the game works. This is great because new players won’t feel disadvantaged by the obscurity and you don’t need to play it a lot to ‘be good’ at it.
  • The way the map works – with ferry routes basically interconnecting everything tightly – makes the game really interesting. There are so many avenues of attack it’s hard to keep tabs on everything. This is great because people will often surprise you attacking from unexpected directions. It’s basically impossible to cover all your bases but I like this, it keeps the game exciting.
  • The game looks very cool on the table. It’s large (like, ridiculously so, maybe problematically so), colourful, and with each race having a distinct colour of mini it’s very easy to read the board state.
  • Some people are critical of the cardboard buildings and vessels, but I actually really like them. I think they are really charming, and were well executed. It’s a simple way to spruce up the game and make it look even more striking on the table, and building on the previous point, further enhances board readability.
  • The combat system is very interesting. It has a scissors paper rock feel – you go in knowing what the other player has and what cards they may pick, and need to decide how best to counter those situations, but you can only pick one thing and they might not do what you expect. I find the combat in this game much more satisfying than other games that implement dice-less combat.
  • HOLAS manages to implement asymmetry without adding initial complexity. All races start off essentially the same and the asymmetric powers arise as players begin to build buildings and unlock abilities. This gradually introduces things as the game goes on and significantly reduces rules explanation time and options in the beginning of the game.
  • The factions are well balanced. Some faction powers or Heroes may seem overpowered but the abilities are usually fairly situational and balanced by drawbacks elsewhere in the race.
  • The Capital City building based tech-tree system is really cool. Each race has 5 ‘buildings’ (unlockable ability columns) on their home board, and the way the columns interact with capital city level to unlock more stages is really interesting. I also like how this feature helps slowly introduce more mechanics/features to the game as it goes on, not overburdening players in the beginning of the game.
  • HOLAS‘ action system is really great and keeps players continually engaged. Being able to do things when other players activate them even when it’s not your turn makes downtime less of an issue and even provides a strategic element – if you are spending you primary actions doing ‘Capital Actions’ that another player could activate for you, you are sacrificing ‘Command Actions’ that you can mobilise your forces with.
A near end-game board

The Bad Stuff

  • Movement in HOLAS feels really clunky, I would liken it to movement in Twilight Imperium. The movement action is quite restrictive – you can’t pick up or drop off units, and the whole army moves at the slowest unit’s speed. There are several knock-on effects of this. It feels like it will take forever to do anything that requires going places, and you need to separately group your army before moving in for a combat. Spreading your units out to gather resources also costs a lot of actions to do. I understand this design decision fits with the game but it can be quite annoying at times.
  • The Air and Sea parts of the game (the vessels) feels too restricted to me. The name of the game implies they will be big facets within the gameplay, but they are rarely used due to their inconvenience. Each faction has one boat and one airship, and they can only carry 2 units each. Because of the movement and combat rules, this means that attacking with a boat or airship (3 units max) is usually not as strong as attacking with a full land army of 5 units. In most cases, players seem to just build their vessels so they can move their slow hero around a bit faster, but otherwise they aren’t really big elements of the game, despite the name.
  • The map is static. It’s obviously well balanced, but it could get a bit boring after many plays on the same map.
  • There is a fair bit of Analysis Paralysis potential. It’s easy to find yourself stuck wondering what to do now (spoiler alert, the answer is usually go and attack someone). This gets better as players get experience but new players at the start of their first game can sometimes struggle with what to do on each turn.
  • The exploration facet of the game is not very exciting. There are face-down tokens on each land space that are flipped when units arrive there. They are split between gaining a few resources and some minor events happening, but they become pretty repetitive and uninspiring after a few games.
  • When you get ‘beaten down’ or lose a significant chunk of your empire, it can be pretty difficult to recover and you can spend a while basically hanging on and acting as an easy target for other players to accumulate even more points. I’ve seen this happen a few times and when it happened to me it wasn’t great. Since it happened to me I’ve been quite careful not to spread myself too thin in future games.
  • Once you’ve unlocked a bunch of building abilities, upgraded your town centre and have a few Heroes, there are an awful lot of modifiers and abilities to keep track of and it’s really easy to miss stuff. Furthermore, players who are intent upon knowing all other player’s abilities will really dislike this as it essentially obscures information/abilities through sheer volume.
  • The box is like literally 5mm to wide to fit in a Kallax shelf, and I found this particularly annoying. It’s so close to fitting! The board fits very snugly in the box and can be quite difficult to get out too. I understand they wanted to make the board as big as possible to fit all the stuff on it but it could have been a little smaller to accommodate these important factors.
All aboard the pain express!

One of my friends described this game as ‘TWILIGHT IMPERIUM Express’ which honestly sums up the game really well and feels very accurate to me. It’s certainly a compliment, Heroes of Land, Air and Sea plays like an epic 4x game in a much shorter time than comparable games. It’s got a fun light-hearted setting which lends itself to great table talk. I’ve enjoyed every game I’ve played, win or lose, and I think the way the game allows for players to really surprise each other with attacks and other moves keeps it very interesting. I don’t often truly enjoy such combat focused games, but I think this game does a great job of combining that with other interesting elements to give you a great experience. Heroes of Land, Air and Sea is now sitting near the top of my list of favourite 4X games and if that genre interests you I think you should give it a try! It’s available retail and from the Gamelyn Games webstore with shipping worldwide.

The copy of Heroes of Land, Air and Sea used for this review was provided to The Boardgame Detective by Gamelyn Games.

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