Imagine a vast expanse of ocean dotted with post card perfect island archipelagos, calm turquoise water and abundant coral. A world of pleasant days and humid nights, of soaking up the sun while island hopping on an open top boat.
Now imagine wind whipping up on that humid night as storm clouds gather. The open top boat is a wooden canoe lashed together with vines. The currents have taken you far from home and there is no way of knowing if you will ever return.
You see land in the distance. Is it covered with lush vegetation or a barren rock? A place to settle until the urge to voyage rises again or home to a hostile tribe?
Doubts creep in. You could have prospered in your home village without this reckless exploration? But the world is out there beyond the horizon and it called to you…
It's 500AD, off the coast of Samoa in the South Pacific Ocean. You are about to discover if you have what it takes to make a: Conquest of Paradise.
Not Quite Disney
It could almost be Moana, the board game. You start on an island, daydreaming of a life beyond the confines of your village. Then you set sail into the unknown, pushing the boundaries of the known world. Your experiences would shock the timid ones who stayed behind. Finally, you settle in new lands and look forward to a long and peaceful future.
But that’s where the similarity with the family animation ends. Experiences in Conquest of Paradise tend to involve the business end of a hardened wooden club rather than showtunes. Exploration is a risky endeavour with a high chance being lost at sea. New lands can’t be settled until you burn existing villages to the ground.
You start on a home island in an area of ‘known sea’. Will the Explorer sail into the unknown this turn? If so, take a random token from the cup to see what you have discovered.
It could be an island, but what island have you found? Choose a tile at random and then either reveal or place face down on the map.
Did the explorer get blown off course? Where did they the end up? Stranded in open ocean or on the shores of a new paradise?
How far did the explorer travel? Will they be able to get home to tell the tale of their discovery?
Colonists travel to the new islands to cultivate the land and start settlements. This takes time and a successful colony is not guaranteed. A colony far from home may struggle to find supplies. You’ll need to ensure all your people are within reach of the transit canoes.
Successful villages will provide surplus resources to further your expansion dreams. These supplies build larger villages, more canoes and allow culture to develop. This may result in new technologies and techniques to aid your growing empire.
You are not alone. In the vastness of the Pacific Ocean habitable land is scare. Other tribes are also exploring the unknown, seeking new lands and resources. You must be ready to defend your new empire from all sides, spread rumours about your capability and train your warriors.
Glory comes to the first player to build a valuable empire. And, sometimes, the fastest route to an empire is to take one from someone else.
Conquest of the Known World
In many ways this is all very familiar. What’s different about Conquest of Paradise is that it reflects the history of the South Pacific Islands. The Designer’s notes are a separate booklet, thicker than the Rulebook. These notes detail the historical significance of the islands, the explorers, the arts and culture.
Did you know that Hawaii takes it's name from Hawai’i Loa, the explorer who discovered it? That the Maui, O’ahu, Kaua’i islands are named after his children? Neither did I until I played Conquest of Paradise.
The interest designer Kevin McPartland has in the subject shines through and seemlessly blends into the mechanics. For example, the ‘Chit Pull’ mechanism (drawing a token from a pool each turn), often used to introduce ‘Fog of War’ into wargames, is a perfect fit here for the uncertainty of taking a canoe into open ocean.
Combat, when it comes, is quick and bloody. Pieces are lined up in rows based on their capability, a set up that looks very much like a rugby scrum, then a die roll determines which of the combat troops need to retreat or be removed. Quick, simple and representative of conflict during the period. A hand to hand skirmish rather than an orchestrated invasion by well disciplined troops
Conquest of Paradise also plays quickly. It provides a full 4X experience in a little over 2 hours at the full player count. The rules are concise and well written. Experienced gamers' will be up and playing in around 20 minutes.
Art and Culture
Are there any negatives? Yes, there are. This is a reprint of game released in 2007. As such it perhaps lacks some of the finesse and cleverness of more recent games.
If there is one issue likely to raise complaints it is the random nature of exploration. While historically representative and thematically brilliant, a random exploration action followed, possibly, by a random tile may be too much for hardened strategists.
Achieving a 2-hour 4X game will inevitably involve ‘glossing over’ certain elements. Here it’s the ‘Exploit’ actions, particularly the development of technologies. The ‘Arts and Culture’ cards are drawn from the top of the deck at a maximum rate of one per turn. These cards do not link in anyway. There is no technology tree or upgrade system. The mechanism works well, however, it is simplistic and the result again quite random.
This version of Conquest of Paradise is a deluxe edition with solid components and some great artwork. The map is wonderful, revealed a little more each turn by the explore actions. It is very satisfying to watch the map unfold in this way.
Originally an expansion released in 2009, the 'Advanced Rules' add events, malaria and stored resources. These are fun to play, however, do add a further element of randomness.
Also included is a very nice solitaire variant. This expands on the chit-pull mechanic to provide a faithful recreation of the multi-player experience against a reasonably challenging opponent.
Conquest of Paradise 2nd Edition is a great package. It has stood the test of time well and is one of the best compact 4X games available.
First released in 2007 and presented here in a deluxe 2nd edition, Conquest of Paradise is a masterclass in how to weave theme and mechanics. That it does so in a manageable 2-3 hours in a genre notorious for excessive play times only adds to this achievement. However, some may find the that luck plays too great a part in their growing empires future.