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Review: Conquest of Nerath board game

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Conquest of Nerath box top

Title: Conquest of Nerath
Price: $79.99
Release Date: June 21, 2011
Publisher: Wizards of the Coast
Age: 12 and up
Pros: Plenty of nice pieces, the rules are very straightforward, game plays just as well with 2 or 4 players and plenty of carnage.
Cons: The simple rules and setup make grand strategy and teamwork fairly limited, the linkup with Dungeons and Dragons is minimal and there are a few balance/design issues in the game.
Overall Score: One thumb up and one thumb sideways, 82/100, B, *** out of 5

Conquest of Nerath is the third Wizards of the Coast (WoTC) board game based on plastic pieces and the Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) license, after Wrath of Ashardalon and Castle Ravenloft. However, Conquest of Nerath is the first real war game based on defeating opposing players by outright stomping them into the dirt.

That said, the game is intended to be team-based with two players taking the Good side of Vailin (elf) and Nerath (human) and the other two players being Evil (Karkoth the undead and Iron Circle the goblinoid). The game can be played in Free-For-All mode, but the board is designed so that undead and goblinoids will probably never interact with each other. The same goes for the humans and elves.

The first two WoTC board games were decent, worth the price but not necessarily destined to become classics. Cooperative boardgames are only a step above solitaire and generally don’t attract the kind of attention that competitive games can garner. Conquest of Nerath is probably the best game of the three, just by being an actual war game. A non-gamer might consider it much like a more complicated version of Risk. Many gamers consider it to be an easier version of RuneWars, but I think the game compares best to Axis and Allies, as it uses many of the same mechanics, just with a fantasy theme, and only slightly less complicated. As you can tell by the picture of the gameboard at setup, the game is easily as colorful as Risk:

Conquest of Nerath 101

Conquest of Nerath gameboardGame setup, typically time consuming in large games, is easy in Conquest of Nerath thanks to the starting locations of all pieces being written right on the board (each player also gets a cheat sheet telling him where the pieces go).

Each player has his own plastic pieces for his army and not just a different color. The undead player, for example, gets giant zombies and skeleton warriors in his army, while the elven player gets archers and giant treants (animated trees). While they may look different, the corresponding pieces all function the same in game: Each faction’s flavor is better represented through event cards, best use of which are the key to winning the game

Each player starts with two such cards and draws an additional card each turn. The undead events might include the raising of more zombies, while the elves – a nautical power in this game (the tree-lovers apparently have no issue with making boats) – can get free fleets and invasion forces. The human player, disadvantaged in the board set up by having an impossible to defend empire, gets many cards that allow him to come back from behind. Although these cards differentiate the factions, there is still plenty of overlap, such as the goblinoids getting dragon poison while the elves get dragonbane arrows (which are mechanically the same in game, even if the description is different).

Each player starts with an army on the board and can build more pieces at the end of his turn, based on his gold, which is determined by how much land he controls. A basic footman, for example, costs 1 gold and dragons, the most expensive, weigh in at 5 gold. Although dragons are easily worth five times as much as a soldier, you’ll still need those basic troops to occupy lands, as many cards have devastating effects against an undefended province.

In addition to typical military forces, each player gets fighters and wizards, special land pieces that can defend at sea (an easily overlooked but useful ability) and explore dungeons. The dungeons are the tie-in with D&D, as they’re named after classic modules, such as Tomb of Horrors and Temple of Elemental Evil. They’re stocked with random monsters more than capable of destroying a lone hero (so send in two or more if you can), and if defeated, the victorious player gets a magic treasure. These treasures typically grant a special power (eg, a vorpal blade, which has a chance of dealing extra damage in combat) and generate one to three victory points.

Winning the game is based on victory points and that is determined by the length of game you want to play. You gain points through acquisition of magic items and through conquest (but not loss) of land. The latter is the most common way of getting points and the rules rather encourage offense over defense, as you’re much better off taking an enemy land rather than retaking your own territories. All land is worth the same for income but enemy territory yields all-important victory points. You gain one point per territory or five points if you somehow take an enemy capital. The latter is generally only accomplished by the human and elf players, who get many cards that can cause significant armies to appear deep in enemy territory.

