Boardgame Reviews

Conan Board Game Review – Sadly Not Starring Arnold Schwarzenegger

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Designed by: Fred Henry
Published by: Monolith
Players: 2-4
Playtime:  90+

Review copy supplied free of charge for review by Esdevium Games.

Conan the Barbarian. It’s a name that most people are familiar with, even if they’ve never read the works of Robert E. Howard or watched Arnold Schwarzenegger swing a sword around in Conan the Destroyer. Conan is just one of those names that people seem to know. Monolith therefore decided that making a game based upon this legendary character made a lot of sense, and people agreed, feeding the Kickstarter a whole lot of cash to see the dream of a plastic Conan realized.

The huge box is befitting such a legend as Conan, its insides packed with two double-sided boards, a pile of miniatures and a load of tokens, some of which don’t even get used in the eight included scenariosm, making this a hell of a package for gamers who like to invent their own custom scenarios and rules. Going through all of the stuff you’ll find that it’s a box of quality components, from the thick tokens to the fairly detailed collection of monsters and heroes. The highlight is undoubtedly the sizable Giant Snake miniature who is begging to be painted by someone with a far better skillset than my own.

dsc_0768The idea is that 1-4 people will take on the role of Conan the Absurdly Muscular and his three chums, while another player claims the throne of the dreaded overlord in charge of various minions and beasts. Big-box games like this typically offer a campaign where the players go through a series of missions that tell an overarching story while also gaining new abilities and gear to help them along the way. Conan, though, tosses that aside in favor of eight scenarios with nothing carrying over between. While I miss the sense of progression that a campaign can bring with it, being able to sit down and just play a one-off adventure is sort of nice. There’s less pressure involved for the entire group when you know that a huge commitment isn’t needed, unlike something like Star Wars: Imperial Assault where even considering a campaign can feel like a big undertaking.

Depending on the scenario you’ll be given different objectives like rescuing the princess before the eighth round or taking out a specific enemy. But mostly the game boils down to going in and killing a lot of monsters using melee and ranged attacks while opening the occasional chest to grab new armor or a health potion or even an explosive orb that can be tossed into the group. Meanwhile, it’s naturally the overlord’s job to combat the heroes, either through killing them outright or holding them off long enough to claim the victory. Cackling maniacally is also encouraged.

In similar games like Imperial Assault you have a preset number of actions you can take per turn. But Conan opts for something different, something…beautiful. Your character card is adorned with a bunch of shiny plastic gems which essentially represent the amount of energy a character has to exert across the span of a turn. Their endurance, if you will.  To perform an attack, move some extra distance, make a ranged attack or attempt to manipulate something you assign gems to the task, deciding how much energy to put into the action. The gems you use are then placed into the fatigue space.

The important thing to know is that you can repeat the same action more than once provided you have gems left to spend. The only limitation is a red number printed on the action which indicates the maximum amount of gems that can be assigned. Let’s use an attack by Conan as an example; at most you can assign a total of five gems to this skill, but how you reach that limit is up to you. You could launch a couple of smaller attacks at one or two gems apiece, or go all in for one epic strike. Moving is the same: do you just use the standard two or three points you get automatically for free, or do you shove some gems into a mad dash across the board in order to help a friend?

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You need to weigh up your options carefully, however, because during the overlord’s turn players can spend gems ton use the defensive option. If your character has picked up some armor you’ll have some light protection no matter what you choose to do, but under heavy assault you’ll be wanting to sink some gems into the blocking/dodging/parrying. In other words the more effort you choose to expend moving and attacking during your tune the more vulnerable you’ll become during the overlord’s moment to shine. It’s risk vs reward. Glory vs staying alive.

Continuing with the idea that gems represent a hero’s endurance and energy is that fact that each round they’ll recover some of it, although nowhere near as much as you would like. By default each round only two crystals are moved back from the fatigue zone to the reserve, ready to be spent again. To gain more you must opt to take a cautious stance, meaning you’ll be unable to move or do anything other than block incoming attacks during the overlord’s turn. However, as recompense a hero will get five crystals back. There is one other way to get extra gems, but it isn’t nice; in either the aggressive or cautious stance you’ll get extra gems for every hero that has fallen in battle. Think of it as a surge adrenaline due to witnessing a friend being brutally killed.

