Tuesday, May 19, 2009

WBC West - Aftermath Pt 1 - Age of Conan

This is the first of a series of impressions of games that were played at the recently concluded WBC West nanocon I host at my family's vacation home in Central Oregon. The first review/impression will be of Fantasy Flight's recent multiplayer strategy game "Age of Conan" which was played by Chuck, Dave, and myself. 

Note: about halfway into our game, Chuck got a call telling him he'd have to miss a few days of the nano-con to fly to California to be a witness in a court case against his company. It kind of put a damper on the mood, but I don't believe it colors my impression of the game to any great extent. 

AoC is yet another multi-player strategy game relying heavily on plastics and a tie-in to some media product, in this case the MMORPG of the same name, which in turn was based on the Robert E. Howard short stories and novels (as well as several other writers who have contributed to the mythos). Conan spawned not only a couple of movies (Wilt Chamberlain and Grace Jones together!), but also a *lot* of graphic novel adaptations, the best of which were drawn by Barry Winsor-Smith. His adaptation of Red Nails, which was very close to the original story, was my personal favorite as a child. 

When the MMORPG came out last year, several people in Rip City Gamers were supposed to join up and play, which I did. It turned out that only two people I knew were ever on, and as the game play deteriorated while the developers did useless tweak after useless tweak, the game was largely abandoned by MMORPGers in a case study of how *not* to launch a title like this. It looked pretty good, though. And there was a lot of cleavage, and even a little seduction (that went nowhere, only appealing to 14 year old boys). 

Still, I had not yet learned that most of the stuff FFG puts out these days in big boxes is going to disappoint to a certain extent, and picked up a copy. Jesse and I had discussed playing two-player, with the idea that I'd have a good sense of how the game worked so that I could teach it at WBC West. That learning session never happened, so the game at WBC reflects a bunch of noobs duking it out.

There are some slightly novel concepts about the game:

1) Nation-specific "kingdom" cards. These are more or less action cards, although many require you to play them in front of you for a cost in gold, and that you spend more to "refresh" the cards. These seem to be tailored to drive specific play styles with the different nations, but we didn't find the cards to be terribly useful most of the time. 

2) Conan. Since each player is a nation, you have to wonder a bit about where the hell Conan is in all of this. In fact, he's the game clock, as he runs through three ages of four adventures each. One player bids to take control of Conan, which is useful for gaining Monster/Women/Treasure tokens, but the adventures (which reference the various stories) are pretty generic - move Conan from here to there, with three or four Goodie tokens per adventure. There is a more direct benefit to controlling the Big Guy, and that's if he happens to be in an area you're fighting or conquesting in (or defending), and if you think you have more Goodie tokens than everyone else in the Third Age you can try to crown him in your home area for a Sudden Death win. 

3) Diplomacy. It's not just a fighting game with armies, as you can also send out "emissaries" to various locations to generate more gold. Gold is useful pretty much only for paying for Kingdom card use and as a bonus to VPs at game end, but they're also useful for building cities which also help you gain VP. They can also leave behind Raids which ding the other players at VP collection times. 

4) Neutral Areas. You have to spend time and manpower to take over neutral territories via "conquest" which is how we spent pretty much the entire first two ages. The board scales with two or three players, so I'd imagine that most games run like this. While the mechanism is kind of cool (you can play a Strategy card to improve your odds) and the dice mechanism would be cool if you could figure out what the various icons on the combat dice are, after a while it's just roll the dice and see how how you do for a couple of hours. 

5) Dice-based action system. Like War of the Ring, Conan uses dice to drive player actions. Unlike WotR, everyone pulls dice from a common pool. The mechanisms for activating/placing armies are very similar to the parent system, but since you are deciding what to prevent your opponent from doing as well as what you yourself are doing, it's marginally more interesting. Not enough, though. 

The victory conditions are a little on the confusing side, and in fact the player aid cards use about 1/3rd of their text to explain them. In a nutshell, you want to build forts, you want to get gold, and most of all you want to get the most of at least one type of Goodie. Other than that, I'm not sure what exactly we were trying to do besides gobble up territory. At the end of the second age, we'd filled up most of the board, but to be honest we just weren't feeling the love and decided to pack it in at that point. While I understand that we'd be doing a lot more than just grabbing up empty territories, the notion of fighting over them seemed like more than we were willing to take on. 

In the end, I think the problem was simply that the game was a theme in search of a set of mechanisms intended to exploit a marketing niche for a software product tie-in. It's kind of ironic, as anyone who plays video games knows that you *rarely* if ever buy a game with a movie tie-in, so to have a boardgame with a video-game tie-in feels a bit like putting the shoe on the other foot. 

Which is not to say that FFG hasn't put out decent games with software tie-ins. WoW the Boardgame and Starcraft are both pretty good games, although definitely on the experiential side for the former. It's just that AoC isn't one of them. I didn't feel like the game evoked much of anything other than drowsiness and a desire to play something else, and I can't imagine that it will ever hit the table with our group again. Perhaps the two-player game will be more interesting, although this is a title that I'll resist playing for at least a short time. 

It's not that the game is *bad*, per se. It's just that it's so... so. Conan's adventures are completely tacked on and lack any differentiation, there are only one type of military unit (I guess the Kingdom cards are supposed to fill that gap, but you may take a while to get the kind of card you need). The Emissaries are interesting, but to be honest it's just another pipe to allow you to get gold so that you can use Kingdom cards, and thus feels tacked on as well. 

I should also mention that when the MMORPG came out I went back and read a couple of the Howard stories (my favorites over other writers like De Camp). It was a horrific experience - basically light porn for adolescents, the male version of romance novels. Misogynistic to a fault, filled with purple (and bruised) prose, they are unreadable for an adult with any exposure to decent writing, almost cartoonish. To read the foreword where the writer compares Howard with the "greats" is comic to the point of pathos. Which is not to say that I didn't love reading the stories when I was 13 - I collected half of the series on a trip to England around that time with my parents. Now, it's just comfort food, like Edgar Rice Burroughs. Think bean burritos at 3am from 7-11. It seems like a great idea right up until it goes in your mouth. 

God help us if someone creates a Tarzan game...

I usually don't like to make a recommendation based on a single game, especially one where we never finished, but four hours just to set up the board for the third age is far too long, and there's just not enough theme here to even make it campy. If you feel like you might want this game, I strongly urge you to try before you buy. I disliked it enough that it may be my last "plastics" game from FFG. 


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