Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Conquest of Nerath - Epic Fantasy Warfare On A Schedule...Or Not

As you know by now, Wizards of the Coast has really been hitting the hobby gaming market very hard of late, with Castle Ravenloft and Wrath of Ashardalon coming out and changing the way a lot of people look at dungeon crawls. Well, they've done it again with Conquest of Nerath, which is a light war game which takes place in the realm of Nerath and has two to four people hacking, catapulting, vortexing, and burning one another's armies to death for control of the world. I got this advance copy from Wizards as I'd requested it some time ago due to my interest in their new breed of boardgames, and they were kind enough to oblige me.

I hadn't heard much about it, though, other than in Steve Avery's preview where he likened it to Risk, which is definitely not one of my favorites, but once it came in I realized he missed the mark in his assessment, thankfully.

It's not much like Risk at all, really, but instead is much more closely to related to Conquest of the Empire, but when you add in the large variety of different unit types, each with special abilities and weaknesses, the game really becomes a truly unique blend of proven mechanics and new, exciting concepts that results in a truly interesting game. I'm a big Milton Bradley Gamemaster fan as well as a long time fan of D&D, so this game seemed to be right up my alley when I read the rules, and after playing it, I've found that it is one of the best "Dudes on a Map" games, to steal Ken B's phrase, that I've played.

The concept of this game is that four factions, who may forge permanent alliances with another specific faction, roam the lands looking to start trouble, take lands from their enemies, and explore dungeons for treasures beyond imagination. The factions are made up of the standard fantasy fare you might expect from Dungeons and Dragons: elves, humans and dwarves, goblins and orcs, and the legions of the damned.

In a strange twist, the only alliances allowed are between the human/dwarf faction and the elves and between the goblin and undead factions. Further, there are a variety of ways to play in that you can either go for the long version that requires you to take all enemy capitals, or you can go for the shorter versions that allows for victory points to be used to determine a winner rather than having to play a ten hour slugfest if you just don't have that kind of time.

Now, if you based the game's value based solely on the contents of the box, that alone would be reason enough to set this up as Game of the Year. There's about 250 wee miniatures in four colors and nine types, there's maybe sixty small plastic poker chips in two colors, there's perfectly illustrated cardboard dungeon doors, gold bricks, and conquest markers, and then there's the dice. Oh, so many lovely little dice, and in lots of colors and denominations.

To expand on the figures a little more, since there's so bloody many of them, I should note that every faction contains different models for many of their creatures. Wizards, castles, ships, elementals and siege engines are the same models while fighters, dragons, monsters, and footsolders are unique. Everything is absolutely wonderful, although the miniatures do not have the level of detail you could expect on a larger miniature, especially since these are more like maybe 15MM scale or so. That being said, they're very, very nice, and look great on the table. To underscore this, I thought about painting them because they're so nice, but then I realized that there's over 200 of them. Not going to happen.

The rulebook is very well written, and has ample illustrations and examples to remove any ambiguities. The art is also quite impressive, which is to be expected from Wizards of the Coast, with the large board being detailed and wonderful to play on. Then there's the player reference sheets, which a player lays their treasures, gold, and cards upon, and all are very well designed and nice to look at. Speaking of cards, each faction has its own set of cards, and all are unique to the faction, so when you play with one faction the experience and strategy is completely different. I should also mention the treasure cards, which are what you receive when you've successfully plundered a dungeon after defeating its guard or guards. These are very pretty to look at, and each provides you a special ability or bonus that helps you to conquer your enemies.

The final aspect of the components I should mention is the blow-molded box insert. It's amazingly well designed. There is a spot for each unique component in the game, and it's even inset with a little icon for each item to remind you where each one goes. When you put the game away, it's a total breeze and nothing flops around as the board acts as a perfect lid for the tray, and I have to say that every game on the planet should have something like this. There will be no baggie hunts going on when you get the game, because there is absolutely no reason for you to ever need to find a proper bag to put things in. It all fits perfectly.

Now that you know what is inside the box and how simple it is to put things away, let's move onto setting up. Setting up is a breeze once you've determined the type of game you're playing. Before I get into the nuts and bolts of setup, let's talk for a minute about the game choices. First, there's the type of game. You can play a total war where four players battle for global supremacy, or you can play an alliance game where the two alliances battle on another.

In the case of an alliance game, if you play with less than four players, one or more players have to control an extra faction. In a free for all, you can make handshake agreements, but the normal free-for-all rules apply, but in an alliance game, allied players can enter allied territories without triggering a battle. I've played both ways, and I was surprised how balanced the game is, despite the fact that the event cards play such a huge role in the game.

Speaking of balance, the rulebook gives a short synopsis of what each faction does well, with the demonic Karkoth forces starting with more territory and having weak event cards, the noble Vailin elves having ocean supremacy and some nice mobility-based events cards, the Iron Circle goblins having strong events and large starting armies, and the Nerathian League human forces having very strong event cards that provide many free units above that can be called into play at the right time.

The book notes that the Nerathian heroes are strongest, but there really isn't much in the way of gameplay that would support that claim, since all armies are essentially equal, at least at the unit level. In short, each faction has a unique advantage, but no one faction is overwhelmingly powerful.

Once you've determined what kind of game you want to play, you can then determine how long you want to play. There's three standard lengths, with the short and medium game being determined by victory points at the end of a round. The short game's end comes when a player reaches 13 victory points, the medium game ends at 20, and the long game ends when a player has earned eight treasure cards or has conquered all of the Capitols in the game. In an alliance game, these rules apply to each alliance rather than each faction and the numbers upgrade to 20 and 30 VPS, or 12 treasures, respectively.

To set up the game, each player takes their reference, looks at the map and places their units on the icons printed on the spaces on the board. It should be noted that almost every single land space in the game has a unit placed upon it during setup, so it's not like you start out with just a castle and massive lands to conquer, making the first part of the game about expansion and exploration.

It's bloodlust from jump street and the game is all action, all the time. Anyhow, after that, simply place one Dungeon Door token on each spot marked on the map. Each faction then gets between ten and thirteen gold to start based upon who they are, and two event cards. That's about all there is to setup, and it should take about 5 minutes to get it all sorted out.

Once the game's set up, you're good to start. A very different aspect of the game is that the turn order is predetermined, with the undead going first, then the elves, goblins, and humans. This doesn't really provide any advantage, really, since everyone is basically set to start conquering lands from the moment the game begins, but it does add to the theme as the evil armies of the undead hordes are the main antagonist in the game.

The gameplay is broken up into phases, with each player taking all of their phases and then passing control to the next. The first phase is the draw phase where players take an event card from their deck. There is no hand limit, and when you run out of cards you simply reshuffle the discard pile into a new draw deck, and on top of that, there's no limit to how many cards you can play at any one time. Some cards force you to play it immediately upon drawing it, though, and every single card in your deck is beneficial to you.

Also, each deck is unique and themed with your army. The Karkoth deck is weak because they have a strong starting position, for instance, and the Human deck has a lot of cards that allow you to deploy additional units, representing either the humans' penchant for reproduction or perhaps their ability to band together and raise armies to the cause of humanity, if you prefer. The Iron Circle goblins have cards that predominantly help them in combat, and the Vailin elves have cards that give them mobility and sea power. All in all, the event decks are the real magic to providing a flavor to each faction as each faction's units are identical in function and strength.

The next step after the draw phase is the move phase. This is pretty straightforward as footsoldiers and siege engines move one space, and everything else aside from dragons move two spaces where the dragons move three. Units come in three types as well, being either land, sea or flying units. Land units can be transported on the sole sea units, the warships, and air units can fly through enemy territories, landing safely on friendly lands on the other side. Land and sea units that enter a space occupied by an opposing unit must stop immediately, because a battle ensues after you've declared all your units done moving.

You can use warships to transport up to two units per vessel, and thus you will definitely have large flotillas reminiscent of the landing at Normandy when you make a seaborne assault on an enemy coast, or if you move to a dungeon in order to reap its riches. It should be noted that the dungeon spaces may only be moved onto by Heroes, which are classified as a faction's fighters and wizards. During the battle phase, the player has to 'explore' the dungeon, which entails flipping the dungeon tile over and resolving the battle. I'll get into that later.

Next up is the battle phase, which is where much of the game is played. This game is a bit like Conquest of the Empire in a way because of the combat mechanics. All armies hit opposing units on a roll of six or more, but to give flavor to the units, each unit rolls different dice. The attacking player can choose the order of battles if more than one takes place, which happens often, and it's critical to be sure of the order, lest you end up losing a ship that might have acted as a path of retreat.

Footsoldiers roll a single D6 in combat, siege engines, storm elementals and warships roll a D8, and both hero types roll D10s. Monsters roll D12s and both castles and dragons roll D20s. Both battling sides will roll during a battle, but the attacker always has the option of retreating. There is no cancellation if both sides make successful attacks, meaning that it's possible, and probable, that both sides will take major losses during a battle, especially if better units are in play. That being said, each unit type has its own bonus or attribute that makes it unique and interesting, and plays into the strategy of how you want to deploy units.

Siege engines, while rolling D8s, roll two of them when attacking and only one on defense. Wizards, who are very powerful in this game, get the First Strike ability, allowing them to yell "lightning bolt" while pelting the enemies with marshmallows, forcing the enemies to take any damage before responding, which essentially acts to soften up a defending force. That is, unless they also have wizards on staff, in which case both sides get to take preliminary jabs to soften each other up.

