My first look at, Conan, the new board game by Monolith Games.
If you read my Kickstarter article a couple weeks back, you know that I’ve been waiting for a number of kickstarters to fulfill this winter, Monolith’s Conan first among them. But if you somehow missed that literary masterpiece, in short, Conan is a massive board game, heavy on the miniatures, kickstarted by a brand new French company called Monolith back in 2014. The game has just now begun to ship to backers – I’d say probably about half way through Wave 1 at this point – and only a year late! While that sounds terrible, when the kickstarter launched, most veterans of the platform (including myself) warned that their timeline for fulfillment was too ambitious, so the delay was to be expected. Regardless, the focus of this article is my first impressions of the game and its contents as I received them, so for those wishing more information on the game and/or the kickstarter, please see the kickstarter page here.
Not Just Any Conan
One thing to consider about the new Conan game by Monolith that surely colors my personal view of it, is the way they approached the whole project. Monolith stated from the beginning that this Conan game was gonna be true to the original stories of Conan as written in the 1920’s and 1930’s. Any other material regarding Conan was to be rejected as non-cannon, and hence unusable. None of the myriad pastiches, wild comics or cheesy movies would be used – only Robert E. Howard’s own original works. They even enlisted one of the world’s foremost experts regarding Howard’s works – Patrice Louinet – to run everything by to make sure it was kosher.
Now I realize that many, perhaps most, of you out there are saying to yourself “So?” Well, let me assure you that this is a big deal. At least to the many of us true fans of Robert E. Howard’s work. For starters, it means that the overall tone of the game would be dark, gritty and unapologetic in its non-political-correctness. Howard wrote in a different era, but even in his time the world as he presented it in his Conan tales was violent, savage and raw. In many of the stories, while clearly not the ‘bad guy’, Conan is also not the ‘good guy.’ Sometimes in Howard’s Conan tales the reader can be left with the feeling that he is just the witness to the events, without the sense that any of the characters was particularly right or wrong. And this is what Monolith wanted to bring to their Conan board game. And it’s never been done. All too often the more modern Conan tales have devolved into simple fantasy tropes or the characters and events are so watered down as to totally lose their original dark and gritty tone.
To me, and many of those who backed the kickstarter, this ‘true to Howard’s original works’ was not only a big deal, it was perhaps the most important reason we were willing to support the project. That, and the beautiful miniature renditions. I’m a sucker for cool toy soldiers.
Opening the Box
So last week I experienced one of the longest five-day spans of my life. After being sent an e-mail notification from Ship Naked (I cringed when I saw they were the fulfillment company here in the U.S., as I’ve heard many horror stories regarding them from the backers of other kickstarters), I needed to wait five days before my scheduled delivery. After two years of waiting, just five days remained. I could even track the package as it hopped from hub to hub across our great nation, inching ever closer. It was foolish to keep looking, but I did anyway. I couldn’t help it.
Regardless, the five days passed, and the package delivered on time (huzzah Ship Naked!), the exact day it was promised – all 19 and a half lbs of it! Right off the bat, I was impressed with the packing. It was all in one big box (to be fair, Monolith split the shipments in half, and the expansions and art book won’t be shipping until next spring) made of thick, robust cardboard. No damage. Upon opening it, the main boxed game and its companion ‘Stretch Goals’ box fit the outer box perfectly, with four corner wedges on the bottom to protect against corner dings. Atop the two main boxes were arranged the five Add-On boxes I ordered wrapped and protected in thick paper cushioning. Each of the boxes, including the two main boxes, were wrapped in tight, clean cellophane – just as they will no doubt appear when shipped to retail shelves. All in all, I was satisfied that Monolith had taken every caution reasonable to ensure my pledge arrived undamaged – and it did. Other than a slight wear depression on the bottom corner of one of the main two big boxes, everything arrived in pristine condition.
Upon opening the trove.
