CONAN, Monolith, 2016, 2-5 players, 14+, 90 minutes, semi-competitive.
What is best in life? To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentations of their women, apparently. So, let’s start with a disclaimer – I was never impressed with the Conan movie. I thought it was dull and badly acted. Moreover, by 1982, when the film came out, the Star Wars saga already had The Empire Strikes Back and for some reason my ancient sword and sorcery kick was filled with The Beastmaster from the same year. On reflection, that reason was probably Tanya Roberts. Actually, it was definitely Tanya Roberts. The Beastmaster is also a terrible film, but it doesn’t matter because of Tanya Roberts. More about her, and the objectification of women, later.
Conan by Monolith oozes with theme. It’s a semi-cooperative game, with one player as the evil Overlord and the others as the heroes. Conan was a Kickstarter that was clearly far more successful than the designers ever imagined. In the end, just over 16,000 backers helped fund it to the tune of over three million dollars. The stretch goals had to be created not just on a daily basis, but sometimes two or three a day, ending in mere pictures instead of sculpts. It was an extraordinary campaign, following by a ridiculously long wait before Asmodee bought the game and helped distribute it two years later. I went in big – the King pledge with a good number of expansion packs as well, so it’s worth knowing that this review is based on my experience of that larger than usual pledge.
The game contains a ridiculous number of miniatures, trays of them in fact. So many miniatures that it’s not worth getting storage boxes for them and you may as well just keep them in the box itself. Of course, I must reiterate that I basically got the core set and an entire other box of Kickstarter exclusives, so I appreciate that the core that’s available on retail won’t have the same plethora of minis. Nonetheless, many gamers are selling these online and you can pick up choice exclusives at very decent prices.
The miniatures are unpainted but the sculpts are actually pretty good. There was concern between the first batch and the second batch of minis (the second batch being ordered after production restarted) but once painted the second batch are just as good as the first. Anyone with a modicum of painting ability can really make these miniatures stand out. Here, for example, is the lion that many backers originally expressed concern about in terms of quality…
And here is the titular Conan himself, along with his pals Shevatas and Hadrathus, whom adventure most regularly with Conan in the scenario book:
The game play itself is simple, although the original rule book did not make it so, suffering from three things – (1) poor translation, (2) poor rules explanation, and (3) an unnecessarily objectifying front cover image…
Again, we’ll return to this later, because it’s important. Nonetheless, the second rule book is much better, having resolved the translation and objectification issues, although a couple of small errors still remain.
Every hero chooses one character and gets the appropriate character card, like this one for Conan himself:
Lovely artwork, very clear design. On the card, the hero places a number of small plastic gems, indicated by the number on the bottom left. Each gem basically counts as energy that can be expended. Once that energy is expended, it goes into the reserve zone in the middle. If the hero is wounded, though, the energy goes into the wound zone on the bottom right. This means that the more your hero is injured, the less they can do, which is just lovely. Without explaining the whole card, the main thing to know is that the player can move gems to the six differing large boxes (melee attack, ranged attack, defence, movement, manipulation and reroll) to perform differing actions. In some sense, this makes Conan a resource management game, because players have to think very carefully about the amount of energy they spend. For example, do they go big on an attack knowing that if they don’t kill their opponent, they’ll have very few gems to defend with? I really like this aspect of the game. There are also no turns between the heroes, so they can really work together in an excellent cooperative way. For example, Shevatas and Conan might be in a room with a Pict. Shevatas spends a gem to open a treasure chest and inside is a sword. Conan picks up the sword and then attacks the Pict. Then Shevatas runs out of the hut to do something else. This fluidity helps players create a lovely narrative together that’s given added tension by the evil Overlord, who has something very different in front of them – the Book of Skelos:
As well as miniatures and boards, every miniature comes with an accompanying tile for the Book of Skelos. This is where the Overlord activates the creatures and people to try to stop Conan and his friends. Also using gems, which gives a lovely parity between all players, the Overlord can spend gems to activate each unit, to a maximum of two units per turn. For example, in the scenario above, the Overlord can activate Hyenas at a cost of 3 gems, a giant snake at the cost of 7 or much more. Once a tile is activated, it is removed from the “river,” as it is called, everything to the right of it slides to the left and then the tile is placed on the furthest slot on the right (usually the slot that would cost 8 gems to activate, although not all scenarios have 8 tiles in the river). So, to continue the above example, if the Overlord spent 3 gems activating the Hyenas, two sets of Picts, Zogar Sag, the giant snake and the special tile would all slide down, the Hyenas would cost 8 to activate again, but the giant snake would now only cost 6 to activate. This makes the game really very exciting because the Overlord has real choices to make about which units to activate and when. So long as they have the gems, they can choose which tiles to activate every single turn. The heroes see this, so they work together and say, for example, “The Overlord is unlikely to activate the snake at 7 gems so let’s ignore the snake this turn and try to kill some Picts instead.”