Finally, when a hero takes damage gem, are placed into the wound area, which obviously reduces what a player can do. The only way to get them back is to find a health potion in a chest or to use the one spell that can heal.

It’s such an incredibly clever and satisfying system to play with, bringing a layer of resource management into a combat game. You’re constantly thinking about what to do and how many gems to pour into the task, giving rise to conversations between players. It’s all very well getting Conan to go all in with his melee attack in order to defeat a demon or powerful foe, but for that to work out the other players really need to make sure that he isn’t going to get swarmed on the overlord’s turn, leaving him really wishing he hadn’t exerted himself swinging a sword instead of holding up a shield. And beneath all this tactical contemplation is that constant desire to toss everything into one epic turn, spending every gem in the name of glorious blood and guts. I mean, what would Conan do?

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The icing on the cake is that during the hero’s round there is not set turn order, so players can take actions in whatever order they see fit. Maybe one player opens a chest, finds an explosive orb and uses a manipulation action to toss it across the board to a hero who uses a gem to catch it, and then another to throw it into a group of enemies. The original hero then turns around and buries an axe in a few bad guys before Conan comes wading in.

Yes. Axes. Swords. We need to talk about those. Combat is handled through good ol’ fashioned dice and prayers. For each gem you place into the melee action square on the character sheet you get one dice of that color, so in the case of Conan putting two gems into an attack would get you two red dice. Red dice, by the way, are the most effective of the three colors available. You then get to add extra dice by selecting a weapon from the gear you’re carrying, so an extra red for a battle axe or an orange die for a sword. Many weapons allow a reroll of their die, plus you can toss some gems into the reroll box to change the results even more. Regardless, you tally up the total amount of success shown on the dice and keep that number in mind. The next part depends on whether or not it’s a hero attacking an overlord’s miniature or the other way round. Minions of evil have set amounts of armor that you need to overcome. Most of them are peons who have a have a point or two of armor and just a single measly single point of health so cutting through them doesn’t take much effort. It’s their job to chip away at the heroes and die in droves. However, an overlord can always opt to spend a few gems to roll some orange dice in a blocking action if he/she fancies making the heroes work a bit harder.

Other actions are taken in much the same way. A ranged attack follows the exact same procedure with no rules for accuracy, so provided you’ve got a ranged weapon you’ll never actually miss – all you need is line of sight to the target. Then there’s manipulations, the name given to actions like opening chests, throwing certain things and other actions. Anything classed as a simple manipulation needs just one gem and no dice are rolled, while complex ones do require dice and thus putting more than one gem in increases the chances of success.

Each hero also comes with a few special skills that aren’t governed by gems, such as Shevatas’ Untouchable skill which grants him extra defense dice against ranged attacks or Conan’s ability to use movement points to smash through wooden walls, possibly while singing about coming in like a wrecking ball. The only thing holding some of these skills back is encumbrance. Carry too much gear and certain skills because unusable because you’re the equivalent of a small Skoda carrying a whale on its roof.

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As for whoever takes on the role of the evil overlord intent on killing everyone else, they get a pretty cool toy to play with called the River of Skelos. This plastic black tray is the command centre of evil, the place where you’ll decide what two tiles to activate every turn. Dictating this is the River itself which is where the tiles for the monsters available in the scenario reside. To activate a monster/s the overlord looks at its position in the river and then pays the gem cost shown above it, at which point they take the tile and move it to the rightmost position, sliding all the other tiles up in the process so that they become cheaper to use.

There’s a stupidly pleasing tactility to moving the tiles around, like you’re a demonic DJ of death controlling the bloodiest party around. Much like playing the heroes the gem system creates a bunch of fascinating decisions every turn. There isn’t quite the same sense of micromanagement to playing the overlord, but instead you’ve got a different set of choices to make based around how tiles will become cheaper over time, making playing the overlord feel very different to controlling a hero. Sure, it’s tempting to simply activate the most powerful beast on the board or use whatever group of units is closest to Conan and his buddies, but those options may be too expensive if you were a overly judicious with the gems last round, and activating them might break the bank and leave you unable to defend your creatures during the other player’s turns. No, it could be better to use cheaper tiles for now and try to get into position for something bigger later.

