Boardgame review – Conan from Monolith
Get in the shoes of Conan, your favourite barbarian, and get all over Hyboria defeating your enemies and vanquishing monsters.
Monolith had an incredibly successful Kickstarter campaign on the back of a very popular and much loved IP like Conan, some kick-ass miniatures, artwork and cool gameplay promises. At nearly $3.5 million, they also hit a pretty huge number of stretch goals that translated into more miniatures, more missions and more of everything. Conan was going to be epic!
Then the problems came and delays settled in. And I am talking a delay of years. Despite showing some prototypes at Essen Spiel in 2014, the games didn’t arrive at the backer’s homes until the third quarter of 2016. Which brought up a lot of resentment and understandable questions.
In my case, though, as soon as I got the box, any questions about timing disappeared. Two pretty huge and heavy boxes with 106 and 115 miniatures respectively, some seriously gorgeous game boards – double sided – and the game rules books.
That made the game worth waiting for.
The boxes are sturdy, huge and very gorgeously illustrated. Inside everything fits nicely inside as long as it comes as it was packaged from factory. The miniatures come either in a blister of three for the bigger sized ones, or a box with two trays for the smaller ones.
Two decks of cards – spells and items, dice, plastic gems, colured bases for the miniatures, a plastic tray to setup gameplay for the Overlord and lots of tokens for the enemies, character sheets, treasure, reinforcement points, etc. All of that neatly snuggled inside the box until you pull it apart… then getting it all back in becomes a bit of a nightmare. No insert and no extra space to account for the extra volume these items have when they are lose.
The miniatures in Conan are spectacular, though there is a difference between some of them, both in the material used and the quality of the sculpting. In fact I was surprised that a miniature of a lion had considerably lower detail and quality than the other two big monsters. Also some of the miniatures arrived with the spears slightly bent. Nothing major, but big enough to be noticed and a bit annoying.
The boards are fantastic, though. Thick, large and truly beautiful to put on the table. They take a lot of space, mind you, so not a game to take to a picnic.
The character sheets are a bit flimsy. Also double sided, one with the names in French and one with the name in English, they are otherwise identical on both sides. Considering there is very little to no text on the sheets, I would have preferred if one of the sheets had included some differences to play an advanced or basic game, or simply some different attributes to give Conan more replayability.
The two rule books are huge and averagely laid out. One of the books contains the basic rules for the players and the other one with extra rules for the overlord and the scenarios. They are easy enough to read but the rules are a mess in places. There are lots of information that has been left out, like a list of the skills the characters have. That makes playing the game for the first time a bit frustrating, to be honest.
Once the game has been set-up – you need between 15 and 20 minutes for that – winning conditions are set by the scenario, as well as the starting order.
There are two phases, one for the players and one for the overlord. The mechanics are, essentially, a matter of placing a number of gems on the actions the players want to perform. There are six main actions – attack, ranged attack, defend, move, manipulate and reroll. The more gems you place on them (within the dice limit given by each ability/character), the more dice you can roll to perform that action.
Players can decide in what order to act and/or attack and their stance. The stance, aggressive or cautious, will determine how many gems the players get back at the end of their round. Used gems go the fatigue area. Any wounds the heroes suffer take a number of gems from the fatigue area to the wounded area. If you get all your gems in the wound area, your character dies.
That can take some doing…
The overlord’s phase is not too different. They have a set of cards with an activation cost for each card. Once a card is activated, it goes to the right of the queue, where the cost to activate them is higher. The overlord can also assign gems to movement, defense or reroll for all the units.
Each scenario has a number of turns before it ends. And usually that means the players lose.
Each unit of enemies is composed by a number of minis that are identified by the coloured bases and when the corresponding card is activated, the units move, attack or otherwise act.
The mechanics in Conan are not overly complex, and if they were well explained from the start in the rules books, they would be even easier.
What makes the game complex, and fun, is the level of strategy involved.
Throughout the game, all cards are exposed. The overlord knows where the players re, how many gems they have free for the next round, how can they move… Conversely, the players know what the overlord can use at what cost, how many gems are available and where each unit is.
So think about it like a cooperative team chess vs. One single person.
Conan has a lot going for it. Even if we ignore the gorgeous look and miniatures, the game play is really sound. It may not add anything new to the gaming table, but what it does it does it very well and you are likely to want to come back to it.
The rules need some major updates. Not because there is anything with the existing rules, but because they are not well explained. The manuals are horrible. We had to check several times in online forums to try and find answers to the questions we had.
And we only had basic questions like “Where are the abilities descriptions” or “There is a spell icon on this foe, but no explanation as to what spells it uses if any at all”. Even finding out exactly what the consequences of each stance are was a struggle.
On the other hand, once the game is going and the players are deciding what to do, it is really good fun. There is a massive risk of a lead player taking on the team, though, so I would recommend this game only in groups who know each other. It could be annoying if here is a power player anywhere.
Something else we found weird is that there is no escalation points. Conan is meant to be for two to five players, but I reckon you can’t play this on a one-to-one with the scenario setup. The one player would need to control the three characters that the scenario suggest you work with. Even if you play with four players, the scenario (at least the first one) tells you what extra character to use, but not to amend the number of enemies, treasure or number of rounds.
Me and my group are looking forward to playing it again. The level of complexity might not fit everyone’s tastes, but it certainly left us wanting more.
Also this game is very good value for money. At least at the pledge level I got. To find over two hundred miniatures of this quality for just over 100$ is absolutely amazing, and the boards are so good that I can also use them in my RPGs too.
If you want a game that is as strategic as it is gorgeous, Conana is one to look at. You will have a lot of rules to clarify, but it will be worth it in the end.