Monsters are a really neat addition to game because while they fight just like anyone else does, if the attacker wins the day, the monsters can immediately move into an unoccupied, adjacent enemy space and immediately conquer it. The game calls this 'Running Amok', which always makes me giggle as I envision hordes of creepy crawlies coming over the horizon, eating brains of the peasants as they charge.

Dragons are not only some of the best attackers in the game, they also have the 'durable' attribute which allows them to take two hits before being killed. To note a hit on a dragon, you simply flip it upside down on the board, like a dead roach. The magic is that if they survive the battle, they get flipped back up and shrug off the arrow to the wing as if it never happened. Storm elementals are just plain nasty because they not only can attack on land and in water as well as fly all over the place, they get to roll two dice against warships. They can also end their turn over friendly land or water, which makes them the most mobile units of all.

Warships can attack other warships or storm elementals, and while they get their own attack die, any heroes on board also get to attack. That being said, no other units on board can attack, so if you're transporting ten troops on five ships, you'd better have some heroes with them or you're setting yourself up for a Titanic moment where all your troops are sunk with the ship if you lose.

Castles are powerful, but only allow you to roll dice when defending, and once a castle is placed, it's permanent. They can be killed, sort of, as when they take damage they are simply laid on their side to indicate they can no longer attack for that battle. I think the one weakness of the whole combat scheme is such that castles can never actually be destroyed, and if it is damaged during a battle, if you end up winning that battle, it just stands right back up without penalty. Since castles are the only places that you can normally place troops during the placement phase, I think that the game would've been better served by allowing the death of castles to penalize players for allowing it to be destroyed.

Now that you know what the units do in combat, I should mention how the battles are resolved. The attacker and defender roll their dice in any order they choose, and tally the hits up. Once that's done, each side chooses which units will take that damage. Having a lot of weak, cheap footsoldiers is a great deal because they can soak up damage, but using dragons to take a hit is another good idea because it's essentially a free hit that they can absorb without any real penalty, provided they don't take another.

The long and short is that the dragons and castles are generally the last to remain alive, while damage is usually taken by the weakest remaining units on the battlefield, unless you have plans that require otherwise, such as letting a monster die in the hope that you can preserve your heroes to pillage a dungeon on a subsequent turn. As noted, the attacker can always retreat to adjacent friendly spaces, and I've used this tactic to get extra movement, although it's cost me a few units to do so.

The final aspect of the battle phase is the exploring of dungeon spaces. If heroes end their turn on a dungeon, they have to resolve the dungeon space before anything else happens. To do this, you simply flip the dungeon door tile and it will tell you who the next contestant on the 'hellish, demonic creature is right' you have to duke it out with. This combat is resolved the same as the aforementioned troop-to-troop combat, but these creatures have bonuses that make them far nastier.

Some have modifiers that allow you to hit them only on a roll of seven or eight or higher, as well as other nasty things. If you defeat them, you get the volume of gold printed on the tile as well as a treasure card, which is the real draw to attacking dungeons. If you don't beat them during a round, you can always retreat, but in doing so you let the opponents know what creature is there as the tile stays face up. Apparently word travels fast in Nerath.

Once all of the combats have been resolved, the next phase begins, which is the repositioning phase. All flying creatures can take what amounts to an additional movement, provided they land somewhere that won't start a battle. Additionally, heroes who have defeated a dungeon must move off of the dungeon space, and if there's nowhere for them to go, they die instantly, yet more victims of the mighty Rabbit of Caerbannog, poor sods.

This can happen if you make the mistake of losing a ship in a previous battle, which I have done, and it's incredibly disappointing to defeat a dungeon guardian against all odds just to realize what an epic failure you've made by not allowing for an escape route afterward. After leaving a dungeon, you place not only one, but two dungeon tiles face down on the space that was beaten, making that dungeon all the more difficult to plunder next time.

The next phase is the reinforcement phase, which has you purchase and deploy new units. Units vary in price from the lowly grunt which costs one gold through the mighty and fearsome dragons which cost five. Almost all units cost two or three gold to buy, though, so there's not a tremendous amount of variance in what things go for in Nerath. Castles may be built in a friendly land space that has no existing castle in it for four gold, but once they're there, they're there forever, even if an enemy takes that territory. I cannot overstate how critical it is to build castles only where you believe you can effectively defend them. That being said, deploying castles effectively is the single most strategically important aspect of the land war in Nerath as they are the only place to deploy units.

Only four units can ever be placed by a castle per turn, and you cannot deploy any units to a castle that was purchased or captured during that turn. This precludes players from building castles and then placing massive amounts of troops there immediately to defend them. The one caveat to that rule is that your capital may have any number of units placed upon it.

