31 October 2018
A clunking triumph of stuff over substance
Heroes of Land, Air & Sea is a textbook Kickstarter success story. A big-box strategy title packed with cardboard and plastic, it hands players control of fantasy factions fighting across a world of roiling seas and sprawling continents. It raised almost $500,000 on the crowdfunding platform in 2017, and now it’s hit shop shelves for the rest of the gaming public to get their hands on.
Unfortunately, though, it also serves as a perfect example of the kind of bloated, overblown design that crowdfunding can sometimes encourage. A look at its campaign page reveals a breathless emphasis on the sheer amount of stuff packed into its box: 80 plastic miniatures! Multi-part vehicles! Modular cardboard castles! There’s just one thing missing, though: a compelling game.
Ostensibly, Heroes is a 4X game, encouraging players to explore the board, expand their domains, exploit resources and exterminate opponents. It even says as much in big letters on the front of the box. But in reality, while these are all things that you can do in the game, they aren’t necessarily objectives. It offers various point-scoring opportunities, some of which seem entirely arbitrary. Learned a new spell? Have a point! Started a battle? Have a point! Played a certain card from your hand during combat? Have a point!
It isn’t necessarily a terrible approach. Just look at designer Stefan Feld, whose games like Merlin and The Oracle of Delphi turn their innumerable means of scoring into a brain-bending exercise in planning and optimisation. But that’s not what Heroes is trying to be, and it only succeeds in creating a sense of detachment from its theme of fantasy warfare.
There’s a pervading sense of clunkiness that hangs over the game. Its magic system, for instance, adds CCG-style timing complexity around the types of spells you can cast at any given time. Its combat is a jarringly convoluted blend of unit shuffling, cardplay and mental arithmetic. Its movement rules see certain spaces on the board halt troops passing through them, regardless of whether they’d normally be able to keep marching. It amounts to a series of tripwires, where counterintuitive elements provide endless opportunities for players to make mistakes.
Heroes attempts to be an epic, grand-scale game in the style of Twilight Imperium, Blood Rage or A Game of Thrones. But while those games come with hefty rulebooks, they combine their various subsystems like parts of an intricate clockwork mechanism. They might seem intimidating at first, but they flow beautifully once you’ve played a few rounds. By comparison, this new release feels disjointed, with a stop-start pace that isn’t helped by constant reference to its manual.
And, for a game sold so heavily on its physical presentation, it’s not even that much to look at. Its minis aren’t a patch on those found in games like Rising Sun. Its board looks decidedly un-map-like, with weird square landmasses. And its focus on the generic fantasy factions of orcs, dwarves, elves and humans just suggests a lack of imagination.
It fails to justify its play time, its shelf space or its three-figure price tag.
Heroes of Land, Air & Sea fails to combine its disparate elements into a satisfying whole. It feels disjointed, and it’s full of niggly, confusing rules details that trip up players and make it a nightmare to teach.
Designer: Scott Almes
Artist: Chad Hoverter, Adam P. McIver, Ian Rosenthaler, Benjamin Shulman
Time: 2-3 hours
This review originally appeared in the September 2018 issue of Tabletop Gaming. Pick up the latest issue of the UK's fastest-growing gaming magazine in print or digital here – or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.
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