Friday, December 21, 2012

Board Game review: Age of Conan - The Strategy Board Game

Date of publication: 2009
Publisher: Nexus game/Fantasy Flight game
Number of players: 2-4
Suited for: Age 12 to adults

First of all, I need to clarify, board game is my new hobby. Therefore, this is literally, my first board game review. All things must have a beginning, and I am going write my first board game review on "Age of Conan the strategy board game".

Age of Conan, is the first board game I purchased in my life. I picked this game, as my stepping stone into the world of board games, because I am a huge fan of Robert E. Howard, and I also like the character Conan and the Hyborian age. I've played the MMO computer game, Age of Conan, but I just didn't like it very much. However, in the past, I have seen this board game on the shelves of bookshops and the like, and I was always curious about it.

I purchased the game from Fantasy Flight Game during its Christmas special sales, for 25 bucks (it is usually around 80 bucks). I don't have anyone to play with me yet, but I have played about 5 solo games now, and developed an AI rule for my solo sessions. By now, I think I know enough about the game to write a review. Just keep in mind, my review is based on solo playthroughs.


Age of Conan, is a thematic war game, set in Robert E. Howard's literary invention, Conan the Cimmerian. If you are unfamiliar with Howard's Conan stories. The world of Conan was called the Hyborian Age, it is a pseudo historical era dated about 15,000 years ago. During the time of Hyborian Age, the world was one continent, populated by different civilizations.

Official promotion trailer for Age of Conan: The strategy board game

This game supports 2-4 players. Each player takes control over one of the four dominant civilizations from Hyborian age, seeking to expand their empires through military conquests and diplomacy. At the same time, Conan, wanders around in the Hyborian continent, embarking personal adventures. In this game, no one really controls Conan (a very interesting gameplay mechanism I will explain later), however, a smart player will try to incorporate Conan's movements on the map into his/her strategy for maximum benefit.

Game components:

This game comes with high quality components. It has a rule book, a very big and sturdy board, 2 sets of dices, lots of cards, tokens, and 170 pieces of plastic miniatures (including 1 Conan miniature and an adventure marker). There are 4 kingdoms for the players to choose from: Aquilonia, Hyperborea, Stygia, and Turan. Each of these kingdoms have their own set of kingdom cards, miniatures, and they are different to each other. This means, the player need to use different strategies when playing as a different kingdom. 
The art works on the cards are very beautiful, the board is big and beautifully drawn. The plastic miniatures are very detailed, and are divided into 4 kingdoms. Each kingdom has different looking miniatures, with their corresponding color codes. Each kingdom has 4 types of components/units: Soldier, Emmisory, fort, and tower. The soldier units are used in military contests, emmisory units are used in intrigue contests, forts are markers for player controlled provinces won through military conquests, while towers are markers for player controlled provinces through intrigue contests. 


The core mechanics of this game is a bit complex, I will not provide a detailed walkthrough here, but simply outline the general rules. Essentially, this game has 2 major aspects. The first aspect, is the part when the player bids for control of Conan and his adventures. The second aspect, is the actual war game itself (conquering pronvinces, sending emmisories etc..). In order to give you an idea of how this works, I will explain the role of Conan first.

The role of Conan in this game:

As I have mentioned before, in Age of Conan, no one really controls Conan. So you might wonder, how does this work? Personally, I think the control mechanism of Conan in this game, is absolutely genius! Let me explain.

In this game, the goal for each player is to gain as much "empire point" through his/her playthrough. This can be done by conquering pronvinces on the map, or achieving certain objectives in the game. 

One of the roles of Conan, is to dictate the time and progress of this game. Age of Conan is played in 3 ages. Each age consists of 4 Conan adventures. The Conan adventures are played out using an adventure deck. At the beginning of every adventure, a new adventure card is drawn, the destination is shown on the card, with the number of adventure tracks/tokens shown at the bottom of the card. The adventure tokens, represent the length of the adventure in play. The players then bid for Conan, the player with the highest bid, recives the right to control Conan for that adventure, and collects adventure tokens while he guides Conan to progress with the adventure. Collecting adventure tokens, is one of the ways to win the game (but not the only way to win). After an adventure is completed, a new adventure card is drawn, and the bidding process starts again. The completion of 4 adventures, symbolizes the end of an age. This is the time when scores are rewarded to each player, and new Conan adventure decks are set up for the next age/phase. So essentially, the timing in Age of Conan, has 3 phases.