Along the top of the board there’s also three extra slots; the first lets the overlord trade gems for extra movement points, the second let’s you roll for defense and the final one is for rerolls. There’s no limit to how many gems can be spent here, so if you want to save a pile of them for saving a big monster from Conan’s assault you can.

But there’s more to consider. Dead monsters or groups don’t leave the river, rather their tiles are simply flipped over and remain on the overlord’s board, serving merely to get in the way by making everything else a bit more expensive. You can still activate these simply to move them to the end of the river, or you can opt to pay two gems to remove a tile completely from the game. However, doing this means those creatures can’t be brought back during a reinforcement event.

Ah yes, events. The overlord is the one that has the scenario map and details in his/her book, letting them set up the board, although there’s no actual hidden information unless players want there to be. In the book each scenario has events, and the Overlord can use these by activating an event tile in the river, at which they can choose which event to trigger. The most common is reinforcement which gives you a set amount of points, as dictated in the book, with which to return dead miniatures to the board. Others include hordes of Picts arriving or the ceiling collapsing.

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But how are the overlord’s minions actually used? They differ only slightly from the heroes, truthfully. Many of the tiles will refer to entire groups of creatures, to whom you will have attached colored rings when setting up the game to differentiate between them. A group might be two, three or more units. Regardless, the tile will list the amount of movement each one gets, their armor value and their attack dice. Most of the time these pirates, Picts, hyenas, demons and guards will get free rerolls on their attacks, too, which is important because the groups are really just there to harass the heroes, gently picking away at their gem reserves before the bigger baddies come in for the kill.

Just like the heroes the overlord’s forces also have special abilities, such as the Giant Snake stopping heroes from moving away. Knowing when to use these is important, because despite typically outnumbering the heroes by a huge amount the position of overlord feels surprisingly tenuous. Nothing makes you feel helpless quite like Conan cutting through swathes of Picts.

When one of the overlord’s units attacks a hero there’s no set armor value, because the hero may not be wearing any. If they are then they’ll get a die to roll regardless of whether they choose to defend or not, but if they should opt to spend some gems on defending then they’ll get the die listed on their defense action, plus extra dice from one equipment card, such as a shield or a sword.

If you’re under the impression that I love Conan you’d be right. However, few things are perfect and Monolith’s creation is no exception with a number of problems that hold it back. We start with the rulebook which does a reasonable job of getting you playing your first game, but as soon as you begin looking for more detailed explanations about things it becomes frustratingly vague. This isn’t helped by a number of translation errors that make the specific details of certain abilities and other things tricky to understand. There’s supposed to be an updated rulebook coming, but thus far little is known about when it might arrive.

Then there’s the board which doesn’t show changes in elevation particularly clear. Combined with the iffy rules about line of sight it can make taking long-range shots a debate among players. Many of the scenarios offer specific rules, but we still found ourselves debating the rules, especially on the ship board where it seems you have line of sight to practically everywhere, making ranged attacks very effective.

Balance proved to be a touch troublesome as well, with some scenarios favoring one side or the other, or at least that’s how we found it. In one scenario in particular the overlord seemed to be almost entirely on the back foot, with only one or two opening moves really being feasible before dice rolls determine the rest of the game. There are some balance problems among the heroes too, with Conan coming out as the clear leader of the pack. His ability to kill multiple enemies in a single attack when using a two-handed weapon lets him decimate groups of lesser minions like they were nothing, plus he has red dice by default for melee attacks and the largest gem supply. Basically in a game that largely comes down to killing stuff in close combat Conan is the undisputed king of badassery. There also happens to be a spell named lighting storm which one of the characters wields that is arguably a bit too powerful since it can deal big damage to an area of the board so long as it’s in line of sight.

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And then there’s the tricky issue of sexism. Yes, yes, I know, I don’t normally touch such subjects because they are a damn minefield, but in Conan’s case it’s a rather interesting subject. I assume you’re already aware than Howard’s Conan was, by today’s standards, incredibly sexist and racist. The muscular Conan is forever rescuing damsels in distress who are wearing little more than a two-piece swimming costume, and battles such enemies as the nation of evil Sorcerers who are basically Chinese. It’s a product of a very different age, and that always raises the question of whether the source material should be altered to fit into this very politically correct era? Personally, I tend to side with the argument that the source material should be left as it is, because to hide such things or attempt to cover up how our culture used to view things is rather stupid. Monolith, it seems, agrees, because in the entirety of Conan’s chunky box of awesomeness there are a mere two women. The first is a generic priestess miniature who gets used in a few scenarios and basically does nothing, except get rescued. The other is a playable hero by the name of Belit, who is actually quite cool as she gets a few guards that tag along with her which the player can control. However, she also wears some of the skimpiest armor ever, and doesn’t even look very happy about it. Although with that said, Conan barely wears anything, too, so I guess the point is slightly moot.

