Sunday, August 24, 2008

Board Game Review - Conquest of Pangea

You've probably played games where turns took a while. Like in Senji, each turn takes a year, or Mission: Red Planet, where you can pilot a spaceship to Mars every turn. Games can have turns representing anything from a matter of seconds to a couple years, and sometimes every turn can feel like a couple years while you wait for that guy who has to move every piece and count every space, until his turn takes so long you could drink a fifth of scotch, pass out in a puddle of your own vomit, wake up and make a greasy breakfast, and shower before your opponent decides if that one unit should be on the hill or not.

But those games have nothing on Conquest of Pangea. Each turn in this game takes a minimum of 2 million years. By the time four players have taken turns, continents start to drift apart and species evolve. Good thing the turns don't take that long in real life, because even the Dalai Lama would run out of patience waiting 20 million years for his chance to dominate a forest in the middle of the African continent.

In fact, I think that's one of the coolest things about Conquest of Pangea - you're simulating the evolution of the human race and the shifting of continental plates. Each turn, you grow your species, expand into neighboring areas, battle for dominance in rich territories or lead your people in oceanic migrations. And then you draw a card that tells you how long your turn took, and every 25 million years, a continent breaks off of Africa and floats away. This can be particularly disastrous if you're trying to build up a group home for wayward cavemen, and then half the population suddenly floats out to sea, but it's also sort of a balancing effect, because the most powerful players tend to be hurt the worst by these breakups as their massive armies have to be shuttled across the ocean in wooden rafts.

The game has several self-timers that make sure it starts out slow and builds to a big finish. For one thing, you start out with just a few points to spend on expansion, so on your first turn, you won't even be able to take the best areas, because you're broke. But as the game progresses, you'll gain dominance in particular areas and your species will evolve, gaining physical strength, agility, keen senses or gills. It becomes a lot easier to dominate an area rife with waterways if your species can breath underwater, for instance, and mountains become more assailable if your species evolves goat legs. I just wish you could evolve laser eye beams, because then you could rule comic book stores everywhere.

Over time, you'll start to build up a good hand of power cards, which can be added to your attacks and defenses to either grab new areas or resist opponents. You have to be careful, though - commit too many resources to a battle for dominance (a really slow battle, since it could take 15 million years, which would probably make for a pretty boring movie) and you'll open yourself up to invasions on your own turn. But if you never commit to those hostile (but really slow) takeovers, you'll spend the whole game sitting on your hands and wishing you had just one more tundra area so your species could evolve into something that makes a good steak.

A little bit of controlled chaos adds an element of random excitement to the game, because nearly every turn, disaster strikes. Maybe an earthquake tears up Eurasia. Maybe volcanoes explode all over North America. Maybe the Jonas Brothers have a #1 hit CD. Some species are better at surviving these horrors, but these cataclysms can change the balance of power or empty whole regions. It's a little crazy and a lot random, but it's fun (except for that Jonas Brothers thing - have you ever heard these guys? They make the Monkees sound like Van Halen).

The end result of all this evolutionary expansion and planetary destruction is that Conquest of Pangea is a lot of fun. I break it out now and then and never have much trouble running down someone who will play with me. It's prone to some pretty huge luck factors, and it's not the prettiest game ever made (though it's not unattractive, by any means), but it's very enjoyable. It incorporates some of the resource management and planning of a Euro game with body counts that would make Fantasy Flight green with envy (when you can wipe out the entire population of a country in a single turn, that's a pretty awesome body count).

And the best part? Even if every turn represents an entire epoch, a player can usually break off a turn in a few minutes, and the whole game can finish up in an hour and a half. So get out there, grow a prehensile tail and horns on your forehead and take over the Sahara by any means possible - including meteor strikes.


Easy to understand after a couple turns, but still full of subtlety and tricky decisions
Great theme evoked wonderfully by the rules
A penchant for natural disaster that can keep you guessing and revising strategies the whole game
Bodies stack like cordwood

Luck swings that might irritate the anal-retentive Euro gamer
A little weak on the graphic design

The evolution of species is a pretty cool theme, and the breakup of the continents keeps it interesting. If you want to get yourself a copy of this really fun game, including the Atlantis expansion, go right here:


Anonymous said...

This one sounds great, and a very interesting theme to boot. I saw some people playing this one at GenCon, it looked nice enough for me.

Think it could be closer to and hour game if all the players had played it enough times?

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