More Than Only War: Conquest
My Personal Journey for a tournament-style card game has already bounced off the odd world of The Spoils and fallen briefly in love with the windswept gunfights of Doomtown: Reloaded. Today, my search comes to its conclusion in the grim darkness of the far future.
Conquest: A Reign of War
My interest in Conquest began when the very earliest teasers from Fantasy Flight Games made it look like a Warhammer 40,000-themed take on one of my all-time favorites, Omen: A Reign of War. And really, although it’s now apparent they’re very different games, the broad strokes are largely the same. You’re presented with a central row of locations to conquer — planets, in this case — and then you drop troops onto them, struggling back and forth with your opponent as you strive to be the first to claim them.
From there, the differences become more pronounced, forcing us to discard the comparison altogether (which is probably fine with most people, since Omen is such a niche title). You’ve got support locations for long-term bonuses, events that do pretty much anything, from wiping out entire stacks of units to blocking damage to blocking that previous blocking of damage. And of course, you’ve got plenty of troops to deploy and attachments to beef them up — after all, as Hemingway wrote near the end of his life, “The only thing better than a Goff Nob Ork is a Goff Nob Ork with a Rokkit Launcha.”
There’s a strong sense of geography to the whole affair, especially if you’re playing as one of the factions that can jump between adjacent planets after being deployed. Moreover, these planets are important in more ways than one. Not only are they crucial to victory, as the first player to assemble a match-three of their icons wins, but they’re also one of your major sources of extra cards and resources. This forges Conquest’s central dichotomy: you need to spread out in order to win the economic game, but cluster around contested planets in order to win the actual game. Every card is placed with no shortage of tension as you wonder whether you’re over-dedicating to a fight, or spreading yourself too thin, or going after the wrong planets, or setting yourself up for a clever play that will rout your best units and hammer the rest with ranged attacks before the rest of your guys can even get in range to respond.
Best of all, it’s fantastically simple. There are lots of combos to explore and instances of timing to exploit, but it’s one of those rare games you can teach in five minutes, letting the game be more about how you’re using your cards and less about who has a better grasp of the rules.
Visit the 41st Century
All that aside, the thing that most immediately draws one’s nerdy gaze is the setting. Yes, it’s Warhammer 40,000, and yes, the grim 41st century fits like a well-worn glove. Each of the base game’s seven factions feels distinct. You’ve got the chunky straightforwardness of the Space Marines and the combined arms of the Astra Militarum. The Orks become more powerful as they take damage and love to descend upon their enemies in massive warbands. Chaos sports some of the most powerful units, though they’re cost-prohibitive until you sacrifice a few cultists. The Eldar and Dark Eldar are both specialist teams, focusing on movement, hit-and-run tactics, and in the latter case, on messing with your opponent’s hand. And the Tau love to transform their units into juggernauts through their piles of excellent attachments.
That each team bears a unique play theme is one thing; it’s another entirely that, for the most part, they’re as balanced as they are. Of course, with such a slim pool of cards to draw from, there are certain combinations that are markedly more impressive than others (Space Marines + Tau feels especially threatening right now), but in general each faction feels powerful in their own way.
Even building a custom deck is refreshingly simple. Each faction starts off with a warlord (more on them in a moment) and his eight “signature” cards, and you’re allowed to ally with one of two other decks as well. This can cause some funny thematic blurring between races, not that it really matters. What might bother some people is that you’ll need a full three starter sets for full customization options, but that isn’t particularly uncommon these days, nor is it as expensive as it sounds. In the end, it’s one of the best experiences I’ve had with setting up my own decks.
Kill Their Only Hope
Probably the thing I like most about Conquest is the way it handles warlords. Each faction comes with one of these guys, an extra meaty leader-type with a powerful ability — for example, Captain Sicarius of the Space Marines gets an extra resource whenever an enemy unit dies at a battle he’s present at, while Packmaster Kith of the Dark Eldar puts a free Khymera into play when she arrives at a planet. These warlords begin the game in play, and every turn you set this little dial to indicate which planet yours will deploy to, bringing any spare units along for the ride.
First of all, this introduces an element of bluffing and guesswork to the game. You win instantly if you ever kill your opponent’s warlord, so it’s possible to end up in a game of cat-and-mouse as you try to figure out where the enemy warlord is headed, then send your own warlord to that planet for a smackdown. Warlords also instantly win the contest for a planet’s resources, give their team the first attack in battle, and trigger a battle wherever they go, which means your strategy more often than not revolves around what they can do and who they can do it to. It’s Conquest’s second major dichotomy that your warlord is often your most useful unit, but also the only one you truly can’t afford to lose. And yet you’re forced deploy him each round, putting him in harm’s way. Therefore, every single card you play informs the decision of what to do with him, whether he should help out at that round’s contested planet, win a command struggle for resources and extra cards, or hide away on some remote rock and pray your opponent hasn’t guessed he’ll be cowering there.
It’s constant tension. And it’s sublime.
As I’ve already mentioned, Conquest presents two major gameplay conflicts that force you to constantly evaluate the best use of your units and other cards, and in particular your warlord. Everything has multiple uses, from the different spots to deploy your units to the way you can discard certain cards to act as “shields” to block damage. Every single action matters, every play creates lasting consequences, and all in half an hour.
No, really. This game is simple, (generally) balanced, with excellent gameplay and hard decisions, and it also happens to be one of the fastest tournament-style card games I’ve had the pleasure of playing. Oh, it has its share of rough spots — a limited card pool at present and a few abilities that feel a little too powerful for the time being. But those are minor distractions from what is otherwise one of the year’s best releases.
Personal Journey complete. I’ve found my tournament game.