Right, so I started by opening each of the two big boxes in turn. Right away, I was impressed with the quality of all the materials. The game box, the cards, the tokens and maps, the dice and energy gemstones – everything is crafted of high quality and robust materials and is in vibrant full color, dripping with the artwork of Adrian Smith. And here I’d like to gush a little about Adrian Smith, whose astonishing craft serves as the primary inspiration upon which the miniatures were sculpted and whose amazing work wooed us all into the project in the first place. Adrian’s glorious work in the final presentation does at least as much as anything else in the box to bring Howard’s Conan tales to life. Then there are the miniatures, all arrayed in their own specially designed spaces in two clear plastic trays, that are themselves protected by an additional cardboard box. Instantly upon opening the boxes, my first impression is it is just overwhelming how much is in each, and just how well organized and protected everything is. Even so, one really can’t appreciate just how much stuff is in those boxes until you start unloading them. I came away with the feeling that Monolith really took the utmost precautions to not only ensure the game’s overall protection in storage, but its longevity as a whole as well due to the rigors of regular wear and tear during play.
Adrian Smith just rules.
So, having said that, let me move on to what is the primary focus for most of us – the miniatures. Monolith, for whatever reason, decided to provide the miniatures in multiple colors of plastic. Light grey for ‘heroes’ such as Conan, dark grey for villains, monsters and minions, and white for a few assorted other things such as the camel, the skull piles and some of the furniture. It has been reported both on the Conan kickstarter’s Comments Section as well as various other sites that these are of different plastic materials (though Monolith denies this) and that the lighter grey (hero) material is inferior. These claims state that the inferior plastics are responsible for the hero miniatures in the game being decidedly inferior to the masses of villains in the darker plastic. Honestly, I don’t see it. Personally I believe the plastics are all the same and it’s just that the lighter plastic doesn’t lend itself to showing off the details of the miniatures to the naked eye. This, coupled with the fact that most of the miniatures are quite small (30mm), and we are not viewing them with the benefits of a close-up camera lens (as we have been accustomed to over the last two years), makes the detail hard to see.
Packed to the gills.
And one last thing that supports my argument that the plastic is all the same material – the Add-Ons. Aside from the two main boxes, I also rummaged through my five Add-On individual boxes as well. And guess what? That’s right – they all come in the lighter grey plastic (at least as far as I can tell – I just got the five). Even the sabre tooth tiger (a monster and not a hero), comes in the lighter grey plastic. Looking these over, the detail on both characters from the Paulo Parente box, the Black Dragons and all the characters in the Kushite Witch Hunters box are just amazing. In the lighter plastic, and without a base coat of primer. When I paint them, they’re all gonna be stone cold bad ass. Now the sabretooth tiger on the other hand … let’s just say not as cool as I’d hoped.
Personally, I’m amazed at the overall quality of the majority of the miniatures in this game. For example, the giant serpent (basically the poster boy for the whole project from the very beginning) is just breathtaking. Despite the fact that I’ve seen it many times in various photos, and heard numerous accounts of its beauty from those who’ve been to the various shows where the game was play-tested, I was just not prepared for how awesome the detail is on that model truly is. The scales, the eyes, the fangs, the pose – even the ridges inside its gullet. Just wow. I lugged mine around with me like a familiar as I rummaged through the various other boxes looking at everything – I just didn’t want to put him down. While the serpent is perhaps the most awesome model, there are many other greats – Conan (the base set version), Shevatis, Belit, Zogar Sag, Khosatral Khel, Zaporavo, the Picts (all of them!) and many others are all just amazing. And that’s just from the main box, and without including the upgraded kickstarter exclusive upgraded King content. From the King content and Stretch Goals, I’d also single out Thog, Thaug, Khemsa, Conan the Wanderer, Natohk, the Korinthian Archer, Ageera and many others as fantastic too.
I’m ssssssooo awesssssome….
