I've been lazy in this review and just nicked pictures from BGG. Sorry.
Age of Conan was one of the Nexus Games/Fantasy Flight Games joint releases that had all kinds of cool things going for it: the designers of War of the Ring, beautiful components, artwork from the comics and, of course, the Conan license itself, yet it kind of puttered out and dissappeared from the radar fairly quickly. It received generally favourable reviews but still failed to make an impact and it often shows up in FFG's holiday sales (together with Android).
I think there are a couple of reasons for this. Number one seems to have been that you don't actually get to play as Conan. The game is a strategic wargame where Conan acts as an unpredictable force of nature that you have to take into account as you plan your moves, it's not an intimate dungeon crawler or skirmish game that some people seem to have expected. They wanted to decapitate enemies and claim scantily clad princesses as their prize! Number two, it was overshadowed by two other games released by FFG just a couple of months later: Chaos in the Old World and Middle-Earth Quest. Both these games used a setting with a larger fanbase than Conan and in a way they're probably more accessible. They were also announced just as Age of Conan was hitting the streets and I imagine a lot of potential buyers decided to hold onto their money and wait for one of those instead of splurging on Conan.
The release schedule was unfortunate. As for the game format, well... it's just that playing as Conan wouldn't be much fun... except for the Conan player. Perhaps it could be made into a two player adversarial game a'la Descent with one player controlling Conan and the other a bunch evil Stygians or something, but still, I think setting the game during the Hyborian age and have Conan as an imporant component but not actually a controllable game piece (well... more on that later) was a genious move by the designers.
Speaking of the designers - Roberto Di Meglio, Marco Maggi and Francesco Nepitello - they together created War of the Ring, currently ranked 2nd/4th best thematic game and 16th best game overall at board game geek. A big part of that game's popularity was it's strict adherence to the setting. Nothing felt tacked on as every mechanic was well integrated with the Tolkien theme. It was apparent that the designers knew what they were doing when it came to handling Tolkien. Naturally Nexus and FFG hoped they could do the same for the Conan setting.
With that little introduction out of the lets have a look at the actual game!
How it Looks and Feels
Runewars, Twilight Imperium or (the first edition of) Descent, but slightly larger than Arkham Horror and Fury of Dracula. It has a pretty decent insert that I've actually kept, which is rare for me, and is filled with plastic goodies! The gameboard is a map of Hyboria with extra spaces for cards, dice and the Empire (victory) point track. I think the board is beautiful! The colours are sort of muted and there are lots of small details that really brings the theme to the forefront. I'd say it's comparable in many ways to the board in Chaos in the Old World which also brings out the theme.
There are some different cards as well; Strategy cards which allow you to influcnce both military and intrigue contests, Kingdom cards which are unique to each faction and consist of dirty tricks and special events, Adventure cards which shows what Conan is up to and Objective cards that are well... objectives in the game. The cards have the same kind of muted colour scheme as the game board and use artwork from some of the classic Conan comics which is pretty cool!
I started painting mine. So far only the Aquilonians are done but I think I might have found the inspiration to continue with the rest. The towers and forts are the same across factions, which is a bit of a pity, but in the end they're not as important as the other miniatures. The buildings are of a nice blocky design and has a slight Egyptian or Sumerian feel to them which I think fits the theme well. They snap together to make a city which is a nice touch.
The dice come in two varieties: the purple Fate Dice that you use for determining your action during your turn and the red Contest dice that you use in military and intrigue contests. They are dice so not much to say there, however the icons again help to bring the theme to the forefront (lots of blood splatter and axes on the Contest dice!) which is nice.
Finally we have an assortment of tokens, although not as many as some other FFG games. They do their job and share the same colour palette as the rest of the game.
I was very impressed by the visual design of the game and it's still one of my favourites when it comes a strong theme. For example, Runewars look great on the table with nice looking miniatures and board, but it doesn't have the same "weight" as Age of Conan. It looks like a colourful board game whereas Age of Conan looks like something you might actually find in the sands around Zamora! I'm using hyperbole here, but I hope you understand what I mean.
There are four factions in the game: Aquilonia, Turan, Hyberboria and Stygia. You start the game with a few soldiers and emissaries in your home kingdom as well as a couple of cards and, if you're playing Hyperboria or Stygia, some Sorcery tokens than can be used for re-rolls. The game is played in three "Ages" and in each Age there are four objectives open for grabs. They give you victory points, which you also get from conquering other provinces.
At the start of the game the first player rolls the seven Fate dice to see which actions are available. The different actions you can take in a turn are printed on the dice and when it's your turn you take one of the available Fate dice and perform its designated action. This provides an element of uncertainty to the game as you can rarely be sure if the action you want to perform will be available to you. Figuring out which of your opponents want which Fate die is also an imporant part of the meta-game as it can allow you to block or delay certain strategies. The system works the same as The War of the Ring only there are four players instead of two.
There are three actions you can take and there are several different options on how to perform each action. The Military Action allows you to move armies around, attack or (as a last resort) recruit two army units. The Intrigue Action allows you to move your emissaries around the board or use one to take over a neighbouring province using diplomatic means. Finally the Court + Conan Action allows you to draw cards, play certain of your own Kingdom Cards as well as influence Conan in some way or another (more on that later).
