Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Conquest of Nerath: First Impressions

Dominic Matte
I received a copy of the D&D board game Conquest of Nerath for my birthday, so I figured I'd write up my impressions upon cracking open the box and flipping through the rules.

First off, the box art is amazing. It's a huge painted scene of two armies facing off, with heroes at the forefront and dragons in the background. It's in the same style as the D&D 4e book cover art, so it looks great.

Looking inside the box, it's obvious there was a lot of thought put into the layout and contents. Each type of game piece (tokens, figures, dice, cards) has its own dedicated slot in the plastic interior, with recessed symbols to show you what goes where, and even which armies go where. With the board laid down on top, it looks like you'd be able to transport the box without worrying about any of the pieces popping out of their slots and getting mixed up, which is a plus.

The tokens are a nice thick card stock and feel quite durable. The dice are colour coded by type, so if you can't tell a d8 from a d10, you just have to look at the colours. The cards are also nice and simple, with information clearly laid out. The rulebook is full colour, with art and photographic examples of movement and stuff. Rules summaries are everywhere: the back of the rulebook, the player tiles, the organizational card.

The game pieces are the best part of the box for me. There are nine types of pieces: footsoldiers, siege engines, fighters, wizards, monsters, castles, storm elementals, warships, and dragons. The different armies actually have different figures to represent each type -- for example, Karkoth uses undead footsoldiers, while Vailin has elf archers. The monsters are giants, iron golems, treants, and zombie hulks; the fighters use different mounts; and each army has a different dragon: silver, gold, red, and black, each identifiable both by colour and by features.

The board is quite large and looks fantastic. It's very colourful, with a multitude of terrain types and geographical features within each territory. Each army's starting territories are outlined with the army's colour and contain silhouettes of the starting pieces, making setup very easy: all you have to do is match the pieces to the territories. Borders between territories are clear without making the map look like a mass of lines.

In terms of the rules, this looks like a more orderly and more complex version of Risk. But I'm struck by the fact that complex doesn't mean complicated: there's a lot of depth but the rules are pretty easy to understand, and any potential corner cases or contradictions are explained in examples or sidebars.

One thing I find particularly nice is that the game includes rules for different lengths of game, different numbers of players, and alliance battles. If you want a short or medium game, you keep track of victory points, which you earn for conquering territories or acquiring treasure. In a long game, you play until one player controls all four capital cities. If you're playing with fewer than four players, one or two players control two factions to preserve the starting balance of the game.

I'm a little surprised at how predetermined some aspects of the game are. Turn order, starting positions, and initial forces are all set, which worries me a little about the replayability of the game with the same group of players. There does appear to be just enough randomness to mix things up, though, both in the die rolls and the event and treasure card distributions.

Each type of game piece has its own statistics, including move speed, attack strength, and special abilities. This means that battles and tactics aren't just how many guys you have, but also the composition of your forces. Some pieces can't move or fight on the water, but land pieces can be transported by warship. Elementals and dragons, since they can fly, can move over and fight on water, and get to move twice per turn instead of once like all the other pieces.

It's neat to see how the combat rules and piece abilities interact to provide depth. In combat, each piece needs to roll a 6 or greater to hit, so the strength of each piece is determined largely by the type of die it uses to attack. The cheapest pieces -- footsoldiers -- attack with a d6, meaning they'll hit rarely, but since you can have a lot of them they can eat a lot of damage to protect your stronger units. The special abilities are cool, with the dragons' and monsters' standing out the most. After winning a combat, monsters can Run Amok and capture an extra undefended territory adjacent to the one you just conquered. As for dragons, unlike every other piece in the game, they can take two hits before being destroyed, making them very powerful and scary units in a big battle.

Castles are a little unusual in that they can't move and can't be destroyed in combat. They make interesting tactical elements: when you buy pieces you can place some of them at a castle you control instead of your capital, so you can add more troops closer to the battlefront. But enemies can capture your castles, so you have to be careful with positioning.

Of course, since this is a D&D game, dungeon delves and treasure are a key element of the game. Fighters and wizards, your hero pieces, can enter dungeons and fight the guardians, and if successful, emerge with treasure that boosts the strength of your forces in some way. Many treasures are permanent, meaning you get a bonus for the rest of the game, so dungeon exploration is a key tactic. The dungeon guardians are classic monsters ( dragons, owlbear, beholder, balor, mind flayer) and the treasures are classic magic items (gauntlets of ogre power, vorpal sword, the hand and eye of Vecna).

So, to sum things up: everything looks fantastic and very well thought out. I can't wait to actually play the game.