A special mention needs to be made of the game’s inset for holding the pieces: Everything fits in nicely, making putting the game away as easy as setting it up. Many games nowadays are packaged so tightly that packing them up properly a chore, and I’m glad to see a game-maker at last considering what happens after the box is opened. Here’s a look at the inset (guinea pig not included):

Conquest of Nerath box inset and contents

Quibbles and Bits

While Conquest of Nerath plays well, there are a few issues. The game board is weighted in favor of the Evil player. Team Good is simply in no position to defend far-flung holdings. This is balanced by the cards but, once a player realizes the kind of stuff Good can pull from the deck, it’s a simple matter of planning for the worst, playing cautiously,and thereby neutralizing what should balance the game. This lets Evil put the game in a choke hold early on and, as the game progresses, the situational advantage will lead to eventual victory. By careful hoarding and lucky draw of cards, Good can offset this strategy a bit but success still depends on the cards, rather than player ability.

The pieces aren’t quite balanced in terms of cost. The basic footman is useless, hitting 1/6 of the time and costing one gold. For double the price, you can get a siege engine that moves just as fast and expects to deal four times as much damage. Granted, you need some grunts to sit on territory but other pieces are just as out of balance. A monster (of any faction) costs three gold, the same as a wizard, and they both move two spaces a turn. The monster hits slightly more often (and I mean slightly, 58% as opposed to the wizards’ 50%) but this is more than offset by the wizard’s first strike ability, which lets it kill pieces before they can strike back. Toss in wizards’ ability to explore dungeons and defend at sea and be much more likely to get benefit from magical treasure and there’s no reason at all to build monsters, outside of a few special, unpredictable cases.

Naval combat isn’t nearly as interesting as it should be. Dragons move faster than ships, can fight at sea and are so vastly superior to ships in combat that keeping a navy alive and actually using it against the enemy is all but impossible. Other than a few relatively suicidal naval invasions, the game degenerates into a slogging land war fairly quickly.

Finally, keeping track of victory points is easy to forget and there’s no way to look at the board and figure it out. The way how such points are awarded leads to queer strategies, as suicidal attacks deep in enemy territory usually make more sense than defending the frontier and expanding outward.

A-Conquering You Should Go

Despite a few problems, Conquest of Nerath is definitely a fun game, worthy of a few plays until you figure out what the event cards can do. As players begin to master the game, I imagine it won’t be long until alternate rules make it onto the ‘net, especially rules that give the various pieces special powers, change the board setup to allow some flexibility and maybe change a few cards that are just about worthless (such as the elven card that gives foot soldiers first strike for a battle which is useless in a piece that seldom hits or lasts long in battles). Until then, Conquest of Nerath fills the niche of a simple and fun fantasy war game where players get to roll lots of dice, with built-in teams to keep anyone’s feelings from getting hurt.

A video of the game setup shows just how pretty the game is, far beyond the dull cardboard chit games of decades ago:

Product Page [Wizards of the Coast] Also Read [Boardgamegeek]

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  • Peter

    It seems to me some nations are just better than others.

    Also some units CLEARLY are stronger than others, Wizards as you say.

    Do you know if there exists an offical page for the game with house rules etc?

  • Doom

    I sent them a few pages of optional rules a year ago, but they got swallowed up.

    Conquest of Nerath
    9 Ways to Change the Game
    The straightforward design of CoN really lends itself to house rules, far more than many other big box games. Not all of these need to be used in a game, instead they should be added depending on desired complexity and variety:

    1) Free Magic Item.
    Beginning with the Karkoth player, each player begins the game with one magic treasure, acquired in the following fashion:
    a) The Karkoth player draws the top card off the deck. He can keep it, or discard it and take another card. He must keep the second card if he does this.
    b) The other players, in turn order, do the same. In lieu of taking the top card from the deck, a player may take a discarded treasure instead (and must keep it; the Karkoth player doesn’t have this option).
    Magic item cards must be played immediately (generated units are placed on the board before the Karkoth player draws his Event card). Free magic items don’t generate victory points, or count towards victory conditions. Once all players have a magic item, reshuffle the treasure deck.
    The free magic item rule makes it just a bit easier for players to leverage magic item use in the game. A variant to this rule to is let the Nerath player (in the weakest position on the board) begin with one magic item, drawn as above, with the right to discard his first pick.

    2) Repositioned Armies
    Beginning with the Karkoth player, each player may reposition and rebuild his army, in the following fashion:
    a) The player may remove up to 10 gold worth of his non-dragon pieces from the board, ‘cashing them in’ for their recruitment cost.
    b) The player may spend the cashed in gold for non-dragon pieces.
    c) The player then places his new pieces on the board. He may only place as many pieces in a space as he removed from the space (i.e., if he removed one piece, he can only place one piece there). The exceptions to this rule are castles (which can get up to four additional pieces), and capitals (which have no limits).
    Repositioned armies give players a bit of flexibility in their starting position, as well as make it easier to exploit the free magic item.

    3) Balanced Monsters.
    Monster pieces now get an additional ability, “Superior Artillery”. Superior artillery gives a monster First Strike when the opposing force contains siege engines, and any casualties inflicted by Monsters must be taken by siege engines first (if possible).

    Monsters are a bit overpriced for their abilities; they cost the same as wizards, but are inferior in several ways. Wizards’ First Strike more than offsets the larger die rolled by monster, and adding this ability helps to balance things just a little bit. Also, now offensive forces are based around Monsters, which seems more appropriate for a fantasy war game.

    4) Durable Navies

    Navies and Elementals at sea are now Durable.

    Dragons really dominate naval combat, shutting down most invasion options. A player with a pair of dragons can destroy all but the most powerful fleets, and a player who builds such a fleet will scarce have money for anything else. This gives fleets a fighting chance, while still leaving dragons as a powerful fighting force (a variant where dragons lose durability when at sea basically takes them out of all naval battles, and makes the various ‘dragons take 1 damage’ cards a bit too good).

    5) Selling Event Cards

    Instead of using an Event Card, a player may sell it for 2 gold at any time; this even applies to “Use Immediately” cards (which must, of course, be sold immediately).

    Several Event Cards are too specialized, or downright useless in several situations, and this rule serves to balance out bad and unlucky draws. The Vailin player in particular has several really bad cards.

    6) Specialized Monsters

    Each player’s monsters now have a special ability:

    Karkoth Monsters get Zombie Creation. In any battle where a Karkoth Monster successfully hits and survives the battle, add one Karkoth footsoldier to the space at the end of the battle.

    Vailin Monsters get Compost. In any battle where a Vailin Monster successfully hits and survives the battle, the Vailin player gets one gold at the end of the battle.

    Iron Circle Monsters get Spare Parts. In any battle where an Iron Circle Monster is destroyed and the Iron Circle is victorious, the Iron Circle player gets one gold at the end of the battle.

    Nerath Monsters get Boulder Throwing. This is like Superior Artillery (i.e., First Strike, enemy Siege Engines targeted first), except Nerath Monsters get First Strike even if the enemy has no Siege Engines.

    Each player getting special pieces just screams special powers; while Nerath probably gets the best deal, this is the player that can least afford buying monsters since he uses heroes more than others.

    7) Specialized Dragons
    As long as a player has only one dragon, it gets a special power as follows:
    Karkoth Dragons get Trophy Animation. Every time a Karkoth Dragon deals damage in a land battle, the Karkoth player gets a trophy, a footsoldier unit (taken from the unit pool). At the end of the Draw or Reposition phases, the Karkoth player may trade in two trophies to add a footsoldier unit to the dragon’s space. The Karkoth player loses these trophies if he has more than one dragon in play.
    Vailin Dragons get Enhanced Flying. Its movement is 4.
    Iron Circle Dragons get Firebreathing. When attacking an enemy space, in battle rounds against more than 2 units, the dragon gets to roll an additional d6 for each unit above 2. For example, if the defending player has 3 units, the Iron Circle dragon rolls a single extra d6 that round (in addition to the d20 it normally would get).
    Nerath dragons are Heroic. The Nerath dragon can reroll its d20 once each combat.
    Dragons are special creatures in D&D, and just can’t be mass produced, this rule somewhat reinforces that.
    8) Specialized Fighters
    Each player’s heroes get a special power:
    Karkoth Fighters get Necromancy. In any battle where a Karkoth Fighter is present and both the Karkoth player and opposing player take footsoldiers as casualties, the Karkoth player can add a Footsoldier at the end of the battle if he wins (the Fighter need not survive). This ability may only be used once a turn.
    Vailin Fighters get Amphibious Durability. In any land battle with a Sea Landing where a Vailin Fighter is present, a single Vailin Fighter is Durable. The Vailin player can be attacking or defending.
    Iron Circle Fighters get Plunder. In any land battle where an Iron Circle Fighter is present, if the Iron Circle player wins and gains victory points, he also gains gold equal to the number of victory points gained. This ability may only be used once a turn.
    Nerath Fighters get Superior Exploration. The Nerath player gets 1 additional gold every time at least one fighter survives exploring a dungeon.