Age of Conan Unboxing and Gameplay Impressions
Some of you may know I had a passing interest (read: obsession) with Age of Conan for about a month or so last summer. I played the game for hours on end, even on my vacation to Cape Cod, sky-rocketing to level 55 in a couple of weeks before running out of things to do and getting tired of the plethora of bugs. While the game certainly won’t stand proudly in my Hall of Worthwhile Online Games, it definitely rekindled my interest in Robert E. Howard’s low-fantasy setting. I devoured the Dark Horse comics, and returned to Howard’s original stories, reveling in the darkness of the setting. Soon after I found out from our local game store that an Age of Conan board game was on the way. It seemed like it could be interesting, though as much as I love an adventure game, which I expected the AoC game to be, I didn’t get too excited. And then I found out it was a strategy game, which seemed like an odd choice.
Eventually Fantasy Flight posted the rulebook pdf online. I flipped through it and my curiosity was piqued despite the fact that it shared the basic mechanics of the War of the Ring boardgame, which I personally didn’t enjoy as much as I had expected. That was mostly due to the fact that I found playing it to be incredibly stressful and demanding, requiring me to pay attention to wars on multiple fronts. Still, I was intrigued. When the game released, I returned to the FFG website and read the developer diaries that had been posted. The description of the Conan mechanic is what sold the game for me initially. Everyone takes control of one of four mighty kingdoms of Hyborea which are in a sort of Cold War with each other, and basically Conan just does his thing. The catch is that each player periodically bids on his influence, thus enabling them to move Conan to territories to aid in military conflict, head to an opponent’s kingdom and raid his settlements, or just to continue on his personal adventures (yielding valuable Adventure Tokens to the controlling player).
Our weekly gaming session rolled around, and I picked up Age of Conan. We decided to give it the old college try, and cracked it open. The contents should be familiar to those who have played War of the Ring. Several cards, a couple of unique figurines, and different armies for the different factions. One very neat attention to detail was that the units for each of the four kingdoms were unique. For example the Stygian Emissaries resembled desert travelers on camels, and the Turan equivalent had them mounted on horses. The Hyperborean soldiers were muscled northmen with virtually no armor, and the Stygian millitary consisted of slight warriors with large shields.
Of course there are a fair number of chits as well. It wouldn’t be an FFG game without them. Do yourself a favor and get an opaque dice bag of some sort and put the adventure tokens (the rectangles with rounded edges) right inside. It helps to keep the tokens sorted in the box, as there is only one space to put all the various kinds. We also put the different bid and empire tokens for each kingdom into their corresponding army slot in the storage tray. After we got it all punched and sorted, David and I played an incomplete 2 person game while we grappled with the rules. In true FFG fashion the rulebook isn’t really written with quick rules look up in mind. Even so, the reference cards are very nice and have the basic rules for the conflicts you will engage in throughout the game. Plus there is a copy for each player, and they are printed on strudy cardstock, unlike the flimsy reference sheets from War of the Ring.
A bit later JM showed up and we decided to start the game over with three people now that we had a better grasp of the rules. It went fairly smoothly, and as the game unfolded we realized with each turn that the game was just pure fun. The strategy was deep, yet never overwhelming. The game encourages fortification to a point, and anyone attempting a Risk like global sweep swiftly discovers the error of their ways. The game consists of three ages, determined at length randomly by the length of the adventures Conan undertakes. Every four adventures he completes, the age changes, which happens twice (for a total of three ages). The first age involves securing your most threatened border primarily, while you also move into the neutral territories in the same region and start making them friendly as well. Age two sees you finishing setting up your perimeter, claiming the rest of the neutral territories in your region as friendly, and then striking out towards other neutral or hostile territories.
Each territory other than your Kingdom is neutral to start, and in most cases you have two options to make them friendly. You can pursue diplomatic channels, which sacrifices in most cases one of your emissaries but is easier to accomplish as your emissaries can travel freely across the board, unlike your armies. Victory in this case yields a friendly territory that you can now move your military through freely and a bounty of gold. The military option involves a larger time investment, requiring you to campaign there. Each campaign is a series of Risk like battles, over a number of terrain features that dictate what helpful cards you can play from your hand. Certain abilities may let you re roll dice, add dice to your roll, or remove dice from the opponent’s roll. Once you win the final battle in a region, you lose one of your soldiers in return for a fort being built there. The fort not only lets you create new soldiers there during the appropriate action, but it also allows you to roll during defense the value of the province instead of any army you have present (if any) if it is to greater benefit. This also yields empire points, which are the victory points of AoC.
Actual player versus player skirmishes are fairly rare, though I would expect them to be more frequent in the 4 player game. The only significant player conflict we had was pretty interesting though. David’s northeastern flank was largely open, though previously claimed, and he had moved the bulk of his military in a quite-Risk like sweep of the neutral Aquilonian states in a bid for some points before game end. JM had moved the bulk of his military to Zamora, bordering David’s Hyperborean kingdom, thus creating a little friction there. While this happened, I was dealing with the consequences of establishing a diplomatic alliance with one of the territories in JM’s kingdom. In my overzealous push to secure my border I had locked myself out of one of the optional objectives for bonus points. His emissary countered my alliance, and he moved a force in to start to secure the now neutral province. I then moved my own force in and eliminated him, hoping to complete a military conquest and thus secure a fort on the province, which would give me the bonus for one of the objectives. In the end it didn’t matter…
During Age Three, the players can attempt to crown Conan king if they have influence over him and have moved him to their home province. If they succeed, they lock out the other players from three high point bonuses during the end game scoring. If they fail though, Conan mocks them and slays their king, thus eliminating the player from the game immediately. As the game drew to a close, and following a Stygian domination of Conan’s influence, JM had control of him. In lieu of sending Conan to his adventure destination, JM decided to make a play for the crown and moved Conan back to his home province of Turan. There he engaged in the contest to crown him. You can only win if you have the most points in the token category you choose. He had a strong 6, but I managed to tie him. And a tie is not a win. He was slain, thus ending my border skirmishes. With David’s military spread thin and my forces primed to sweep the now neutral Turan, the ball fell squarely into my lap. It was close though.
I can’t recommend this game enough to strategy enthusiasts. If you are someone who has ever played Risk and then been put off by the late game sweep/tug of war, you might really enjoy this games emphasi’s on empire management. And for those of you who are scared away by the Age of Conan moniker, this game captures the joy and brutality of Conan’s tales as well as the video game meant to, just without the bugs and a whole lot more content.