Tabletop Review: Dungeons & Dragons: Conquest of Nerath

Dungeons & Dragons: Conquest of Nerath
Publisher: Wizards of the Coast
Price: $79.99
Release Date: 06/21/2011
Age Range: 12+
Official Home Page: www.Wizards.com/dnd

When I was a little kid, I liked Risk well enough, but it got dull fast. The little playing pieces were a bit dull and the game took forever. Then I discovered a G.I. Joe board game that played very similar, but where you used either the cardboard Joes that came with the game or better yet, you could use your actual toys for the game. It wasn’t as deep or complicated as Risk, but for my young mind, it was a lot more fun. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve searched for something like that. The closest I had found was Atlas Games’ Cults Across America, but it wasn’t an exact fit for my hunger of something that combined Risk with say, HeroQuest.

Enter Conquest of Nerath. This game really intrigued me, especially since it was hot off the heels of two other great D&D board games in Castle Ravenloft and Wrath of Ashardalon. However the MSRP of $79.99 stopped me cold. That’s a lot to pay for a game that MIGHT be what I was looking for, especially since I only had paid $45 each for the two aforementioned D&D games. Thankfully, Wizards of the Coast was kind enough to send me a review copy of the game and after a week of reading the rule book, fiddling with pieces and playing the game, it’s time to render my verdict.

First up, when you see the actual Conquest of Nerath box, it’s a bit intimidating. Not only is it the same width and height of other fantasy/specialty board games like Betrayal on House on the Hill, but it’s as long as more mainstream board games like Monopoly or Clue. This my friends, is a huge box. It gets even more overwhelming when you open it up and see 252 plastic miniatures, sixteen dice, over 100 cards, nearly two hundred tokens and markers, and a twenty four page rule book with a smaller than you’d expect font. There are more pieces here than something like Talisman or in two Warhammer starter sets. Again, if you haven’t played a specialty board game before, the sheer amount of content here might frighten you. Hell, it made me worry that this was going to be an extremely complicated game and I’m USED to these kinds of things.

The good news is that looks are deceiving. The game is pretty easy to learn and after turn a few rounds of play, we knew what we were doing and only ever had to check the rules for things like special abilities or how much gold a new character cost. There is a bit of a learning curve, but if you play your first game with the intent of learning the rules and helping each other figure out what to do instead of WINNING, you’ll find the game is pretty straightforward and almost instinctive once you memorize what each type of figure does.

Speaking of the figures, let’s talk about them in detail. Compared to the previous D&D board games, there are far more figures in Conquest of Nerath, but they are much smaller and less detailed. Now, part of that is because Castle Ravenloft and Ashardalon both use unpainted figures from the defunct but much missed D&D Miniatures collectable figure game. Now the fact that the figures aren’t as impressive may stick in the craw of some gamers who will then ask, “Well why is it so much more expensive?” Well there are two reasons for that. The first is that these figures were made especially for Conquest of Nerath and the cost of designing all new, original figures (and making them) raises the cost of the game. As well, because each army has several unique figures to it, that’s even more money that goes towards production costs and the eventual sales price. So what you are losing in detail, you are making up for with new figures. The second reason is that because the previous D&D board games used unpainted minis that already had molds made of them, that cut the cost of those games considerably. Since they also use less figures, that’s another big factor. So with all this in mind, the cost of Conquest of Nerath may induce sticker shock to some, but the reasons behind it do make a lot of sense.

Now for the figure types. There are nine specific types of figures: Footsoldiers, Siege Engines, Fighters, Wizards, Monsters, Castles, Storm Elementals, Dragons and Warships. That’s a nice mix of figures. Each type of figure has their own set of stats and abilities. However, each army has a dramatically different theme behind them and so footsoldiers, fighters, monsters, and dragons all have their own unique design based on which army you are using. For example, a fighter for the necromancy oriented Empire of Karkoth is a wraith, while one for the Nerathan league is a Paladin, and the Iron Circle has a Bugbear. Each of these miniatures looks different, but they play exactly the same. It’s just a little touch of quality and theme building thrown in for good measure.

So let’s talk about what these figures do. Footsoldiers are your cannon fodder grunts. They act exactly like the basic pieces in Risk and have no special abilities. Siege Engines do double damage when attacking. Monsters can move after they attack, Fighters can explore dungeons and attack while riding a warship, Wizards can do everything Fighters do, and they have first strike to boot. Castles build up your defenses and allow you to place pieces at the end of your turn, Storm Elementals can fly and do double damage in a water based battle, Dragons are the only pieces that can take two hits, roll a d20 when attacking (more on that later) and can fly, and Warships are your primary sea attackers and can transport anything but Castles, Dragons and Elementals across water. Each piece had their own use, but we found Wizards and Dragons to be the best of the lot. Because of this we eventually ran out of these pieces (and castles), so even though there are 252 miniatures in the game, there might not be enough for an actual game. How’s that for mind boggling?