But the role of Conan doesn't end here. The player who wins the bid for Conan (the Conan player), receives certain benefits when Conan is in the province he/she is trying to conquer. At the same time, if a non-Conan player is attacking a province where Conan is at, then Conan works against him/her. On top of this, the Conan player can also drop "raider coins" in other player's provinces, causing his/her opponents to loose empire points if the raids are not resolved properly at the end of an age.

Finally, in the 3rd age. If the Conan player manages to guide Conan to his/her home province at an end of an adventure. He/she can end the game early, by crowning Conan. A successful attempt to crown Conan, reward the player with massive number of empire points, which might help the player to win in the end. However, if you fail, then Conan laughs in your face and cut your head off! (meaning the player looses the game immediately and is out of the game).

In summary, in this game, a cunning player will try to take advantage of Conan's presence, or use Conan to sabotage his opponents' progress. Conan acts as a force of nature, the legendary Cimmerian wanders around on the map for his own personal interests. What tends to happen is Conan can be an aid to your plan in this round, but can suddenly work against you in the next round.  Personally, I think the way Conan is presented in this game, is very faithful to the way Conan was envisioned in Robert E. Howard's original short stories.

The war game part:

The major part of this game, is the contest for dominance. Each player takes turns to perform his/her actions. The actions are determined by rolling 7 fate dice. Afterward, the player pick a dice from the dice pool, to engage in either: military action (conquering pronvinces), intrigue action (winning provinces through diplomacy), or court action (playing even cards, drawing more cards etc..).

The military and intrigue contests are played out by throwing 6 dices. The player wins the contest by scorcing more hits than his opponent's hit score from the dice throw. There are 3 types of military contests: campaign, siege, and battle. Campaign is when the player attacks an uncontrolled, neutral province. Siege, is when the player attacks a province owned by another player. Battle, is when two players' armies meet in a neutral province. When a player conquers a pronvince through military contests, the player gains empire points. Intrigue contests, shares similar principle as military contests, but when a player wins an intrigue contest, he/she gets gold instead of empire points.

The player can also buid card decks. Each kingdom, has an unique set of "kingdom cards", and there is also a set of strategy cards, with 2 functions: 1) used to bid for Conan, and 2) adding bonuses during contests. These cards, are essential to help the players to win contests. The player can increase his/her card deck, by drawing cards when the court action is chosen during his/her turn. In my experience, it is not very easy to win a contest without using these cards.

What I think about this game:

Learning curve: (7/10) - As a new comer to the world of board games, I found the initial learning curve of this game a bit steep. There are many rules to learn. For me, the gameplay only started to flow smoothly when I finally mastered the rules in my 3rd playthrough. Veterans to board games (war games) might find the rules easy to learn, but for new comers and casual gamers, the learning curve could be slightly steep. The good thing is, the rules are intiuitive and not very confusing, anyone should be able to get the rough idea of the rules after 1 sitting. While mastering 90% of all game rules after 2 playthroughs. Once you are familiarized with the rules, the gameplay flows very smoothly. I think it might be slightly difficult for younger players (kids) to learn the complex rules in this game. In other words, I think this game is more suitable for adults who have better reading, and comprehension abilities.

Component/production quality: (9/10) - This game has very high quality components. The board is beautiful, the presentation of the board feels like an ancient artifact I dug out in some forgotten desert. It captures the theme really well. The cards are thick, glossy and have beautiful art works. There are plenty of plastic miniatures, these pieces are highly detailed, the Conan miniature looks especially amazing. Overall, this game is asthetically pleasing to look at, and the components are robust and sturdy.

