"What do I know of cultured ways, the gilt, the craft and the lie?
I, who was born in a naked land and bred in the open sky.
The subtle tongue, the sophist guile, they fail when the broadswords sing;
Rush in and die, dogs—I was a man before I was a king."
–Robert E. Howard, The Phoenix on the Sword
In Conan, there is no good. There is no evil. There is only blood, gold, and glory!
This massive new board game of fast-paced, muscular combats and high-stakes stories is scheduled to arrive at U.S. retailers on Wednesday, November 23rd. Why should you be sure to pick up your copy? Because the game offers the definitive Conan board game experience.
In our earlier previews, we discussed how the team at Monolith worked with Robert E. Howard scholar Patrice Louinet to ensure the authenticity of their materials. In "Blood," we took a hard look at the game's combat system and the way it acknowledges Conan's keen intellect by marrying fast-paced swordplay to a need for a keen and tactical conservation of resources. Then, in "Gold," we surveyed some of the swords and sorceries that Conan and his allies might wield—or that they might face—and that tie the game even more closely to the sword and sorcery style of fantasy fiction that Robert E. Howard made famous.
But to be the most authentic of all Conan board games, Conan needs more than swords, sorcery, combat, and stunning and spot-on components; it needs a compelling story. Fortunately, it has one. In fact, the game comes with nine of them.
The Makings of a Legend
In the sword and sorcery subgenre of fantasy, the action tends to be fast and visceral, and the stakes at play in the story tend to be personal. The protagonist isn't necessarily a "hero," at least not the same way he or she might be a hero in high fantasy, so you wouldn't expect as many "save the world" adventures. Instead, you might chase after rumors of a fantastic treasure. Or you might need to save a friend from an ambush. You might even need to save yourself when your enemies hope to catch you with your guard down in the midst of a drunken revelry.
These are the sort of hooks that form the crux of the nine different scenarios in Conan. Each opens with a short passage of descriptive text that establishes the action. For example, the backstory of In the Clutches of the Picts establishes the scenario's tone and readies you for war:
The text also makes an explicit connection between the scenario's victory conditions and your character's goals in his or her reality of Hyborian adventure. In this case, the heroes win the scenario if they lead the governor's daughter to safety and collect the head of Zogar Sag. It also impresses upon you the limited amount of time that your heroes have to complete their mission. The "mere hours" that Conan believes Yselda has left are translated, in the game, into eight rounds. If the heroes fail to rescue her and collect Zogar Sag's head in that measure of time, they lose, and the Overlord wins.
Throughout your adventures in Conan, you'll find your actions driven forward by similarly desperate narratives, and while you might not be deciding the fate of Aquilonia, you will be fighting for your survival and for that of your friends. And with each story aimed so closely toward your personal interests, your path through the whole set of scenarios will form personal legend. There will be the time you saved the governor's daughter, the time you thwarted a Stygian necromancer's effort to slay a pirate, the time that your quest for fortune led you into the middle of a foul ritual, the time you broke the curse that had been set upon you, and more. Each adventure more firmly cements your legend, and when you look back upon them all from your position as king, you'll remember that before others sang of your glories, you had first been a man of action.
Make Them Bleed
Meanwhile, there's another force at play in each of these stories, but it's not going to contribute further to the heroes' legends… The Overlord controls those forces looking to destroy the heroes. And one of the players in your group will control the Overlord.
When you play Conan as the Overlord, the game assumes a different tenor. You're no longer represented by a single figure. In fact, you're not directly represented on the board at all. Instead, you are represented by the minions whom you've won—or coerced—into your service.
With these forces, you can attempt to slay the heroes—or simply bleed them enough that you prevent them from accomplishing their objectives. In most Conan scenarios, the Overlord wins when the heroes fail to accomplish their objectives within the allotted number of rounds, although there are some scenarios in which the Overlord's minions must play a more active role. In Hunting the Tigress, for example, you need your minions to slay the pirate Bêlit. But no matter whether you're simply trying to thwart the heroes or you're looking to accomplish a more specific objective, you need to make the most of each unit.
As we've already covered in our overview of the game, when you're the Overlord, your turns play out a bit differently than the heroes'. Like the heroes, you need to heed your use and conservation of energy gems, but rather than looking at these gems in terms of individual actions, you start by looking at them in terms of the activations of whole minion groups. Each unit tile in the River on your Book of Skelos represents an entire group of one or more minions. When it's your turn to act, you can activate up to two of these groups by spending the amount of energy gems indicated above the tile. Then, once you've activated the unit, you remove it from the River, shift leftward all the other tiles that were to its right, and replace the tile into the River at the far right position.
You can, if you choose, activate the same unit twice, but doing so requires you to spend energy based on its original position and then, again, based on its new position at the far right of the River. Still, there are times you may just wish to strike with your Giant Snake twice in the same round as doing so may cripple—or finish off—a hero before that hero can destroy your snake.
In addition to your unit tiles, you'll also place an Event tile into your River. This tile, which features a picture of a raven, can trigger a number of different effects, each of which is defined by the scenario you're playing. One of the more common of these effects is "Reinforcement." Whenever you trigger the Reinforcement effect in a scenario, you'll gain a number of reinforcement points that you can spend to choose a number of defeated figures and return them to the board in any area marked by a reinforcement token.
As Overlord, you'll also be able to spend your energy gems to power your spell casters' spells, to enhance an individual figure's movement or defense, or to reroll a figure's dice. Unless a unit's health is specified by the scenario, as your named lieutenants usually are, each figure in that unit has only one life point. It will have an armor value and therefore might be able to resist some of the heroes' attacks, but unless you spend energy gems to guard your figure—adding one orange die to its defense for each gem spent—that figure will die whenever an attack deals more damage than its printed armor value.
Why would you spend energy to protect a minion so common as a Pict Hunter, Bossonian Guard, or Pirate? Most of the time you wouldn't. Those energy gems are generally better held back for extra unit activations, or even to ensure you have more energy available in future rounds. However, since you are never directly at risk—but manipulating events from afar—you have freedom to survey the battlefield as a callous tactician, mindful of which of your minions live or die only so far as they help advance your agendas. And there will be times that a given minion will hinder the heroes enough that they'll fail to escape your ambush. Or preserving that figure's life will allow you to activate one more figure and make one more attack at a crucial moment. Or it might just buy you the time you need to call in reinforcements.
In the end, you don't need to kill the heroes. You only need to make them bleed. Time is almost always against them, and if they dwell upon their suffering, you can dwell upon the actions you need to take to further your own hidden and nefarious schemes.
Conan Is Coming!
If you're a fan of fantastic adventures, fast-paced combats, and dramatic storytelling, then you should rejoice in the fact that Conan will soon be here. This game that will soon redefine the idea of authentic Hyborian adventures and that launched one of the most successful Kickstarter campaigns of all-time will be available at retailers on Wednesday, November 23rd. Make sure to pick up your copy, and forge your legend!