So clearly Monolith side with the people who want to see Howard’s vision of Conan brought to life as it was intended, right? Well, no. You see, while Monolith were content to leave the mostly naked women in the game, they drastically altered other parts of the source material to avoid potential arguments. Take the Picts, for example: as depicted in Howard’s original work they’re sort of barbaric Native Americans with a penchant for violence. In Monolith’s version of Howard’s work they’ve been changed so that they now resemble moody ogres, a more clearly monstrous visage placed atop of them to presumably avoid potential outrage. Meanwhile there’s an already announced expansion which takes place in, which is where those aforementioned Chinese-but-not-actually sorcerers dwell. To get around the issue the design of the sorcerers has been changed to a much more generic fantasy evil mage look.

The point I’m attempting to make isn’t about whether or not Monolith should change the source material, because there are good arguments on either side. It’s a whole article by itself. No, the point I want to make is the strange dissonance created by embracing the nearly naked damsel in distress aspects of Howard’s original writings while also changing other things to dodge controversy. Why alter parts of Conan to avoid potential accusations of racism, but not seek to avoid accusations of sexism, too? It’s weird, really.

Moving away from the incredibly dangerous topics of sexism and racism, I’m not quite happy with a few bits in the box, either. The eight scenarios across just four different maps feels somewhat limited given the pricetag and huge box, although the bunch of extra tokens and things means you can make up some custom scenarios. Indeed, if you head over to boardgamegeek.com there’s already a bunch of scenarios from the community, even if they do have to use the same maps over and over.

And despite the huge pricetag Monolith don’t include enough dice. There’s a total of nine dice split into the three different colors that indicate effectiveness, but frequently you’ll find yourself needing more than you have. Conan, for example, can roll anything up to six red dice in a single attack. In other cases you might attack using orange dice, and the Overlord opts to defend heavily, which also uses orange dice and thus again you find yourself lacking dice. I’m pretty sure this cheapness on Monolith’s behalf is something Conan himself would find dishonorable. It’s a frankly dick move taken straight out of Fantasy Flight Game’s rulebook. Yeah, I said it.

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Thankfully these problems weren’t enough to stop me and my friends having a grand old-time slicing monsters up and commanding the legions of evil. Layered atop the great systems is plenty of thematic fun, too, from the extra rules included in scenarios for doing things like leaping between ships to the fact that you can do something like jump down from a wall, catch a weapon a friend threw to you and then go to town on a big-ass demon. Get some beers in and a group of the right people and it’s just fun. It isn’t overly difficult to learn, either,

It isn’t overly difficult to learn, either. The basic gist of how to play can be taught quite easily, aided by the tactility of moving tiles and gems around. But that ease of teaching hides a game with reasonable depth.

There are problems then, some big and some small.  A lack of scenarios, maps, and dice all serve to make the price tag feel even scarier, the rules are poorly written and there’s some balance problems as well. But damn, if that gem system doesn’t feel good! It provides so much flexibility over the more common systems that are used, and through that creates lots of decisions to be made. Every time the heroes got to do there thing conversation would erupt around the table as everyone attempted to figure out how best to spend what little gems they had left. We’d organize cover for one player to recover for a turn, or argue over whether Conan should just charge in and try to take out the Giant Snake. We’d get one hero to flee a fight so that a spell could be hurled in to damage crowds, and wordlessly try to convey other plans so the overlord wouldn’t know what was going on. Oh, and then I’d get to switch sides, and suddenly my demeanor would become smugly leering as I listened to their inane chattering, knowing that no matter what they did I would crush their pathetic attempts at every turn!

I’m babbling, aren’t I? This review has been long enough, and I’ve spent far too many words conveying one very simple fact: I really like Conan. Not in that way. The game. I should make that clear *cough*

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