Heroes of Land, Optimization & Chaos
My grandfather once told me that a good idea is about catching a spark, but good execution is about putting in the years. And while it’s possible this attitude is why ole granddad only accomplished two things in his entire life, I’m inclined to believe he was onto something. After all, there’s Heroes of Land, Air & Sea, which has a tremendous idea — a cardboard version of an old-school real-time strategy (RTS) game, complete with base-building, exploration, and heroes leading armies into battle! — it also so happens that it was executed… well, like this.
There are scads of problems with Heroes of Land, Air & Sea. More than I’m likely to cover in the span of two thousand words. So I want to be upfront about the main issue, the one that makes it hard to overlook those other problems, and perhaps even magnifies them.
In essence, the entire game is schizophrenic. It’s two games, with different functions and different mindsets, even with different values, shoehorned roughly into the same gray matter and called whole. But like a rule-abiding cop who wakes up in the night to terrorize the city, these hijinks aren’t ultimately sustainable. There’s going to be a reckoning. And when it comes, you can bet something is going to get broken.
Let me show you what I mean. The first identity of Heroes of Land, Air & Sea is that of an optimizer. No surprise there, given its clear appreciation for classic RTS games like Warcraft. There are resources to manage, food and crystals and another color of crystals. More important than any of these, however, are actions. You start with only two action tokens, but surplus serfs — the same hapless fellows who gather resources from nodes around the map — can “follow” actions, whether your own or a rival’s, in order to multiply what you can get accomplished within a turn. Properly managed, you’ll recruit a hero on some other sap’s turn, then spend your own turn both marching and casting a devastating spell. And, as is only appropriate in a game about tight optimization, finding yourself without those extra serfs at the wrong time can leave you stuck with only those two action tokens, accomplishing barely anything at all while your rivals expand across the table.
Not that keeping a surplus of serfs is always easy. Like I said, they’re the guys who gather resources, so at some point you’ll need to march them outside your citadel to squat on resource nodes. Furthermore, they’re also the guys who transform into buildings. When you want a particular building — and you will want some, since they unlock heroes, boats, and airships alongside other bonuses — you slide your serf down to occupy that building’s slot. “Work complete!” your orc peon grunts, just like in Warcraft II. One more serf who won’t be available for actions.
To be clear, this is the best-rounded portion of the entire game. There’s an essential and classic tension to allocating your workers, especially when you need something quickly — a particular building, some extra bread — and therefore temporarily hobble your economy at home. It’s reminiscent of striking the proper balance between gathering vespene gas for later or bulking up for a rush right now. And it applies to far more than your workers; marching your soldiers or sailing your ships consumes orders as well. Researching a spell takes an action; casting it requires another. It isn’t long before you have a build, a strategy, an army composition, all competing to survive contact with a raiding enemy or an unexpected rival boom. Even the map has that uncanny RTS symmetry to it. It may be turn-based, but it isn’t far off from the feeling of sitting at your PC, mouse in hand and fingers resting atop hotkeys, and getting out-clicked by some kid in South Korea.
But then it falls apart. It doesn’t take long for the cracks to show, and not long after that before it starts to feel less like an RTS and more like a stilted compromise between Warcraft and a very different kind of game.
It begins with scouting. There was scouting in an RTS, right? You send out a nimble cheap unit to check on resource deposits and try to glean some crucial information about your opponent’s build in order to get a jump on countering it. But in the realm of cardboard, everything is laid bare. At least that’s the case in a game like Heroes of Land, Air & Sea, which needs to make sure you’re getting an eyeful of all that plastic. It doesn’t want to bother with hidden chits or player shields. This is as much a spectacle as it is a game. Behold the miniatures! Ogle the cardboard structures and vehicles! Who do you think this is, GMT Games?
Because RTS games feature scouting, by hook or by crook so shall this one, and never mind that the format doesn’t quite allow it. So instead of connecting scouting to the need to reveal your opponent’s strategy, Heroes of Land, Air & Sea falls back on that tried-and-true standard, the exploration token.
And why not? Many games feature exploration tokens. Except Heroes of Land, Air & Sea immediately sets its exploration tokens at odds with its identity as a strict optimizer. Sure, there are harmless things out there, the occasional resource or a feature of the landscape that’s worth extra points if you hold it at the end. But there are also discoveries of massive import. The token that provides three resources of its discoverer’s choosing is swingy; the one that provides a cost-negligible serf or warrior is worse. This represents far more than a free unit, because that unit and its new position aren’t worth only food and crystals and another color of crystals. Those are free actions you’re gaining, the price of recruiting and moving that unit. Two free actions, and an event plopped them into existence. And that’s to say nothing of the tokens that create adjacency between far-off territories or even kill or displace your units.
