Conquest of Nerath is a fantasy-themed strategy war-game created by Wizards of the Coast. It won the Origins Award, which is neither surprising nor informative, since almost every game put out by WOTC wins in at least one of Origins’ four-dozen categories. You may have already checked the numerous sites where this game is reviewed by customers, and there the dominant comparison is with Axis & Allies, usually along with the caveat “only way better,” or some such nonsense. Please consider this review before you lay down eighty dollars for this game. (Spoiler: spend your money on something else.)
Comparisons to Axis & Allies are not without merit. Nerath’s combat and movement systems are stolen straight out of the A&A rulebook. Realizing that one cannot improve on perfection, the designers at WOTC avoided the common blunder of trying to make better a combat system which A) has universal acceptance and needs little explanation among established gamers, and B) reduces arbitrary results through the use of many, many dice rolls to prosecute warfare.
Not satisfied to merely repackage someone else’ success, WOTC tried to separate themselves from obvious comparisons to A&A. They went about this in two substantial ways: first by leveraging the seemingly endless yet exhausted fantasy franchise known commonly as Dungeons & Dragons. Equally significant to the theme is the “unwrap and start rolling” simplicity of gameplay. Indeed, one can just about look at the board and figure out how to play it. For the experienced gamers of our group, the instructions only slowed us down and failed absolutely to answer the question, “Why are we playing this?” Left to my own conclusions, I instead documented a couple reasons why I will not be playing Conquest of Nerath again.
1. Contrary to chat-speak transcriptions from neophytes, Nerath does not even begin to scratch that D&D itch. The labeling of units as Fighters, Sorcerers, Elementals, and Dragons is borderline condescending. If you assume, as I did, that a D&D product has some element of roleplaying or character growth, you will be disappointed with Nerath, which has none of that. It is a straightforward line em’ up and knock ‘em down strategy wargame. Arbitrary rules for reinforcements suggest an endless number of elementals and dragons can be recruited as long as your coffers remain full. And though the game necessarily makes more powerful monsters more expensive, supply or motivation is never a consideration, only ability to pay. My point here is to show the divergence from the unlimited creative engagement of roleplaying. The pieces on the Conquest of Nerath board could literally be anything. D&D is used only as a means for moving product. WOTC is smartly leveraging brand recognition but not doing anything smart with it. If what you really want is A&A, play A&A. If it’s a dungeon crawl you’re after, and rolling characters sounds tedious, go for Descent. The “Dungeons” in Nerath are just spaces on the board where you battle monsters that are not part of another player’s army. The treasure you get for conquering these monsters can help elsewhere on the game board, but there’s no more depth to the element. This is Dungeons & Dragons in name only.
2. There is a glaring, game-debilitating balance issue and nothing in the rules does anything to address it. The games I played growing up in the 80’s, besides pencil and paper AD&D, were chess, Starfleet Battles and Axis & Allies. Since I was the inexperienced player, I always played white, the Federation, and the Allies. I was given the advantage because the advantage was known. When someone on another game forum claims Axis & Allies is broken because of balance issues, it’s because they are either too impatient to delve into the dense strategic potential of the diverse and complex conditions built into that game, or they are incapable of doing so. What those same people fail to recognize is that turn order means everything in Nerath. If you play the human kingdom against competent gamers, you will lose every time, barring dumb luck. A similar comparison in chess would be to have the black player begin the match without both rooks. (I’ve done that and won, but in that case I was the superior player by a substantial margin.) In Axis & Allies, Germany and Japan are poised for early power grabs, and must make the most of that jump start, or the Allies will inevitably surge back on the strength of the United States economy. Juxtapose that with Conquest of Nerath, where the four sides begin with the same military strength and occupy similarly defensible positions on the map. While the humans start with one extra gold, the only meaningful differentiation is who gets to attack first. In the team play scenario, the Kingdom of Nerath takes it from both sides, losing half its territory and fighting capacity before that player gets his first turn. And whereas A&A offers different victory conditions reflecting the goals of either side, Conquest of Nerath uses the lazy and deplorable Victory Point dynamic, with the goal the same for all.
While it’s possible to solve this gross inequity with a few house rules, the easiest solution is that the most experienced strategy war gamer should play the humans. The need for house rules to make a game between equally matched competitors balanced and possibly even fun shows just how little effort WOTC put into making this game. There are simple fixes that WOTC can make: meaningful victory conditions, RPG aspect to heroes and dungeons, variation in starting armies to address turn-order imbalance, just to give a few good ideas.