Monday, March 30, 2009

Board Game Review - Age of Conan

I don't think I'm a very good nerd. I'm definitely a nerd - don't get me wrong - but I don't think I'm very good at it. Like, I haven't been watching Battlestar Galactica, and I don't really care if I ever see Watchmen. The only reason the Princess Leia slave outfit appeals to me is because the girl is almost naked - it could have been a bikini on a Victoria's Secret model and got the exact same thrill factor. And to really bring home how bad I am at being a nerd, I've never really been all that into Conan.

Now before you pull my geek badge, allow me some points in my defense. First, I have read a lot of the comic books. I saw the movie when I was a kid. I know that King Conan ruled Aquilonia. I also know that I would totally do Brigitte Nielsen, whether or not she was dressed as Red Sonja (I saw a picture of her from 2008, and she is aging quite well. Not Morgan Fairchild well, but still pretty damned good). I like Conan, I just always thought parts of it were silly, and I thought Howard was kind of a crappy writer.

So while I was interested in a Conan board game, I wasn't quite as giddy as some of the guys I play games with now and then. I'll be hard-pressed to turn down a good game with friends, though, so we rolled that puppy out last weekend and I have to say - it's a tall glass of pure distilled Kentucky awesome.

Even if you're not a Conanophile, even if you never bothered to see that second Conan movie, Age of Conan is going to rock your face off. Hell, just the components are ten pounds of gorgeous in a five pound bag. There are different sculpts for every group (as there should be - even I know that Aquilonians don't look like Stygians, though until I played this game I didn't even know Turan existed). The board is huge and beautiful, and the cards are amazing, and even the freaking dice are nice. I'll grant you that the colors are a tad garish, but when you sit down at the table and this behemoth is set up all over the place, you're going to be glad you decided to drop a car payment on a wargame.

And there can be no mistake - this is definitely a wargame. Even if you only know about Conan from stories your friends told, you still know a Conan game has to have some pretty considerable violence. Heck, there are counters called 'Crom! Count the dead!' and at the end of the game, the player with the most of them gets a pretty nice little point boost. You can send out emissaries to make allies, but if you want to win the game, you have to stomp other kingdoms into the mud.

Age of Conan also includes one of my favorites gimmicks - dice that tell you what you can do on your turn. I love when a game does this. You roll a bunch of dice, and they have different symbols on them, and you choose one and do that. Like you might choose a military die to start a war, or choose an intrigue die to try your hand at some politics. If you're close to the end of the pool, there won't be as many dice left, so part of the strategy behind choosing a die is trying to remove options for the guy who comes after you. This particular mechanic is brilliantly executed, and ensures that to be competitive, you have to balance a long-term strategy with short-term flexibility. Plus one of the dice lets you take turns with Conan.

The Conan part of this game is continued genius. It's an extended tantric orgasm of genius. Every so often, everyone will bid to try to control Conan and profit from his adventures, and having Conan on your side can be a powerful help. Plus if Conan is in your country, you don't want your neighbor to be able to control him, because he can also do a pretty slick job of slapping you around like a vampire witch.

The theme in Age of Conan is executed with what approaches flawless integration of game and source material. Sorcery will help the Stygians turn the tides of battles, while military superiority will push the Aquilonians to victory. Conan may show up and run roughshod over a region one day, and then be helping to repel invaders the next. And to round it all out, the game ends when one brazen player attempts to make Conan the king (or when nobody does and Conan gets bored and moves into a trailer with his old lady to make handcrafted wrought-iron sculptures).

Crowning Conan is unlikely, risky and difficult - but it can be done, and while it doesn't necessarily guarantee a win, it's pretty close to it, because the player who can make Conan the king of his country gets a pile of points. The downside is that if he tries and fails, Conan chops off his head and turns it into a cereal bowl, so you really don't want to blow this if you decide to give it a shot.

And that brings me around to some of my complaints. Just because it's a concentrated espresso shot of kick-ass does not mean the Age of Conan is without flaws. My biggest beef is that a couple good swings of luck is all a crappy player needs to win. You can play with a genius unrivaled since Napoleon Bonaparte and still lose because another guy happens to pull the right card at the right time. You can roll the action dice and wind up without one single thing you can use to further your plans. You can set a gigantic army against an incredibly tiny one and be completely repulsed. I may be old-fashioned, but if I play better than anyone else at the table, I want to win.

Part of the reason that I mind the luck in this game is because it takes so long to play. It's one thing to lose a game after an hour because the dice flipped you the bird, but it's a real whip to lose the game after five hours just because the wrong card hit the table at the wrong time.

But two complaints are not enough to make Age of Conan anything but white lightning kick-ass. This is still one hell of a fun game, and even if you're not a fan of huge Austrian barbarians with lantern jaws, Age of Conan is one of the most thematically perfect, deeply intelligent, and just plain thrilling wargames I've played in my whole life.


Absolutely amazing components
Perfectly executed theme
Lots and lots to do

Takes forever
Unbalancing amounts of luck

I am delighted to announce that Dogstar Games has Age of Conan. And it's $30 cheaper than I would have had to pay at my local game store, and comes with free shipping. And for the icing on the cake, when you buy from Dogstar Games, you give them good reason to keep sending me free games, which allows me to offer you reviews of games you actually want to play, instead of crap I picked up at yard sales. So go here and get it, or the next review I write might be Pictionary:


Unknown said...

Sounds like Groo.

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Alcidas said...

Nice review, thanks. Considering that you are a highly critical reviewer, any game that gets such a good post from you must be really good. Think I will be picking this one up.