21 May 2022
Turf and Surf war
Everyone loves the land. It’s where pizza was invented. Most of YouTube gets filmed there. Everyone loves the sea. It inspired a whole musical genre: the shanty. It contains multiple walruses. But which is better? There’s only one way to find out…
In Land Vs Sea you play as either land or sea, drawing hexagonal map tiles and placing them to form islands and oceans. Islands score points for land players, while oceans score for sea players. Some tiles have an icon that lets you play a second tile immediately afterwards or steal one of your opponent’s tiles. Additional rules give you bonuses for connecting mountain ranges or coral reefs, or joining caravans or ships together into trade routes.
And that is pretty much it, as far as the rules go. The core objective of Land Vs Sea is refreshingly simple – the only wrinkle that might take a couple of rounds to sink in is that it doesn’t matter who completes the island or ocean: if you’re playing land and you finish off an ocean, your opponent gets those points… except sometimes when there are bonus points designated by Xs on the map, which go to whoever completed the area.
These wrinkles add some necessary spice to the core mechanics – particularly welcome is the volcano/whirlpool tile – a hex that is entirely sea on one side, and entirely land on the other. Whoever manages to construct a section of map where it can fit first gets to place it for a juicy six-point bonus.
The artwork in Land Vs Sea is knowingly reminiscent of old-time nautical maps and those weird illustrations monks used to add in the margins of illuminated Bibles: a cat wearing some kind of improvised rocket pack, a rooster on stilts, mermaids, treasure chests heaped with diamonds. It’s appealing, and sometimes confusing – many of these illustrations have a direct impact on scoring, then others don’t. They’re both given the same prominence, so it’s not easy, at a glance, for newer players to read the board state or spot opportunities.
There are three and four player versions of the rules – four player is straight up team play, two land, two sea, but three uses an odd, asymmetric scoring system where one player is trying to score islands, another is trying to score oceans, and a third – the Cartographer – is trying to score mountains and coral reefs. It’s a clever way of making the game possible for three players, but – by stripping away some of the scoring options for either side – it feels like a workaround rather than a game mode equal to the others. Yes, theoretically you can be trying to score while denying your opponents opportunities, but given that you’re only ever choosing from the 4 sides of the 2 tiles you have in hand (and sometimes not even that if someone stole one of your tiles), realistically your options are limited to trying to complete a terrain feature.
Which isn’t to say Land Vs Sea is bad. In the two player mode – which feels like the real game, to be honest, the other options being more like novelty variants – the back and forth of drawing, stealing and placing hexes is engaging. Everything your opponent does is relevant to you, because every tile except one has both land and sea on it. Since neither player has many choices, turns happen quickly. The box suggests a 40 minute play time, but most experienced players will see a game out in under 30.
The basic experience is fun and relaxing – exactly what you’d want from a gateway tile-laying game. It’s just not clear – when games like Carcassonne and Isle of Skye are right there, waiting to be played – what its unique selling point is. Why play this when better iterations of a similar idea, just as easy to teach, just as quick, but with more interesting decisions, already exist?
I guess for the same reason I know I’m going to play this again. Because, despite its big-hitting competition, Land Vs Sea is still good with two players, and it’s different enough – with lots of interaction – that I know when it comes down from the shelf, we’ll have a chilled out, undemanding half hour of gaming. If that sounds right for you, dive – or dig – in.
PLAY IT? MAYBE
TRY THIS IF YOU LIKED Carcassonne
Land Vs Sea is no Carcassonne, but if you like laying tiles and building a map together then you’re all set. If anything, Land Vs Sea may be a little less cutthroat, as you’ve always got plenty of scoring options.
Designer: Jon-Paul Jacques
Publisher: Good Games Publishing
Time: 40 minutes
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