I'd briefly looked at Air, Land, & Sea when it was added to the geeklist Games like Battle Line (area control card games, mostly without a board), so I was pleased to see my friend Joe had picked up a copy. I had a lot of fun with 'meaty microgames' like Circle the Wagons and Iron Curtain and this sounded like it might pack a similar punch in just 18 cards.
So what's it all about? It's like Battle Line in that you're simultaneously contesting multiple areas by playing cards to them, and you win a round by controlling a majority. But here it's only three areas (you guessed it - Air, Land and Sea) and they're not fought over with poker hands but just total value of cards played. You also only get the six cards you're dealt to play in each round - no extra draws.
The cards come in suits matching the three theatres, each with values of 1-6, and you can only play a card to your side of its matching domain. So where are the decisions? Isn't the outcome pre-determined by the cards you are dealt? Well, not quite...
The first complication is that you can play a card 'out of suit' by turning it face down. Instead of its normal face value, you always only get a value of 2 for those cards, but it does give you some flexibility.
More importantly, each card has a special power, some of which are immediate and some permanent. For example Blockade lets you return a previously-played card to your hand and then take another turn; Air Drop lets you play your card next turn to any theatre; and Cover Fire makes any card under it worth 4 instead of its face value (great if you've got a few face-down cards!).
The neatest thing in the design is the way the face-down cards interact with the powers. There are several powers which can 'flip' other cards, either your opponent's or your own. This potentially lets you deactivate irritating permanent powers or neuter high-valued cards on your opponent's side. But it also lets you flip your own face-down cards over, at which point their special power activates, potentially setting off chain reactions.
It's not a total free-for-all though. When you play a card to a theater that already has a card, it 'covers' it. That leaves the value and any persistent power of the covered card intact, but prevents it being flipped. So you can act to protect your key assets.
The face-down cards and the fact that six cards are left out of each round completely leads to a nice cat-and-mouse feel, which will only be enhanced once the players are more familiar with the available powers.
But of course you might just get dealt a terrible hand -- since you need to win 2 out of 3 theaters, you don't want your strength spread evenly over all three, and having a bunch of low cards will hurt too. The design provides for a nice work-around for that too. Winning a battle played to completion is worth 6 points - half what you need for victory. But if you feel sure you're going to lose, you can withdraw early, with a sliding scale of points conceded depending on how many cards you had left in hand at the time.
As you can probably tell, I really enjoyed this. It's another great entry in the impressive recent field of 20-minute, 18-card microgames and I look forward to giving it a few more goes soon.
QWERTYmartin's Unabridged Insights On Play
- [+] Dice rolls