Gameplay: (7.5/10) - I've had lots of fun playing this game. I really like the way Conan is treated in this game, it is very faithful to the vision of Conan from the source materials. The game is also very balanced. Although every kingdom has different abilities, but they are all approximately equal in strength. The core mechanics delivered a very good balance between randomness and strategy, while presenting a variety of choices to players to craft his/her strategy. In this game, there is not just one way to win, and sometimes, even the most carefully laid out plan will not always guarantee a victory. I only have two complains about the gameplay: 1) This game doesn't really encourage the players to attack each other. There are not enough incentives to encourage the players to attack each other. This means unless you are playing against someone who is/are very aggressive, the players will feel like they are playing against the board instead of against each other. 2) The Conan adventures are not fleshed out very well, the descriptions for the adventures are too short. After a while, the Conan adventures just feel like a timer to dictate the pace of the game, and don't contribute to the theme very much. Another thing, I also feel that this game plays better when there are 4 players. I heard there was an expansion planned, addressing these issues. Unfortunately, it turned out that Nexus Games is not in business anymore, so sadly this means we may never see the expansion set.

Replayability: (8/10) - In my 5 playthroughs, every playthrough is different. The fact there are 4 kingdoms with different abilities, also means the player needs to adapt a different strategy when playing a different kingdom, further adding to the replay value.

Thematic factor: (8/10) - This game is highly thematical and very immersive. The presentation, and the gameplay mechanics compounded to an authentic Hyborian experience. Even if you know nothing of Robert E. Howard's Conan, you will still enjoy the theme and the atmoshphere presented in this game.

Overall: (8/10) - I am happy that this is the first board game I've ever purchased. When Age of Conan board game was released in 2009, it received mixed reviews. Apparently the main reason why people were disspointed, was because of the wrong expectation, that this was to be an adventure, hack and slash styled game, where the player gets to play as Conan. But Age of Conan is a war strategy game, the game designer never advertised this as an adventure or RPG game. It was advertised as a war strategy game, and it definitely suceedded as a solid war game! This really is a fine game that deserves to be played more. I certainly think this is a fine Christmas present for myself. I've had a lot of fun even just playing by myself, and I think the fun factors will increase playing with a group of friends over a large table. If you are having a board game night with your friends, when you want a good, fantasy themed, strategy/war board game, Age of Conan won't disappoint. 


Tuesday, December 18, 2012

5 great (retro) fantasy movies you probably haven't seen yet

Peter Jackson's latest fantasy epic, The Hobbit Part 1 is about to hit the cinema (I am suspicous of how this will turn out, because he is turning a 300 page book into 3 movies). The Hobbit is already receiving mixed reviews, but as expected, this movie is destined to draw a huge crowd of viewers this holiday season, and is bound to earn big money at the box office. This made me realize something, in recent days, whenever the phrase "fantasy movie" is mentioned, most people are immediately reminded of Lord of the Rings, Chronicles of Narnia, or Harry Potter.

But I tell you the truth. Know! Oh viewers, that before the time of multi million dollar CGI, there was a golden age of fantasy movies undreamed of, when shining armors, real life actions and fantastic stories glowed with magical charms upon the vistas of silver screens.

Today, I am going to tell you 5 (in my opinion), great fantasy movies you probably haven't seen. Here it goes:

5. Die Nibelungen (1924)

 Die Nibelungen is a series of 2 silent fantasy films, made in 1924. Directed by Austrian director Fritz Lang. The movie itself, is an adaptation of the epic poem, Nibelungenlied, in 1200 AD (the Old Norse parallel is The Saga of Volsung). The movie retells the story of Siegfried the dragonslayer, and the tragic romantic love triangle between Siegried, Brunhild the Queen of Iceland, and Kremhild the princess of Burgundy. It is a beautiful story with dragons, dwarves, Valkyries, the Huns, tragedy, romance, betryal and the kind of stuff that inspired Tolkien to write his Middle Earth saga. And unlike most modern adaptations of classical stories. Die Nibelungen is a very faithful adaptation to the original epic poem. If you like Richard Wagner's famous opera (the Ring of the Nibelung), then this movie is a definite classic you cannot miss.

