Thursday, April 16, 2009

Conan would be proud (Age of Conan)


Kozure recently acquired The Age of Conan. He challenged the puny lot of us to play him. Meekly, we submitted to his will.

Let's get this out of the way: The rules for Conan take a hell of a lot of time to describe. We came in expecting to be able to switch on our Conan brain, and at first I was pretty concerned that this was actually a really fiddly brain burner. We've learned a large number of games in the years since we've started WAGS, and despite that I was surprised at how many there were and how complicated the game seemed (this is not meant as a slight to Kozure regarding his rules explanation... there is a lot of ground to cover). Luckily, in actual play it doesn't feel nearly as complicated and the theme of conquering territory in the land of Conan comes through just fine.

This is one of those games were there is a map, separated into regions, and each player has a number of units that they must use to conquer as much territory as possible. There are, of course, subsystems that attempt to give this game it's own particular flavour. in fact, there are a lot of them.

The first, and thematically most important, of these is the Conan figure. Over the course of the game, he will embark on 12 adventures over 3 ages. In each adventure, a card is turned up which identifies the region Conan is trying to reach. Players will bid to control Conan's movement, which is predictably important as it provides opportunities to share in the spoils of his adventures (treasure, women and defeated monsters) and, you know, if Conan happens to stroll through a region you plan on battling in while you control him... well, it's pretty good. Despite all this, the Conan figure is primarily an elaborate timer mechanism that is interwoven into the game but doesn't define it. In keeping with the it's name, players are playing a game that takes place during the age of Conan... not playing Conan himself. Although he has an important influence on the game he isn't the main focus... most of the game is about expanding your kingdom into new regions through conquest and political intrigue.

Actions are selected by rolling a central pool of 7 dice. Each dice has an action depicted on it, and on a player's turn they must select one die and perform that action. There is a therefore a random and shrinking set of actions to choose from. Once all the dice have been selected, the seven dice are re-rolled and form a fresh new pool. Choices range from military actions, to intrigue actions, to drawing cards and controlling Conan.

To conquer an empty region using military might a player must succeed in a series of battles, each one potentially on different terrain (the terrain is only important in as much as various cards and abilities can improve the player`s chances if they match). It's possible to force march and attempt more than one of the battles on a single turn, but it costs additional units. If the campaign is a success, the player scores VP and places a fort in his/ her colour on the region. Conquering a region that is occupied by enemy units is the same, except that a series of battles to eliminate the enemy units must be completed before moving on to the series of terrain based battles (and the attacker receives a Crom token for defeating the player's forces)

To conquer a region using intrigue, the player needs only make a single successful roll, but the odds are not calculated using military units. Instead, emmisary units are deployed and having them in proximity of the regions improves the player's chances. Unfortunately, no VPs are gained through Intrigue... instead a tower is placed and gold is awarded.

For every era, a number of Goal cards are layed out (similar to Railway Tycoon) which gives players VP bonuses for achieving certain criteria such as having the most towers in a specific region.

I feel this is already going long, so I won't get into every other detail, but there are also Kingdom specific decks of cards that players get throughout the game, sorcery tokens that can be used to re-roll dice, etc.

Every fourth adventure Conan completes ends an era. between eras, players gain gold, buy units and upgrade forts into cities (useful to satisfy goal cards).

At the end of the game (once Conan finishes his 12th adventure), bonus points are awarded according to criteria such as "most Crom tokens", "most gold", "most spoils tokens in a given category", etc. The most VPs win. There IS another way the game can end: If, in the third age, the player who controls Conan manages to bring him to his starting region he/she can attempt to crown Conan. This is done by declaring a category of Conan's spoils that he/she feels confident they have more of than any other player. If they are correct, the game ends immediately and only that player can gain bonus points for having the most spoils in any category. Although this doesn't translate into a huge amount of points, it could mean the difference in a close game.

Session report

I started in the central West region. Kozure to the south and Luch to the East. North was out of play.

I bid to control Conan, jus to see what would happen. With the cards I was drawing, I was able to win the auction for Conan on most rounds throughout the game. Given that controlling Conan is the best source of Spoils tokens, I had quite a lot of those.

Since there was a goal card for conquering a Wild Province (which is a characteristic identified on the board), I proceeded to attempt that on my first turn. It worked, though it was pricey as I chose to lose a few units and force march to get it done in one round. This continued round after round, as I focused on expanding through military conquest, typically force marching as I went to get it done quickly. I set up a single Intrigue takeover, and was succesful. Meanwhile, Luch appeared to be struggling to succeed at any of his takeovers, despite most of them being Intrigue based. Kozure was working his way north, and quickly was within a stone's throw of the regions I had conquered. Bloodshed was inevitable.

On two occasions, I took on Kozure's forces and was successful in eliminating him and then setting up my own fort. I have to admit that I always seemed to have powerful cards at my disposal (cards that allowed me to save a unit that should be eliminated, others that allowed me to force march without sacrificing a unit, etc).

In addition to this, my earlier success at conquering the Wild province and setting up a few forts and towers meant that I was scooping up nearly all the Goal card bonuses.

As a final nail in the coffin for Kozure and Luch, I managed to crown Conan and have majorities in two categories of spoils, gold and Crom tokens.

It was crushing victory which Conan would have been proud of. +/- 40 to +/- 10 each for Kozure and Luch.


Age of Conan is a good game. In the category of conquest strategy games, it is certainly a complicated one, but that would be measured in terms of amount of rules not in fiddliness of play (players of StarCraft, or other similar Fantasy Flight conquest games will feel right at home). During the game, things move smoothly and logically. With the exception of battles, the game moves quickly as well (a surprise, given everything going on). Battles are potentially boring for those players not involved, but they don't happen all the time so it's not too big a deal. It is a slightly long game, but the pacing is good throughout (again, with the exception of some of the longer battles). For a Fantasy Flight game, this is often a concern for me.

The game heavily favours the bold, with an important caveat. The odds of attacking successfully are simply better than defending (whether we are speaking of a region's innate defense or attacking ennemy units). That's not a bad thing, but if you don't like to play this way you will lose. Some might see that as limiting strategic options, others might feel it suits the theme of the game just fine (I agree with the latter in this case). The caveat is that since taking an empty region also involves attacking, the most effective route to victory is to be "bold" and attack empty regions. The bonus for attacking other players (the Crom tokens) aren't worth enough to balance the fact that if two players kept attacking each other, a third player would easily win by going off on his own. Definitely pick your battles against other players.

I have a sense that the luck of the draw is a little overly important. Not in the combat, where you'd expect, because of the many subsystems which allow for planning ahead and mitigating the luck of the die... rather in the Goals that come up (which often favour earlier successes as much as future ones to undertake) and the Strategy cards that are used for bidding and combat (having the right card makes a substantial difference in your probabilities for success in combat, and having a 6 card for bidding on Conan is substantially better than a 2). The last place where this seemed to be an issue was the spoils tokens. A value 3 token is 3x more valuable than a 1, and your choice of token is often dictated by the seating position relative to when Conan happens to complete an adventure. There is opportunity to control this by bidding aggressively for Conan, but if you didn't get the right Strategy cards to bid with...

My runaway victory seems to point to a potential snowballing effect problem. We discussed it after the game, and it seems like other than the effect of infrastructure on Goal cards and income, it's not too bad. Since Kozure's previous plays did not exhibit this problem, I will chalk it up as an unusual occurrence rather than a problem with the fundamental game mechanics.

I look forward to playing again. This is a conquest game that blends some chaos with strategy, warfare and a great theme. It's not perfect, but it's definitely good so far.

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