Besides the figures there are four different factions to play as. Each faction plays somewhat differently from the others, due to when they get to go, their starting lands, gold per turn, and event cards. Each faction has their own theme to it. The Dark Empire of Karkoth are insidious necromancers, the Vailin Alliance are mainly elves, the Iron Circle are orcs, goblins and the like, and the Nerathan League are meant to be dwarves and humans. Again, all the types of pieces play the same regardless of what faction you are playing as, but what pieces you get and where they are placed at the beginning of the game will more than likely change how you play the game. For example, Karkoth goes first. It gets the least amount of gold at the beginning of the game, but it gets the most gold at the end of its turns out of all the factions, at least at the beginning of the game. It has the most land at the start of the game, but it has the weakest position naval-wise. It also has the weakest event cards, but it starts off more aggressively than any other faction. Because of this, it’s best to play Karkoth as a marauding horde and quickly go for the win. The longer the game goes, the tougher it will be for this faction, so early dominance and quick victory points is the key. Compare that to say, the Vailin Alliance who has the strongest water force at the start of the game, bit has its forces scattered across two land masses and another two islands, and you quickly sea that mastery of warships and transporting troops is key to victory here.

Out of the four armies, my personal favorite was the Iron Circle. They have good positioning on the board, have some great event cards and are the most balanced of the factions. If you play Magic: The Gathering, think of the Iron Circle as a Revised era direct damage/goblin deck. My least favorite was the Nerathian League. They have powerful event cards, but you really have to prolong the game to get a chance to use them. Much of Nerath is going to have to be spent treasure collecting or defending rather than any real attacks – at least until the late stages of the game.

Then it all comes down to the playing of Conquest of Nerath. It might surprise you to learn than unlike a lot of board games, especially war based ones, that CoN is set up exactly the same way each and every time you play it. As well, the turn order of each army is set in stone. This means there you don’t have complete flexibility in your first turn opening gambits, but you have enough that you’ll never play the first round of any game the same way twice.

There are several ways to play Conquest of Nerath, Alliance and Free for All. Free for All is only possible when you have four players, one for each faction. In these games it’s all out war as each faction tries to win the day. A Free for All is going to be the longest version of the game simply because it’s going to be more people and each side has to either score a number of victory points, control all four capitals in the game or find twelve treasures. The other version of the game is Alliances, and this is for two to four players. Here one side controls the “good aligned” countries of Vailin and Nerath while another side controls the “evil aligned’ armies of Karkoth and the Iron Circle. These games are much faster as two side work together. You also need less victory points to win in an Alliances game, and it’s much easier to get all four capitals as you already have two each.

So let’s talk about how you actually win the game. You’ve heard me mention victory points, but I haven’t actually had the chance to talk about them yet. A victory point is earned when you conquer a square of land that originally belonged to another faction. You don’t get a victory point if you win something back that you originally owned however. You can get a whopping FIVE victory points if you conquer a faction’s capital. Conquering a capital also drastically hurts that faction as they can now only draw half their normal amount of gold at the end of the turn. Worse yet, that faction is now down one of their two castles, and castles are the only place you can place new troops. That causes a serious tactial disadvantage (Note: you can build castles in the game, but you’re only given three pieces per faction so you WILL run out.) So it’s in your best interest to go after a capital as you not only get the VP, but you put a severe hurting on someone else to boot.

Another way to earn Victory Points is by getting treasure. Treasure tends to give your faction a special ability or one time power in addiction to victory points, which is very nice. The problem is that to get treasure, you have to enter a dungeon and do battle with the monster that lives there. For example. In our first game, I had a Wizard and a Fighter (the only two types of troops that can enter a dungeon) enter the “Vault of the Drow.” The monster turned out to be some goblins, which I disposed of easily. My treasure ended up being a “Horn of Blasting.” The horn would net me two additional victory points and it would do one damage at the very start of a battle to an opposing side that had a castle. Not bad. Now, after the dungeon I had to clear my troops down and we had to lay a new random monster token on the dungeon. I decided to go back in since that first battle was so easy…and the new monster was an Ancient Red Dragon. Oh…..fudge. Needless to say I was out a Wizard and a Fighter pretty quickly and we all knew to stay the hell away from the Drow Vault for the rest of the game. Because treasure earns you victory points and collecting treasure is another way to win the game, it’s definitely worth going after, but the random monster aspect of it creates a high risk/high reward scenario. It also adds an element of video game/pen and paper style RPG intrigue to the board game as well.

