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Friday, 24 October 2014

Preview of Adventures in Hyboria for Age of Conan!

Friday, October 24, 2014

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Those who have followed Fire Broadside for some time might remember my review of Age of Conan a few years back (and new followers might as well, as it's a very popular article!). It is a game I quickly grew fond of but that never really seemed to take off in terms of general popularity in the gaming community. I speculated that it might have had to do with an unfortunate release date among other things, but it seems the main contributor was probably that Nexus went under and Roberto Di Meglio, Marco Maggi and Francesco Nepitello, the original designers of the game, kind of lost touch with it. There were rumours of an expansion that was designed and pretty much ready for production but since FFG didn't seem all that interested in it (Age of Conan often turned up in their sales) we all wondered if we would ever see it!

Now, on the game's five year anniversary (wooo!), Ares Games came with the very happy news of having bought the rights and the remaining stock of Age of Conan and would soon launch a small kickstarter for the expansion; Adventures in Hyboria. Of course, Ares is kind of Nexus resurrected and all of the original designers are involved. Happy days!

So let's get to the preview! Andrea from Ares contacted me after having read my original review and asked if I wanted to have a look at the beta files for the expansion and make a preview here on Fire Broadside. Thinking highly of the original and being curious about how Ares have intended to adjust the only thing that I found a little lacking in the game I naturally said yes. So what was lacking? Well, even though Age of Conan is very much a wargame taking place in the world of Conan and the legend himself is not the central focus, I still felt that his role could have been fleshed out a bit more. From a gameplay perspective it wasn't really needed, but with all the rich stories about the man I couldn't help but feel that his adventures could have been more thematic than they were.

Luckily for us Ares listened...

The main aim of Adventures in Hyboria is to expand the way Conan works from a thematic standpoint, however there are a couple of other additions that I would like to talk about first. Spies, Prisoners and Companions. So let's take a look at them all in order.

Spies

Each faction now get five spies to add to their arsenal of tricks. You get three at the start of the game and then one more at every Age Change phase. You place your spies at the beginning of your game and then again at each Age Change phase. You can't place them in friendly provinces, nor in a province where a Spy is already present. Once there they can provide the owner with an additional Contest Die if flipped from its ready side. So they're not overly strong, but I think they might help mitigating unlucky rolls, especially in the critical early game when one extra die can be the different between conquering a province or having your army decimated and lag behind the other players (like myself in our last game when I foolishly tried to pacify the Pictish Wilderness on my first turn!).

Each faction also receives five new Kingdom Cards that play off these Spies in different ways. For example, Stygian Spies can provide them with extra Strategy Cards while Hyperborea can use theirs for an extra Military Action. Although I don't think spies were needed specifically I do like what they bring to the game and I think they might help speed up things for those groups who want to get to grips with the each other earlier in the game. They are also Conan fodder as the barbarian is not overly fond of their deceitful ways. If Conan enters a province with a Spy the Conan player can try and kill it by rolling a number of Contest die equal to his current Mood (see below) and if a hit is rolled the Spy is removed and Conan gain experience.

Prisoners

While we already have the (awesomely named!) "Crom, coun the dead!" tokens in the base game
Adventures in Hyboria introduces the concept of prisoners of war. There are five Prisoner tokens for each faction and every time you eliminate an enemy Army, Emissary or Control token you get to take a Prisoner tokens corresponding to that faction. Prisoner tokens are then worth points at the end of the game, like Crom, count the dead!, but you can also use them during the Age Change phase to trade tokens with other players and if you manage to get some of your own colour they can be exchanged for Emissarys or Army units on a one for one basis.

Another addition that I think again will help speed up gameplay by giving players some extra "free" units. Not needed exactly, but nice nonetheless. Oh, and there are also a few new objective cards that involves Spies and Prisoners so they are fully integrated in the core mechanics of the game!

Companions

Now we start to get to the really juicy thematic additions to the game! With the expansion you add three extra Companion Adventure tokens to the pool and if you draw one you can immeditately trade it for a Gold or Sorcery token (yeah, right!) or you can discard it to draw from the deck of Conan Companions! There are nine in all (so it will take you a few games  before you've had them all in play) and they work like your other Play-on-the-table cards in that they give you some kind of perk that breaks the normal rules of the game. For example, Bélit can be used to place two Raider tokens in two coastal provinces and Balthus allows you to draw a new Adventure card for Conan. When used the Companion card is flipped but still provide a bonus of women, treasure or monsters at the end of the game.

I really like this addition as it brings more of Howard's tales into the game. Their game effects aren't super dramatic but they certainly can be useful and it's simply cool having all these familiar names around! Good stuff!


Now, let's take a peek at the meat and potatoes of Adventures in Hyboria:

The new Conan quest mechanic!

First off, Conan now has his own reference board where you track his experience and his moods. Experience is gained, not by reaching the destination of an Adventure card but by killing Spies and completing quests from the new Story cards I'll talk about below. Conan starts out as a Warrior, but by gaining experience grows to become a Mercenary and finally a General. Experience also has an impact on the value of women/treasure/monster tokens at the end of the game. It is no longer a flat +5/+2 but varies from +2/+0 to +6/+3. In addition to this, for anybody to crown Conan he also has to be at least half way on the experience track.

Each phase of Conans life (Warrior, Mercenary, General) provides a set of stats, Mood Wheel and a special die. The stats are Strength, Agility and Cunning and the Mood Wheel has numbers ranging from 0 to +3 and they are used when trying to complete a Story card. Each Conan die is unique and although most of the faces are beneficial, like additional hits, you can also roll Sorcery Banned (no use of Sorcery tokens for re-rolls) and Gold, which only only turns into a hit if you pay Conan one Gold. The respective Conan die now has to be rolled in all contests involving Conan which makes him potentially more powerful, but also slightly more dangerous to use.

