A Bit of HIstory
Flashback to 1992 a much younger R0land with more hair and less fat sits at a computer desk playing Dune 2 on his PC. He gets up to go for dinner and comes back 30 minutes later to his base destroyed and the game lost.
"What the heck? It moves on its own?" Welcome to Real Time Strategy (RTS) games R0land!
Move forward to 1994, the whine of a dial up modem is heard just before it silences. "We're connected!" Wow, connecting to my friends computer and playing an RTS game online! It was pretty easy to do too! Many hours of fun are had.
Now it's 1999 and 8 players have connected to a computer and are playing Age of Empires 2. Hours and hours of build up and battle to determine the one winner. (Frankish knights were my favourites!)
Flashforward to 2020 and R0land sees #Heroes of Land, Air, & Sea for sale at a game store online for a steal! He's played it on Tabletop Simulator and seen reviews and it's always interested him. It looks big and bold.
Will this box make me feel like I did back in the 90's?
Well...highly unlikely, but is it a good game?
Let's find out!
Heroes of Land, Air, & Sea (HLAS from now on) is branded as a 4X board game (eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, eXterminate). You control one of the classic human/orc/elf/dwarf factions. (With more available with expansions.)
Start with a town hall and a few basic units then expand to a mighty empire and best your opponents!
At its heart this is a real time strategy game in board game form. I'm not sure if it's a full on 4x game but the elements are all there to one degree or another.
There is a lot of stuff in the box although not as much as it first appears.
First of all, the box is big! I'd put it at 2/3rds of a #Gloomhaven box or close to 2 times a Mansions of Madness/FFG big box size box. As NPI demonstrated it doesn't quite fit in a Kallax shelf. Luckily I don't use Kallax shelves so it won't be an issue. ;)
The rulebook is big! While we didn't go back to it too often there were a fair number of times where we were looking up rules online or in the FAQ for situations that weren't clearly defined. I'd give the rulebook generally an ok rating.
The cheatsheet on the other hand is quite helpful. Once you have a game under your belt it, along with the player boards, are all you really need to play the game 95% of the time.
The boats, flying ships, castles components, and towers are all put together out of cardboard. I think it took me about an hour to open, punch, and put it all together. Here we see the dwarves and elves assembling to do battle!
You will want to be careful putting these things together! 90% of it was fine but a couple of tower bits had the cardboard splitting a bit so I had to be extra careful to get it together without wrecking it.
However, once they were together they are all very solid. I didn't use any glue although the manual does suggest it.
The plastic stands for the flying ships look a bit iffy to me. The bar in the middle is pretty thin. Just something to be careful about when taking them out and packing them away. During gameplay of course it's great that they are thin and don't block the view.
The player boards, representing your castle, are great. They have most of the rules you need to know right on the board. Once you have learned the game this and the cheat sheet are pretty much all you need.
And of course the miniatures in their inserts. Overall miniature quality is good. I think they tried hard to make them distinguishable on the board. I do think that some of the heroes blend in a bit if the board gets busy but it's not too bad. I might consider painting the heroes to differentiate them a bit.
The board is quite big! The base game plays up to 4 players but you can get different expansions to make that 5 or 6 players. If you play with 6 you had better have a big table or some side tables for the player boards.
The cardboard components are all thick and quality. The cards are fine.
Everything has a little bit of extra artwork or a finer touch on it. I really enjoy the artwork and art style. It's colourful and video gamey for sure. It definitely will remind you of a closely aligned but legally distinct property from Blizzard. ;)
Setup is pretty straight forward.
- Pick your race, take your player board, put your items on it.
- Put your resource markers at 2.
- Put a warrior and 2 workers in the courtyard along with your two action tokens. Score marker goes beside the 1 on the board.
- Put exploration tokens on the land and sea spaces.
- Pick a spot for your starting castle in reverse turn order.
- Everyone gets a spell to start.
The objective of the game is to have the most points when the game ends.
It ends when one of the 4 X conditions are met:
- eXplore: All of the exploration tokens are gone.
- eXpand: Any player has all of their workers and warriors in play.
- eXploit: Any player has their three towers placed. (One per continent unless a two player game.)
- eXterminate: One player has their castle taken.
Whenever one of those occurs the current turn is completed and then one more turn then the game is over.
End game points for buildings, units, territory etc. Most points wins!
A round has three phases to it:
- Action selection
- Round End
The meat of the game. Players in turn order take their action marker and pick one of the 9 actions at the top of the board.
Here's where things get interesting.
If you take one of the left actions: Recruit, Build, Research, or Tax other players can follow you by putting a free worker from their courtyard on to the same action spot, if it is open.
If you take one of the right hand actions you can muster by putting one of your free workers on a different right hand action, if it is free. (So more or less follow yourself.)
This adds a lot of delicious decision making.