In what amounts to a third movement phase, after placing units you may immediately move them using normal movement rules, but again, you cannot initiate new battles. Essentially you get to shore up your existing forces in friendly spaces. Seaborne units may be placed only on sea spaces that are adjacent to a space with a castle, but the limitation is mitigated by the fact that they can load new troops right onto the boat and get them under way. You can't, however, load existing troops into a new boat and move that boat. My Navy veteran buddies would kill me for calling a ship a boat, as I've been told several times that the difference between a boat and a ship is that a ship carries boats...but I digress...

If you've been unlucky enough to lose all of your castles, you can still place units. To do so, you simply place units in the closest space to your capital. In the situation where you have multiple spaces equidistant to your capital, you can spread the love around and place them in any fashion you wish on those spaces. This really acts as a catch-up mechanism to be able to retake your capital, and it's actually pretty effective at doing that unless you're broke, in which case you're pretty much up the creek and should be prepared to sit out the rest of the game in short order.

The final phase of each round is the income phase. This is when you count up the spaces you have control of and take one gold for each one, rounded up. If you have lost your capital, you only collect half that gold because all of the tax collectors are hanging around in the gallows. Sea spaces do not count for this total, so really it's as easy as counting your land spaces to accomplish this. A little trick I've developed to not have to do this every turn is to place a hero figure on the victory point track and simply move it up and down that track to keep a tally of how many spaces each player currently owns.

Speaking of the victory point track, I should mention how this works since it's integral to the short and medium length variants of the game. If you conquer an enemy space, you gain one victory point, and it's never lost, even if you later lose that space. The flipside is that you don't get a victory point if you recapture one of your own lost spaces. If you conquer an enemy capital, you earn an immediate five points, and if you play a treasure card at any point during your turn, you gain the point value that is printed on the treasure card. It's really simple to do, and it's not cumbersome at all.

The end of the game comes, as I noted, when the victory conditions chosen at the start of the game are met at the end of a round. If two players or alliances have met them simultaneously, the game continues until one player or alliance has a one point advantage over the other or others. Of course, in the long game, victory points don't matter, but the same rule applies to the number of treasures played.

The long and short is that this is a very fun game with a tremendous number of ways to play to suit your tastes. As I said, I'm a huge fan of "Dudes on a Map" games, and I love the old Milton Bradley Gamemaster Series games more than most, so this was a total win for me. The theme is outstanding and well adhered to throughout the game, and the art and miniatures are lovely, adding a lot to the feel of the game as well as the overall enjoyment value. If you like Nexus Ops, Risk, or other games of territorial conquest, war, and fantasy themed games, this is a no-brainer.

Why I Want A Summer Castle In Nerath:
- The art is great, and the bits are outstanding and ample, with every piece having been well designed and thought out
- The fact that they made unique army figures for each faction really adds to the look of the game on the table
- The balance of the game is surprisingly good, even with the variable player powers
- Scalability in a conquest game is pretty slick, and it works astonishingly well here
- The rulebook is in the top five most understandable I've ever read, and the reference on the back cover is exceptionally well done
- At $50.00 or so, it's a great value for the dollar due to the quality and the replayability

Why I Want To Run Amok At Wizards' HQ In Washington:
- Ten more cards per faction would've allowed for more replayability
- The pre-set turn order was initially a turn off for me, but it ended up being OK
- I really would've liked to have some faction-specific units to add personality to the armies

While it's not the most original game I've ever played, it's got so much new stuff in it that it feels very fresh and not nearly as derivative as it otherwise might. Just the length scalability alone makes this unique as there's very few games that can provide such a rich conquest game in such a short play time. It's almost as if someone at Wizards decided that there weren't any games that reproduce warfare on this scale that were short enough to play often, so they developed this concept, and it works brilliantly.

The surprising thing about Conquest of Nerath, to me, is that the enjoyment of the game isn't hurt by the shortening of the game from total military victory to a points-based scoring system. I was a little on the fence as I'm not keen on the idea of victory points in a war game, but it really works well. I've chalked it up to the idea that once a player or alliance has damaged the enemy's ability to make war enough, they want to sit down at the jewel-encrusted negotiating table in a magic-dampened room to sue for peace. Peaceful negotiations to end a wargame...that's pretty novel.

4.5/5 Stars

Learn more about Conquest of Nerath at Wizards of the Coast's site:

You can rent this as soon as it comes out at Board Game Exchange!


v said...

Sure sounds like a good one. Thanks for the heads-up! My list of wants keeps growing (in large part thanks to you and your reviews...).

CitizenBen said...

Because of your review this one just got pre-ordered. Great review as always...