“black-haired, sullen-eyed, sword in hand, a thief, a reaver, a slayer, with gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth, to tread the jewelled thrones of the Earth under his sandaled feet.”
Conan the Barbarian was first created in the 1930s by Robert E. Howard for Weird Tales magazine. Since then, he has become an iconic figure through the films of Arnold Schwarzenegger in the 80’s, comics, children’s cartoons, and countless parodies and homages in games, fiction and more.
Age of Conan allows you to enter this world, as the leader of one of the 4 great Kingdoms of the Hyborean Age, expanding your power and influence through military conquest and political intrigue. You can also endeavour to enlist the aid of Conan himself, using his skills to destroy your enemies, or even crowning him as King of your land, thus gaining great prestige which will help you on your road to victory. Beware though, Conan cannot be tamed, and if you seek his aid without being able to make it worth his while, you can expect to face his wrath.
What’s in the box? A hoard of treasure!
The box for Age of Conan is a hefty one, and it comes packed with stuff. Each of the 4 Kingdoms represented in the game has a set of colour-coded miniatures – fortresses and towers in a standard design, along with armies and emissaries in sculpts unique to your nation. There is a Conan miniature, dice to drive gameplay, several large decks of cards, and a board depicting a map of the world in which Age of Conan is set.
Age of Conan gets good mileage out of its components. Most will be used every game, and those which don’t are the cards which give the game its unique flavour and make it feel like it will have something to offer each time you replay it.
So What’s Happening? Let Fate Decide!
Top Row (L-R): Intrigue, Military, Court + Conan
Second Row: Military or Intrigue
Third Row: Wild (Military, Intrigue, or Court)
There are two main elements to Age of Conan, which run in parallel with each other – the first is taking control of Conan himself, and collecting Gold, Treasures, or Women (Yes, women. I did say that the character was created in the 1930s) in reward. The second is a more typical combat and conquest game: the piles of soldiers in brightly-coloured plastic are reminiscent of a more complex, fantasy version of Risk.
Actions in Age of Conan are driven by the use of Fate Dice. At the start of the game, the player controlling Conan will roll a pool of fate dice, which will determine what actions can be taken by all players.
I think the Fate Dice mechanic is one of the best bits of Age of Conan. It’s quite novel and, more to the point, having a shared pool makes things a lot less uneven than each player rolling dice to randomly determine the actions available to them. It also adds a layer of strategy to choosing your action – you need to think about what you’ll be leaving for others, rather than just what’s best for you. The fact that there are 7 dice (all of which are re-rolled when they run out) means that the pool will be refreshed by different players over the course of the game, preventing one player from monopolising first-choice.
Broadly speaking, on your turn in Age of Conan, you can attack an enemy or neutral province with your armies, try to make or break alliances with an emissary, or draw cards and take Conan tokens. Military Conquest is the heart of the game, and is done by means of a dice-roll: the attacker rolls dice based on the number of attacking units they have, and defence dice are based on the province’s “rating.” The symbols on the dice are not the most intuitive, with a mixture of successes, failures, and conditional failures: even after 2 or 3 games, most people I played this with were still looking at me to confirm what they’d rolled.
This is the Age of Conan – make him do your bidding!
The miniature representing Conan himself starts in Cimmeria, before making his way across the map. At various points during a game of Age of Conan, players will bid for control of Conan himself. Controlling Conan allows you to direct his movements, and his presence during a military conflict can make a big difference to the outcome – the Conan player rolls an extra dice and scores extra hits on certain symbols, whilst a non-Conan player attacking a province with Conan in it will find defenders have an extra dice.
The bidding part of the game fell quite flat for us. You choose from a set of bid counters, plus a strategy card. The bid counters can only be used once per game however, aside from the “3” which can be re-played turn-after-turn. As you only have four other tokens, and have to bid for control of Conan twelve times during the game, this just led to people playing their “3” token 95% of the time.
Beyond this, whilst there’s definitely value to controlling Conan, the fact that his start-point and destination for each quest are determined at random means that even if you do win control, you may find him too far away from the action to really take advantage of his combat prowess.
Collect Tokens as you aim to get the most Monsters, Treasure or Women (L-R), or cash them in immediately for Money (circles) or Sorcery (scrolls) as shown on the bottom-right of the token
Even if you can’t leverage the power of Conan himself, the Monsters, Treasure, and Women tokens which his adventures generate are something all players will acquire during a game of Age of Conan, and they can have a big impact on the game – you can trade them in immediately for gold or sorcery (re-roll) tokens, you can use them at the end of each age to take control of powerful artefacts, and at the end of the game there are hefty point-bonuses for having the most of them.
When you reach the final phase of Age of Conan, you can attempt to crown Conan as your king – to do this, you need to control Conan, and he needs to be in your Kingdom (home province) at the end of one of his adventures. Then, you pick one of the 3 token types, and declare that you have the most of these – if you have boasted correctly, you get an immediate bonus, and will prevent your opponents from scoring any points at all for the tokens they have amassed. However, if another player is able to beat your total, Conan beheads you, and you immediately lose the game.
Who am I? The same as them?