Battles are done via dice, as you might have guessed, but the key is in HOW battles occur. There are five different types of dice: d6, d8, d10, d12 and d20. The type of creature you are using determines what die will be rolled. For example, a lowly footsoldier rolls a d6 while a Dragon or Castle gets a d20. You score a hit by rolling a 6 or higher. This means that footsoldier only has a 1 in 6 chance of getting a hit, while that dragon has a 75 percent chance of getting a hit (6-20 on a d20) So if you have three footsoldiers, you’ll rolling 3D6 while someone using a Fighter, a Dragon and a Monster gets a D10, a D20 and a d12. Now, these higher dice types cost more gold and so a horde of foot soldiers can be purchased for the same cost as a dragon. Both have their strengths and disadvantages. Just remember, everything in the game dies with a single hit, except for Dragons, which have to be hit twice. So if someone buys three Monsters with their d12 to hit, someone else can buy nine foot soldiers with their d6 to hit. Even with superior monsters, the footsolider grouping outnumbers the monsters three-to-one and then EVEN if the monsters all get hits, six footsoldiers remain. Meanwhile, the footsoldiers have a harder time to hit, but they only need a third of their troops to hit in order to win. It’s all about strategy and what works best for you.

Now we found Wizards and Dragons to be the best overall troops and indeed our first alliance game was one ONLY because of some dragons. Guin (my girlfriend) left two of her land masses empty and I moved two pieces on to them to score two victory points. This left me only needing a single point to win. With this is mind I had three dragons and a warship with two wizards attack this little Nerathian outpost, and then I played Iron Circle’s fire breath card which gave each dragon an addition FIVE d8s to roll. This meant I got 2d10s, 3d20s and 15d8s to roll. Well, 16d8 with the Warship. Guin had a footsoldier and a siege engine on there and so as you can imagine, I obliterated them. Yes, it was overkill, but it won the game. Go dragons!

The only thing left to talk about content wise is the board itself. It’s roughly regular sized board once you unfold it. Although Nerath is meant to be someplace totally new, it is littered with Greyhawk references. The Hand of Vecna, The Tomb of Horrors, the Temple of Elemental Evil, and many other references to the original Advanced Dungeons & Dragons campaign setting are littered throughout this game. As someone who loved Greyhawk (along with Ravenloft and Spelljammer), there was a lot of nostalgia here for me. Meanwhile, Guinevere has only known Dragonlance, so all of these references meant nothing to her, as it would for any casual D&D fan or newcomer from 3rd Edition on. It’s nice to see Conquest of Nerath being yet another 4E era product that harkens back to the 80s 9and earlier) when TSR was still around. I was really hoping for something like the Gygaxian Mountains though…

Overall, Conquest of Nerath is an extremely high quality product. The pieces, game board and the like are all well made and a lot of effort went into this game. I had a lot of fun and I’m a long time D&D/specialty board game fan. Guin, however, liked it even more than I did and she’s never played anything like this – not even Risk. This shows me that Conquest of Nerath is something that can be enjoyed by nearly everyone, regardless of their background of experience with wargaming or strategic board games. A single game can last a few hours, depending on your strategy and the luck of the dice and it’s definitely something you’ll want to come back to if you have a lot of friends that play board games.

The down sides to Conquest of Nerath are the setup time (especially the first time you play), the fact you’ll quickly run out of some piece types (especially castles and the whopping eighty dollar price tag. The latter is going to be the hardest sell as you can pick up several board games for the game price tag as just CoN. There’s no denying this is going to be a hard sell to someone who hasn’t seen say, the cost to start playing Warhammer or Arkham Horror. I asked Guin (who is the perfect test subject as she knows very little about the tabletop industry) how much she would pay for this game as she knew we got it for free. She said it was a lot of fun and due to all the pieces and the size of the game, she thought fifty dollars would be the perfect price tag for someone to pick this up. I told her the MSRP was $79.99 and she said she didn’t like the game THAT much. No doubt that will not only be a lot of casual gamers reaction to the price tag, but that of people who have picked up Mansions of Madness, Castle Ravenloft and other comparable products. Thankfully, I have some good news for all of you. Amazon.com sells Conquest of Nerath for only $50.39. That’s roughly thirty dollars off the MSRP, AND it hits the price point that would make even casual or non RPG fans pick it up.

So is the game worth picking up? It’s a lot of fun, but at $79.99, it’s not something I can recommend unless you are really into board games and have a lot of friends that like to play them. Otherwise it’ll just sit on your shelf too much to justify the cost. Now with Amazon’s price point, yes, I can give the game a recommendation as it’s in line with things you see from comparable companies like Fantasy Flight Games, but without the need to buy expansion packs. For fifty dollars, Conquest of Nerath is a great purchase that even your casual gamer friends will want to play again and again in spite of the product’s initially intimidating appearance. Now if only I could get WotC/Avalon Hill to make a new G.I. Joe board game since they’re part of Hasbro as well…

Tags: