One day, while wading through obstinate, naive political opinions on twitter (are there any other kind?) my eye caught the Good Stuff–a new review from Dan Thurot, aka Space-Biff! Teasing the text-link was a statement to the effect of “is this the best microgame ever made?” Skeptically shifting my sight briefly towards Sprawlopolis, I clicked and read an enthusiastic description of Air, Land, and Sea’s many virtues. I don’t remember the details, but it was enough to seek out a copy for myself.
Between that time and the arrival of the game itself, I heard other people praising it, both online and in the flesh-world. Could a game, especially one with a mere 18 cards and some tokens, withstand such acclaim? Honestly, I don’t think so.
Hear me out. I’ve been mulling over this idea for many months, ever since I was contemplating what to rate the sublime Sprawlopolis. My rating system isn’t scientific by any means, as I believe such attempts will always fail. But I do want my ratings to mean something, even though most of the reason for their existence is my own amusement. What do I do with a game that has severe limitations placed upon it, but is perhaps close to the best a game can be with those limitations?
There are a couple of ways you can look at it. First, you can assign a rating for how well the game accomplishes what it’s trying to accomplish. If there’s a severe prior limitation, that shouldn’t cap the potential rating of the game. This creates a rating system that’s non-comparative across styles, but one that gives every game a shot to get the highest scores. The second way is to try to maintain cross-comparative abilities. This, at least to me, results in lighter, smaller games almost necessarily having a soft cap for how high their rating can be. Sprawlopolis is wonderful, and one of my favorite games of all time, but I can’t say it’s a better experience than Spirit Island, because the latter simply has more to offer, executed in a similarly excellent way. (A related gripe: I don’t like when people say they want the experience of some epic game in a smaller, shorter package because at a certain point, the largeness and length of the game is the point.)
I’d love to be wrong, but I don’t see how an 18 card game can become the peak of my gaming experience, and I’m fine with that. So, does Air, Land, and Sea meet these high expectations? Sort of. It is indeed an excellent microgame, but fits into a very crowded field. You’ve seen it before: two players sit across from each other and lay cards down in columns on their side of the table, jockeying for position. Knizia’s Battle Line is the earliest one I’m aware of, and the most literally-named. Hanamikoji put an “I cut, you choose” twist on the sub-genre, and I found it quite enjoyable.
Air, Land, and Sea offers its own unique take, going back to the military setting and placing the action in the titular air, land, and sea. Players will be given a random selection of cards, and as you’d expect they’ll go back and forth playing one card at a time. The deck contains cards 1-6 of each of the three “suits” and all but the sixes have some kind of ability associated with them.
The abilities are beautifully designed, a combination of one-time abilities, letting one flip or move cards to and from theatres, and persistent abilities, boosting face down cards or adjacent locations. I see a lot of games as part of this job, and many games have the familiar “cards with unique abilities”, but Air, Land, and Sea has some of the most tightly constructed card abilities I’ve ever seen. This isn’t a matter of mathematical precision, but of pleasantly diverse abilities that gain strength through clever timing. I think I’ve seen most of the cards deal a fatal blow, and I’ve seen previously strong cards rendered useless by battle conditions.
The opening of a round feels somewhat like Twilight Struggle, as you contemplate how to order your cards, first in order to synergize their abilities most effectively, then to consider what your opponent might have. As you play more and memorize the card abilities the mind games intensify. Moving cards between theatres can be particularly brutal, as each round is a two out of three contest. Stacking up an opponent on an undefended battleground can help you capture the other two with ease. However, stacking also deters movement as only the top card can be moved or manipulated. If someone throws down a mighty six-power card as their first play, do you use one of your manipulation cards to mitigate its power right now, or wait until the critical late stages of the round?
Yomi can get several layers deep, because you can guess what your opponent has in hand not just based on what you know (your hand, what they’ve played already), but on what they’ve not done. Are they holding off playing in a certain theatre that’s become hotly contested? Maybe they’re waiting to play the card that locks in the number of cards in that area to five and want you to play first. Maybe they’ve simply run out of options to play cards there. Is there an angle you haven’t considered yet? Did they blunder?
So Air, Land, and Sea does all of the right things you’d like to see for this style of game. But if you already own Battle Line or Hanamikoji, what’s the point of buying another variant? Here’s the answer: Air, Land, and Sea lets you retreat.
As with any game with a shuffled deck of cards, the spectre of randomness lurks within. Oftentimes the effect of this randomness is overstated, and indeed Air, Land, and Sea would be a fine game without any mitigating features, but what a feature this is! The earlier you retreat from a battle, conceding that round, the fewer points you lose. In a race to 12 points, a full loss will give your opponent six, bringing them halfway to victory. Recognize a losing position early and that’ll only set you back two or three.
But to quote good ‘ol Billy S., “ay, there’s the rub.” How do you know if a position is losing? I’ve only had one or two situations where I’ve been confident of my position, good or bad; the rest have been fraught with uncertainty. My tendency is to stay in too long. More than once I’ve gathered an early lead only to lose due to my overconfidence. Retreating doesn’t feel good, but it transforms the game into something fresh, something different. Loss aversion is a powerful psychological force, and usually conceding in a game is an indication of final defeat. Outside of Poker, where you can fold your hand, I can’t think of any other game that utilizes this mechanism. Unlike Poker, where a string of bad luck can result in a very long string of non-play, Air, Land, and Sea is condensed down to, at most, a handful of rounds. At some point you’re going to have to commit, and pray that your enemy doesn’t hold the resources to defeat you.
That prayer, however, happens more and more as you play. Knowing the cards intimately (relatively easy to do given there are only 15 with text) means that you can soon understand what the full range of possibilities are for what your opponent could do. There are a number of cards outside of both player’s hands, so nothing is certain, but counting the odds is much easier here than, say, Twilight Struggle.
I wrestle with this problem–of being able to count the odds–fairly frequently. I maintain that the excitement of uncertainty is generally higher in situations where the precise numbers are unknown. But sometimes I wonder if that’s merely an illusion I tell myself because I’m often not able to play games I love as frequently as I’d like. I’ve played The Castles of Burgundy over 500 times between in-person plays and online, and I’m to the point where I have a good recognition of what all the tiles are and where I’m pushing my luck. I don’t do the complete calculations, but my mental math is close. I still love that game.
Regardless, Air, Land, and Sea isn’t and perhaps can’t be as good as many of the larger, great games that inspired it, but that’s not to say it should be dismissed. Of the games in this particular sub-genre it’s one of the best, and may actually be the best I’ve played. It’s one of the best microgames I’ve played, and it’s gone into the rotation as one of the first games I’ll toss into a backpack when I’m going out and there’s a remote chance I’ll have access to a table and a willing opponent. You know what I’m talking about. Don’t lie.