The troops look different, the buildings are surprisingly similar
Although each kingdom in Age of Conan gets unique sculpts for its army and emissary figures, and has its (otherwise identical) buildings in a different colour of plastic, the miniatures you get are functionally identical, regardless of faction.
There are still noticeable differences between the 4 factions – for one thing, your location on the map will give you better access to certain areas, and more potential to have Conan involved in your struggles (for good or ill) early in the game.
Most notably though, each Kingdom has a unique kingdom deck – cards which you can play on your turn, representing particular areas of strategic strength, and characters who can aid you. The different composition of these decks means that the different kingdoms excel at different styles of play: Turan will rely strongly on its military, Stygia can meddle with an opponent’s plans, Aquilonia will do the best job of exploiting Conan’s influence in conflict, and Hyperboria has (probably) the most control of sorcery.
Is it Great? Or Barbaric?
Age of Conan is certainly not without issues. It will take significantly longer than the 90 minutes proclaimed on the box, and the rulebook terminology is inconsistent (sometimes an army is a military unit, sometimes it is a group of military units moving together). There are lots of aspects of the rules that are easy to lose track of – Fate dice seem like a fun idea until you realise you’ve forgotten to take yours, or you’ve taken too many, or someone has accidentally changed all the die faces whilst fiddling with them.
Battle rages in the north – but Conan is busy elsewhere…
My biggest disappointment with Age of Conan, is that it claims that it can be played with 2-4, but really feels like it was designed for 4, with the 2 or 3-player option being bolted on later. In a 2-player game, half the map is out-of-play for your armies (although Conan may still find his way there, leaving him completely cut off from the current conflict), and only having a single opponent makes things quite simplistic strategically.
The two aspects of the game – the “expand and control” civilisation building, and the Conan quests feel quite disconnected. As I already mentioned, the bidding for Conan felt a bit flat for us, and often it felt like we were playing two separate games – periodically pausing our wargame to see who would get the most tokens from Conan’s trip to wherever. One player said he’d probably rather get rid of Conan altogether, and have a “better version of Risk” that didn’t take quite so long.
Not a game to play with your most politically correct friends…
Much of the art work in Age of Conan is taken from the comic-book adaptations of the original 1930s stories, and the game is trying to capture that flavour. For someone not familiar with the source material, this can be an issue, as I saw from my wife’s facial expression when I first explained that one of the prizes gained from Conan’s Adventures was “Women” – choosing this as a currency unit / measure of victory will inevitably offend some. Personally, I found the adventure tokens fairly abstract, so was ok brushing over it, but I can understand the objections.
Expansion? Now with added Conan!
As mentioned earlier, a major criticism of Age of Conan, was that it was too much “Age of” and not enough “Conan.” Conan is always present in Age of Conan, but his impact often feels slight, and slightly tangential or disconnected.
The Adventures in Hyboria Expansion is designed to fix that – a whole new board tracks Conan from Warrior, to Mercenary to General, and gives him a new die to roll at each stage if he is participating in a conflict. Players can control how Conan’s experience grows, and this in turn will have a knock-on impact on the bonuses they can score for reaping the rewards of Conan’s adventures.
Whilst bringing the man himself to the fore felt like a good call, the overall impact of this expansion just felt a bit too complicated to me – on top of all the existing rules, you now have the Conan board to administer, spies for him to eliminate, and the adventure system has been completely re-designed, with adventures becoming generic, and story cards being played on top of them – this leaves you with two decks instead of one for this element of game, and inevitably, more book-keeping.
A lot of board games are able to incorporate a lot of modularity into their expansions – allowing players to pick-and-mix which aspects they include, and which they leave out. I feel that Age of Conan would have been a lot better off if they’d been able to do this – allowing players a greater amount of choice in adding extra elements, so that Conan could be given prominence without making the game longer and more complex.
So is the Age of Conan worth entering?
There are aspects of Age of Conan I really like: the fate-dice pool provides a really interesting twist on how actions are determined – a refreshing way to drive an expansion-and-conquest game. At the same time though, the bidding aspect of the game never really felt that much fun for us, and a lack of tension in this phase probably made the game as a whole feel a bit flat.
As I’ve already mentioned, Age of Conan advertises itself as being playable by 2-4, but definitely feels like a 4-player game that’s hastily been improvised to fit a smaller crowd. If you can get this game to the table with 4, ideally all keen on fairly long and involved wargames, then there’s plenty of fun to be had – it certainly compares well on this count to something like the Game of Thrones board game which only really shines with 5 or 6. If you’re also Conan fans, then once you’ve played Age of Conan a few times, adding the expansion will give you more impact from Conan himself.
If you’re looking for something light and quick, or something to primarily play with two, then this probably isn’t the game for you.
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I'm an avid board and card-gamer, still trying to figure out where Board Gaming fits into life as the dad of a very grabby toddler.
I enjoy thematic games (Fantasy, Cthulhu, etc) and play a lot of cooperative games, along with a bit of competitive gaming (currently Legend of the Five Rings) when I can make it out of the house.
When not playing games, I can be found doing a mundane office job, or working on my own Blog, Fistful of Meeples.