24 February 2017
The legendary barbarian returns to the tabletop in this Kickstarted adaptation
In today’s world, it’s often hard to think of Conan the Barbarian without returning to the iconic image of an abs-laden Arnold Schwarzenegger tearing his way through ranks of baddies in the 1980s movie adaptations. Often sidelined are Conan’s origins in Robert E. Howard’s pulpy short stories half a century before, which served as a major influence on the fantasy genre that ultimately gave rise to tabletop classics such as Dungeons & Dragons.
Monolith’s self-titled Conan returns to the fount of Howard’s original tales, offering a scenario-driven asymmetrical co-op adventure game that pits one player, as the overlord controlling the forces of evil, against the eponymous warrior and his band of heroes.
The weighty box comes packed with dozens of miniatures, including an especially striking giant snake, modelled with the degree of precision expected from a game approaching a three-figure price tag. These occupy two double-sided map boards depicting fantasy environments, such as a village and pirate ship, which are artistically impressive – although the rich illustration does occasionally make it tough to pick out specific features. (Our party embarrassingly spent much of our first adventure confusing the doors and windows of huts.)
Driving the antagonistic overlord’s control of hyenas, hunters, snakes, warriors and more is a plastic console referred to as the Book of Skelos. At the outset of each campaign, the overlord prepares the sheet with the stats cards of the forces available to them, which sit in a ‘river’ channel. At the end of the heroes’ turn, the overlord can spend gems to activate up to two groups of units, moving and attacking with them. This slides each card representing that group to the right-hand side of the river, with cards ramping up in cost from left to right – making it frugal to activate units that have not been used recently. This smart mechanic reduces the dull repetition of reusing the same troops (a giant snake, for instance) to attack over and over again, as well as encouraging smart use of every unit on the map to pester the heroes rather than simply sending the same enemies at them non-stop.
The heroes utilise a similar, but slightly different, gem-driven system to perform their own actions, assigning gems to a variety of abilities (attacking, movement, guarding, manipulation such as lockpicking and so on) each turn in an attempt to achieve the objective of each scenario, which is often defeating specific enemies or rescuing a hostage.
Unlike the overlord, heroes can perform as many actions as they want, adding extra gems to receive additional dice when performing dice checks for combat, or assigning gems to the reroll space to try and improve their results. Spending all of your gems becomes a risk-reward experience, as failing to leave enough gems to block against enemy attacks with during the overlord phase can be fatal.
Heroes recover a small number of gems each turn, but can also choose to adopt a cautious stance at the beginning of their turn – which recovers more gems but restricts actions to movement and guarding only. The tactical distribution of gems makes every action more of a strategic decision (‘Can I afford to reroll this die?’) as well as effectively reflecting the fatigue of performing such heroic actions. Gems are transferred to a wound zone on each player’s mat when injured, which also nicely captures the idea of being able to do less after your arms have been slashed by a sword. (Lose all of your gems and you die, obviously.)
The core engine drives along incredibly smoothly, as players on both sides quickly become accustomed to the efficient use of gems as they clash swords in battle, cast spells and perform more outlandish and amusing abilities – throwing and catching objects between heroes is particularly fun.
Each hero has their own unique talents – one of Conan’s is the ability to smash through walls and create a doorway, which we decided was the only way he should ever enter or leave buildings (via separate holes). Combat is straightforward, equating to a simple case of rolling custom dice versus an armour rating on each enemy, with extra dice and rerolls offered by any equipped weapons.
Sadly, despite the strength of its gameplay, where Conan falls apart is in its world. Very little world-building is offered by the character sheets, cards and scenarios included, meaning that those not already well-versed in Howard’s works may find the once seminal fantasy creations feel rather generic more than 80 years on.
This is particularly evident in the scenarios, which recreate the incongruous feel of Howard’s short stories but feel worse-off for doing so. Outside of a single two-part mission (which offers no connection between its two halves) there is nothing to serve as a link between scenarios, in terms of either narrative or mechanics. Characters can obtain items from chests throughout an adventure, but there is no sense of permanence offered by leveling up or deeper RPG elements – making an evening’s worth of back-to-back adventures feel surprisingly unproductive and an ongoing campaign difficult to pull together.
The other glaring weakness of sticking faithfully to Howard’s source material is its outdated treatment of both women and minorities. While there are female characters, there are far too few and all are treated with the adolescent male-gaze depiction of tantalising nudity and impractical clothing choices – a heck of an ‘achievement’ in a world where even the male characters cram wedge-shaped torsos into furry underpants and little else. That’s to say nothing of many of the scenarios, several of which simply recycle the damsel in distress trope. Just as bad are the portrayals of many of the enemies, which draw heavily from African, Aboriginal and Native American stereotypes. While this could be dismissed by some as accurately recreating the Hyborian Age as envisioned by Howard in the 1930s, it nevertheless results in potentially offensive – and, to be honest, just yawningly generic – elements of the world, and can hardly be excused in the face of the exemplary modern treatment of Howard’s contemporary H.P. Lovecraft by many other designers and publishers, which removes similarly distasteful facets regarding race.
Worse of all, it tarnishes a game that otherwise boasts gripping core mechanics and the potential to be so much more. Conan’s atmosphere and narrative weight is undermined both by its own obsession with the past and its inability to deliver fully on bringing a living, breathing fantasy world to the tabletop, but the diversity and effectiveness of the moment-to-moment actions offered to players hints at a title that had a lot more to tell.
Conan uses its gem-driven action mechanics to their full potential, keeping players on both sides of each scenario fully engaged and providing the opportunity to perform heroic actions befitting of the fantasy series. Unfortunately, the outstanding gameplay is let down by a lack of narrative confidence and an adhesion to Robert E. Howard’s outdated portrayal of women and minorities that doesn’t belong in a modern game.
Genre: Asymmetrical co-op
Time: 90 minutes
This review originally appeared in the February issue of Tabletop Gaming. Pick up the latest issue of the UK's fastest-growing gaming magazine in print or digital here – or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.
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