All this happens on a number of differing large boards, which look lovely although I wish a couple had more vibrant colour (something boards in later expansions clearly note). In other words, the heroes are trying to fulfill missions while running round a board killing things while managing their gems, and it’s all a bit of a lark, to be honest.
That is, it’s all fun and games until your character is killed. A wise Overlord won’t actually kill your character because as heroes die, to balance the game, the remaining heroes get stronger. Nonetheless, if it’s unavoidable, then you’re out. And you sit and watch the rest of the game. By yourself. Lonely. Contemplating your failure. Of course, you could lean in and offer suggestions to the other players, but player elimination can be an issue, especially if it’s early in the game.
The colour of some of the boards isn’t the only colour issue, I should mention. If you look again at the Overlord picture above, there’s a reason I didn’t use the Pict tiles in my example – because I can’t tell the difference between the colours on the tiles. I really have to stare to work out which group of Picts I’m activating. This isn’t a totally colourblind friendly game. The dice do have symbols on them, which is excellent design, but the tiles themselves don’t, so sometimes you wonder if the monster rolls, for example, red or orange dice because it’s hard to tell them apart on the tile.
Conan oozes with theme. The artwork, the miniatures, the adventures themselves just dive you into the world. Although the scenario book contains a limited number of adventures (weirdly, not including skeletons despite there being many in the box), the online Conan community has created a plethora of scenarios that just expand it in ways I’m sure even the designers originally could not have imagined. There are humorous scenarios (remember in the movie when he punches the camel? There’s even a scenario based on that), there are timed scenarios, there are rescue missions, assassination missions, bar brawls, item recovery missions, and so much more…. possibly near to a hundred online scenarios by now. Combined with hundreds of miniatures either from the retail box, the extended Kickstarter campaign, or from the expansions, you have a totally immersive and widely varying experience every time you play. Some scenarios are for two players – just the Overlord and one hero – some are for five players, but most are somewhere in between. Some scenarios are easy for the heroes, some are average and some are really challenging. Set up is quick and easy and you can definitely get two scenarios in per game night, so you’ve got a really accessible, fun game.
But. But. Tanya Roberts….
We have to talk about Robert Howard and what it means to be authentically Conan. One video review I saw of this game loved the gameplay but absolutely tore strips off the game design for the objectification of women. The reviewers said that it’s possible to authentically create Conan without objectifying women, as some modern comics prove. I think they’re mistaken. Anyone who reads Howard’s original writings knows that Conan is a stereotypical fantasy man’s world, where burly men (one in particular) swoop in and rescue fragile semi-clad women, like the one described here…
A silvery laugh cut through his dizziness, and his sight cleared slowly. There was a strangeness about all the landscape that he could not place or define–an unfamiliar tinge to earth and sky. But he did not think long of this. Before him swaying like a sapling in the wind, stood a woman. Her body was like ivory, and save for a veil of gossamer, she was naked as the day. Her slender bare feet were whiter than the snow they spurned. She laughed, and her laughter was sweeter than the rippling of silvery fountains, and poisonous with cruel mockery. “Who are you?” demanded the warrior. “What matter?” Her voice was more musical than a silver-stringed harp, but it was edged with cruelty. He looked again at her unruly locks, which he had thought to be red. Now he saw that they were neither red nor yellow, but a glorious compound of both colors. He gazed spell-bound. Her hair was like elfin-gold, striking which, the sun dazzled him. Her eyes were neither wholly blue nor wholly grey, but of shifting colors and dancing lights and clouds of colors he could not recognize. Her full red lips smiled, and from her slim feet to the blinding crown of her billowy hair, her ivory body was as perfect as the dream of a god. Conan’s pulse hammered in his temples. (From The Frost-Giant’s Daughter)
Conan is not PC. It doesn’t try to be and it would not make sense for it to be. Conan is very much a product of its time, not just in terms of the portrayal of women but also of people of colour, like the Black Ones who basically use dark magic to shrink unsuspecting white people to make a collection of tiny shrunken souvenirs…
