I’d always wondered why Wizards of the Coast bowed out of the board game market, but when they came back to it, they came back with a vengance. First they redefined the dungeon crawl genre for the better with the amazing Adventure System games Castle Ravenloft and Wrath of Ashardalon. Now, following on in the great tradition of adopting RPG licences for popular game styles there’s a multi-player conflict game out set in the D&D universe, Conquest of Nerath. Given my immense enthusiasm for the Adventure System titles, I was straight on to Wizards when I heard about this for a review copy, and to my delight, they sent me one.
Unlike the Adventure System games, Conquest of Nerath isn’t self-consciously genre-shattering. In fact it’s a delightfully old-school conquest game which offers a simple rules set that allows the players to build up armies from a variety of unit types, clash with other player’s troops to steal their territory and then use that new territory to collect more income for more troops and so on. Whilst it certainly harks back to the dudes-on-a-map games of yesteryear it doesn’t entirely bypass the intervening twenty years of game design, and the designers have clearly tried to use the innovations built up over that time to try and make this the best old-fashioned conquest game that they can.
The key to understanding the unique charms and also the problems with this game is to understand the set-up and the map. Traditionally games of this style have either had some sort of random set-up or have offered vast swathes of “neutral” territory to players to bite off before they come into direct conflict. In Conquest of Nerath every single territory on the map starts not only in the possession of one of the players, but pre-populated with one or more different units to defend it with. That means there’s no build up and no turtling in this game: from the very first move the only way to improve your position to damage someone else’s position. It’s a neat twist and and handily overcomes a lot of the problems traditionally associated with the genre as well as cutting down the play time. But it comes with new issues of it’s own.
Basically the problem with this approach is simple: all of the four nations in the game start on the map, so each must be involved with every game. And that means, essentially, that this is a game that’s only really suitable for four players. Two, with each player controlling two sides, is okay and has some strategic interest, but we all know that that isn’t really where games of this style shine as there’s no metagame or deal-making. Three is drastically unbalanced as it involves one player taking two positions and the other two, playing a nation, each are allied against the other. That means one player gets double that active time at the board of course, and means that he can co-ordinate his plans in his head while the others have to discuss theirs out loud in front of him. Because of those pre-populated positions you can’t have more players than there are nations in the game. Which leaves four, and four only, and that’s a very heavy limitation.
The game attempts to ameliorate this by offering those four players more than one way to play the game. You can play the traditional free-for-all model or you can play allied together, the two good nations against the two wicked ones. And both work well and are worth playing. What makes the alliance version of the game particularly interesting is, again, the way the board has been laid out. It’s a victory point race for the win, but there’s a neat mechanical twist for gathering VP: you get one for conquering an enemy territory but you don’t get any if you “liberate” one of your own - or your allies - previously conquered spaces. And the board layout makes the most of this by giving each nation disconnected outposts to try and defend and by weaving the territories of allied nations in and out of one another so that in alliance games it’s usually a genuine dilemma every turn whether you’re better off trying to grab enemy territory for points, or liberating allied spaces to help strengthen their ability to fight back. And speaking of victory points the game offers a variety of targets to win, resulting in short, medium (both good) and long (overlong, in my opinion) games rather than trying to wipe everyone else off the map, although the game offers an option to do just that if you have endless patience and time to burn. With the alliance options and the varying win conditions Conquestof Nerath feels a bit like a toolkit you can use to build whatever kind of dudes-on-a-map game you want to play, provided you’ve got four players.
The board is also part of the secret behind something that other relatively simple conquest games have tended to either avoid entirely or fail at in the past, and that’s a naval and arial element to the game. Usually you need some fairly complex rules to handle these facets of design else they become boring very quickly. But in Conquest of Nerath the need, or at least the desire, to retain those isolated outposts - and possibly help your allies - means that you’ve got to maintain an active navy and try and establish and defend supply routes. This is one of the most impressive parts of the game for me: a lot of fixed-map conquest games loose strategic interest after a while because the same patterns of mutual conquest and re-conquest at the borders between players repeat themselves game after game. But the central island in Conquest of Nerath and those isolated spaces mean you’re constantly torn between the easy option of taking the same-old, same-old border territories and the ability to shuttle stuff round for surprise attacks. The same goes for flying units - Dragons and Storm Elementals - which have amazing mobility and are thus good for sudden surprise attacks: if you can manage to support them.