I need workers to follow someone else but if I recruit then everyone else could follow me. Maybe I should march those workers out for resources for now and hope no one else does something I want to follow before I can recruit more workers.
Do I take the build action? I think the orcs are going to build so maybe I do something else? But what if they don't build? I really want to build!
During your first game or two it is easy to miss this important aspect of the game. Typically people are going to keep a worker back on their courtyard. Can you make it so that worker sits there uselessly? That extra action, or possibly two, every turn over the course of the game is going to add up. Get yours and don't let others have theirs!
Instead of going through each action individually let's see how they help you accomplish the goals of the game:
eXplore (March, Sail, Fly)
Each territory, other than the starting castle territories, has one or two exploration tokens on it. Anytime an army ends it's march, sail, or flight movement in the space with an exploration token the token is flipped over. In the base game most of the tokens are helpful with one or two negatives in land or sea.
A lot of them require you to pay resources to get a unit or another benefit. Some of them give end game points and there are some portals allowing faster movement around the board. For the most part they aren't going to be game breaking unless someone is REALLY unlucky with placement.
I always like flipping over a tile to see what I get but I try to send a warrior out with the workers just in case it's a monster. ;)
When moving you move one set of units (the "army") from one territory. The army moves at the slowest units speed and you can't pick up or drop off units as you go. The maximum number of units that can be in the space when movement is over is 5. Except in the courtyard/capital space which can have any number of units.
Not allowing people to drop off and pick up units really requires you to think about where you leave your units at the end of your march. I know I've been caught by this a few times where a few turns later I realize it is going to take me more movement than I thought to get my big army together.
The other interesting aspect of movement is the fact that the map wraps and there are ferry lines:
The lines go between continents but also wrap around the board. So in the first photo that elf is right next to the tower. In the second photo (which is a bit small sorry) the tower I placed on the right side of the elf island was only one move away from my island by ferry.
The board (and ferry lines) wrap around vertically and horizontally so you are NEVER more than a march or two away from everyone else.
eXpand (Recruit, Build)
Initially you can recruit 2 workers or 1 warrior with a recruit action. The cost is shown on your player board. Most units will require some amount of food with more advanced units requiring other resources.
More units become available as you build more buildings. You first have to build the building and THEN you recruit the unit.
Workers are best at collecting resources while Warriors are better fighters and will tend to be upgraded depending on the buildings you build.
Every race gets three heroes which have a variety of powers that tend to specialize for certain uses. They are stronger than warriors generally but if used to their strengths can make a BIG difference in the battle.
Here you see the dwarven priestess. She has three powers she can get depending on your castle level.
The races also get a boat and a flying ship. These can be built or recruited. These each carry 2 units and also have benefits that work with the races abilities. If used in the right situation they can make a difference in battle but their mobility is really key.
Unless the game goes long it will be hard to build every special unit so it's important to decide what you want to accomplish and focus on that area at least initially.
Other than boats and flying ships you can build buildings, towers, and upgrade your castle.
For buildings the cost is always 3 ore plus a free worker. That worker stays in that building for the rest of the game. They will contribute to combat power if the capital is attacked but they can't be removed from the building for any reason.
A building will give you end game points, special benefits depending on your castle level, and access to build a special unit.
Here you can see that the dwarves have built a monestary. This allows them to recruit a priestess. At a level 1 castle the monastary also makes all build actions cost 1 ore cheaper. There are other powers that unlock when your castle hits level 2 and 3.
Towers are also important elements to the game. They cost 1 ore per space they are placed away from the capital and must go where there is a serf. However, they give 2 extra resources from the territory, provide 3 defense, and are treated as adjacent to the capital. This has a ton of implications for movement, spell casts, etc.
The one drawback is that you can only build one tower per level of castle you have so if you want to end the game by building towers you will need to upgrade your castle.
Here you see the mighty dwarven tower placed on an ore resource which they use a lot and also sitting between the enemy and the capital, at least on one side of the island.
Finally, and most importantly, you can upgrade the castle. This is pretty expensive to do. Four of each resource for level 2 and 7 for level 3. Especially the last upgrade will leave you vulnerable to combat as your resources for spell casting will be low. So time it right!
However, each castle upgrade allows you to hold more spells, build more towers, and makes all of your special units and ships more powerful/helpful. It also increases the inherent defense of your capital and end game points..
eXterminate (March, Sail, Fly)
When two enemy forces meet battle begins! The attacker automatically gets a victory point for initiating combat.
Combat in this game is a lot more interesting than you would expect. There is no randomness to it but the results are not a done deal beforehand.
Each player has the same hand of 7 combat cards. (and for some reason I did not take a photo of them!) The cards have a rock, paper, scissors style to them and each costs a certain amount of resources to play as well as giving a certain number of victory points when played. (You can designate troops to be sacrificed post battle to cast them if needed.) Many cards can't be played if you only have serfs in your army so it's best to have a mix of troops on the front lines.
