Short version: This the game I’ve been waiting for all my life, and it’s awesome.
Long version: I grew up playing wargames, starting with the classics of Risk and Axis & Allies. I played them every chance I got, and devoured each new mutation of the concept; Castle Risk, Fortress America, Samurai Swords, and more. Anything that had a sprawling map, little plastic soldiers, cool powers, and endless strategy would eventually end up on my kitchen table. The pinnacle of this gaming genre, for me, was Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, a massive game with hordes of pieces and reams of special rules spanning the entire inner solar system. The board mapped out not only each planet but their orbits, and part of the strategy was to time your space fleets such that you could attack easily from one planet to another; attack too late, and instead of raining fiery death upon your enemies you’d end up chasing them desperately while their planet rotated harmlessly away from you.
As I grew older I searched for more games that could capture this thrill I felt as a kid. I wanted a game where you could raise an army, control territory, and balance different units’ strengths and weaknesses to create a brilliant strategy. The endless variants of Risk inevitably wore out their welcome–it’s a fun “entry level” wargame, but you can only play it so many times before it’s flaws become too glaring to handle. The trickle of Axis & Allies variants were better, and in some cases brilliant, but their dedication to historical recreation made them too focused for my purposes. I wanted something endlessly variable, not scenario-based. I tried Twilight Imperium and liked a lot of what it did, but I always felt like the game ended right when it got interesting. Runewars is an improvement, but suffers from the same problem. Age of Conan is great, but doesn’t have nearly as much combat as a true wargames should have; I still play it, but it sates other interests, and my search for a perfect wargame continues. War of the Ring has the best combination of flavor and game of anyone the wargames I tried, but it’s only two players (or four, if teams share armies) and I wanted something bigger.
And then I found Conquest of Nerath. Wizards of the Coast, the company that makes D&D and Magic: The Gathering, decided a year or two ago to branch the D&D license into board games, starting with dungeon games like Castle Ravenloft, which I love. That gave me high hopes for Conquest of Nerath, and somehow the game managed to exceed these expectations. Here’s a brief description: the board is a big map of a fantasy world, split into two continents with a central sea and a large island in the middle. There are four kingdoms, each with a variety of cool units (soldiers, wizards, dragons, monsters, etc.) and a deck of personalized cards to help each kingdom feel and play different from the others.
Simply put, this game has everything I’ve ever wanted in a wargame. Starting placement is fixed, so you get thrown into the action immediately–no “five turns to build up your army before you start fighting” like in Twilight Imperium–and yet the actual gameplay can branch off in any number of directions from there, so you don’t feel locked into a scenario like in Axis & Allies. As you conquer you earn money, which you can spend on new units and castles, and the units all have different strengths and weaknesses so you can customize your forces for different situations and strategies. There are air and naval battles, and simple yet effective ways (and tactically important reasons) to transport troops across the water. The decks of cards make each faction unique, and offer a lot of flavor and replayability. There are even heroes and quests and dungeons, which a lot of other wargames have attempted (most notably Runewars and Age of Conan), but Conquest of Nerath manages to integrate them effortlessly into the battle system, bringing new strategies (and cool treasure) into the game. It succeeds through brilliant simplicity where most other games have failed by trying too hard.
There are even multiple ways to win, based on your preferences and how much time you want to spend; the basic game gives you a victory point each time you conquer a territory, allowing you to play a short, medium, or long game simply by adjusting the victory point goal. My group’s preferred method is to win by conquering enemy capitals, which takes longer but encourages a more solid balance of attack and defense. You can play a satisfying short game in about 90 minutes–a miracle in the wargame world–or you can fill an evening with hearty long game if that’s your preference.
My one and only complaint about the game is its 4-player cap; the game is so fun that I’d love to be able to play it with more of my friends at once, but there’s simply no way to add more, even with an expansion. If the worst I can say about a game is that I wish I could play it with more people, that should tell you something. I’ll take my recommendation one step further: Conquest of Nerath is the single best addition to my game collection in years. It’s simple yet deep, exciting and flavorful, and the culmination of a lifelong quest to scratch exactly the right gaming itch. If you like this style of game, you will love Conquest of