Conan. What comes to mind when you hear that word? Brutality. Rage. Sword and Sorcery. My first experience with Conan The Barbarian was the 1982 movie. There were two lines of dialogue from that viewing that epitomize who Conan is for me and what his myth and legend are all about. First, the famous and visceral statement by pit fighter Conan when giving answer to the query “What is best in life?”. His response was barbarian like and admittedly thrilled me. “Crush your enemies! See them driven before you and to hear the lamentation of their women.” The second is more mature and shows the change in Conan after some of his first adventures, having loved and lost, that have shown him the path that his life will take. When fighting Thulsa Doom’s henchman at the Mounds he says, “Crom. I have never prayed to you before. I have no tongue for it. No one, not even you, will remember if we were good men or bad. Why we fought or why we died. No! All that matters is that two stood against many. That’s what is important! Battle pleases you Crom. So grant me one request. Grant me revenge! And if you do not listen. Then to hell with you!” So why do I share this with you? Well, if you understand these two statements, and if they move you, then Conan is for you and you are made for Conan! I also read a lot of Savage Sword of Conan when I was a kid growing up the in 80s during the silver age of comics and still have over 100 magazines at my house. I grew to love Conan from reading those oversized magazines in my room late at night, trying to hide the racy pictures on the covers. You know what I am talking about. I love his adventures, I love what he stands for (mostly), I love his ferocity and how he reaches out and takes what he wants, sometimes from others. I know that a character like Conan is not seen as politically correct today, and is downright sexist, and would have very little chance of surviving in our civilized world, but he stood for something and “that’s what is important”. One of my favorite quotes from any of the Robert E. Howard books on Conan was the famous statement from The Tower of the Elephant that I’ve used in my title. “Civilized men are more discourteous than savages because they know they can be impolite without having their skulls split, as a general thing.”
So, when Monolith Editions released the Conan tactical miniatures game on Kickstarter, I knew that I had to have it. I unfortunately was not able to get in on the Kickstarter but pre-ordered a copy and received it in November 2016. Since that time, I have played about 10 games with family and friends, and I must say that it is great and my skull has been split….figuratively of course! The game is not perfect, not without error or issue or need for improved rules, more scenarios and more opponents to fight, but the gameplay is the thing and the miniatures are pretty damn amazing as well.
What is Conan About?
Conan, designed by Frédéric Henry and based on the Conan universe created by Robert E. Howard in an era of pulp fiction short stories in such rags as Weird Tales, is a scenario-based semi-cooperative asymmetric miniatures board game. One player is the Overlord, who is trying to stop the heroes, and the other players (1 to 4) play Conan and his various companions, including Shevatas the thief, Hadrathus the Priest/Sorcerer, Belit the pirate queen and Valeria the warrior.
Each game is a scenario, played on a map. There are several maps on double sided game boards, including the Pictish Village, an Underground temple, Tavern, Pirate ship, etc., and each map can have several scenarios set on it. The game plays fairly quickly, usually 60-90 minutes, although set up and getting the unique rules of the scenario straight can be a bit of a bear. It’s possible to play several scenarios linked up into a sort of mini campaign, but you can also play each scenario individually. The base game does include a dozen playable scenarios for various player counts.
I’ll now cover some of the basics of gameplay so that you can understand how the game works and what makes it unique in my opinion. Each character has their own board which contains three zones, referred to as the Reserve Zone (green), Fatigue Zone (red) and Wound Zone (black) that tracks the players resources in the form of energy gems. The gems in the Reserve Zone are available to spend on various actions, including movement, attack, ranged attack, blocking, rerolling and manipulations (picking something up or opening a chest). Each player has a base number of gems that they can spend each turn on the actions. For example, if you look at the Movement action, for the price of 1 gem, Conan will be able to move 2 spaces. But notice the number in red. If he decides he wants to, he can add a gem to the action to increase his movement one space for each gem so spent to a maximum of 4. These gems are moved from the Reserve Zone to those action spaces to show that they have been used. When the player either chooses to end their turn or runs out of gems to use, their turn is over. At the beginning of the next Start Phase, they move the gems located in the various actions to the Fatigue Zone. If the player is hit during combat by an enemy, they must take wounds and move gems from their Fatigue Zone to the Wound Zone. If there are no gems in the Fatigue Zone, you move gems from action spaces and then from the Reserve Zone. If there are no gems to move but wounds that are dealt by an enemy, the hero then dies.
