When I was a kid, I remember watching the most awesome movie called The Gods Must Be Crazy. It was a South African made comedy that featured the story of Xi and his tribe of bushmen who are “living well off the land” in the Kalahari Desert. They are happy because they believe the gods have provided plenty of everything, and no one among them has any wants. One day, a glass Coca-Cola bottle is thrown out of an airplane and falls to Earth unbroken. Initially, Xi’s people suppose this strange artifact is another “present” from the gods and find many uses for it using it as a crafts tool, blowing on the top to make music, etc. But unlike anything that they have had before, there is only one glass bottle to go around. With everyone wanting it at once, they soon find themselves experiencing envy, anger, and even violence.
Since the bottle has caused the tribe unhappiness, Xi consults with the tribe’s elders and concludes that it’s an “evil thing” which the gods were “absent-minded” to send them. Noting that some attempts to dispose of the bottle have failed, Xi agrees to make a pilgrimage to the edge of the world and toss the seemingly cursed thing off.
So what the heck does that movie have to do with a board game? Conquest of Paradise has an inherent Coca-Cola bottle that we all just must have built right into the gameplay. The bottle is the rather lush and fertile 4 plot island tiles that are in rare supply. There are only 3 tiles with 4 building spots for villages and 5 tiles with 3 building spots, making them pretty rare and most importantly, very desirable!
In fact, the Tongan and Samoan Islands which are printed directly on the board itself are 4 plot islands and in a 2, 3 or four player game, 2 players start there, immediately placing them at odds with each other as their ability to expand is threatened. Whoever is able to get their hands on one (or heaven forbid, two!) of those tiles has the envy of the rest of the players but not always the upper hand in the game itself. Similar to the tribe in The Gods Must Be Crazy, other players will desire to have your tile for themselves and you will immediately be in a race with your opponents causing them to build toward powerful military forces to invade and assault your tranquil island sanctuary which in turn will cause you to have to escalate your forces as well or pay the consequences.
First off, I will say that I truly enjoy games that are different. I also love wargames. Games that take a risk by trying out a theme that might, on the surface, seem uninteresting, mundane or outdated are important to me. When I first opened up Conquest of Paradise, I thought to myself, who has an interest in Polynesian Empire Building in 500 AD? But after reading the rules and playing the game twice, I have a feeling more akin to the Coca-Cola bottle. This game is truly something different and everyone NEEDS it (I do not recommend throwing this game off the face of the Earth)!
What is Conquest of Paradise About?
Conquest of Paradise is a 4x style game where players will work to develop their society in 500 AD Polynesia. This is done by exploring the open ocean hexes around their home islands, hoping to find fertile and lush islands to expand onto by sending out colonists and building villages, gaining victory points and special abilities from Arts & Culture Cards, exterminating your enemies through ferocious and very thematic combat thereby being the first to reach the predetermined amount of victory points. The game is conducted in the following steps:
The explored world begins as a rather small part of the map that can be settled and developed, but grows every turn as players explore the open ocean hexes around their home islands. Each player has an explorer piece, that if not needed later for exploration can be discarded to gain an additional build point for that round, but which will be lost for a full round. To explore, players simply begin in any hex that they can trace a path to that is both known (explored) and free of enemy units and declare it as a starting point for their exploration. Players then pick a hex that is unexplored, state their intent to explore it and then randomly blind draw a chit from a translucent cup (you will need to provide the cup!). From this exploration effort, the player will have one of three possible results: open ocean, an island tile, or will be blown off course. On the back of each chit drawn is also a rope symbol with a number of knots, ranging from 1 to 3, or none in the special case of the off course markers. You can continue exploring until you accumulate five knots, at which point the explorer must return to their home island. What I really like about this aspect of the game is the press your luck element when you reach 3 or 4 knots. Players must ask themselves if they are willing to lose their explorer by trying to go to just one more ocean hex remembering the limit is five knots. Remember that if you have no need for exploring, as in the case of you possibly having found a good island group to settle, you can discard the explorer piece to gain one additional build point. I really like this thematic choice as you are asking your explorer, who is best on the open water, to stay home this season to lend a hand and build some villages. I wonder if the Polynesians had labor disputes?
