Age of Conan first caught my eye when I heard it described as a simpler, shorter, multi-player version of War of the Ring. Being someone who loved WotR but thought it suffered somewhat from being complex, long and two-player only I was instantly intrigued. Further investigation revealed that the game appealed to me on a number of different levels: I’m a sucker for multi-player conflict games of any type, but the fantasy theme has proved the hardest for designers in this area to pin down. I was quite content to pursue my usual policy of waiting until the dust had settled before reviewing the opinion and deciding on making a purchase, but FFG kindly decided to provide me with an early copy to review - so here are my impressions on the latest offering from the Nexus design group.
Age of Conan comes with a rather daunting 24 page rulebook, so I initially assumed that the “simpler than WotR” opinion was an outright lie. Happily, it isn’t. AoC is not difficult to learn, or to play, and will certainly require no more than one “learning” game to get to grips with. The size of the rulebook is partly down to redundancy - there are three types of combat in the game, for example, and the rules for each are laid out individually in laborious detail even though all three kinds use fundamentally the same mechanics and so all three sections of the book spend a lot of time repeating themeselves. So it’s not a difficult read and, as ever, if you’re interested in the game I’d recommend you go download it from the FFG website and go through it yourself, as I’ll be providing no more than a potted summary.
Each player takes the role of one of the major kingdoms of Conan’s world - Aquilonia, Turan, Stygia and Hyperboria - and will vie with each other on a map board of the Hyborian age to become the most powerful empire. The game begins with each player bidding to control Conan the Barbarian for the duration of his next adventure - with these adventures being the clock which drives the game along. Players have a series of one-use bid tokens of varying value and in addition bid a strategy card (which are usually used in combat) for a combined total. Highest wins, but everyone has to discard the token and card they used in any case, so care needs to be exercised. Conan is a very powerful tool - whoever controls him will have the monopoly on the events of the current adventure, has the opportunity to annoy the other players by dropping troublesome barbarian raiders into their territories and can use Conan to provide a huge boost to any battles taking place in the provinces he visits.
Each adventure Conan goes on consists of a destination and a number of adventure tokens. These tokens represent the monsters, women and treasure that Conan encounters in the course of his adventure and each time the Conan player takes a turn he can claim a token if he moves Conan closer to the adventure destination. Other players can also claim tokens, but it takes their whole turn to do it - the Conan player can effectively do it for free. These tokens are handy things: they can be traded for in-game resources such as gold, determine who gets to control powerful magical artifacts during the game and provide a hefty victory point bonus at the end of the game. When all the tokens of a given adventure run out, a new adventure is drawn and if Conan is at his destination the Conan player gets another free token, then the bidding for Conan starts over again. Four of these adventures mark the duration of an age, at the end of which is a mini-admin segment allowing players to spend money for new units. Three such ages and the game ends with a final tally of victory points determining the winner. VP’s come from various sources - conquest during the game earns points, as does consolidating them by city-building later on, and there are various military objectives in play for extra points. At the end of the game there are bonuses on offer for such things as the most gold, and the most adventures of a certain type.
At the start of the game the Conan player rolls a pool of seven action dice. Players then take turns to pick a dice and execute the action it displays untl all the dice are used, and the next player in line then rolls them again. One action allows the taker to grab an adventure token and some more cards from the deck. Another allows them to execute a choice of military actions such as recruitment or warfare, and another allows a choice of political actions such as raising a diplomatic unit or forging an alliance with a neutral country. The remaining faces are wild cards of various types, allowing a choice of one of those action types.
Military and diplomatic contests in the game are handled in a similar manner, through the use of contest dice. The faces on these dice are worth noting. Two are accounted for by simple success/failure icons. Another two depict an axe and a shield, which count as successes under certain circumstances. One is a success, but worth two successes for the Conan player if Conan is in the province where the contest takes place. The final one is a success but only for the aggressor. So you can see that the game rewards both aggressive play and control of Conan through these dice. The axes and shield icons are converted into successes through the use of generic “strategy” cards, which all players have access to and through certain “kingdom” cards, which come from a deck unique to each kingdom featuring characters, units and events applicable to that particular Hyborian power. The number of dice rolled varies with the circumstances of the conquest but both attacker and defender roll, and the player with the highest number of successes wins.
It’s worth taking a moment to look more closely at military conquest. Each province has a track of terrain icons which determine which strategy cards can be used in a given battle (icons on the strategy cards used must match the current icon on the track). To advance to the next, the conquering force has to win a contest roll, with the aggressor getting dice equal to the number of soldiers and the defender getting dice equal to a province rating of 2-4. This means two things which are central to the dynamic of the game: first, conquest is often a slow process, requiring several actions to toil up the terrain track and win over the province. Second is that the defender gets the province ratings’ worth of dice whether he has soldiers there or not - so in many cases there is no need to leave behind a defending force after conquest. It’s an interesting system which can throw up some curious tactical choices.
Over the years FFG has rightly won itself endless plaudits for the quality of its components and at first glance AoC seems no exception with legions of plastic figures, lots of custom dice, a big board and several decks of cards. These are hard times and many game publishers are raising their prices to compensate but sadly it seems that FFG has instead preferred to cut back on production quality, undermining one of the things for which they’ve become famous. Whilst the physical design of AoC remains head and shoulders above games from a number of other publishers, but this is not up to what we’ve come to expect from FFG - not by a long shot. The best thing about the production in this game are the figure sculpts which are, in truth, excellent - you’ll probably need to find a photo of a painted version to appreciate just how excellent they are. Unfortunately it’s downhill from there. The miniatures are made of hard, brittle plastic and I could clearly see that I had a number of broken axe-heads and horse-tails before I even tore open the bags containing the pieces. The board and cards have a good quality finish but I found the visual design to be pretty harsh on the eye. The artwork used seems mainly to have come from the Conan comics and it doesn’t rank amongst the better pop art I’ve seen, nor does it mesh well with the parts of the game that have used specially commissioned artwork. But I’ve got to reserve my deepest scorn for the dice. Before seeing Age of Conan I would never have believed that the aesthetic quality of the dice in a game was of any importance whatsoever, but these dice are seriously horrible. Instead of having a pleasing, smooth, tactile finish they look like they’ve been roughly hewed out of lumps of plastic with a chisel, and the icons are ugly and badly cast.
The game claims to work with 2-4 players and is quite clearly designed for the full complement of four. Which is puzzling because it actually works better with less players. Three is probably the perfect number to play the game - with four there can be downtime issues, and with two you loose the diplomatic aspects of the game. I’m also puzzled by both the advertiesed “90 minute” play time and claims of 5-6 hour marathons for this title. The Conan adventure mechanic is a pretty reliable timer and this ought to clock in at around 3-4 hours nearly every play, regardless of player numbers. Because of the count-down nature of the adventure tile mechanic I was actually able to make a rough estimate of the average time it takes for a player to complete a turn: about 2 minutes. So it really is only with 4 that downtime becomes an issue, and even then only at points where people are getting particularly slow.
It isn’t a space hog either. The board is a reasonable size, perhaps half that of War of the Ring and space on the board is thoughtfully provided for a number of game decks. Each player need find room only for a pile of figures and a kingdom deck at the edge of the board. There can however be a bit of a problem with determining what’s currently in play and what’s not - some of your Conan bid tokens get discarded temporarily, some permanently, and it can be confusing telling which is which, and it can also be difficult to make sure your face down played-but-not-active cards stay seperate from your actual hand of not-yet-played cards.
There’s been a lot of discussion about the thematic elements of AoC, or rather the lack of them. Because of that I wanted to devote quite a bit of space to this. It seems to me that there are two, possibly three seperate questions here.
