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Heroes of Land, Air and Sea (Cat not Included...)

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Remember those heady days of playing head-to-head Warcraft, Age of Empires and Populous on console or PC? Do you miss the thrill of exploration and discovery, the danger of enemies appearing seemingly out of nowhere? Do you wish there was a boardgame could give you that same buzz only combined with being able to play tabletop with your buddies? If so then Gamelyn's Heroes of Land, Air and Sea might just be for you.

I was so impressed with it that I begged Consulting Gamer to let me write a review for them.  

Heroes of Land, Air and Sea is a swords & sorcery battle game set in the hitherto peaceful world of Aughmore. Terrible war has broken out between the orcs, elves, dwarves and humans who each inhabit the great continents, and the race is now on to mine, harvest and exploit resources for the war effort. It's a battle of survival. 

Each race starts with a small Capital City (these are important) and some kinda peasant workers who always have more demands on their time than they can manage. Should they harvest food from the plains to sustain the next generation? Or cross the swamp-lands to mine metal ore in them thar hills? Or maybe seek out mystical spirit forces in the forests to help build up magical powers?  But it's never that simple – there are traps, treasure and encounters to be had as they push into the wilderness, and they must always look over their shoulder for that sneaky enemy attack coming from over the sea, or even from some diabolical flying machine. 

Now they've got busy you're getting somewhere – but now you need warriors and champions to defend your lands – or maybe march off to stop an enemy incursion? Then deep in the capital, amid the sound of weapons being forged, arise your champions, the Heroes of the title; each with their own gifts and specialties around which to muster a fighting force. 

Each faction struggles to explore their world, to establish stone outposts, to multiply their flock and above all to crush their enemies. 

So much, then, for the concept. How is Heroes to play as a game? 

When you first open the large box, stuffed with beautiful content (no "all box but no game" here) there is a sturdy gameboard, dozens of well-made figurines and the usual sheets of card chits and pre-cut models. One difference with Heroes is that before any play you must assemble a number of pre-cut cardboard structures first. This may seem like a chore, but because of that large box you only ever have to do this the one time – once completed they fit in nicely if you don't bother with the plastic shells the figures came in. Assembly instructions are simple and clear. 

Every faction has a selection of detailed "28mm"-sized workers (serfs), basic warriors and individual heroes. They are cast in the colour of their faction and need no work to get playing, although we decided to "wash" them all over with Citadel Nuln Oil to bring out all the detail. This also helped with differentiating troop types in an army and I would recommend it. 

There are no dice in Heroes – not a one. Every turn the lead player picks an action, such as to tax their kingdom or to build a Cathedral or Air Spire in the Capital City, to research magic spells, construct outpost towers or march troops off to battle. But now rather than having to watch and wait, fiddling with their phone while the others take a turn, each other player has a chance to follow suit with their own faction. Before you know it this is exercising everyone's brains; whether to copy the enemy's actions or to forge your own path? Crucially it means that there are rarely dull moments and everyone is engaged constantly.   

The powers of a faction, that is to say the availability of spells, powers of their armies, specialist vehicles and heroes, come in three simple levels. But unlike some games where you have to track endless counters to record whether you have invented, say iron blades or laser weapons, Heroes is simplicity itself.  The barometer for this "faction-power" is shown by how high your Capital City is – physically. As your Capital evolves from a squat little settlement to a three-tiered pinnacle, so do all your abilities, magical and military. It's a piece of cake to track. 

Eventually your armies must meet another's and so a battle commence. I confess that as a beginner I struggled with the combat system at first; but let me explain why. Both commanders have an identical hand of seven combat cards. You both tot up all the strengths of your armies, adjusting for the benefits they get from special skills, magic spells, locations, defences and all that – no surprises there. But now you have to pick a card in secret, then you both reveal. Each card is a general's tactical decision – you can fly the field, besiege, dig in, launch a charge, summon help, each of which adds to or subtracts from your overall strength. And certain cards can also undo an opponent's card, so choose wisely! Now I have played a few times I can see that once you have got the idea it is better than just throwing a bunch of d6s. You can be sneaky or just plain jammy but whatever you do, battle outcomes are never just a given. 

On the outside of the box it says Explore, Exploit, Expand, Exterminate. These describe four clearly defined conditions which "light the fuse" for the last round of the game. For instance you don't have to go to war with other players but can go off and explore the whole of Aughmore – you fulfilled Explore. But when that last turn is up it will be the player who holds the most Victory Points, usually earned through building, spell-casting or fighting, who will win. This means that the end of the game comes when the players trigger it – so it can be as short or as long as the players themselves dictate. 

Setting up the game and learning the rules is really easy. This youtube how-to-play guide may seem a bit full on, but he does explain really clearly both how to set up and how to play in less time than it took me to write this review. I also use it to revise the rules if I feel a bit rusty before a game.   

Grasping the rules and mastering a game are two quite different things of course and it's lovely to come to a game looking forward to fresh challenges every time. I do recommend playing the same faction a few times, as you get to learn their strengths and weaknesses this way. 

Up to 4 players can play the core game and there is even a solo game included for free which I hadn't tested out at time of writing. I have played it with four and it brings in a new level of sneaky alliances and evil skulduggery. Which is my way of saying that all those nasty orcs, elves and dwarves ganged up on me (sniff). 

Apparently with the available expansions the game will handle a tremendous 7 players. Good if you can get all those together these days of course. I have not tried those expansions out as I write this. 

And so I very much recommend this game. If you like a game which is fun, has a sense of humour, is easy to learn but challenging to master, deliciously made and above all engaging for all the players the whole game through, do try it.  

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