The main gameplay revolves around the Military and Intrigue actions. You only get victory points for conquering other provinces but it can be a relatively long and costly affair; each province has a number of terrain icons on it and each of these represents a battle. You can either try to attack one of these icons per turn, or do a 'forced march' - sacrificing one of your units to attack again immediately. This means that a military attack is quite a commitment and might very well run for two or three turns. You can mitigate this with your special Kingdom cards that might allow you to force march for free, or give you an extra military unit, but it's still a large undertaking. That you can have a maximum of five units in an army makes losses hurt badly and even though the resolution mechanic favours the attacker you really want all the insurances you can get when you go into battle. The actual battle system is a jazzed up Risk but with the ability to modify the rolls with strategy cards played from your hand, as long as the terrain icon on the card matches the one you're actually fighting on. If you win the entire campaign you remove one of your soldier units and replace it with a fort, which gives you victory points.
The obelisk is used to show Conan's current destination.
Intrigue on the other hand is a lot quicker and easier. You roll against the province's resistance and you get more dice for every neighbouring province you control or that has one of your emissaries in it. If you win the roll you immediately take control of the province by placing a tower there. You also get gold equal to the province's resistance. However, this does not give you any victory points and the tower prevents you from building a fort there (since that can only be done after a successfull conquest). It does provide you with instant gold as well as more gold in the Age change phase. So a common strategy is to take over several provinces with intrigue actions during the first Age so you get enough gold to buy a large army for use in the second and third Age.
During each Age change phase (of which there are two) you first resolve Raider tokens (see below), then check to see who claims which objective and adjust the Empire points track accordingly. Then you receive gold for each of your towers and cities and you get a troop unit at each fort or city. If you want you can forego this unit to upgrade a fort into a city, which is usually a good idea. You get to spend your gold as you wish on soldiers, emissaries and cards and then the next age begins. At the end of the third Age the game is over and you calculate your final Empire point score by adding up all your current provinces as well as getting bonus points for various things like having most gold, having won most player versus player battles etc.
The Role of Conan
So most of the time the player controlling Conan wants to move him closer to the adventure destination. Of course Conan is a cunning warrior and a brilliant general so if he's on your side in a battle there are all kinds of bonuses, so sometimes it might be worth foregoing an Adventure token to use Conan in a nearby battle or siege. The Conan player can also use the Court + Conan action to move Conan an additional step as well as placing a Raider token in a nearby province. These tokens represent Conan's presence stirring up trouble and will cost you either Empire points or soldiers to get rid of. If another player picks the Court + Conan action he simply takes the next Adventure token in line, basically allowing you to snipe high value token beore the Conan player gets them.
Conan with a few Raider tokens nearby.
At the end of the game the players with most monster, treasure and women tokens get bonus points, unless Conan has been crowned king in which case only the crowning player can get any of these points. You also use them during the Age change phase to bid for three powerful artifacts that can help you in different ways.
As a rule of thumb it's a good idea to try and roughly plan out how to act during the coming age to allow you to claim objectives and maximize your income during the Age change phase. However you will have to modify your plan according to the Fate dice and, of course, the actions of the other players. There is a slow buildup as you start to expand outwards and it's usually not until the second or third Age where battles between players will become common.
Then there's Conan himself to consider. He acts as a force of nature, constantly moving through Hyboria with his own goals in mind. He is not an I win-button but rather an opportunity to take advantage of, he can certainly turn the tide if used correctly. And if you're having trouble expanding your Kingdom you can instead try to gain control of Conan often and hopefully amass lots of Adventure tokens which would set you up for possible Conan coronation. There's an excellent example of this in this session report.
I haven't talked much about the Kingdom cards that are unique to each faction, but they also bring a lot of the theme into the game and serve to differentiate how the factions work. Just last week Mats as Hyperboria managed to get a whole bunch of his powerful Kingdom cards in play and they helped convey the Hyperborians as a sinister, sorcerous faction who don't even shy from necromancy!
As for the flaws of the game, there are a couple. I've already mentioned the gamey feel of simply bidding for Conan with some un-thematic tokens, and this extends, to a lesser degree, to the actual adventures. While they serve their function well I wouldn't have minded some more detailing. They are, undoubtably, the greatest source of theme for the game and I think they could have been more thematic than simply being a destination and four or five tokens drawn at random. Having Conan as a kind of wandering NPC is a great mechanic, but I do think the game would have benefited from fleshing out his role more. However this is a flaw from a thematic standpoint only, not from a gameplay standpoint.
Something else that is not necessarily a flaw, but something to keep in mind is that the game can be fairly low in player interaction in the beginning. Or rather, the player interaction comes from indirect things, like blocking a particular action or bidding higher for Conan rather than direct military conflict. I have no problem with this but it's worth mentioning.
There was an expansion waiting to get produced by Nexus Games (ie the design was done) but unfortunately they went under before it saw the light of day. Apparently it addressed the issues I mentioned above by making Conan and his adventures more detailed, even having him in his different "life phases" - thief, warrior, general, king - as well as systems rewarding earlier player versus player aggression. Although I'm sad it never got published I also think that Age of Conan is an excellent game just the way it is.
EDIT: And here we are, two years later and through deal with FFG Ares Games have acquired all the leftover stock as well as the rights to Age of Conan. Of course, the guys at Ares are the original designers so it's back in its rightfull hands one might say. And finally we have the expansion! It's called Adventures in Hyboria and features new rules for Conan as well as a bunch of other stuff. Kickstarter (already funded) currently happening right here! Oh, and it's an excellent way of getting the base game as well if you already don't own it.
If you are looking for a wargame at the lighter end of the spectrum (as in, not ASL) which rewards planning ahead and strategic thinking Age of Conan might be for you. If you also happen to be a fan of the setting then it's definitely a game for you. If you also consider the fact that you can often find it for a good price thanks to FFG's holiday sales then it's simply a no brainer, by Crom!