I’ve not talked much about the units available in the game so far, but they come in a wide variety and, a bit like those adventure system games, as much as possible is made of the simple rules to give them interest and variety. In addition to your basic foot soldiers (read: cannon fodder) and the dragons, ships and elementals we’ve already mentioned there are catapults which are great in attack, less so in defence, heroes, wizards, monsters who can “rampage” and capture empty enemy territory after a successful attack, castles that can be captured as well as used to place new units and others. All are represented by a different figure and in many cases each faction has a different figure for each unit type, meaning the game comes with a plethora of different sculpts, but thoughtfully each unit type has the same-shaped base, so you rarely get confused about what’s on the board. Each has a cost in gold, of course, with more powerful pieces costing more, and your income depends on your territory. You can only play your newly purchased units at castles but otherwise you’ve seen this sort of stuff before in every empire-building game ever made, and Conquest of Nerath offers little innovation in this regard but it’s still engaging and interesting. In combat every piece rolls a dice and needs a six to hit but here’s the rub: more powerful pieces get to roll bigger dice. The game comes with a quite glorious assortment of polyhedral dice in different sizes and colours and combat allowed me to fulfil and ambition I’ve held ever since I opened my first Dungeons & Dragons red box nearly 30 years ago and roll massive fist-fulls of assorted dice across the table as part of a game. It’s a hugely satisfying thing to do.
Indeed glorying in the nostalgia of ages past is something that Conquest of Nerath does extremely well indeed, especially for those of use who played Dungeons & Dragons back in the day but no longer have the time to commit to it. In addition to the rattling of all those lovely dice in every single combat, Conquest of Nerath has a unique feature on that board: dungeon spaces. Only heroes and wizards are allowed to enter these spaces and at the start of the game, each is pre-populated by a mystery guardian that the heroes must battle if they want to plunder the dungeon. This uses the standard combat rules but the dungeon denizens are a mean bunch, often taken multiple hits to destroy and/or rolling big dice against the adventurers. The range on offer is also a quite deliberate throwback to all the favourite monsters unique to the Dungeons & Dragons universe: owlbears, beholders, black puddings and many other favourites that you’ll remember gleeing over in the Monster Manual but never actually meeting in an adventure. Well, finally, here’s your chance to fight them. The reward for defeating all these golden oldies is yet more wonderful nostalgia in the form of treasure cards, which represent, again, a whole slew of memorable items that your player characters knew about but probably never got to play with like the Horn of Valhalla or the Deck of Many Things. These remain hidden until you choose to use them for a special one-shot power, at which point they’re also worth victory points and offer an ongoing lesser bonus for you to use. This partly-hidden victory point mechanic is a neat twist, casting doubt on the apparent status of the game, as well as offering some more strategy to think about, and the existence of dungeons adds a further strategic element to consider when purchasing units and making moves.
The final strategic element to the game is the hand of cards that each player holds. Each nation has its own deck of event cards, from which it draws once per turn and which can be played a varying times depending on the effect of the cards. These decks are supposed to do two things. Firstly they’re supposed to fully balance the game by giving late turn-order nations more powerful cards to play with to make up for the fact they’ll already have lost territory by the time it gets to their turn. Second they’re supposed to add character to each nation, so the elves of Vailin have a lot of naval cards to represent their seafaring nature, for example, while the necromancers of the Dark Empire of Karkoth have cards which summon up more of their ghastly undead troops. In practice, although these effects are present, I found them too weak, and the decks overall too similar to add much character to the game. This is unfortunate, and a missed opportunity. A better designed deck of cards for each nation could potentially have bought a lot of extra narrative and strategy to the game.
Conquest of Nerath is an incredibly old-fashioned game but it does what it does with an awful lot of style and aplomb and in a way I have to admire the courage of the design team who must have chosen to take this route and build something modern on top of it. And it’s probably a clever choice: except for mass-market publishers no-one makes games like this any more, they’ve all been superseded by strategically deeper but far longer and more complex empire-building games that integrate huge chunks of European and wargame-style mechanics into their game engines. Conquest of Nerath stands virtually alone as an in-print, well-designed, interesting and exciting conquest game for hobbyists. The four player requirement is unfortunate, and the card decks could be better but if you can get beyond those limitations, and if you want to eschew long and complex conquest games in favour of a slice of old-school combat action with lashings of golden age Dungeons & Dragons charm and which can be learned and played to completion easily in an evening’s play then Conquest of Nerath is the game for you.