In a game about optimization, these swings are often massive, and reveal Heroes of Land, Air & Sea’s second identity as an agent of chaos. On its own this wouldn’t be a problem. There’s a wild delight to be found in those games that batter you against the winds of chance, where you manage some small degree of control through your wits and sheer will, where the player who most boldly rides the lightning is the only one to survive its strike.
Take the game’s magic system for an example. These cards are drawn at random via the research action and provide either single-use combat spells and interrupts or repeat-use boosts that must first be ensconced within your citadel. They’re also as swingy as the pendulum at my local planetarium, except they don’t tell time and they sure as heck don’t ever return to where they started. With a single well-placed spell you can blow up multiple serfs and warriors, wish for any six resources of your choosing, or… look at an exploration token. Yawn. The difference between effective and dull spells is gaping. That combat spell, for instance, costs four crystals. An incredible deal for the three resources, two recruit actions, and multiple march actions it obliterates.
Oh, and spells award points as well. Protip: get lucky on the draw and shove a good resource conversion spell into your citadel. You’ll barely need to harvest anything but green crystals and you’ll earn points whenever you snap your sparkly fingers. “Wololo!” your spellcaster exclaims, just like the priest from Age of Empires II.
Again, this wouldn’t be a problem if the game’s other half weren’t so preoccupied with carefully accounting your resources, units, and actions. It takes the game’s best intentions, like the diceless combat, and dashes them against the wall. The optimizer’s half of combat is about tallying up unit strengths and selecting a tactics card that may counter your opponent’s pick. The other half is about praying you don’t get blasted by an unexpected spell that makes victory impossible. Optimization stands in agonizing contrast to chaos, like an obsessive cleaner becoming roommates with a notorious chili inventor. The sleek blend of deterministic and wager-based combat found in Kemet, this is not.
It certainly doesn’t help that Heroes of Land, Air & Sea barely functions otherwise. Sometimes this is because it takes joy in overloading its players with trivial information. Building one structure provides a bonus, but upgrading your citadel binges on a bonus for every single building you already own, which in the late-game can mean four or five new things to track all at once. This also deprives players of any chance at specialization by ensuring that nearly every upgrade is within reach. Same goes for the heroes, little bundles of abilities that still manage to feel weirdly samey despite the occasional standout, like the swashbuckler who hijacks airships or the undead reaper who poisons nearby resource nodes. All this information tends to blur together, resulting in factions that aren’t nearly as distinct as, say, those from Root, but far more nitpicky in how many unique bonuses and perks and abilities you’re forced to noodle with.
There are other squabbles that undermine the game’s RTS heritage. Why is victory determined by gaining petty quantities of points from a dozen different sources? Why does the game insist on ending when one of its “4X conditions” is met, like uncovering all the map’s tokens (exploration) or building all your towers (exploitation), rather than putting itself on a timer or forcing everybody to fight over something consequential? Is it because cramming the 4X moniker in there was just too cute to pass up? Why is terrain so devalued by wraparound travel lanes and instantaneous portals and spells, rather than trusting the players to establish choke-points and other geographical features on their own? Throw in an agonizing play length that takes forever to ramp up and still often ends with a whimper, and you’ve got something that talks a lot about classic RTS games without seeming to understand what makes them so enthralling.
Consider the difference between an RTS like StarCraft and a turn-based strategy (TBS) game like Civilization. The first is a game of reflexive skill, build optimization, and unit counters set within a largely deterministic and symmetrical play space. The second is a game of patient expansion, mitigation of geography and circumstance, and diplomacy. There’s a reason their overlap has traditionally been minuscule despite their similarities. Wandering into two separate events, one that destroys your units but rewards your rival with free resources, would be untenable given the immediacy of an RTS, but likely recoverable in a TBS thanks to its deliberate pace and broader considerations.
In Heroes of Land, Air & Sea, these two identities strain to be separated. Perhaps they were intended to complement one another, to level the playing field and prevent a math-minded individual from sweeping across the table with all the humility and meekness of the Golden Horde. Instead these disparate halves result in a mess that still leaves some players in the dust. That’s inevitable when a single flubbed battle or bad exploration or rival spell can set you back further than careful optimization can repair. The result is a game that hardly functions at any of the things it does, even the things it does well.
At least all that plastic and cardboard looks nice. Heroes of Land, Air & Sea will always have its table presence.