Conan the Barbarian is a character that has featured in books, comics, films, role-playing games and tabletop games. ‘Conan’ is the most highly acclaimed board game experience using this intellectual property.
In Conan, one player plays as the Overlord and controls hordes of savage tribesmen, no-good lowlifes and undead minions against one to four players who play together as Conan and his fellow adventurers. Each adventure brings new terrain and any number of different creatures that the Overlord has at their disposal, from giant snakes, to wizards and wolves.
The first thing you must do in a game of Conan is pick a scenario. Fortunately, there is a whole book full of them along with a wealth of fan-made ones available online. The scenario will tell you which map (all of which are single piece game boards) to use, which miniatures you need and usually recommend which heroes to take. Each scenario has different victory conditions for the hero, but the overlord can generally win by killing off all the hero characters.
Each hero has a set number of crystals which represent both their health and stamina. At the start of your turn you can choose either to have a hero be active (recovering a little stamina, but giving full choice of actions), or passive (recovering a lot of stamina, but vastly restricting their actions). An active hero can then spend crystals to do various actions, for example putting a crystal on movement allows you to move from one space of the board to another. Placing a crystal on melee attack allows you to hit someone with your weapon, each crystal you use adds an extra dice, so you may want to use multiple crystals against tough enemies.
In addition, any weapons you have may add additional dice or re-rolls to your attacks. To perform an attack, you roll the dice you earned from spending crystals/your weapon and up the number of hits rolled. You then subtract the opponent's defence; any difference is the amount of damage done. However, the opponent can spend crystals to roll dice to defend too! Better fighters and better weapons grant you dice of different colours with higher odds to hit.
The overlord works a little differently, each turn they will recover a set number of crystals. But instead of spending them like the heroes do they can activate whole units from the river. The leftmost unit in the river costs one crystal to activate, when they activate each mini in that unit can both move an attack, just like a hero, except less ability to bolster their attacks. After the unit is activated it is moved to the rightmost spot of the river. The river typically has eight locations so activating the same unit twice would cost one crystal the first time and eight the second, this system encourages rotating your unit activations, but also allows the heroes to slow the overlord down by wiping out a unit. The card still remains in the river but activating it does nothing but send it back to the right hand side!
There are many more rules to do with when you can move into or out of a space, when you can reach an opponent with a thrown axe, treasure to loot and doors to be smashed open. And for each of these there is a skill that units can have to bolster their ability, a slippery rogue may have no problem sneaking past a wall of guards, while Conan may instead have to run in an kill a few before he can get by.
Amy’s Final Thoughts
Where Conan excels is a cinematic game. The flow of the energy crystals on both sides means you can choose to rely on your one powerful creature but must fully utilise your minions to do well. For the heroes, sometimes you do have to run around the corner and catch your breath between fights.
The river system for the overlord is nothing short of genius. Focusing on using your best units comes at a high price, but sometimes it’s worth paying those three or four crystals to activate something that’s in the right place. Wounding the heroes directly depletes their crystal supply so the heroes actually do slow down as their injuries increase. So much of the gameplay feeds back on itself in a satisfying way like this.
The combat is dice-based, which usually puts me off a little, but wait, there is a spot on your board for re-rolls. There will, of course, still be swings in the game based on luck, but at least you feel like it was your fault for not keeping that crystal spare (or refusing to spend it because you want it to defend).
One of the biggest drawbacks to the game is the complexity of the skills, there seems to be one that breaks every rule in the book, and with each hero having half a dozen and most villains having 1-3 there is going to be a lot of rules that can be forgotten in the heat of the moment.
Despite this, with a wonderful combat system and a comparatively quick set-up for this kind of game Conan really is a wonderful game. So long as you aren’t too offended by the occasional appearance of the female form then you will find a great tactical combat game that has incredible flowing gameplay.
Fiona’s Final Thoughts
Tactical combat is really not my genre in tabletop gaming, but I chose to invest in Conan after initial positive reviews. I bought someone’s abandoned painting project and have poured many, many hours into trying to complete the miniature painting for the base game over the last 18 months.
In spite of my misgivings, I love playing Conan! In our house, I always play as Conan and his friends, whilst Amy takes the role of the overlord. This means that I have slightly less to digest in terms of the gameplay scenarios, which keeps the game simple for me. It’s also been noted that Conan is a pretty overpowered character. Whilst this is totally thematic, it might feel like the game is stacked against the overlord. However, in our house, where Amy is naturally better at spatial, tactical miniatures games – the game balance works out really well. I think this could easily parallel with a parent taking on the overlord role whilst their (older) children team up as Conan and his fellow adventurers.
In particular, I find that the combat is really thematic. On each side, anyone can take actions in any order – really mimicking an action scene. It perhaps makes the barrier to entry a little bit higher because the mechanisms are more complex than a simple roll of the dice for combat, but it flows quite easily once you switch your mindset away from the tabletop world and into the Conan story.
For more reviews from a couple's perspective, check out The Game Shelf.
Editors note: This blog was originally published on September 2nd, 2019. Updated on July 7th, 2021 to improve the information available.