4. Fire and Ice (1983)

 Fire and Ice, is an animated adventure-fantasy film. This movie, was ranked by Online Film Critics Society, as the 99th greatest animated films of all time. There are serveral reasons why this film is great. First of all, one of the producers of this film was Frank Frazetta, one of the best fantasy artists of all time. The drawings in this animated feature all have the unique style of Frank Frazetta's arts. Secondly, the screenplay was written by Roy Thomas, one of the best comic book storywriters fronm Marvel. Thirdly, the vividness of scenes in this film are captured by the process of rotoscoping, where the live actoin scenes were shot, then traced with animated cels. Until this day, Fire and Ice is still a remarkable film to watch.

3. Draongslayer (1981)

As the title suggests, this is a fantasy movie about slaying dragons (very self explanatory). The story of Dragonslayer, however, is quite interesting. In Dragonslayer, the land is plagued with a powerful, evil dragon whose apetite for destruction can only tamed, through the sacrifice of a young woman on regular basis. The tormented villagers eventually seek out the aid of a powerful sorcerer, to rid the land of the evil dragon. However, the sorcer suffered a most untimely death. And his apprentice must take up the mantle left over to him, to slay this dragon with half baked wizard skills (due to his unfinished training as a sorcerer), and free the oppressed people once and for all. The special effects in this movie are quite stunning. To make it even more impressive, this is all done before the days of CGI.

2. Conan the Barbarian (1982)

Conan the Barbarian, is THE movie that made Arnold famous. Although Arnold's Conan is not really what Conan's creator, Robert E. Howard, invisioned Conan and his world to be, nonetheless, this movie, not only made Arnold famous, but also started a whole spree of fantasy movie making in 1980s, gaining the prestige as a cult classic. I am one of those Robert E. Howard fans who is well aware of how this Conan movie painfully deviates from the original material. It is worth mentionig that the screenplay of Conan the Barbarian was writen by award winning screenwriter John Milus and Oliverstone (Platoon, Scarface, Midnight Express etc..), but the writers seemed to just take the name of the character Conan, and threw as many nihilistic elements into the story as possible. Another bizzare phenomenon, is Arnold had minimal amount of dialogues in this film, and most of his dialogues are replaced by the awesome soundtracks from Basil Poledouris (the soundtracks are really good). The first 20 mintues the film felt like a speechless musical play. Nonetheless, I still enjoyed this film. It is hard to say exactly what makes this movie fun to watch. Perhaps it is the combination of: the awesome soundtracks by Basil Poledouris, a story glaring with nihilistic philosophy, and the almost "silent" presence of Arnold as Conan, which created a weird, wacko, and wicked chemistry, somehow worked quite well in this "not very Conan" Conan movie. Anyway, Conan the Barbarian, is still one of those fantasy movies widely recommended among the fans of the genre.


1. Excalibur (1981)

 Taking the crown as the top of my list, is John Boorman's Excalibur. Made in 1981, this is my most favorite fantasy movie. In many ways, I actually prefer Excalibur to Peter Jackson's LOTR. Excalibur, is a retelling of the beautiful story of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, from the birth of Arthur and the time of Uther Pendragon, to Arthur's death in the war against Modred in the "Final Battle". This movie, is probably the most faithful adapation of Sir Thomas Molary's classic romance "Le Morte d'Arthur" from the 15th century. Excalibur, features music of Richard Wagner, and original scores by Trevor Jones. The visuals and the costumes are highly impressionable and astounding. In my opinion, Excalibur succeeds on story, theme, settings, music, and visuals. There aren't many fantasy movies that can surpass this master piece. A while ago, there were talks of a remake, I am glad it didn't happen, because as we have seen from the quality of remakes today, a new version of Excalibur would definitely be ruined by the marketing ploys of movie companies to milk cash.