But, and here’s the rub, not everything is great. Some of the sculpts just aren’t as good as most of the others. The detail is just inferior on these miniatures – and it’s not the material or color in my opinion. The most oft mentioned piece in this regards is King Conan’s lion (which comes in the ‘hero’ light grey). Many hold this lion up as the proof that the lighter plastic is of inferior quality, thus not holding the details as well. Personally, I believe the lion just wasn’t ever sculpted with as good of detail as most of the rest of the miniatures in the game. But, thankfully, there are few such examples, and most seem to be animals. In my estimation, besides the lion, the following miniatures are disappointing: the hyenas (better than the lion though), the skull piles, the camel, the wolf (the pose was boring too), Slasher, the giant spider and scorpion (I think they’re just too small for me to tell), the bone golem (I just hate the pose), King Conan (his scale just seems too small, but he’s otherwise fine) and Pelias (just so much plain, undetailed robe). Still, most of these are far from terrible, and overall they’re just a small portion of the total miniatures included.
A peak at the piles of Add-On miniatures.
Much has been said out in the ether concerning the rules for the Conan board game. I’ve read numerous complaints on both the Comments Section of the kickstarter itself as well as a few specific websites out there (Boardgamegeek springs to mind). Indeed, Monolith themselves has come forward on the kickstarter and admitted that the rulebooks are not all they could be and need to be corrected. Specifically, Monolith has admitted that they wrote the rules with a certain segment of the population in mind – gamers who already know and play these kinds of games (i.e. their core backers). Apparently, they had not considered customers who may have never heard of the game and simply just picked it off the shelf and dove right in to play. Monolith has already pledged to rewrite the rules to be more friendly in this regard and has promised to provide physical copies to all backers who request it.
Monolith remembers this is a consumer product.
To be honest, given all the negative feedback concerning the rules, I half expected to open the booklets and see them written in crayon. Well, happily, this is not the case. First off, though they are not hardbound, the booklets are of good quality, glossy paper and are in full color – complete with photos of all the components where appropriate (though the miniatures themselves are depicted in their unpainted, ‘appropriately colored’ plastic state). The rules themselves are clearly written and mostly typo-free (though I understand from the internet there are some issues). Unfortunately, the flow of the rules is pretty poor, especially split across two separate booklets (the Heroes’ Book and the Overlord’s Book). Though the core concepts of the actual game play very well and smooth, it is nevertheless a fairly complex game, especially when one considers the possibility of players who know nothing about it, trying to learn the game.
Personally, I’d like to see the rules written in a more intuitive manner that introduces key concepts, demonstrates them and then explains the consequences of different individual choices. In particular, I found the examples provided of specific situations of gameplay to be the most helpful and I’d like to see more of this. In fact, were it me, I’d walk the reader through an entire game using these examples in conjunction with explaining the individual rules. Regarding the individual scenarios, I like the format. Each is presented in a two-page spread, with visual game elements clearly depicted. They provide just enough background text to get going and include everything you need to jump into the game straight away (without seeming overly long or complicated). It was jarring though, in that virtually no explanation of this format or how the Overlord should proceed with launching/organizing/playing them was provided (just eight lines of text that mostly focuses on an explanation of the scenarios’ difficulty levels – Beginner/Intermediate/Expert.
The Book of Skelos — the key to making this game work.
The Scenario presentation and how to play them, is in a nutshell, what’s wrong with the rules. They’re just abbreviated and completely leave out what the players should do. In fact, this is the case with all the rules, as each of the booklets just dives straight into the explanation of the rules without any introduction text. There is no explanation of what the game is about, Robert E. Howard and his Conan stories or what the players are trying to evoke/portray in the playing of this game. So Monolith was completely right when they admitted this error and noted that they had written the rules with certain per-conceptions in mind. And they were smart to openly admit it and to take steps to get it corrected, because this is a big deal. If they want to have real success with Conan, they need to get this corrected so that the game can grab new players, not just the already convinced.
So having said all that, I’ll admit I’ve only read the rules once (this is First Impressions after all), and ran a single scenario with my sons. I know we were not playing everything correctly, but we had a great time nevertheless. The game is fun and evocative, and I think it does Howard’s Conan justice in the game play. I’ll definitely go back and reread the rules a couple times to work out the kinks, because a few concepts were a little difficult to grasp, especially for my boys (aged 26 and 12 – don’t ask). In particular, they had a tough time getting a handle on the free-form nature of the Heroes’ turn. It was just weird to them that they could stop each other’s turns at any time, and then switch between their individual turns, doing different things until they were ready to end the Hero turn, or just ran out of energy gems. But, once they got it, everything flowed well and it became very natural in play.
