Base price: $15.
Play time: 15 – 30 minutes.
BGG | Board Game Atlas
Buy on Amazon (via What’s Eric Playing?)
Logged plays: 4
Full disclosure: A review copy of Air, Land, and Sea: Critters at War was provided by Arcane Wonders.
So I spent most of the Winter holidays writing tirelessly (and taking some time for video games, granted), and now that I’m back in the core of January, it’s probably time to get back to writing. So I’m finishing things up with some free time on my Seattle trip (OrcaCon) by investing a bit of time in writing about some more games I got to try out at (and after) PAX Unplugged. It’s been a blast, though since I’m out of the house, I really haven’t been able to play any particularly large games. So let’s look at a small one! Here’s Air, Land, and Sea: Critters at War.
In Air, Land, and Sea: Critters at War, war has been raging for some time on three separate fronts. Whether it’s the sky, the water, or the ground, you’ll need to deploy troops and set up strategic movements at certain spots within each Theater if you want to be able to take control and turn the tide of battle. If you find that you can’t do that, there’s always the option to withdraw. As they say, discretion is the better part of valor. Gather your hand, play cards, and triumph over your opponent! Or lose, I guess. Will you be on the winning side?
Shuffle the three theater boards, placing them between the two players.
Shuffle the Supreme Commander cards, dealing one to each player.
One will be First Player, and the other will be Second Player. Then, shuffle the remaining cards, dealing each player six:
The rest of the cards are set aside, along with the VP tokens.
You should be ready to start!
This one’s surprisingly simple. Over several rounds (“battles”), players will play cards to each theater, trying to either control the theater with a higher total Strength or by convincing their opponent to withdraw from the battle. A battle’s victor earns, predictably, Victory Points, and the first player to hit 12 or more Victory Points wins.
The First Player starts off the battle by doing one of three actions: Deploy, Improvise, or Withdraw. Let’s cover each.
Deploying is a simple task; you play any card from your hand to the theater matching its color. If there’s already a card there on your side, partially cover that card so that the Strength (number in the top-left corner) and the effect are still visible on the card below the card you just played.
Cards generally have no effect, an instant effect (lightning bolt) or an ongoing effect (infinity symbol). These can change different aspects of the game, from letting you play cards in other locations to flipping cards face-down. Face-down cards have a strength of 2 but no effect (even if they previously had an effect).
To Improvise, simply play a card from your hand face-down to any theater, covering any card(s) in that theater as you would with a Deploy action.
If you believe you cannot win the battle at your current state, you can withdraw. This ends the battle and your opponent gains VP corresponding to how many cards you have left in your hand. This is indicated on your player card.
After all cards have been played, a battle begins! Each theater is won by the player whose total strength at that theater (including card effects, where relevant) is higher. If there’s a tie for strength in a theater, the Starting Player wins ties. The player who wins at least two theaters wins the battle and gains 6 VP!
If neither player has earned 12 VPs, set up for the next round by shuffling all the cards (including the out-of-play ones) together and dealing each player six, again. Additionally, cycle the theaters by moving each one space to the right (moving the rightmost theater so it is now on the left). Finally, the Starting Player and the second player should swap, so the other player becomes the new Starting Player. Begin a new battle!
End of Game
After a battle, if either player has more than 12 VP, the player with more points wins!
Player Count Differences
This one’s two-player only! So no worries on that front.
- It’s pretty much all in the cards, so build your strategy based on what’s in your hand. Your cards will have a few distinct strategies available, which can be fun, so try to make sure you make the most of them. This usually is more than just evaluating the relative strengths of the cards; think about their effects, their placements, where you might want to flip cards over, what your opponent might play, and the relative placement of the various Theaters. Sometimes any one of those things can significantly change up your strategy.
- Leading with “high-value cards” early tends to get them flipped, so be careful with that. That might be your plan! But playing a 6 on the first turn is an extremely bold move, otherwise, as that’s usually the first thing your opponent will flip, should they get the chance.
- You shouldn’t rely on drawing additional cards during the game; I think there are very few cards that let you do that. There are essentially two, I believe; if you don’t see either in your hand when the round starts, chances are you’re not going to see them at all. If not, then you’re stuck with your starting hand. Having extra cards isn’t always necessary, anyways; you can do a lot with what you’re initially dealt.
- Keep in mind whether you win or lose ties. If you win ties, you can be a lot less invested in them. If you lose ties, then you should not treat ties as anything but a loss (and, consequently, make sure you don’t tie). Your opponent may be relying on you to forget you lose ties (or try to goad you into wasting cards if you win ties). Neither option is ideal.
- The cards tend to have progressively “worse” abilities as their value increases; keep an eye on that. Worse here is generally meaning that the cards’ abilities are less overtly helpful or obvious, culminating in the 6s, which have no abilities at all. The 1s tend to be pretty good, but don’t win you many points towards control when you play them. Balancing Strength versus abilities is a pretty core tenet of the entire game’s strategy.
- You don’t necessarily need to win all three Theaters; you can actually completely abandon one if your opponent overindexes on it too quickly. This is the danger of going hard after one Theater too quickly. If you overplay on that Theater, then your opponent may just play their cards elsewhere. After all, no reason to go after a Theater that they absolutely cannot win. So you need to balance winning a Theater against giving your opponent the impression that they could win the theater. Especially if they’ve got no shot. You need them to think they can win so that they play their cards there (allowing you a better shot at winning the other Theaters).
