Gravel vs. Puddle
Some tile-laying games are fresh takes on one of board gaming’s oldest genres. And then, for those who want to hear the comment “It’s a lot like Carcassonne, isn’t it?” there’s Jon-Paul Jacques’ Land vs Sea.
Don’t mistake Land vs Sea for some stolid knockoff, though. Yes, it can feel quite similar to Klaus-Jürgen Wrede’s famous tile-layer (and not only because you’re laying tiles), but in practice it manages to set itself apart (and not only because the tiles are hexes rather than squares).
As you may have gleaned from the title, players are cast as either the land or the sea, those two elements that have waged a lover’s quarrel since the very dawn of creation. Here, that quarrel plays out as an anti-cartographer’s idea of what cartography entails. Turn by turn, players give shape to the world, creating a tectonic affront that consists of interconnected islands and seas, continents and lakes. Your principal goal is to wall off your own element for points. The larger the better, but also the more difficult to complete, especially when your foe might place a tile that ushers some minor inlet out to the greater ocean. This is one of the game’s central conundrums: how do you finish a lake if that lake keeps getting bigger?
The more interesting conundrum is how to earn points like some sort of victory weasel. By which I mean that sometimes it becomes apparent that your rival will finish a lake or landmass for a heap of points — and by finishing it for them, they’ll still receive the lion’s share of those points, but you’ll filch a point here and there at the same time. By giving your opponent a massive payday and taking a few scraps, then shooting for your own massive paydays with or without their input, it’s possible to squirm your way to a winning position.
That’s the basic game, anyway, and in spite of any wrinkles it’s so smooth that it hardly generates any friction.
The solution comes in the form of two scoring modules. In the first, mountains and reefs earn points when massed together; in the second, there are now ships and wagons that, when placed in adjacent spaces, create convoys that earn points for whichever side controls them at the end of the game. The short version is that these help. The longer version is that Land vs Sea becomes more interesting without ever quite standing out. As exciting as it might seem to pit land and sea against each other, they’re blandly proportional. For every reef there’s a mountain; for every ship there’s a wagon; for every tile there’s another tile that seems like the same tile but inverted. There’s never a sense that, say, the sea is this big but featureless mass. It’s land by another color. Whether playing with two people or four, the whole thing comes across as an exercise in out-symmetrying your opponent. And contrary to conventional wisdom, perfect balance doesn’t tend to be very exciting.
Which is why the three-player game comes as such a surprise.
With three players, Land vs Sea morphs into something low-key wonderful. For one thing, the third player isn’t given command of some third substance — the game doesn’t suddenly become Land vs Sea vs Aether. Instead, those two scoring modules are given entirely new expressions that benefit the third player, dubbed the cartographer. Rather than spilling out points for their owners, mountains and reefs now have eyes for the cartographer alone. Convoys, meanwhile, will still score for whichever side possesses them; but in the event that they’re tied between the land and sea players, it’s the cartographer who scores the whole kaboodle.
Tiles that would have been perfectly advantageous now become deadly to their holders. As the land player, you might be holding the perfect tile to complete an island, but it could also connect a range of mountains and therefore award an escalating quantity of victory points to your rival. As the sea player, you might want to compete for control over a particular convoy, but you’re forced to keep in mind that there’s that pesky third player hoping to nudge the proportion of ships and wagons into equilibrium.
This affects everything about Land vs Sea. What was once drearily straightforward becomes an exercise in minimizing your exposure while setting up as many opportunities as possible. It’s impossible to prevent your foes from scoring off your tiles, but you can strangle their darlings whenever they bob to the surface.
To be clear, this doesn’t entirely redeem Land vs Sea. Even at three players it has its share of downsides, including whimsical but busy artwork that can be hard to parse. For example, a handful of sinking ships grace these shores, and although the sea player’s trade ships are helpfully marked with three dots, it can still be tricky to tell at a glance which side controls any given convoy. At times it’s even possible to flub on some minor corner of a particular lake or wonder aloud whether a range of mountains touches two or three edges of its tile. In a genre that leans so heavily on visual clarity, that’s borderline unforgivable.
Still, this is one of those rare games that changed my mind four plays in, shifting from dismal to pleasant, if still somewhat over-packaged and underwrought. Apart from flipping a pair of reference tiles and adding a scoring marker for the cartographer, the game’s physical state was unchanged, yet the gameplay transcended itself and became something else entirely. A keen reminder that games are more than their components — and that much can be accomplished when a designer begins to think outside the box.
A complimentary copy was provided.