The players are first allowed to cast combat spells (defender chooses first then attacker) which can have quite a bit impact on the battle and then each player chooses a combat card to play.
Each player then shows their card, pays the cost, and the side with the most combat points wins!
The loser loses half of their combat strength rounded down. However, even one point of damage to a unit eliminates it. The rest of the units go back to the capital.
If the fight is in the capital then all units on the players player board contribute to the defense of the capital as well as the castle defense. Taking a capital is therefore hard but it is possible.
In this phase you get a resource from every territory that you own that supplies resources (Mountains, forests, and plains) plus one for every serf in a production slot, plus two for a tower.
This turn I'll be getting 6 ore, 3 mana, and 2 wheat.
Each island has a different setup of where the "double up" worker spots are so you should take this in to account in your strategy.
The player then collects 1 spell and discards down to their spell limit.
This is basic upkeep. Return workers and action tokens from the action bar back to the capital city's courtyard and rotate your spells towards the ready postion by 90 degrees.
Pass the first player to your left and start the next turn!
I haven't said a lot about spells because they fit in all 4 X's. At castle level 1 the player may hold on to one spell and may scribe one spell. They can hold on to another spell every castle level.
The research action allows the player to draw 3 spells and then discard down to their spell limt. Alternately is allows the player to scribe a non-combat spell. This gives the player victory points and allows them to cast it every couple of turns:
I think this golem spell will be useful in the future. The player can scribe one spell per castle level. Decide wisely what to scribe because they are never removed.
The casting action allows the player to cast a non-combat spell from hand or an available scribed spell. In addition to the spells effect each spell will also give the caster victory points for casting it. If it's in your hand then it is discarded.
Casting spells in combat work the same as casting spells in hand except that each player can only cast one spell for the battle.
Spells can have a lot of different impacts including adding units to the board, killing other players units, and a variety of other things. They can range from game changers to not very useful in my current situation. Typically the cost will vary to the usefulness of the spell and is always paid in green mana crystals.
While the research action sometimes feels like a waste, a powerful spell can make a BIG difference in the game and if you are mana rich might be well worth an action to search for something good.
I have only played one game solo. Dwarves vs elves. The game went quite quickly despite learning the solo rules. I think it was over in about 75 minutes including learning the rules.
Running the solo rules is quite simple and I was going through the game quickly after the first few turns.
Flip the player board over to the back side to get the solo side. The solo player starts off with the three heroes already out. They get 3 actions to your two but you can follow their actions while they can't follow yours so it evens out.
The solo players actions are contained in a deck of cards that are applied to each hero from left to right one per turn. If the action on the card can't be done then the hero moves.
It did feel like the opponent ramped up a bit slow. I ended the game just as they were starting to have enough resources to come after me and they never got around to building a tower or a serf which was weird. (I am pretty sure I played it right however.)
Generally I felt like it was a bit of a weak opponent but it also might have been a bit of a randomization issue for this particular game. I think the deck could easily be tweaked to increase the challenge.
Mind you, at the end of the game they were starting to attack and make headway in to my empire. I still managed to win the game by a good 6 points even though I was only half focused on it.
The game only comes with one set of solo cards but it is easy to find the file online and print more. I am planning on a game with 3 solo players at a later date!
I don't know if I would buy this game for the solo mode but it is a nice benefit!
When the game is over add up all of the victory points you start with plus gain victory points for the castle, buildings, towers, special units, and terrain you own. Most points wins!
I enjoyed playing this game on TTS but like always, it is better to have the pieces on the board and in your hands.
Overall I think this is a great game:
- The game has excellent presentation and components.
- The gameplay has hidden depth below its surface and a lot of player interaction both early and especially later in the game. Each time I've played the game I've seen some better ways to play or another tweak to my thinking that will help improve my play.
- Combat can be calculated but with spells and the combat cards it is always exciting and risky.
- In the end it is very cool to march, sail, and fly your dudes around the map. Building up your capital city and watching your power and influence spread.
There are a couple of cons to consider:
- It's a pretty expensive game. I got mine for a good price online but it still wasn't cheap. I am not 100% sure I would pay full price for it as it is not one I expect I will get to the table that often. There are only so many epic style games one group can play.
- Your enjoyment will depend on your group. There is nothing stopping players from being ganged up on and the game rewards the attacker. So it is possible for someone to get weakened and then get pounded in to oblivion.until they are more or less out of the game. There are unofficial variants that help alleviate it a bit but in the end it is possible to play a game and not be able to get a lot of headway. This is after all a wargame.
- My one solo play experience seemed a bit easy but I'll try with three opponents and get back to you.
Overall though I think it is a very good game and if this style of game is something you enjoy and you don't already have in some other form then I can heartily recommend it.
As for R0land from nearly 30 years ago, I think he is giving me a big thumbs up as well!