Monday, March 30, 2009

Is Conan Really A Barbarian?

"Age of Conan" is an interesting hybrid of Eurogame and wargame. The game was more of a Euro-style game than a wargame, but I wasn't disappointed in the wargame elements. The game is published by Nexus and Fantasy Flight Games.

The game is divided into three "ages." Each epic age is divided into four adventures. These adventures vary in length but really serve as a static method of determining when a scoring round begins. There are four adventures and when the final adventure of an "age" is completed, a scoring round occurs. Players can see how close they are to that scoring round at all times. It may take more or less turns in order to complete an adventure. When a new adventure is placed a number of tiles based on the adventure card (usually 3-4 in our game) are placed on the board. The adventure is over when the last of those tiles is claimed.

Those tokens are divided into several different categories that have no real bearing on the game except players that collect the most tokens in a particular category earn bonus points at the conclusion of the game. There are several ways to claim these tokens. A player may take a fate die with the Conan emblem on it in order to gain a token. The player who controls Conan earns one of these tokens by moving Conan towards the destination revealed on the current adventure card.

One player will control Conan until the completion of an adventure. At that point, players have chits and cards in which they bid in order to control Conan. The highest bidder (card value + chit value) earns the privilege of controlling Conan. All bidders lose the cards and the chits that they used to bid with. When I say "lose" I mean that the cards return to the deck and the chits are removed from the game. However, there some really interesting factors to be applied. If a player bids using his 3 chit he may keep that chit. If a player bids using his zero chit, the other chits are placed back in the game and available for his use.

The player who controls Conan gets to move the Conan figure at the beginning of each of his turns. If the player moves Conan towards the current adventure destination he obtains an adventure token. However, he may choose to move Conan to a destination that is away from that destination which discards the adventure token. He might wish to do this so that he can enlist Conan into one of his armies in order to earn a combat bonus. He might also be attempting to prevent his opponents from crowning Conan as King in the final age. He may also be attempting to move Conan into his home province so that he himself can crown Conan. An attempt to crown Conan may not succeed. In fact, if the player is unable to crown Conan (by having him in his home province and having the most adventure tokens in a particular category) then Conan slays the player and he is immediately eliminated from the game. Crowning Conan does not assure a victory, but the bonus points certainly do help.

All actions in the game are determined by a choice from the fate dice. Unlike some of the Euro style games that I strongly dislike where a player may be left with a choice that cannot help him in any shape form or fashion (Puerto Rico) every choice helps the player. Fate dice have symbols on them and players take turns choosing one of the fate dice (as rolled) until they are all used up and they are immediately rerolled. Players are limited in their choices by the icons that were rolled on the seven fate dice. The military icon allows a player to build a military unit, move armies, or attack with armies. The Intrigue icon allows a player to establish a diplomatic alliance with a neutral territory, or to send a diplomat to an opponent's territory and obtain gold. A court action allows a player to draw new cards either from his own deck or the common strategy deck.

Cards play an important part of this game. Adventure cards define the length and locations of a Conan adventure. Each player power has his own customized deck of cards which are built towards specific strengths of that power. Another set of cards provide extra objectives. (At the end of an adventure players check to see if they met any of those objectives and earn extra victory points.) Strategy cards may provide a bonus for a battle or an intrigue action, but also may be used in bidding for Conan at the beginning of an adventure.

However, the center point of the game is the conquering of territories via a campaign. Most areas have multiple areas of terrain. A Player must beat the enemy strength in the first terrain area before moving on to the next. Therefore, a player may need to take multiple turns to defeat a neutral territory. He may also choose to "force march" and continue a campaign by eliminating one of his army units and continuing the fight.

Our game did not see very much player attacking other players and perhaps we played a bit too conservatively. The game system rewards players who conquer enemy armies with Crom tokens (this is not the case in conquering neutral territories) and the player with the most of these tokens at the end of the game earns extra victory points.

Battles are fought using specialty dice created for the game. They have multiple icons that I won't take the time to explain except to state that at times player will play strategy cards which allow them to earn a "hit" result on icons that normally would count as misses. This made the game more interesting because we weren't just comparing numbers like one through six, but had to look carefully at each icon to determine whether it counted as a hit or not.

We took about four hours to play this game, but this included having rules explained to us. I can see the game being played easily in 2 or 2.5 hours. This also would have been easier if the rules and player reference cards were more in sync. Some steps in the rules were in a different order than on the player card. Also, we had difficulty with some of the cards which referred to moving into and attacking a friendly area. Why would a player want to attack an area that was friendly to himself? We finally decided that there has to be some sort of problem with translation, but this did cause several short delays.

I believe all four players enjoyed the game and are anxious to play it again. My buddy, Mark Kazmarek, stated that he was glad he had ordered the game because he really enjoyed it. There are lots of things to do in this game and multiple ways to win. I don't believe any player lacked the opportunity to win the game. There are lots of fiddly little components and plastic miniatures, towers, and cities. The game is chocked full of cards and thick cardboard chits and tokens. I believe it would be hard for an owner of this game to claim that he did not get his money's worth.

You don't have to read the Conan books to enjoy this game, but it probably might add to its flavor. If he were still around, Robert E. Howard would likely be more thrilled with this incarnation of Conan than any of Arnold's movies featuring the mighty warrior.

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