- Sometimes your hand is garbage. Better to withdraw earlier than later, though even withdrawing later isn’t the worst. If you can’t win, withdraw! You’ll usually live to fight another day. If you stubbornly hold out for too long, you’ll just end up feeding your opponent extra Victory Points. It’s actually pretty bad to not withdraw if you know you’re going to lose; your opponent only needs 12 VP to win and losing a battle gives them 6.
- If your opponent doesn’t flip one of your better cards, try covering it quickly on your next turn; that should offer it a fair amount of protection. It’s hard to mess with cards that are already covered; use that to your advantage. Just keep in mind that the card you’re covering your other card with doesn’t have an effect that negatively impacts the card you previously played.
Pros, Mehs, and Cons
- I do appreciate the move to retheme this with animals and more vivid colors. I’m sure the original game is nice, but this is a fun retheme that draws me in a lot more. I don’t think I would have been particularly motivated to try the original Air, Land, and Sea (or, more aptly, I would have confused it with Heroes of Land, Air, and Sea, which is precisely what I did). I’m not sure “animals at war” makes the game more inherently approachable, but it does catch the eye (and sit on the table) a bit better, which works for me.
- I really like the sense of discoverability I got from the first few plays; we didn’t read all the cards and just kind of figured it out over our first few plays, which was fun. Was it wise? Not terribly, but I enjoyed that the scope of the game was small enough that I could learn all of the cards after a few plays. Plus, it was pretty fun to get to have a “wait, what does that card do???” moment with my opponent. If that’s not your scene, they’re all printed on the back of the Theater Boards. Less fun, but easier to learn.
- The game plays super fast. You really do fly through the rounds since you only play six cards (give or take). I think the most time-consuming part of the game is remembering which direction the Theater Boards move after each round.
- Actually, this structurally reminds me a lot of Marvel Snap, which is great for me since I’ve been playing that the last several months. It’s funny to mention, but playing cards on various Locations with their own Strength / Power in the hopes of controlling at least two of three Locations by the end of the match is pretty much quintessential Marvel Snap. This, of course, plays very differently (less deckbuilding and no digital element), but it’s reminiscent enough that I was able to pick it up pretty quickly.
- I appreciate that the Theaters cycle each round and players swap who leads and wins ties. I generally like to do things like that anyways if I’m playing the same game with players multiple times. Things like changing the player order or moving the board state around can add new combos, remove already-seen ones, or just generally change up the power balance of the game. Since the game already bakes that in, you can just keep playing on a loop with no problems. It’s a smart way to encourage replay within the game’s own systems.
- I also like the withdrawing rules; it adds some strategy around determining when you think you’ll lose the hand. Again, Marvel Snap does this with retreating, but I like how here, it depends on how many cards you have left in hand (a de facto turn counter for the entire round). Withdrawing earlier still gives your opponent some VP, but not nearly as much as they’d get from winning. It forces players to think critically about their chances of winning the battle.
- Very portable; it’s really only 25 cards? Love a small, portable card game. If I were traveling more for board game stuff this might very well end up in my Quiver. Worth considering for the future, at least.
- Having the backs of cards be worth 2 Strength is interesting; it adds some strategy to which cards get flipped when (and how much you should care about it). Sometimes that can be a strategic advantage (or, entertainingly, there are cards that reward players for having flipped-down cards). It’s an extra layer of strategic play that speaks to a thoughtful design. Plus, it’s better than having cards get discarded or removed; for one, it allows those options as subsequent (and more severe) penalties, and two, it lets players with flipped-down cards still stay strategically in play. I like it a lot, actually.
- I find the cards that restrict how cards can be played strategically interesting but frustrating from a player standpoint. They’re fine, structurally, and they make sense in the game, but cards that destroy your cards when played can be ever-so-slightly annoying.
- There can be some frustrating hands dealt to you (as is the nature of cards), though that is mitigated pretty significantly by the ability to withdraw. That’s just the name of the game, sometimes. You can get dealt a bad hand, and without a way to modify your cards, you might not be able to do much with it. It might be a more serious Con if you couldn’t just promptly withdraw and try again in the next round.
Overall: 8.5 / 10
Overall, I think Air, Land, and Sea: Critters at War is a great little two-player game! I think one of the most entertaining parts of this game is how much it’s currently reminding me of Marvel Snap, since I’ve been playing that a lot lately. Here, your goal is to control at least two locations in a given battle by playing cards to those locations and winning with strength, which, oddly familiar. I think that this appeals to me, to some degree, because I just love quick games with a lot of configurations, and that’s really a major component of this game. I think there’s an expansion out, as well, which I’m interested in checking out. I want to see how it changes up the game. Now, granted, with a limited pool of cards available to you, there’s bound to be some deals where you’re probably not going to have the hand you would like. In some games, that would be a pretty bad circumstance. I think Air, Land, and Sea: Critters at War improves a lot on an otherwise-unfortunate circumstance by letting players choose to withdraw on any turn, and rewarding players for withdrawing early instead of when they know they’ve got no choice but losing. It means that players are always the ones in control of their tactical choices, and a bad hand is just another tactical eventuality that you have to know how to manage. It’s certainly a clever game (even when some of the 5s are destroying my cards), and the quick setup and low card count contribute to it being the kind of game that I can just play and replay for a while without much thought. Much thought about what to play next, at least; for as few cards as it is, the game’s pretty tactically intense. If you enjoy a good two-player tactical game, you’re a Marvel Snap fan, or you just like colorful games with fun warmongering animals, you’ll probably enjoy Air, Land, and Sea: Critters at War! I’d certainly recommend checking it out.
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