Here they are, 5 great, and retro fantasy movies you probably haven't seen yet. Perhaps, after you are disappointed with Peter Jackson's new Hobbit movie in a few days' time. You can go to your local video store and take out these classics, and see the quality of movies do not always go hand in hand with multi-million dollar CGI.

Happy holiday!

Friday, December 14, 2012

Book Review: The Sowers of the Thunder by Robert E. Howard - Donald Grant Publishing 1976

Today, I am going to review a very cool book!

What's so cool about this book? Well, first of all. When this book was published in 1976, only 1200 copies were made available, and yes! This book, has been out of print for a long time. Secondly, look at the title of this book, it's called "The Sowers of the Thunder", now where the heck are you going to find a book with a title as cool as this? Thirdly, this book, is a collection of 4 fast paced, sword swinging historical stories written by Robert E. Howard himself. Fourthly, this book has some really cool illustration and artworks in it.

Throughout his career as a writer, from 1920s to 1930s, Robert E. Howard (creator of Conan, Kull, Bran Mak Morn, Solomon Kane, Francis Xavier Gordons etc..) wrote a variety of stories, from fantasy, adventure, horror, boxing, western, historical stories,  comedies to poems. It is estimated that in his career of 15 years, Howard wrote more than 3 million words of poems and stories.

Most people know Robert E. Howard from his character, Conan. However, very few people know that some of Howard's best works are his historical fictions. Collected in this book, are 4 of Howard's sword swinging historical fictions, all took place during the crusade era, set in the region of Outremer. The 4 stories are: The Lion of Tiberas, The Sowers of the Thunder, Lord of Samarcand, and The Shadow of the Vulture. Every story carries the traditional Howardian style, lyrical prose with lightning fast pace. All of these historical fictions have tragic endings, and they are definitely some of the darkest stories that Howard ever wrote. At the same time, these stories are without doubt, some of his finest works.

So, if you are a fan of Robert E. Howard, or if you are a fan of historical fiction. Next time, when you come across this book, do no hesitate. Grab it immediately, because while you can get these 4 stories in Del Ray's series of Robert E. Howard Library of Classics, but this book, published in 1976 by Donald Grant Publishing, is a truly beautiful book deserves to be collected.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Book Review: I am a Barbarian by Edgar Rice Burroughs

Edgar Rice Burroughs, is most well known for his 2 famous literary inventions: Tarzan and John Carter. Tarzan, is doubtlessly one of the most widely known fictional characters of all time, alongside Sherlock Holmes, James Bond, and Conan the Cimmerian (the big 4). On the other hand, John Carter has been re-introduced to a new generation, through the Hollywood blockbuster film, John Carter in 2012.

About 2 months ago, I read the centenary collection of the first 6 Tarzan novels. It was my first experience with Edgar Rice Burrough's works. I have to say, I was not particularly impressed with the Tarzan stories. As a result, I thought Edgar Rice Burroughs was but a mediocre author.

One day when I was surfing the web, I came across a book called: "I am a Barbarian", written by Edgar Rice Burroughs. Initially, I wasn't too sure if I should even pick up this book, firstly it is because, after reading Tarzan, Edgar Rice Burroughs is not on my list of favorite authors. Secondly, from the title of the book, I thought this book would be a Edgar Rice Burroughs styled heroic fantasy, with card board like characters and repetitive stories akin to Tarzan stories. But after looking at the description of the book, it turned out that this is a historical fiction. Set in the time of the Roman Empire. To make it more interesting, the story is about the most notorious Roman emperor, Caligula.

As someone with an avid interest in history, I decided to pick up this book. Apparently, I am a Barbarian was only published 17 years after the death of Edgar Rice Burroughs. The copy I have, is an out of print version, a hard covered book published in 1967, with a dust jacket and a frontal piece illustrated by award winning artist, Jeff Jones.