When you discover an island group, you draw a random tile from the box and you can choose to reveal it, or to keep it secret. There is a little bit of gamesmanship in this part of the game as well as strategy and tactics, which I really like. Is the island one of the fabled 4 plot islands? Or is it simply an atoll? Your enemies will not know until they explore as long as you don’t reveal it. You have three discovery markers, so you can keep up to three tiles secret from your opponents and if you find a fourth island group, you’ll need to decide which of the four to turn face up. This exploration step also has its downsides. If you are not lucky and continue to draw 1 plot islands and atolls, you will not be able to build your civilization fast enough to keep up with those that discover more productive islands. This is a story as old as time in many 4x style games. A game that we play fairly often is Eclipse and it shares this same concern with CoP! I wish there was a way around this “luck” factor. But, you can always change your tactics and move more toward conquest than discovery, but the irony is that this change will require build points. More on this aspect later.
Movement and Battle Step
The one thing in this game that is hard for people to get their minds around is the difference between transit and movement. When you build your island empire, you will want to connect your islands together with face up Transport Canoes. This is akin to a superhighway built on the water that is very important to your expansion. The main reason why this is such a vital play is that all contiguously connected island groups form a continuous travel path that allows the free movement or transit of your forces or pieces from one end of your empire to the other. The other benefit is that having connections allows the use of build points created in one island group to be used to build units in another island group. This is vitally important, especially if you find a 4 plot island that is several open ocean spaces away. If not connected, the 4 build points that it creates when villages are placed can only be used on that island which might not make much sense for your aspirations or plans for conquest.
After transit, including the shuffling of pieces from connected islands to connected islands, players are then allowed to move. Moving lets both Transport and War Canoes to move up to two hexes away from their point of origin, possibly more if you have the right Arts & Culture cards. One aspect that is really cool about this game are the Arts & Culture cards that give you a special ability. There are several different types of abilities, some that have to do with battles, and some that offer benefits for movement such as Double Hulled Canoes. The way the game works with cards is you don’t have to reveal them until you decide to use them. So there is nothing quite as satisfying as revealing your newly built Double Hulled War Canoes, allowing you to move a Warrior Band of your vicious tattooed fighters three spaces (normal movement is only 2 spaces) to reach a lightly defended island group that they thought was safe!
Battle is somewhat of a one side affair as only the attacker gets to roll the dice! This system works well for the theme as battles were probably more akin to surprise skirmishes and didn’t truly allow for great overarching strategy. The attacker keeps rolling a die until one side or the other is defeated. A 1-3 result is bad for the attacker (on a 1 his unit is removed from the game or killed), and a 4-6 bad for the defender (on a 6 his unit is killed). Units either panic and retreat out of the battle for the duration or are killed and removed for good. Those units that are left alive for the attacker then chase the remaining panicked troops off the island as long as they have sufficient canoes (if not, they are destroyed) and then can decide to sacrifice their units to destroy and replace an enemy village with one of their own. If they don’t decide to destroy the enemy villages, they are removed at the end of the turn but the attacker doesn’t get to build that round. There also are several Arts & Culture cards, as well as random event cards, that can affect the outcome of a battle.
Building is very straight forward as each player earns 1 build point for every Village they control. This part is easy but sometimes the decision about what to build and where is excruciating! As mentioned previously, build points located within Transport Canoe connected island groups can be pooled together and used anywhere on your islands. If you have two chains of connected island groups, say 4 points in one group and only 2 in the other, you have to spend all the points within those connected clusters. Building will be slow going at first as most players will have 1-4 build points for the first few rounds until they are able to discover a good island group and can really focus on expanding by adding Villages. This part of the build aspect felt very thematic as it was a struggle to build a base from which to expand.