The last thing I’ll say rules-wise really isn’t about the rules, but it ties in to the way Monolith presents the game and its rules, and that’s that there are some wasted opportunities. In particular, it irritates me that there is no flavor text regarding the Heroes themselves – no description of who they are, what kind of person they are or even how they originally appeared in Howard’s Conan tales. While I suspect that some of this may be addressed in the upcoming Campaign/Art book, it is not information that should be left out of the core box or presented in a format that needs to be additionally purchased – especially in light of the fact that that book is a Kickstarter exclusive. This error is only exasperated when you realize that every Hero card appears to be double-sided and that the information on each side is completely identical (as far as I can tell). Why would you not provide flavor text on one side of these cards? Just why?
Ultimately, I’m happy with my purchase of Conan from Monolith. The miniatures and other physical elements are mostly all that I hoped for, and the overall vision of a high quality miniature-based board game that is true to Howard’s original Conan tales is a smashing success in my view. As I outlined above, there are some problems and issues, though I feel all save one (the ruleset’s lack of direction and engagement with the actual characters and stories in Howard’s works) are relatively minor and can be chalked up to the sorts of mistakes you’d expect from a rookie company taking on a project this vast. Having said that, Monolith needs to fix the issues with the rulebooks as soon as they possibly can and get them to all retail versions immediately (at the least), or there will be hell to pay.
Where’s My tip?!?
Again, I feel I must come back to the complaints regarding the miniatures – they’re a central draw to this game after all. While I won’t rehash the minutia of individual sculpts again, I must confess I don’t really understand the root of these complaints. I mean, I’m primarily a Warhammer 40,000 player, and I literally have thousands of miniatures from Games Workshop (GW) and a few other high-end gaming companies. I understand what a high quality miniature in plastic looks like. These Conan miniatures are not in GW’s league, of course (well, maybe my pal the serpent is … he’s that smokin’ folks), but who really expected them to be? These are mono-pose, pre-assembled miniatures in an inferior (though still good) plastic to that used by GW. And, and pay close attention here, we get literally 74 miniatures (not including the stretch goals) in the basic Barbarian pledge (which I understand to be the retail version of the game, though I don’t know which stretch goals, if any, are included) for $90, or 106 miniatures in the King pledge (which I understand to be a kickstarter exclusive version) for $135. I’m sure you can tack $10-20 onto the retail version once it hits the market. Throw in the stretch goal miniatures – another 80 miniatures excluding the 30-40 pieces of 3D furnishings – and we’re pushing 150+ miniatures for the retail version or 200+ for the exclusive King version. That’s just insane value for our money, especially when you consider that does not include the heap of high quality gaming material also included! Or the fact that several of those miniatures, such as my new bestest playmate, the serpent, are exceedingly bigger than the 30mm that is standard to the game.
Why doesn’t the lion come with real feline main tufts????
I’m sorry, but given these facts, I have little sympathy for those who continue to complain on the miniature quality score. Compared to what you can get from GW for the money, and here I’d even include the soon-to-be released (I’m sure) retail version, let alone the kickstarter versions we just received, you get what you pay for. You get heaps more miniatures of good to amazing quality compared to far fewer miniatures of amazing quality and customizability. I’d call it a fair deal, even an amazing one if you are a big time Robert E. Howard fan (like me!). If you got one of the kickstarter versions, I see the deal as stupid good – which is as it should be, by Crom! We put two years of our patience, as well as our funds, into the project.
So what say you? Have I intrigued you? You aching to hunt down your own copy of Conan the board game and start wreaking vengeance upon the Picts? I tell you this, I’ll be spending the next few years lovingly painting, playing and creating scenarios of my own for this game. And if you do get your own copy, do yourself an additional favor and scrounge up Howard’s original Conan stories as well. He was a hell of a writer.