The first question is: does the game work as a thematic representation of the adventures of Conan himself? The answer here has to be a resounding no. The Conan adventure mechanics are quite the most gamey part of the whole system. For starters the adventure cards and the adventure itself provide no detail - a short paragraph summary of the adventure is all we get from the cards, and since the draw of adventure tokens to represent the actions of the adventure is random, there’s a good chance the tokens that come up will have nothing to do at all with the story on which the adventure is based. One could, for example, draw the “God in the Bowl” adventure card and then draw nothing but “women” tokens even through the story of the God in the Bowl features no romantic exploits at all. Worse still the adventure mechanics are not only representative of nothing, but make very little sense. In the stories, most of Conan’s adventures take place in a single location, yet in the game the adventure is mainly about traveling. Since the Conan of the stories is notoriously selfish and independent, Why should Conan’s exploits bring glory or gold to one or more of the national powers in the game? Even if he were to sell his services to the highest bidder why would he accept payment in “bidding tokens” instead of gold from the country treasury? Why, silliest of all, should these exploits result in the powerful magical artifacts of the game changing hands at the end of each age?
The second question is: does the game work as a thematic representation of the military clashed of the Hyborian age? Personally, I feel that on this level it succeeds. It is not seem to me to be a game which could be simply re-themed as a generic conquest game. Even though the mechanics of Conan’s adventures fail on the thematic level, on the broader level Conan works admirably - his movement around the board, spreading of barbarian raiders and presence during contest rolls can have a dramatic impact on the game. That’s not a facet of play which could simply and easily be replaced by something else and, given what happens in the stories, is entirely in keeping with the theme. The board setup also ties in with the stories: the country of Nemedia, for example, which proved notoriously resistant to conquering nations during Conan’s time is a similarly difficult proposition during the game. The kingdoms are differentiated from each other with the kingdom decks and these too are strongly themed to the Hyborian age. Although there is some overlap in function between the cards, I went through the decks and estimated that this applied to maybe a quarter of the cards in each deck, so there’s plenty of unique functionality to each kingdom. Furthermore the cards seem set to encourage a style of play suited to the role of the kingdom in Howards’ stories: Aquilonia is militarily powerful, Turan lends itself to diplomacy and intrigue, Stygia is a nation of dark sorcerers. Many of the cards represent people or places from the stories which is again in keeping with the theme. The impact that the kindgom cards have on this higer-level theming can’t be overstated because a simple read-through of the rules does not suggest any strong differentiation between the kingdoms - on my initial reading I can remember being disappointed that sorcery was abstracted down to a chance for die re-rolls, not realising that many of the more powerful kingdom cards represent mighty spells and require the spending of sorcery to invoke.
And yet, while I’ll defend the game as being properly Hyborian in nature, it’s clear that many people feel let down by the theming on the game. Why should this be? I think the reason is in the nature of the stories themselves. They are about Conan - the politics and history of Hyboria are simply a sideshow. So when people heard that there was going to be a game about Conan they assumed that it was going to be about Conan himself. It seemed quite clear to me from an early stage in the evolution of the game that this was not going to be the case, but given the centrality of Conan to the Conan stories, fans can be forgiven for getting annoyed at how thinly Conan is portrayed in the game. Similarly because the wider aspects of Hyboria aren’t deeply explored in the stories, the amount of theme a designer could add to a game about the whole of Hyboria is limited. I think Nexus have tried hard and succeeded in this regard but this restriction on the depth of the source material might explain why the game sometimes feels generic even when, on closer inspection, it isn’t. You can’t add theme that isn’t there in the first place. Some people were hoping for a re-run of War of the Ring which undeniably succeeded in representing the game at both a heroic and strategic level but again, it’s the nature of the Conan stories themselves which is part of the explanation behind why the same trick doesn’t work in AoC. In Tolkien, the actions of the characters are intimately bound up in the wider narrative of the war of the ring. Not so in Conan - there simply is very little wider narrative. So while there were mechanics to available in WotR to tie the two levels together without seeming un-thematic, in Conan the join between the two levels seems necessarily lifeless and artificial because it is artificial - no such join exists in the source material.
It is therefore rather ironic that although the game succeeds thematically, the play feel couldn’t be a million miles further away from the experience of reading a Conan story. The tales are thrill-a-minute pulp classics. The game on the other hand is seriously lacking in the tension department. So lacking, in fact, that a game that should not on paper have any downtime issues, feels like it does have downtime issues because there’s no great interest in watching what other players do between turns. There are various reasons for this - the first age of the game revolves around people conquering neutral territories, and so the actions of other players don’t impact you directly in any way at all. Waiting to pick an action dice lacks tension partly because there’s so many wild cards on the dice, so there’s usually enough actions to go round, but mainly because it takes multiple actions to actually achieve anything. Conquering a country requires at least one military action per step on the terrain chart if you don’t want to sacrifice soldiers, and allying with diplomats requires putting surrounding diplomats in position first to net you bonus dice. As a result you never feel pushed for time in a rush to get anything done, so why care if another player take the last military action - you’ll get another chance to take one yourself in good time. It lacks tension because the attacker is always at an advantage and usually wins, and he’ll usually arrange things to ensure he’s at the maximum advantage possible, so most contests are a foregone conclusion in favour of the attacker. What highlights the lack of tension in the bulk of the play are the moments when it suddenly does become tense. During a Conan auction where his travels will take him directly to where the action on the board, for example, or in the occasional contest when there is serious doubt about the outcome, or when you want to grab a Conan dice (the only action that doesn’t take a multi-step setup) to grab a particularly juicy adventure token. When one of those things happens the game suddenly crackles to life: you can see it happening, the players sit up, take notice, and immediately become much more animated and involved in the game. And when it’s over they all slump back down and wait disinterestedly for their turn to come round again. It does, it must be said, pick up late in the game when almost every action is starting to impact on the game state and the eventual winner, but the first half of the game - a good hour or two - features little to reach out and grab the players to involve them in the game.
So after some relatively negative initial press, this is where the game starts to claw back some serious prestige in the face of adversity. Because quite honestly, the more I’ve played this game the more I’ve been impressed by the range of skills it draws on and the depth to which it explores them. A good player of Age of Conan would, I suspect, be a very well rounded gamer indeed.
Where shall we start? With the more minor aspects, I guess. Trying to figure out the probabilities in a given combat will tax people who like doing risk analysis, although as previously mentioned the built-in attack advantage limits the application of this to contents that are genuinely close. I believe there is, contrary to the assertions of some other reviewers, a negotiation element here although it doesn’t come into play until late in the game. Hand management is important because it’s very easy to blow your limited pool of strategy cards on contests that don’t really matter and suddenly find yourself short when you’re really in need. You better make sure you manage your resources properly too, as mis-spent gold in the heat of the moment can come back and haunt you when you suddenly find yourself short of a couple of badly-needed soldiers in the big spend at the end of an age, not to mention the end game bonus points for most gold.
Skill is also where the inspiration for that tension-draining multi-step action format comes from. Because the need to set up sequences of armies and emissaries before you can actually do anything leads to a lot of forward planning and some interesting strategic dances across the board. Sometimes you need to grab a dice and perform your own attempted conquest or alliance. Sometimes it makes sense to grab a dice and delay your own gratification to knock out a diplomat or army in a chain of provinces or units that another player has put together for their own purposes. It might not be tense, but it’s pretty interesting to watch. It’s worth dwelling for a moment on the mechanics employed to balance military conquest in this game - your pool of armies is limited to 18, and you can have no more than five in any one province. But once you’ve conquered a province you always get the province rating in dice to defend. That means you can often forget about consolidating your gains and focus on attacking, especially if you’ve got Conan and he can help out to defend your weak provinces.
There’s also a cunning array of choices on offer in terms of risk and reward. Taking a province with an army requires a heavy commitment of troops and can take a long time but it offers very concrete benefits in terms of VP. Taking a province with diplomacy requires much less commitment to manage but it “only” gets you gold, not VP, and whilst removing an alliance with an enemy diplomat is difficult, doing so with a force of troops is relatively easy. So which do you commit your resources to, and when? Weaker provinces are easy to conquer but offer a small reward and are hard to defend, so where do you send your troops and diplomats? Bidding for Conan usually offers great reward in terms of valuable adventure tokens, but you loose what you’ve bid whether you win or loose, so going high is always risky unless you know other players are spent out of their high-value tokens, but going low will almost always mean you loose useful cards and chits for no gain at all.