Now that you know what points you have to build, what exactly can you build with those points? You can build Villages on empty green spaces on island groups that you control for 2 points each. You can improve the brown island spaces to be able to accept another Village for 1 point. This is very thematic as the improvement of the brown to green represents Improved Agriculture needed to feed a growing and expanding population. You can buy Colonists to create a Village on an uninhabited island for 2 points. You can also invest in military and buy Warrior Bands for 2 points to defend your islands, Transport Canoes to create your transport chain and move units for 1 point and War Canoes to go on the offensive and invade islands for 3 points.
One of the more important items that can be built are Arts & Culture cards. These cards are drawn randomly from the deck after paying 2 build points in a turn. You can only build 1 Arts & Culture card per turn but it is generally a very good idea to do so as they offer great abilities and VP’s when you reveal them for the first time. I would recommend keeping them hidden until you need the abilities as you don’t want others to know exactly how many points you truly have or what you can spring on them in battle. There are 27 cards with the following VP breakdown: 6 cards with no VP (but great abilities), 11 cards worth 1VP with an ability, 3 cards with VP only (1 worth 2VP and 2 worth 1VP), 6 cards with 1VP and +1VP for control of a specific named island and finally 1 card worth 2VP (3VP if you control Rapa Nui). If you are not buying one of the cards at least every other turn, you will be left in the wake of your opponents. In my plays, I have bought nearly one every round after the first and done pretty well.
Victory Point Step
Players simply count up their revealed victory points at this stage and adjust the Victory Point Track. Players receive 1VP for each Village they control, 1VP for each controlled Island Group, 1/2VP for each uninhabitable Atoll and the listed VP on their revealed Arts & Culture Cards. If playing with the advanced rules, players will also gain 2VP for each Kumara (Sweet Potato) marker they have found by finding their way to South America through exploration. The first player is determined by who has the fewest amount of VP and is designed as a simple catch-up mechanic to allow them to take the first actions.
What I Liked About Conquest of Paradise
I will say straight up that I believe this game is GREAT! It has so many great mechanics and the theme is truly integrated into each mechanic. When playing, I actually feel like I am the King of a struggling society trying to expand to improve the lives of my people.
Island Theme – What really makes the game GREAT for me is the whole island/sea thematic feel. This game is a wargame but definitely isn’t a wargame in which you just march troops into the next adjacent area to do battle. Instead, players have to carefully manage their islands and build up a network of Transport Canoes so that they can share resources, all to be able to build more improvements and increase the power of their standing army. Just because a lush and fertile 4 plot island has been discovered, doesn’t necessarily make it worth going after. Players must ask themselves if going for that island will stretch their empire and make it harder to do what is needed at that very time. I can assure you that if you get caught on the wrong end when your enemies are busy arming themselves and you don’t have the resources to escalate your force, you will lose! Also, the importance of War Canoes cannot be underestimated because one War Canoe can carry one War Band. So if you want to attack with 5 Warrior Bands, guess what, you better have 5 War Canoes. This is one of the few wargames where you’ll probably see more naval units built than land units! The great part of this whole aspect is the feeling of building a connected civilization that can move about freely. The players that can build a connected empire will generally be the player that wins as they can share resources, freely move troops for both offense and defense, and have multiple points from which to launch exploration using the all important pre-move concept. It seems to me that the designer truly did his research and incorporated the early Polynesian societies tendencies and limitations into the game.
Advanced Rules –
I like games that add elements either as optional or advanced rules as it provides options that increase the replayability. No matter how much we love a game, after a dozen plays it can become the same experience over and over and get stale. A few advanced rules are included in the game but are not recommended for beginning players. The additional rules are the Sweet Potatoes (Kumara) and Event Cards. The Sweet Potatoes can be explored for by accessing the specially market hexes located in the eastern Pacific access. If players explore from those hexes, they have the ability to make it to South America where they can retrieve a Sweet Potato counter that will be worth 2VP at game’s end. If a player can get their quickly, they can definitely give themselves a solid point base and be in the race. Another advanced rule includes the use of Event Cards. After any player reaches five VP on the VP Track, the Event Cards can be drawn during the Turn Order Step. These cards have positive and negative events that tend to keep players in check a little bit and prevent a clear out front favorite. Some of the Event Cards are also cards that a player can hold onto in order to use at a later time during a battle such as the Warrior Leader card or there is the cool event that reveals all Rumor tokens that are facedown called Deception Revealed. You can also use the Saved Resources markers to store over 1 build point from a round to the next. This can be a neat little trick as you can save that 1 point you didn’t want to waste on a useless Transport Canoe to do something better next turn. Lots of great options with the advanced rules and they are a great addition to the game that improve the overall experience and further reinforce the theme of the game.
