Board Game Review: Conan – Problematic, but Amazing Fun | Giant Fire Breathing Robot

Board Game Review: Conan – Problematic, but Amazing Fun

conan-game

Based on everyone’s favorite Cimmerian, Conan brings the works of Robert E. Howard to your tabletop. It’s a miniatures-based game that generated wild success on kickstarter. But, even though it’s a kickstarted project, the game is actually quite good. Sure, it has some blemishes, but the overall experience is fantastic.

The Basics. One player plays as the Overlord and controls all of the enemies that the heroes will encounter. The rest of the players each grab a hero – Conan, Shevatas, Hadrathus, Valeria, or others – and joins in an epic battle. The game comes with thirteen scenarios and each of them are very different. Some require you to find hidden objects, others are all-out assaults.

On the heroes turn, they can act in any order they want. In fact, they can act at any point. So perhaps Conan attacks an enemy, Belit then orders guards to block off an area, and then Conan can act again to move and attack. To act, the heroes spend a number of their gems on the various actions and then roll dice to determine their success. At the beginning of their turn, they can stay active and recover just a few gems – eventually losing effectiveness – or they can become passive and regain more gems but be unable to do much of anything that turn.

A sampling of heroes

A sampling of heroes

After the heroes have completed their turn, the Overlord begins. He has a line of tiles representing the various figures on the board. He can activate, at most, two tiles and then use those units to move and attack the heroes. Depending on the scenario, he may have event tiles that he can activate for a special power. What’s more, once activated, the tile goes to the end of the line. Tiles at the end are more expensive to activate. Thus, if the Overlord is willing to commit more gems, he can activate units on successive turns. Otherwise, he’ll have to spread out which units he activates.

From here, each of the characters also has a slew of special abilities. Conan is strong enough to simply smash through walls while Shevatus is sneakily able to avoid the Overlord’s units. Often, the win really comes down to clever use of items and abilities.

Each scenario is for a different number of heroes and suggested heroes and equipment is given. A play of Conan typically takes about 60 minutes.

Colored bases distinguish between unit types

Colored bases distinguish between unit types

The Feel. For the most part, Conan really knocks it out of the park. The rules are simple and intuitive. The gem system is easy to grasp and means that you can introduce it to new or casual gamers with ease. But at the same time, it provides players with real choices. The more they expend, the better their turn will be. But also the more likely it is they’ll have to spend the next turn recovering.

And, for fans of the Howardian legends, the game feels like a Conan tale. You’ll find yourself using familiar heroes whose in-game abilities all make sense based on the books source material. The enemies, too, largely come from the books and you have a game that is highly faithful. It’s not 100% accurate – especially since Howard described some of Conan’s enemies in very racial terms which are not carried over to the game. Still, it makes edits in the appropriate places and gives you a great experience.

The overlord tray

The overlord tray

While combat is largely dice-based, the game does a great job of allowing you to mitigate it. For instance, you get theoretically unlimited re-rolls of your dice. But it costs you a gem to do so. Each turn, then, you can spend that limited resource to ensure that you hit at a critical time or nab the item you need for victory.

And that’s actually one of the best parts about Conan. The game lets you feel absolutely epic. While any given die roll might go poorly, you can usually juice it up with a few gems and simply smash your enemies. Conan will absolutely crush through hordes of picts, Hadrathus will rely on his spellcraft, and Belit will command her troops to engage the enemy.

While the game provides amazing fun, Conan is not without some problems. While the core systems are borderline brilliant, it also introduces a number of player powers. And the interaction between those powers is not always well defined. This is especially problematic in the English edition because there are several translation errors in the rulebook and ability guides.

Gear up!

Gear up!

The biggest gripe I have, though, is that the game gives you tons of heroes, monsters, and maps. But only limited scenarios. And no way to build your own. Even though Conan has this brilliant system, there is no easy way to balance it between Overlord and Heroes if you want to make your own scenario. What if you want to swap out Hadrathus and bring in Belit? Well, those heroes are totally different. And, depending on the challenges in the scenario, that could result in a total cake-walk or a nearly impossible task.

Sure, some players will enjoy coming up with their own ideas, planning them out, and then testing them with their friends on the table. And if you like that sandbox approach to game design, then you’ll love Conan. But I would much have preferred some method of at least roughly balancing things out. A point system like other tactical miniatures games would have been great. But perhaps there are too many variables in the Conan system to make it workable.

Heroic figures

Heroic figures

The lack of customization options is especially galling for kickstarter backers who obtained additional content with very little instruction on how to use it. There have been promised scenarios and content in the future. But for now, you’re stuck with the in-box scenarios.

While these negatives are very real, it’s undeniable that Conan provides a fantastic experience. When you are playing the game, it is simply gobs of fun. It creates its own narrative, leads to epic moments, and the whole thing plays in about an hour. The game does a wonderful job where it counts. It’s just unfortunate that some ancillary, but important, aspects of the game were seemingly overlooked.

It’s true that Monolith has promised a revised rulebook to eliminate the translation errors, but it seems that some of these other issues are certainly here to stay. At least in the near term. Absent a fairly significant structural change to Conan, the best we can hope for is a proliferation of downloadable or fan made scenarios.

Big, bad dudes

Big, bad dudes

Components: 5 of 5. There’s no denying that the bits to this game are awesome. Thick cardboard punch board, cool 3D gems, and four beautifully illustrated boards. And the minis are just breathtaking. If you like to paint, you’ll be in love with Conan.

Strategy/Luck Balance: 4.5 of 5. The combat of Conan is very luck based. You roll dice to attack, they roll dice to defend. But those rolls are wonderfully mitigated by spending extra gems for re-rolls and by clever use of player abilities. The luck is nicely balanced against the strategy of how much you’re willing to exert yourself and how much you’ll take a less than optimum role in order to do more.

Mechanics: 3 of 5. As I noted, the actual gameplay is solid. It creates interesting choices and pushes a lot of strategy into a relatively simple system. But the lack of solid rules for customization, the poor translation, and a few issues with particular scenarios really hurt this game’s potential. There’s a lot that could have been done to give players more options. But they just aren’t there.

Replayability: 3.5 of 5. Saying it only has a fixed number of scenarios doesn’t mean you’re going to play the game only that many times. You can make different choices, try different strategies, and having thirteen scenarios still provides a lot of variety. In some cases, you’re in a race against time. Other times, it’s a kill or be killed slugfest.

Spite: 1 of 5. As a team game, there isn’t really much in the way of “spite” as I typically define it. Still, the Overlord could try to target one player and wear him down. Which can be unfortunate since that player is then out of the game.

NSFW rulebook?

NSFW rulebook?

Overall: 3.5 of 5. Despite some undeniable misses in terms of content and customization, the actual game experience is so stellar that it is easy to recommend playing this game. The experience is novel, interesting, and just plain epic. Without a multi-hour investment. The highs are so high that the presence of other flaws does little to make me want to part with this game.

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