Title: Conquest of Nerath
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
Game 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):
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: