Review: Conquest of Nerath

After the wave of prosperity due to the popular card game Magic: the Gathering, Wizards of the Coast went on to purchase the Dungeons and Dragons franchise and has since spent much of its effort on those two primary themes.  However, Wizards was initially a broad based game company creating boardgames with lasting fans like RoboRally and The Great Dalmuti.  Despite this historic boardgame background, Wizards has had an up and down relationship with boardgamers, at times totally ignoring the field of boardgaming and other times releasing several titles in a year.  This past year has seen a minor resurgence of boardgames from Wizards, with an emphasis on combining the Dungeons and Dragons role playing brand with boardgaming.  Last fall saw a successful release of Castle Ravenloft, a cooperative boardgame designed to give a lightweight RPG feel.  A mix-and-match compatible sequel was released in early 2011, Wrath of Ashardalon, expanding options for fans of the first game.  This summer sees a release of a Dungeons and Dragons themed wargame, Conquest of Nerath.  This is a lightweight wargame similar to Nexus Ops or Axis and Allies with a fantasy theme.  Heroes, Dungeons, Treasure, Dice based combat, custom event cards for each nation, and lots of plastic figurines combine to make a very nice lightweight war game (either teams of two or a free for all.)

Anyone who has played Nexus Ops or one of the many Axis and Allies boardgames will be instantly familiar with Conquest of Nerath.  Players begin the game with preset territories and army placements (conveniently marked on the board itself) and then take turns smashing their armies together in order to achieve a victory.  Either capture your opponents’ capitol cities for a win (rare) or simply garner enough victory points (through treasures and capturing territories) to end the game.  The use of victory points are a nice addition and avoids the elimination requirement that so often causes slow, tedious endgames in “capture the world” type wargames.  Each player takes a complete turn, first by moving all their armies, resolving attacks in any area containing opposing armies, post-attack movement of flying creatures, purchasing and placing new units, and finally collecting income for use in future turns based on one’s base income combined with territories won or lost.  Rinse and repeat for each player in sequence to complete a full round.  The game ends at the completion of any round where one or more players (or teams) have the required victory points to win the game.  A sliding scale is used for free for all and team games, allowing players to choose short, medium, or long games based on how many points are required for a win.

While the game is extremely similar to others in the conquer-the-world genre, there are a few things that make it stand out from the pack.  These primarily revolve around its close tie-in to the Dungeons and Dragons setting.  The first thing one noticed upon opening the box are the piles of little plastic figurines.  Each army is comprised of the same set of units:  infantry, siege engines, fighters, wizards, monsters, naval ships, air elementals (which my son calls tornadoes), and dragons.  In a nice touch, the infantry, fighters (a mounted unit), monsters, and dragons are all unique sculpts for each nation.  For example, the monster category is comprised of giants, eants, iron golems, or some giant undead fat guys depending on which nation you’re playing.

The second aspect that screams D&D out at you are the pile of colored dice.  The game uses a plethora of dice, from basic 6-siders for the infantry through 8, 10, 12, and even 20-sided dice for the dragons and castles.  As is the case for most games of this sort, you will be rolling lots of dice for combat.  Roll a 6 or better (on whatever type of die you’re using) and you score a hit on your opponent, removing one of their units after that round of combat.  (Wizard units, of course, get to attack first each round and can eliminate an opposing unit before it even fires a shot.)  It may seem overkill to include so many different sizes of dice in a game, but it is a nice way to include units of varying power while streamlining combat.  Provided you have enough dice (I found scavenging a couple extra of each size useful) one can resolve an entire combat with a single roll.  Simply gather up all the dice (this is initially a bit of a chore as you try to recall which units use which dice – but since they’re color-coded it is picked up quickly after a turn or two) and then scan the rolled dice for any 6’s or higher.  Compare this to a game of Axis & Allies where a large battle might require rolling a handful of dice one time for each type of unit present.

I’m a fan of world conquest games where I get to purchase a wide variety of military units.  Having multiple unit types allows for a better replay experience as one can try to emphasize different aspects of the game each time it is played.  Shall I go for a brute force land war or construct a sea-based army geared to take advantage of tactical developments as they appear?  In this, Conquest of Nerath does not disappoint.  The unit powers, and their cost seems to be very well balanced.  Sure, the infantry almost never hit and are really only there for cannon fodder, but that’s their job!  Meanwhile, one has to weigh buying a monster (with its handy 12-sided die) vs an Air Elemental (who only rolls 8-sided dice – two if attacking at sea) with the power of flight.  Siege engines are cheap, slow, but roll two dice when attacking.  Fighters cost only 2 gold while Wizards cost 3, but Wizards get that first strike ability.  Dragons are, of course, the highest value unit.  Able to fly, able to take two damage before being destroyed, and rolling a 20-sided die, a flight of dragons can be quite intimidating on the board.  However, without a few low-level units to absorb more damage, a pile of dragons just cries out “here, come destroy these high-value targets!”

So, we have dragons, where are the dungeons?  There are about a dozen land areas scattered around the map representing dungeons.  While flying creatures may fly over them, only Heroes (wizards and fighters) may stop and fight the creatures within the dungeons.  Initially seeded with a single creature, dungeons later gain two and the heroes must fight both at the same time.  Creatures range in power but can typically be expected to be defeated by two or three heroes per creature.  Once a creature is defeated, a player gets to draw a treasure card from the top of the treasure stack.  This can be kept secret, but can also be revealed at any time to gain the victory points listed on the card (1 to 3 VPs) as well as a permanent special power usable for the rest of the game.  This can be as simple as a few extra gold, to unit upgrades (such as all monsters gaining a “double hit” when rolling high), to more complex things like making all of one’s castles serve as linked teleporting stations.  What I find nice about the treasures are they way they change the game from play to play.  If I find a treasure that improves all my fighters, it will encourage me to invest more in fighters, while the next game I may end up trying to take advantage of a special monster ability.  Obviously, all treasures are not created equal, but they are leveled somewhat by their victory points, with the “better” treasures worth fewer points.  If you keep them hidden, opponents are never quite sure how close your team is to winning.

The last unique aspect of Conquest of Nerath is the event cards.  Many world conquest games have had event cards before, but in this case each of the four sides has their very own deck.  Players start with two and draw one card per turn and there are enough so that only half the deck is typically drawn in any one game.  This keeps the variety of the game quite high and helps improve the replayability.  The event cards for each side are unique and aren’t even considered equal by the designers.  Some nations start off in weaker positions, but have a higher income and more powerful event cards, while arguably the strongest starting nation goes first and has weaker events.  In this way, while everyone has the same armies available, certain nations will naturally lean towards a given play style.  For example, the gold (yellow) army can expect to have a large naval support through the use of their event cards, the black army tends toward land forces, the red army is typically more balanced, while the silver (white) forces have the most powerful events – if they can set up the circumstances just right…

There are a lot of little things that makes the design a hit for me.  The rulebook is very well written with plenty of examples.  Anyone who’s played Axis and Allies will be able to jump right in, but newcomers to this genre will be able to learn all they need from a read-through of the manual.  I like custom purchasing my armies and having over half my units with their own unique sculpts adds to the tactile fun.  Setting up is easy, with all the starting units listed right on the board in their appropriate spaces.  While the starting setup is always the same, the tactics and the treasure cards combine to make the game different every time.  Even placing units is done in a reasonable way, rather than plunking them all down inside one’s castles, they begin in a castle but may then expend their movement – giving them a slight burst of speed towards the front line and keeping the game moving along.  I enjoy team games, so am glad to see it is playable as a 2 vs 2 game.  (You can play a free for all game with 4 players, but since all four sides need to be in every game it’s necessary for the nations to be broken into two teams when playing with 2 or 3 players.)  Even the victory conditions are well done.  There are short, medium, and long game options for team and free for all games, and they all deliver (well, long games can wear thin with new players) a satisfying game experience.  Finally, even the insert is one of the best I seen in awhile.  There is a slot for most everything and most are labeled so it is clear where each piece goes.  Chronic baggers may find it difficult to deal with all the custom slots, but I’ve un-baggied many of my pieces since they seem to store so well in their appropriate slots.

The initial board layout.

There are a few downsides to the game.  I expect gameplay to shine best at 4 player with 2 and 3 player games having a slightly stilted feel.  It is highly derivative of lightweight boardgames that have gone before.  The wizard unit is very similar to some of the infantry sculpts, initially making mistakes common (in a nice touch, each unit has a different polygon base).  The starting setup IS exactly the same each time, and big fans of the game will probably want to spring for (or gather up some spare) extra dice for larger combats.  However, Conquest of Nerath still stands as one of the best light wargames available.  Fans of Axis and Allies (or the old Milton Bradley “big box” wargames) should find plenty to like here.  Fans of Dungeons and Dragons will enjoy the many references to D&D lore and places, and people who just like lots of plastic pieces in their boardgames should be ecstatic.  Steer clear if you can’t stand the fantasy theme or these types of lightweight wargames, but for everyone else Conquest of Nerath stands as a very well executed light wargame design – worthy of a close look by anyone interested in the genre.

Ratings Summary from the Opinionated Gamers:
I love it!    Matt Carlson
I like it.
Not for me…

About Matt J Carlson

Dad, Gamer, Science Teacher, Youth Pastor... oh and I have green hair. To see me "in action" check out Dr. Carlson's Science Theater up on Youtube...
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2 Responses to Review: Conquest of Nerath

  1. Stuart Platt says:

    Picked this up a couple of weeks ago and played one 2 vs 2 game thus far.

    I found it to be a really fun, thematic dice roller with a victory point mechanic that encourages players not to try and take back defeated realms and instead spread out in a different direction.

    This leads to a highly OFFENSIVE game which I enjoyed greatly.


    • Matt J Carlson says:

      Excellent point Stuart. I had intended to point out how the VP assignment keeps the game moving forward through encouraging offense. Unfortunately i lost the thought in revisions….

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