A friend of a friend had backed the Conan Board Game Kickstarter, and my friend was having a hobby day then game evening which I was graciously invited to attend. For clarity, we played with five players, being four heroes versus the Overlord, with a Barbarian level pledge set, which is the core game plus all stretch goals, so there was a lot of kit I got to look at which isn’t part of the retail release.
Models and Components
There were a lot of models in the set, with significant numbers of all the usual enemies you’d expect (picts, hyenas, etc) and some I was pleasantly surprised by (I thought the tentacles were cool for example). The models were all well detailed for board game pieces, and seemed to be relatively quick and easy to paint (my friend had knocked out the below nine models in a few of hours including basing and prep).
The components are of a good quality, and there were plenty of pieces to accommodate the five players we had. There were also plenty of the specialty dice included, so we never felt short, although I’m not sure if this is the case for the retail version or was a function of the Kickstarter version we were playing.
There’s two rulebooks included (available online here), one for the Heroes and one for the Overlord, as well as four cards listing out the skills. It felt to me, initially, that having two rulebooks was good as it limited what players needed to read ahead of the game and neatly kept the missions out of sight of the Heroes (although I’m not entirely sure that secrecy of the scenarios rules is necessary). Having said that, in practice it was a little more cumbersome, as you had to remember which book the rule you wanted to look at was in and in which section. Also, the Overlord book references the Hero book quite a lot, so the Overlord effectively has to read two books.
The rules seemed straight-forward on first read, albeit some of the ordering in the books seemed a little odd (such as Event Card rules coming after they’d been heavily referenced throughout the Overlord Rulebook). That being said, once we got into the game it was clear that there were a few rule ambiguities – for example, range attacks do not have a range specified, so while this may be the intention, thematically it feels wrong that a Hero can throw a battle axe across the length of a village (except Conan, that would obviously be something he could do). Coupled with this, we had some difficulty locating specific rules in the heat of the moment (one instance was how wounds are taken by the Heroes, it isn’t clearly delineated in its own section).
Heroes have a set number of fatigue points, represented by gems, and move these around their character card to make actions – things like attacks (melee and ranged), guarding, moving, manipulations (picking locks and throwing items are the main ones) and getting re-rolls. This mechanic seemed like it would make an interesting and flowing game with a lot of tactical thought required in how to use fatigue each turn. Further, the idea that getting wounded would reduce the Heroes’ ability to act was also thematically appealing (fatigue tokens are moved to the right-most black zone on the characters card when they take wounds). As I’ll discuss under Gameplay below, this didn’t really pan out in practice.
For combat, you generate a certain number of different coloured dice, depending on your basic combat action and weapons you have available. The dice are yellow, orange and red and each have a different number of wounds on them, with red having the greatest chance to generate wounds. You roll and seek to beat a defence stat, for Heroes this is based on any passive benefit from armour, plus dice that can be generated by spending fatigue. The difference between the attackers wounds and defenders armour is the number of wounds caused.
Another cool aspect in the rules is that a lot of melee weapons also have a ranged profile, representing Heroes ability to throw these at enemies – the thought of Conan throwing a battleaxe at his enemies is very cool to me. This is heavily punished, however, as it often leaves you unable to make effective melee attacks, given most characters only started with one weapon and given the clock on the mission didn’t have time to open chests and acquire better kit.
The ability of the Heroes to activate in any order, and in any way they wish, seemed it would be unbalanced, and I felt before the game that it would likely lead to considerable analysis paralysis as potential action combinations were gamed out. Whilst this wasn’t a big issue in practice, as I’ll discuss below, I think that the potential is there for it to really bog the game down for certain groups.
We played the first scenario out of the book, where we had to rescue the captured Yselda, and kill the Pict leader, Zogar Sag. The board looked really good, and there were a considerable number of enemies to get through. We had to enter each room to search for Yselda, as she was randomly assigned to one at the start of the game, so it forced us to come to grips with them. It took over 30 minutes to set-up, even with most of the models we needed already out from the boxes, so felt like it took a long time to get going. The game lasted about two and a half hours as well, which felt slightly on the long side from my perspective, but this could have been a function of us learning the rules (and having a few beers of course).
The play is relatively fast flowing when you’re actually engaged in it, but for the Heroes it felt like a very stop-start affair. This is a function of there being two stances for Heroes, active and passive, which govern what actions can be taken and how much fatigue is regenerated each turn. When passive, a hero cannot do anything except guard, so effectively takes no actions during their turn. We would effectively have two Heroes having big turns doing work, and then they would sit still the following turn doing nothing whilst the other two went active. Perhaps on further plays we would become more balanced in how we use our resources, but certainly as Hadrathus I felt I couldn’t have gotten much done if I were aiming to be active each turn without completely running out of fatigue turn two.
One thing we consistently missed was the special abilities each Hero had, probably due to the relatively small pictures on the card and needing to reference separate rule cards to work out what the pictures meant. Conan’s whirlwind ability would have been game changing, however we didn’t use it until the last turn of the game. That being said, once the Heroes started to get on top, it felt like the Overlord didn’t really have many options open to respond as his reinforcements were quickly dealt with and once we’d secured Yselda and killed Zogar Sag we were able to beeline out, avoiding more than 50% of his forces.
When we were rolling for combat, it felt decidedly unbalanced, with models either being massively overkilled, or barely scratched. It seemed the game was trying at more of a dice pool management mechanic, similar to something like Star Wars Imperial Assault, but it felt rolls had much greater variability than those games (possibly due to each dice having blank faces), as well as there being less flexibility in how one plays (i.e. there were no support characters that could dish out buffs). Perhaps there’s other ways of mitigating this variability we haven’t discovered, but it felt frustrating at times when you roll two red dice and come up with nothing.
This seemed like a very promising game both due to it being Conan, as well as having some interesting mechanics in the fatigue system. The component and model quality is solid, but the rules seem to have both minor annoying ambiguities as well as the more significant issue of it seeming to be stop-start for Hero players as they switch from active to passive stance. There were some good cinematic moments in the game, and it was fun throwing some dice and making Conan and Schwarzenegger references, but for me, this isn’t a must-purchase game, as whilst it’s enjoyable there’s other games with tighter rule-sets and more balanced chance elements which I’d favour.