Conan the Warrior?
Now, about the quests. As I mentioned mentioned above the slightly non-thematic, or at least bare bones, rules for Conan's questing in the base game has been overhauled. Even though Conan still plays largely the same role as before in the greater scheme of the game (marauding the lands causing havoc!) the actual quests and the character of Conan has been expanded quite a bit.

For starters there's a completely new Adventure deck. Mechanically it works the same as in the base game but thematically the deck is now more about Conan's general direction rather than a specific quest. Instead the quest part of the puzzle comes in the form of the new Story deck where each card represent an actual RE Howard story. So while the Adventure deck is drawn as normal the story cards are held in hand (one for each player) and can then be played by any non-Conan player after Conan has moved. Each card has the title of a Howard tale, some theme text and then the stat that Conan need to test to succeed and during which circumstance it can be played. Finally there's also a note of what Adventure token can be revealed (for the rest of the game) to allow you to re-roll a number of dice up to the value of the token.

Any non-Conan player can play a Story card after Conan has moved if he's then in province or area
specified by the card. When this happens Conan immediately receive the Experience points from the card (1-3) and get to try and complete the quest - if the Story card says Strenght then that is what Conan must use to do it. You roll a number of Contest dice equal to Conan's stat in question plus his current mood! You are allowed to advance the Mood wheel before rolling by paying one Gold per step, so basically pay Conan well and give him lots to drink and he'll be in a better mood and fight with more enthusiasm! You also roll the correct Conan die.

Three or more hits are considered a success and the rolling player get to take two Adventure tokens, keep one and exchange the other for Gold or Sorcery, as desired. A successful play of a Story card also triggers a round of bidding for Conan, which works as usual.

So to summarise with an example:
Anders is playing Turan and has control of Conan. At the start of his turn he moves him one step into Koth on his way to Stygia, as indicated on the Adventure card. Now Claes, who plays Hyperboria, gives a sly grin and plays the Story card "Queen of the Black Coast" that says "Play if Conan is inside or adjacent to Western Shem". "Conan joins Bélit, Queen of the Black Coast" he reads dramatically as he takes a look at the Conan reference sheet, and moves the Experience marker three steps. According to the Story card Claes has to roll using Conan's Cunning and since is still early years Conan has yet to leave his wild Warrior phase and his Cunning is a measly 1! He still has a lot to learn before he has the mind of a ruler of men. 
Fortunately the Mood wheel can help here and Claes pays one Gold to move it from +1 to +2 and ends up with a pool of three Contest dice and the Conan Warrior die. Rolling the dice Claes ends up with two hits from the Contest dice and the Gold face from the Conan die(!). Having spent his last Gold to advance the Mood wheel he mutters something nasty under his breath and he flips over one of his Women tokens, as mandated by the Story card, to re-roll two of his dice. This time Crom is with him and he scores the hits needed to succeed. "Take that, knave!" he exclaims triumphantly and reaches for the bag of Adventure tokens to claim his prize...

And that is Adventures in Hyboria in a nutshell! Except for the additional goodies that the Kickstarter is bringing in, some of which are exclusive and some of which will be in the retail box.

Initial Impressions

So what's my take on the whole thing? Well, with the Proto-Gamer demanding a lot of attention (she keeps reminding me that diapers don't change themselves!) I haven't had the time to actually print a mock-up and play a game, which I'm really looking forward to do when getting the chance! Still, I think I have a good enough grasp of the base game to have an inkling of how this expansion might impact the play experience, so here we go.

The base game is very tight and well balanced so I wasn't surprised to see that there aren't really any changes to the core mechanics, as none were needed. The addition of Spies, Prisoners and Companions are cool and flavourful and I think especially Spies will have an impact on how the game is played. Prisoners and their accompanying Objective cards are simply a cool little addition and then we get the Companions that start bringing in the theme big time!

The new Conan mechanics makes him a little bit into a collective rpg character that all(?) players like to see gain experience and go on fantastic adventures and strange journeys. I think going from a simple travel destination to a fully fledged experience system is very well done and while it really brings forth Conan as a living character I don't think it should impact play time negatively in any major way. It's integrated well enough to have you pretty much "roll on the fly".

The only thing I found a bit surprising was that you still bid on Conan using the little tokens from the base game! I would have loved to see the bidding mechanic integrated with the questing in some way, but at the same time I realize that it is very delicately balanced as it is and having a perfect marriage of theme and mechanics might be hard when it comes to this bit. Still, it was my pet peeve from the base game... what does those tokens represent in game? Perhaps I should ask Roberto. :)

All in all, I'm very happy that Age of Conan has been resurrected and with an expansion only a few months away! If you are happy with the mechanics of the core game and don't care all that much about the Conan theme (does these people exist?!) you could probably skip this expansion and wait for the big one, introducing a second map and two new factions. But if you care anything for the theme and want to see Conan's role in the game expanded, then there's simply no question of what to do - get over to the kickstarter page and kick it! And if you don't have the base game but think this sounds awesome (which it is!) there's a pledge level for you as well.

Oh, and although I've used a bunch of pics from Milnius Conan movie it's really not a good representation of the character. It's an excellent fantasy movie that seem to take place in during the Hyborian age, but it is not... Conan. Read the books for a much more interesting and nuanced character.

Now, I really need to get back to my Age of Conan painting project!


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