Gamesmanship – I love the gamesmanship involved in this simple but deep game. The use of Arts & Culture Cards and the decision when to reveal them. The use of Island Exploration markers and the decision when to reveal the island beneath. But the best part of all is the Rumors tokens! These little babies can be used to make your stack appear that much more powerful, getting into the mind of your opponents and potentially changing their behavior. Psychological warfare in the South Pacific!. They can be moved around, transported from island to island and really cause some anxiety for your opponents. When revealed, they are removed from the game but can immediately be rebuilt on your next turn. Great little cat and mouse aspect here! I only wish there were a few more.
Components – This version is the Deluxe 2nd Edition so GMT has gone to great lengths to improve the components. The biggest upgrade is the mounted map board. It is perfect and so much better than the paper alternative. I wish they did every game with a mounted map board, even if it costs me an additional $10 per game it is worth it! The colors of the components are beautiful and once again perfectly chosen to integrate with the theme. The counters are thick, clear and also designed and produced with great care. The player aid, although it is printed on very thin card stock, is extremely helpful in playing the game. Another great GMT effort to make a playable game better with upgraded components!
What I Didn’t Like About Conquest of Paradise
Exploration Chit Draws – I really have concerns about the randomness of the chit draw as you explore. I have played several times now and I tend to draw many open ocean tiles and not many island tiles. This can be very frustrating and also can set you back as others find good islands closer to their home island. I know drawing is a part of most games but it really gets me here.
Island Tile Draws – As bad as the actual exploration chit drawing is, I am more concerned with the Island tile drawing once you have found an island. I know that this is a problem inherent to all 4x games but it simply can ruin a game. I would say that the play time of 90-120 minutes is fairly short so if you are on the short end of the stick, at least it is not a 4 hour game that was wasted. My only suggestion for possibly fixing this issue would be to allow the player to draw two tiles and then choose from them. I know this is not necessarily consistent with the well integrated theme but you could say that the explorer say two groups of islands on the horizon and was able to choose which of the two he travelled to. I just hate to see an otherwise stellar game be marred with a problem like this.
Starting Locations – I have played the game with 2 players and with 4 players. In both the 2 and 4 player setups, two of the players start on Tonga and Samoa which are both 4 plot islands while the other players start on 2 or 3 plot islands. This one extra buildable plot, although it is brown and must first be improved to be buildable, provides an apparent unfair advantage to these two players. Furthermore, if you look at the picture to the right, both Samoa and Tonga have easy access to Fiji which has 3 plots although they are defended by 4 indigenous natives that balance out the benefit as you must sink considerable resources into building Warrior Bands and War Canoes to transit to the island to conquer it before you can build. I know that the game has been play tested to death and the addition of the Kumara on the other side of the map is an advantage for the other players, I still have questions about the balance of the starting locations.
While there is no perfect game out there, I feel that Conquest of Paradise is a near perfect game in the 4x arena! Fun to play, quick, easy to learn, with significant amounts of strategy and excruciatingly painful decisions, this game has it all. Our group loved it and I am confident that it will return to the table soon! While I have not played the solitaire version yet, I also like that it has this option and I will definitely be trying it out soon. Just remember the movie The Gods Must Be Crazy. You may not know that you are missing out on something until that Coca-Cola bottle from the sky hits you in the head and your whole gaming life changes. As for me, I will not be throwing this game off the face of the Earth!
You can also take a look at our unboxing video to get a better feel for the components and the gorgeous and very sturdy board.