His attention was centered on the band of beings that squatted about a dark green pool in the midst of the court. These creatures were black and naked, made like men, but the least of them, standing upright, would have towered head and shoulders above the tall pirate. They were rangy rather than massive, but were finely formed, with no suggestion of deformity or abnormality, save as their great height was abnormal. But even at that distance Conan sensed the basic diabolism of their features. (From The Pool of the Black One)
This game tries its very best to be as authentic to Howard’s vision as possible. Yes, the picture on the first edition of the heroes’ guide was gratuitous even for that, but there is a level of gender imbalance and of “othering” (whether by gender or by race) that one actually expects from any faithful rendition of Robert Howard’s classic novels. As a result, in this game, you end up with many female characters rendered like this…
It’s ridiculously caricature. It panders to a particular kind of male fantasy. But it’s totally authentic. Whereas something like Kingdom Death Monster also has sexual objectification throughout, at least here you can say, “It’s being totally authentic to the source material.” And it really is. I love Howard’s writing – I find it engaging, exciting and I keep wanting to read more, but I also slightly cringe when he talks about “the blacks” as though there weren’t any other way to describe that particular group that Conan encounters. In terms of game design, I think that Monolith have actually done an excellent job of being as faithful as possible to Howard’s original vision. You may not like that vision, which might make the game less appealing for you, but if you do, or if you respect the effort made to recreate his vision, then you probably don’t have an issue with this add-on…
Is this a game I would play in front of my children? No, because I don’t want them seeing non-white non-males portrayed this way. Does that mean I’m a hypocrite? Possibly but I hope not. When they are older, I will have a mature conversation with them about how this game pays homage to a particular historical narrative style. They could easily retort with, “But couldn’t they just have taken the characters and rendered them in a more modern and less sexist or racist way?” and the answer would likely be, “Probably, but it wouldn’t be Howard and therefore wouldn’t really be Conan,” and then we would probably get into some interesting discussion about whether some things in the past should be left in the past, whether they should be enjoyed for what they were within context, or whether we can recreate such things out of respect for what they were within context. Of course, I’m just kidding, because by the time my kids are old enough to have conversations like this, they’ll probably hate me and be sulking in their room listening to some music icon I’ll loathe.
But the point is there. I was at first very uncomfortable with the way some miniatures were rendered, and then as I started reading Howard I was conflicted, and then when I saw how wonderful this game is and how gorgeous the miniatures are and how expansive the fan-made scenarios are, I bought it, because the truth is that you can simply play this game without using characters you find offensive. There are still some female characters (albeit not many) who are very respectfully rendered, like Valeria…
I totally understand both sides of this debate, and there certainly isn’t any other game that I own that raises this level of discussion about rendering and hetero white male privilege as expressed through sword and sorcery fantasy. I understand when I finish painting Zogar Sag and my wife says, “Nice racist witch doctor.”
This game won’t be for everyone, and I don’t fault anyone who says that they have an issue with it. But for those who don’t have an issue with it, it is a must-buy. I truly believe that. I not only own the core set but every single expansion, save for the Dragon which I thought I would be able to buy retail after the Kickstarter and now have to wait until the next Conan Kickstarter in 2019. After initially not buying them, I even now own a set of The Black Ones, and can’t wait to get them on the table, because this game is just so much fun. And not only is each game fun by itself, but Monolith even produced a campaign book so that characters, and the Overlord, can gain abilities (or monsters, in the case of the Overlord) over a series of adventures.
It’s time, then, for a summary…
- Miniatures in terms of number and quality
- Extraordinary authenticity
- Resource-management of energy
- Enormous number of fan-made scenarios online
- Up to five players
WE NO LIKEY
- Errors in the rulebook
- Difficulty distinguishing between some colours
- Theme can be uncomfortable for some modern gamers
- Not enough scenarios in the original books
- Player elimination
And now for some scores….