With Conquest of Nerath, Wizards of the Coast conjures another successful board game, this one with an entirely different game engine than their prior dungeon adventure efforts. If you enjoyed conquering the world with plastic armies in endless games of Risk as a kid, imagine that game infused with fantasy flavor, strategic depth, exciting random events and a variety of unit types. So, imagine something way better than Risk.
You’ll hear the Risk comparison a lot in Conquest of Nerath reviews, but it’s a bit unfair because Risk is simply the most common analogue people are likely to be familiar with. They are both part of the same genre, that of territory acquisition games, but aside from that the games are very different. So we shall mention Risk no more in this review (Risk is not really a very good game, after all; it’s just math on a map).
Conquest of Nerath pits four realms against one another: an undead empire, a goblin/orc empire, an elf empire and a human league. You can play with two to four players. In the two-player game, each player plays an alliance, controlling each of two realms separately, but using them to assist each other. With three players, one player plays the elf/human alliance against the other two. A four player game can use the alliances or play it out as a four-way free-for-all of shifting allegiances and shady deals.
Play is pretty straightforward — you’re goal is to gain victory points by conquering territories. Territory control also gives you more gold each turn, which you spend to purchase units. There’s a nice range of units, from basic foot soldiers to heroes, wizards, monsters, warships and even elementals and dragons. The units have varying costs and different sets of special abilities. Wizards, for instance, have first strike, so they deal any damage before opposing units can hit back. Monsters have a Blitzkrieg ability (called Run Amok) that lets them conquer an unprotected enemy territory after you’ve won a battle. All attacks hit on a roll of 6 or higher, but different units roll different dice. Foot soldiers have a tough time hitting on their D6s, while monsters hit well with their D12s. Dragons and castles roll D20s.
Though all the realms have the same units to choose from, there are different sculpts for some units. Each realm’s dragons, fighters, monsters, foot soldiers and wizards are different. The elf realm’s monster is a treant, while other realms have ogres and giants, for instance.
The main mechanical difference between the realms comes in the event decks. Each realm has its own deck of event cards, one of which is drawn each turn. They give the realm boons such as free units, bonus movement or combat buffs. The cards for each realm reflect that realm’s strengths and also balance some of the on-board disadvantages at the start of the game. It’s a cool way to adjust play balance while adding unexpected effects to each turn.
Dungeons are another fantastic touch. Some spaces on the board are covered with random dungeon doors. Only wizards and fighters can enter those spaces. When they do, the door is turned up to reveal the dungeon’s guardian, a classic D&D monster like a troll or a pudding. Your units then have to fight the monster, and if they succeed, they get a treasure card. Treasure cards have ongoing benefits such as free units every turn or permanent combat bonuses, and they also provide a victory point or two. They go a long way toward boosting the power of a realm — in fact, you can win the game simply by controlling a lot of treasures (you’ll have to engage in some conquest to get your units to all the dungeons, though).
Our playtest went smoothly, taking only a turn or two to fully grasp the rules. All of the unit costs and abilities are printed on the back of the rulebook, which you will consult frequently until you have them memorized. There was only one rules question we couldn’t find in the rules (it’s unclear what happens when a unit attacking a dungeon rolls a hit and the dungeon guardian rolls a hit on the same attack, killing each other simultaneously). You can play three different length games, adjusting the number of victory points needed. Like many territory conquest games, you’ll not often need to play right to the end. Once someone takes an opponent’s capital, there’s little chance of bouncing back, so defeat eventually becomes inevitable.
Even with all the added complications of unit types and dungeon exploration, the game plays quite quickly. Once you “get” the rules you’ll breeze through turns and combats in no time, only slowing occasionally for epic battles. I also really like that things move quickly on the board. Units have varying movement speeds, many of them moving two spaces per turn and a few able to move four or even six spaces. It’s easy to load units onto a warship and transport them across the sea to invade enemy lands. Many games make this a tedious, multi-step process, but here you can make sea landings fast as lightning. Indeed, I won our playtest game largely because my brother didn’t realize how far and how quickly I could strike by sea, so he left the Iron Circle’s capital lightly defended.
Conquest of Nerath’s designers struck a wonderful balance. There’s enough going on to keep the game fun and interesting — enough to make me desperate to play again! Yet it’s simple enough to understand within two turns and to play a game in about three or four hours that still feels epic. The photos should also make this clear, but let me add that the board is gorgeous, filled with rich colors and icons that make initial set-up simple. There’s a lot of “table appeal” that will help you lure friends into a game or two. If you’re a fantasy gamer, Conquest of Nerath certainly deserves a spot on your game shelf.