Conan, the legendary barbarian adventurer from Robert E Howards books is brought onto the tabletop by Fantasy Flight Games in this mid-weight strategy game. Pitting two to four players against each other via diplomacy and military might with all the sorcery, adventure and bombast. That should be expected of a game set in ancient Hyboria.
Control Aquilania, Hyperboria, Stygia and Turan as you seek to establish rule over the continent while Conan wrecks merry havoc as he adventures through the land and lays ruin to your best-laid plans.
On the surface, Age of Conan will draw comparisons to Risk and there is some fairness in that comparison. Both visually and initially the combat seems similar but there is a lot more depth through the use of strategy and kingdom cards that provide temporary bonuses and act as a deterrent to other players.
There is also a lot of choices to be made in how you take your turn. Each turn a set number of die are rolled which determine what actions can be taken by each player that round with the pool diminishing as each player claims their action and reduces the remaining pool. This leads to some very interesting planning where you have to plan beyond what you have access to militarily by what actions you can actually take.
This is a brilliant feature really adds to the feel of the Hyborian world where despite your rule of a particular faction you will have to deal with infighting and politicking that would restrict what you can actually do. It can also be a source of frustration when the one action you needed to take was the one that was just gone and leaves you stranded with no truly beneficial actions left to take.
There is also some asymmetricity in the factions. Both Stygia and Hyperborea have access to powerful spell cards while Turan and Aquilonia are both more militarily powerful which allows you to pick a faction of your preferred playstyle.
Beyond The Military
Campaigning to capture provinces and claim their benefits for your own you can also employ diplomats who can earn gold or claim an opposing province. Via a contested influence roll and subtly snake their way across the map picking up allies and growing your empire. It is a balancing act of trying to stay on-top of both military and diplomatic sides of the conflict as you attempt to gain a better position over your foes.
This is often when Conan appears himself and pillages across your lands, Conan essentially functions as a neutral faction that is ‘bid’ for at the start of each round and has access to powerful actions and has his own set of mini objectives tied to his classic adventures and if that means rampaging across everybody in the way then he will do just that.
Conan also ties into the end-game win condition. Players win empire points by completing various card-based objectives such as securing certain provinces or performing certain feats such as successfully crowning Conan as king in the final round.
The components are of decent quality and here is where the Risk comparison is evident. A large map with colour coded regions and plastic soldiers will always be reminiscent of the classic wargame. The models are for the most part distinct and well sculpted. One complaint would be to the hyperborean faction whose diplomats look similar to their warriors at a glance (also being the only diplomat of the four types that is not mounted on an animal to add confusion).
Aside from that, each faction having unique sculpts is a nice addition and the gameboard has an impressive presence when you have several cities and towers placed with dozens of troops milling around them. The cards and board quality and good and the artwork are all good, most being taken from Conan comics which adds some nostalgia to it.
Thematically the game is also very rich and everything helps to create the feel of a realized world of Hyborea from the Conan quest cards to the kingdom cards. Components feel like they belong and contribute to the feel of the Conan world.
This is a mid-weight game, but it will definitely take several plays to hit its stride. The rulebook is not the clearest and the first game I played of it was rather painful as we took time to figure it out. There are also some mechanics that do not work in the way that you would probably expect them to and it does feel cheap when you lose the first province that you spent several turns campaigning through to an enemy diplomat in one roll.
This is more an issue of how you go into the game as it is very easy to immediately try and play it like it is risk or another area control game where the focus should only partly be on the conquest side. There is a careful balancing game to be done between the combat, the diplomacy, the objective cards and the current Conan quest. It can be a lot to track so it might be worth running a stripped-down version for the first game, perhaps even omitting Conan himself until you have a clear view of the core mechanics without him.
Age of Conan: The Strategy Board Game is a game that is definitely rewarding to play and satisfies that itch for a crunchier game with a lot of room for strategic options. It will sit well with wargamers and if you are looking to dip your toes into territory control games then it is definitely a good one to start with. It feels like a cross between a lighter war of the ring and the game of thrones strategy board game and that is no bad thing.
Also, It is a lot less intense and time consuming that the aforementioned and clocks in at approximately two hours for a game. It also has a decent amount of replayability as each of the factions plays differently in terms of starting location and strategic deck. The restrictive actions also set it apart from other strategy games and despite being frustrating at times it can make for very careful decision making and tactical play to maximize what can be beneficial to you on a turn.
So, to conclude it is a very solid game and once you break into it you will have a very rewarding strategy experience that can be played a dozen times over and offer a fresh challenge each time.