The cleverest thing about the game though is the number of factors you need to balance for success. Getting provinces nets you points and while, on the whole, I’ve found that most players can keep up the pace with this most of the time, managing to work some VPs from objectives in can start to tip the scales in favour of the more skilled player. Keeping provinces at the end game also nets you points and this is where things get more interesting - taking chunks out of other players can really pay off here, not least because it also gets you the wonderfully named “Crom count the dead” tokens which can offer another VP bonus. As others have noted the adventure tokens you’ve collected during the game can really give you a huge VP boost although not, in my opinion, enough to make them the sole focus of strategy. It makes for some fascinating decisions. It also makes for some real confusion for first time players, who often end up floundering about not entirely sure what they’re actually supposed to be doing, because the victory conditions are so diverse.
Normally I spend the comparisons section detailing similar games so that people in the market for this have something else they might want to check out, and people familiar with the comparitor can perhaps get a better handle on the game being reviewed. And we’ll come on to that shortly. Because my first comparison is gonig to be one that everyone else seems to be making - War of the Ring - because of a few similar mechanics. Well, we can get this out of the way easily. Beyond those shared mechanics the two games have nothing at all in common. Even the action dice mechanic works out completely differently with the two games, firstly because the players in AoC share the pool instead of having their own pool and second because the dice in AoC have a lot of wild cards and duplication, whereas in WotR there are more unique actions to each dice. There’s no way I’d recommend that anyone use their experience with WotR as a guide to whether or not they’d like this game - the two are completely different kettles of fish. It’s an unhelpful comparison and people should stop making it.
When it came to making a more meaningful comparison, my choice rather surprised me. The game that I found myself being most reminded of when playing AoC is actually Wallenstein. It seems to me that there’s a lot of similarity between the two: an open map where players start by conquering neutral territories, a limited pool of actions, the need to balance resources for conquest with resources to complete other goals and so on. But AoC comes off worst in this deal - it’s considerably more complex, does not offer appreciably more player interaction or compelling narrative and Wallenstein side-steps the problem of early game tension through the hidden action card-flip mechanic and random events which guarantee at least a certain level of excitement at every move.
I played Age of Conan with a wide range of different people: there was at least one new player to the game each time I played it. That may not have showcased it to its best advantage since I feel it’s a game which is going to require experienced players to speed it up the play and get the most out of it. But it did provide me with a lot of feedback and what struck me was the uniformity of opinion that I gathered: most people seemed to feel that whilst it was mechanically interesting and challenging, it felt rather flat and lifeless to play for much of the game. That chimes pretty well with my own opinion. It feels almost as if its been designed by committee: I can just imagine a checkbox wish-list for a modern game design being employed with someone running down it and making sure everything is present and correct. “Multiple victory conditions? Check. Some random factor? Check. A certain amount of well-balanced player interaction? Check. Thematic elements which aren’t allowed to over-chrome the game? Check”. And so on. But the problem is that this clinical approach has resulted in a whole which is less than the sum of its parts.
I want to dwell for a moment on the idea that its a game which requires experience to get the most out of. After all, haven’t I always decried gamers for failing to do just that, and discarding games that don’t immediately grab them without a second chance? The trouble is that AoC occupies a particularly crowded niche of the gaming world and however you cast it, it always seems to be stepping on the toes of some very big boys indeed. Four player there are a lot of civilization games which offer considerably more strategic choice and tension for not an awful lot more investment of weight and play time. Two player and it’s knocking on the door of any number of highly lauded light wargames. Whilst it has theme it doesn’t have enough to stand or fall on that aspect alone. If it has a specific nook in which it would be a game of choice, then it would probably be as a long, meaty three-player game. There’s not much else that can compete with it there, not least because it plays to all the games strengths, but you have to admit that’s a pretty infrequent circumstance for which to own and store a large and expensive game.
Finally we end with a rating. Age of Conan is certainly not a bad game, but as far as problems go its failure to provide much of a hook on which to grab the players for at least half the game is a pretty catastrophic one. I’d give it 3/5 - a game I’d be happy to play if it was a group choice, but which I’d be unlikely to suggest myself.