When being attacked, if there are gems in the Reserve Zone, a hero can choose to move a gem or gems to various actions to defend themselves. The action space with the shield is the block action, and if a hero is taking 3 damage, they might move 1 or several gems to this space to get an orange die to roll, plus any inherent bonuses from items such as armor, shield or a weapon that provides a block bonus. After rolling the dice, they total the number of axes (which equate to success) together and subtract those from the total hits from the enemy. So, if they roll three dice and come up with two axes, they will take 1 damage (3-2=1) and must move a gem from their Fatigue Zone to their Wound Zone. Once gems are in the Wound Zone, they cannot be gained again unless the character uses a Life Potion or receives healing from some type of magic spell. There are some finer points to playing the game for the players as they need to focus on resource management in order to win scenarios. If they simply use all of their available gems each round in doing actions such as attacking, moving and searching, they will have nothing left to defend themselves against the attacks of the Overlord. A player should calculate their gems against what it is they want to accomplish and then plan accordingly, always keeping in mind the fact that if they cannot protect themselves, they will take wounds and lose gems from their Fatigue Zone to the Wound Zone and will have less resources to work with, and will be one step closer to death.
Each character also has various special skills listed on their boards, which provide them unique abilities to use throughout the game. Some examples of these abilities are things as simple as Swim, Climb, Leap or more complicated abilities such as the aforementioned Circular Strike for Conan, where if he kills an enemy with a 2-handed melee attack, another enemy character in the area suffers the excess damage from the attack. These abilities give each character their own unique feel and way to help the party complete their goal.
A turn consists of 4 steps, including Start Phase, Stance Phase, Action Phase and End Phase. I will talk a little about the Stance Phase now as I have covered the others, at least partially. Each hero will have to choose their stance at the beginning of this phase. They can choose to be aggressive or cautious. When a hero chooses to be aggressive, the hero moves their red gem to the symbol that looks like a sun and then moves a number of gems from their Fatigue Zone to their Reserve Zone as indicated under the sun. If no heroes have died, they will only move 2 gems but if one hero has died, they will move 3, and if 2 or more have died, they will move 4 gems. Aggressive stance allows characters to take all of their actions during their turn. If a players chooses cautious, the player moves their red gem to the moon symbol and moves the number of gems indicated from their Fatigue Zone to their Reserve Zone. Again if no heroes have died they move 5, if 1 has died they will move 6 and if 2 or more have died, they will move 7. A cautious hero can only Guard or Reroll and cannot attack, move or do manipulations. I love this part of the design because players must carefully plan out their movements to take into account the need to rest from time to time to regain more gems. This is also something that the Overlord should pay attention to as he can plan his next turn based upon what it appears the heroes will do.
There are also rules for the game that govern Line of Sight and elevation, which is a hallmark or any tactical game. The Line of Sight is measured by connecting circles located in each of the spaces to the circle to which you are attempting to shoot an arrow, throw something or cast a spell. If any part of the scenery, buildings or other terrain block that line, then there is no Line of Sight. These rules are well made and simple to understand. It is very funny, as with all tactical games I have played, to see that certain areas have only minor impediments drawn in, such as a the eave of a roof, that blocks Line of Sight, because they have playtested that map and put that there to balance the scenario.
Spells, weapons and equipment are included on various cards that can be taken by players as part of a scenario or can find certain items in chests. These items add defensive or offensive bonuses or can restore lost gems from the Wound Zone. Spells are fairly easy to use but do require a lot of gems from the casting player. They are very powerful. The Lightning Storm spell is expensive to use but can be very devastating as you could potentially be rolling 2-5 red dice.
Now that you understand the basics of game play, I want to talk about the part that I probably like most about the game (more on that later). That of being the nasty, evil, vile Overlord, who is set on destroying the heroes and carrying out his own plan of terror on the world of Hyboria. The Overlord is very much like the Dungeon Master, for those that may have tried that game, and you are in control of the experience for the players. They cannot play without you controlling the vast legion of minions (some really, really, really bad cannon fodder) and some really tough and difficult to defeat beasts, such as the Giant Snake. The Overlord controls the game while using a plastic book like device called The Book of Skelos. On this Book, you track the tiles that represent your minions and utilize these tiles through the skillful use of your scarce resources or gems in your Reserve Zone. Each unit in The River has an Activation Cost ranging from 1-8 that must be paid from the gems in your Reserve Zone to use. Once activated by paying the shown cost, that tile is moved to the end of The River and awaits its next activation, but the big difference is now it will cost more to use that same unit.
Most scenarios include at least one Event tile in The River. In some scenarios, the Overlord can resolve multiple events when the Event tile is activated. The number of events, the conditions for their use, and their effects are specified by the scenario. When activated, this Event tile provides a special ability to the Overlord. Examples of these Events are as follows:
In the “Hunting the Tigress” scenario, the Event allows 6 reinforcement points, which simply provides the Overlord the ability to bring back dead units and place them on identified areas on the map. But it also provides two very useful abilities, Fire at will which provides each unit to perform a Ranged Attack if able (with 4 Bossonian Archers this could mean the Overlord gets to roll 8 yellow dice with rerolls allowed) and Glory to Set is fun as Skuthus, the main villain leader, can sacrifice himself to bring out the massive and deadly Outer Dark Demon to fight in his stead. This can be really useful in case Skuthus is damaged (he only has 3 life points).
In the “In the Heart of Darkness” scenario, the Event also allows 4 reinforcement points but gives the Overlord the ability to Free a Monster to attack the heroes. This scenario was really fun as the heroes don’t initially know that several miniatures shown on the board (Outer Dark Demon, Giant Serpent and Khosatral Khel) cannot attack until the conditions are met to allow the use of the Event. This highlights one concern I have with the scenarios. Once played, several of the cool hidden information elements are known and it will indelibly change the experience for the players and for the Overlord.
In the “Final Ritual” scenario, the Event doesn’t give a set amount of reinforcement points but provides the Pict Hordes and Bestial Haste abilities that bring dead Pict Warrior and Hunter miniatures that have been killed to the board in certain designated areas and gives one group of the same minis the ability to immediately move up to 2 points worth. This scenario was very unique and my players enjoyed the challenge, as did I of being the Overlord and trying to figure out the tactical puzzle.
The best part of playing the Overlord is figuring out this tactical puzzle. What I mean about that is this: the Overlord usually is overmatched but has various elements that can be used to his advantage to vex the heroes, making obtaining their goal more difficult and time consuming, ultimately forcing them to lose due to time expiring or being killed (very rarely happens….at least consistently). These elements include the use of terrain, the hindrance rule and simply consistently forcing them to use their resources (gems) to do things they don’t necessarily want to do. I love the hindrance rule as it forces the players to use more gems to simply move around the board, do simple manipulations such as opening a chest or picking items up and makes their ranged attacks less effective.
The Overlord must constantly be aware of the heroes situation and keep tabs on their available gems and place obstacles in their way. For example, Conan can usually easily kill 2-3 weaker minions in one turn with his massive Circular Strike (if using a two handed weapon). Initially, that really bothered me as I looked at my strength and asked myself “How can I possibly kill the heroes?”. The answer to that question is that it is not really possible to consistently kill the heroes with your fodder (such as the Hyenas, Pict Hunters, Bossonian Guards or Pirates) but it is possible to wear them down, causing them to use more gems to move, attack weaker opponents, etc. so that your big baddies can swoop in to take them out. In the below picture, you can see that as the Overlord, I have positioned my forces to hinder the movement of the heroes as they attempt to pick up the head of Zogar Sag and move both the head and the princess off the board by the end of round 8. Their option to win was to get the head (Hadrathus is attempting to do this) and Conan is trying to get to the princess in the central tent. The problem is that I have placed several minion Pict Hunters in the spaces with them to simply hinder their movements costing them more gems to perform simple actions. In the end, they didn’t have enough gems available to make the moves, pick up the items and make it off the board in time. A rare victory for the Overlord!
I have created the following three simple rules for you to follow when playing as the Overlord:
- Don’t TRY to kill the heroes as you will fail, but simply force them to use their resources! This will lead to your opportunity to kill them….eventually!
- To hinder is divine! Make their tasks difficult to perform and ultimately time will win out in your favor.
- Don’t waste your time trying to save your weaker minions from death. It is not worth it but plan for their deaths to benefit you by wearing down the heroes so your big baddies can finish the job.
If you remember these three things, your experience as the Overlord will be rewarding, fun and most importantly, you will win more often than you lose.
What I Liked About Conan
The Overlord – As mentioned above, the Overlord role is very well done and to me is the best part of the game. I love the balance of trying to defeat the heroes, both with attacks but also while using tactical acumen to hinder their actions and simply beat them through attrition. We have played the game 10 times, with me controlling the Overlord 8 of those games, and I have won about 5 times. I have figured out the simple rule of forcing them to use their resources. I also really love the choices of the Overlord in what tiles and minions to use, when to use the Event tile at the most opportune time and how also to choose when to use one or two gems to try and block the attacks of heroes or when to reroll dice to make sure you hit them when it matters most. Very well designed portion of the game that offers great choices and is rather fun, albeit frustrating at the same time.
“Overlord Rule #1: Don’t TRY to kill the heroes as you will fail, but simply force them to use their resources! This will lead to your opportunity to kill them….eventually!”
The River and Its Mechanics – The River is a thing of beauty. The Overlord must plan their attacks so that they will matter. This will require patience and aggression, as it is really about managing your resources. Because you have limits on only being able to activate 2 tiles in any given turn, and you have scarce resources, you must plan. This planning is fun and very rewarding. I always try to make sure I am using the gems in my Reserve efficiently by looking at what amount I will recover and balancing that against my options. I always want to recover at least what I have used so I will be building a reserve for future opportunities but always keep in mind that one opportunity to spend a lot of gems for the knockout blow.
“Overlord Rule #2: To hinder is divine! Make their tasks difficult to perform and ultimately time will win out in your favor.”
The Miniatures – These miniatures are a thing of beauty. Well made, from sturdy plastic, and very detailed, I will dare say that these are the best miniatures that I have seen. Even better than Blood Rage minis? Yes, even better than those. The miniatures are so detailed that they have various touches added, such as pieces of bone on clothing, jewelry, detailed weapons and even body hair! My only complaint is that the bases are plain. They could have really hit it out of the park if they had added texture to the bases mimicking the various scenarios terrain. When painted, these minis are awesome!
Tactical Puzzle – As mentioned earlier, I love the tactical puzzle. Each scenario has several benefits built in for both the Overlord and for the heroes and each must find that advantage and utilize it in order to do well. In some scenarios, there are a glut of minions that can be used to slow the characters down (see the section above on hindering) while in others there are a few powerful minions that can wreak havoc if used properly (I personally love the Giant Snake). All in all, this game is about tactics and if players or the Overlord don’t figure that out, the true fun of the game cannot be realized.
“Overlord Rule #3: Don’t waste your time trying to save your weaker minions from death. It is not worth it but plan for their deaths to benefit you by wearing down the heroes so your big baddies can finish the job.”
Art – The artists (including Georges Clarenko, Xavier Collette, Viktor Dragosani, Xavier Gueniffey Durin and others) chosen for the task of replicating the look and feel of the original Robert E. Howard drawings, did a fantastic job! The art gives the feel of Conan, showing his savagery, brutality and domineering presence. I know I have read a lot of concerns about the role of women in the art and the game itself, but you must admit that this is spot on for the original feeling and that is what the art was trying to do.
Replayability and Customization Potential – With 12 scenarios in the base game, there are a lot of options for players. There are scenarios for differing player counts, but I wish there were more options. What I would say is that there is a very active community using BGG and creating their own scenarios to share. I have not played many of these but I plan to in the near future.
Mechanics – I believe that the system used in the game is very innovative. I challenge you to name another skirmish combat game out there that has a core set of rules that is both incredibly simple while being flexible enough to handle a wide variety of actions. This system addresses a lot of what ifs very well! Is it perfect? No, but what game is. I believe that the core mechanics allow for a great deal of fun to be had while providing the parameters to keep the game consistent and somewhat realistic. The reason I say this is that I am not sure there is another tactical combat game that allows players to mix their actions as flexibly as they can here. I also really like the stance mechanism as well, for its simplicity, realism and elegance. Bravo!
What I Didn’t Like About Conan
Rulebook – After reading the rulebook for the very first time, I could tell that there were going to be many times when we would have to read the rules out loud and think through them. The rulebook was written by a person or persons that I think understood the rules implicitly (and probably were the ones that made them), which I think doesn’t work very well in a board game. Rules must be read by third parties who didn’t have a hand in creating the game in order to ensure clarity. This is one of the weakest points of the game and while we can figure out the rules during play, it has taken us quite a while and nearly 10 plays, to get it all right. I’d love to see a 2nd edition rules version posted on BGG or the Monolith website to download so that I can replace the current rules.
Lack of Balance in Scenarios – I know that I have figured the game out much better than when I first played it, but I can tell you that an inexperienced Overlord can be blitzed even by novice players. This gives me concerns about the overall balance of the game as I would say that exact opposite is also true that a seasoned Overlord can destroy an inexperienced party of heroes. I would question the balance of some scenarios and would love to have seen Monolith do a little more playtesting.
Timing of Scenarios for Released Expansions – I have been a little frustrated over the fact that I have bought a few of the expansion, namely the Kushite Witch Hunters and Crossbowman, and waited several months for scenarios to be provided on the Monolith website. I paid $24.00 for each of the two expansions and they sat on my shelf until late April when the scenarios allowing their use were released. You have to do better Monolith! I’m calling you out on this one.
Lack of Scenarios – I am dissatisfied with the number of scenarios. There just aren’t enough. I would say that there are 12 in the base game, but it is tough to meet the player requirements for some which limit the number of playable scenarios. I would have liked to see more scenarios that have a differing number of player counts.
If you are a fan of Sword & Sorcery themed miniatures games, with tactical elements, then Conan is definitely something that you will want check out. I believe this game is one of the better miniatures games out there and has enough replayability and customization options to be a really good value for the $90 you will have to pay for the base game alone. Most importantly, it is fun. It is what it is and I am afraid that many people will buy it thinking it is one thing and will have a completely different impression after their first plays. I would say give it time. You will need to play 3-4 times to get the nuances of the game and understand the proper way to manage your resources as the heroes and the many tricks available to the Overlord to vex them. It is a beer and pretzel type fantasy miniatures game with some really well done mechanics and systems. Please give it a chance. And hey, if you don’t like it, you can go talk to Conan about it. I am sure that he will listen with great interest and patience as you tell him what is wrong with the game. Just remember, when dealing with a barbarian, especially one with a battleaxe and a bad temper, be courteous above all else!
For more information on the game and its components, you can check out our base game unboxing video as well as our unboxing video for the Crossbowman and Kushite Witch Hunters expansions. To get some more insight into our group’s thoughts on the game and its game play, you can watch our Board Game Blitz video.