The story is told in the style of a memoir, recounting the life of Caligula, the imperial family, and the life of the Roman society, through the eyes of one of Caligula's slaves, an individual called Britannicus. Britannicus was originally a Briton, whose father was a chief of a small tribe in England at around 20AD. Britannicus comes from a bloodline of kings, his grand father was of the King of Kent. After a failed military campaign, both Britannicus (age 11) and his parents were captured by the Romans. Britannicus was sold into slavery, subsequently came into the hand of the Roman general Germanicus, and his wife Agrippina. The couple had 3 sons and 3 daughters. One of the sons is Caligula (Little Boots), who would one day become the most notorious emperor in Roman history. Britannicus was chosen to be a slave for Caligula, to be a companion and a play mate for the 4 year old Caligula. From here, the story evolves over the span of 2 decades, until the time when Caligula was finally assassinated at 41AD.

After reading this book, I have to agree with some critics who proclaimed that, I am a Barbarian, is Edgar Rice Burroughs best work. The story, the character development, and the depth of this book is far better than any Tarzan stories. Edgar Rice Burroughs, managed to write a master piece, by breathing life into historical characters and events, while capturing the vividness of the corruption, degeneracy and the debauchery in the Roman society, and blending history with fast paced actions. The result is a page turning, yet reflective and fulfilling historical novel, and I cannot but feel thankful for the fact that the slavery and class system atypical in the Roman society, has long been abolished from our 21th century world, accredited to the fact that our moral systems and ethics are largely shaped by teachings of Christianity and Jesus Christ.

Book Review: Karl Edward Wagner's Kane

Karl Edward Wagner, is one of the masters of horror fiction. But his most famous literary creation, is the mystical swordsman Kane. When Wagner started writing Kane stories, he aimed to introduce something that has never been done before in the genre of dark fantasy/sword and sorcery. Instead of having the readers follow an anti hero (or a hero), Wagner's imaginary works would have the readers follow a protagonist who is, a super villain.

The stories are set in an alternative, pre-medieval world. Kane, is a fictional character that has "obvious" connection with the biblical character "Cain". Wagner's Kane (Cain) has red hair, is a powerful warrior, a master strategist, and an expert in occult knowledge. Kane is also left handed, and is cursed by his creator for rebelling against him, for the murder of Kane's brother Abel. As a punishment for being mankind's first murderer, Kane is cursed to wander the earth as an immortal, until the day when the violence he first introduced into this world will destroy him. Kane is marked with a sign that shows him as a murderer, the mark of Kane illuminating the aura of a murderer in his flaming blue eyes.

 Wagner wrote in total of 3 Kane novels, 15 short stories and 2 poems. The 3 novels are collected by Nightshade publishing in 2002, in a volume called: "Gods in Darkness - The complete novels of Kane". This omnibus collects 3 novels: Bloodstone, Dark Crusade, and Darkness Weaves. The short stories and poems are collected in another volume: "Midnight Sun - The complete stories of Kane".

It's very difficult to describe the character of Kane in short paragraphs, because he is probably, one of the most fascinating, and multi-dimensional characters to ever embrace the world of fantasy fiction, on par with Michael Moorcock's albino prince, Elric of Melinbone.

The attractiveness of Kane, is in the mythology of the character itself. Wagner successfully crafted a super villain like character, by linking to the biblical character Cain. Furthermore, Wagner explored the physcology of a character whose nihilistic existentialism outlook is shaped by his immortal, cursed existence to wander the earth for eternity, unable to form meaningful relationships with other humans. In all of the Kane stories, there will be moments when the readers will cheer for Kane, and there will be moments when the readers will hate Kane, while being absolutely appalled by Kane and atrocities he committed.

Unfortunately, Karl Edward Wagner died at young age of 48 in 1994. So Kane stories also died with Wagner's untimely death. However, the large collection of Kane stories, is a marvelous legacy to the world of fantasy fiction. The stories of Kane glow with the eerie luminescence that creeps with the dark and twisted character of Kane and his saga. The Kane stories, are not to be missed by fans of the heroic/dark fantasy genre.  

Side note: The last 3 stories collected in volume 2: "Midnight Sun - The Complete Stories of Kane", contain extreme, graphical contents. I would advice strong caution here.