When I first took a look at Conquest of Nerath, the latest board game set in the Dungeons and Dragons universe, I thought it would be something similar to Risk.  The board contained a map.  Pieces are comprised of army units, with dice that are rolled to determine battles.  However, once I played the game, I realized that Conquest of Nerath was much more than just a Risk clone, and something more engaging.

Conquest of Nerath is an area control game set in the Dungeons and Dragons universe.  Four sides, the Dark Empire of Karkoth, the Vailin Alliance, the Iron Circle, and the Nerathan League are all battling for control over the world.  Games can be played in a free-for-all fashion, or alliances can be set up with the Empire of Karkoth and the Iron Circle battling against the Vailin Alliance and the Nerathan league.  Short and medium games are won by collecting a specific number of victory points, and the long game is won by controlling all capitals or collecting a specific number of treasures.  The number of victory points and treasures are different for free-for-all and alliance games.

I first got a look at the components after lifting the board out of the box.  The tray is something that I normally wouldn’t talk about, but this one is designed so well that it is worth mentioning.  The designers of the tray have done their homework as every piece in the game has its proper place.  Each of the four armies has a separate section, and control markers for each army go above each section.  Plastic chips to assist with counting armies go in its own section with gold pieces, dungeon markers, and the event cards going between two of the armies.  Finally, to the side there is an area for holding the sixteen dice included with the game.  Each area isclearly marked, making it easy to know where all the pieces go.

Did I mention there are a ton of pieces in Conquest of Nerath?  We’ve come a long way since the Roman numerals in Risk.  These armies truly look like armies.  Each side has foot soldiers, siege engines, monsters, fighters, wizards, castles, storm elementals, dragons, and warships.  The foot soldiers, monsters, fighters, and dragons all look different for each faction.  While the pieces for each faction have the same functionality, a lot of personality is added to each faction with the different models.

To start the game you place the specific armies on the board.  Each faction has a reference sheet that shows where the starting armies are placed.  The board itself also specifies which armies are placed in each area at the start of the game.  Each of the four factions has their own area, but you don’t have to go far to meet up with enemy factions.

Conquest of Nerath uses a specific turn order throughout the game.  Karkoth goes first, but starts with the lowest amount of gold pieces.  Nerath goes last, but they start the game with the most amount of gold to help compensate for being last.  It’s not a novel concept, but it works.

Each turn has the same turn order.  First you draw an event card from your deck, then move your armies across the board as you wish.  Battles are then fought in the areas that you moved pieces into with enemies in.  Once the battles are over you can reposition your troops how you wish and then buy new troops with the gold pieces you have.  Finally you gain gold equal to the number of areas you are in control of.  If you are familiar with Risk, these actions should sound fairly familiar, but they might not be in the order you expect them.

Most of the armies you have can move two spaces.  The exceptions are the footsoldiers and siege engines that can move one, and the dragon that can move three spaces.  It makes movement easier to remember, but it also adds to the strategy you have in how far you can move your pieces.  Do you try to expand out and possibly wear yourselves thin, or do you consolidate your armies but collect less gold?  Warships are available that can transport troops over bodies of water.  The rules could be a little clearer on whether your troops can disembark if your ship moves into a space with another enemy warship.

Combat involves dice rolling, but it ends up being something between a cross of Risk, Axis and Allies, and Nexus Ops.  Each piece rolls a die that corresponds to them.  For example, Footsoldiers only roll a six-sided die, while Dragons get a 20-sided die.  All pieces roll at the same time, except for Wizards who roll first because of their first strike special ability.  A roll of six or higher indicates a hit.  Each side counts the number of hits, and then each player removes a piece for each hit against them.

Event cards can be played at the time listed on them.  Some are played immediately, while others are held out for battle or other turn phases.  Each faction has their own separate Event card deck, but I do wish that each faction would have more cards for their deck.

Certain areas on the map are dungeon spaces.  Fighters and Wizards are considered Heroes, and only they can enter the dungeon areas.  At the start of the game a single Dungeon Guardian tile is laid on these spaces, but once the Dungeon Guardian has been defeated, two monsters are laid in the area.  To defeat the Dungeon Guardian, you need to give it as many hits as dice rolled for their attack.  Combat is handled similarly to combat between two armies.  If you defeat the Dungeon Guardian, you get the top card from the Treasure deck, plus any reward that might show up on the token.  Be careful though, because these Dungeon Guardians can be tough with special abilities that give them first strike or toughness that requires a roll of a seven or eight to cause damage.

Most of the time you’ll be playing for points.  You get a point for each land that you conquer that you didn’t start out with at the beginning of the game.  If you capture a Capital city, you gain five victory points.  While these capitals are important to hold on to, they are fairly deep into your territory.  You still want to be sure that you defend against having those taken over.  You also gain victory points when you play a Treasure card.  The amount of points gained is shown on the card.

A few issues come with Conquest of Nerath.  With most area control games, there can be some turns that take a while because of all the options and the length it takes to get from the first player to the last.  If everyone knows this ahead of time, that shouldn’t be an issue.  Play goes quicker once everyone gets the hang of turn order.  Also, the reference sheet for everyone to use comes on the opposite side of the card that is supposed to hold the gold pieces and the treasure deck.  Conquest of Nerath retails for $79.99, which may seem expensive at first, but there are so many pieces that you can’t fault Wizards of the Coast for charging so much.  Since each faction starts out in the same area, the question of replayability might come up, but there are so many options to play that I feel there will be plenty of replayability.  None of these issues are deal breakers.

When I first looked at Conquest of Nerath I expected some kind of Risk clone.  In the end, I found a lot of variety, and each faction plays a little bit differently because of the starting units, money, and Event cards.  The combat gave stronger units a higher percentage for a hit, while still giving weaker guys a chance for a hit.  Strategy is needed when deciding which units to discard in battle.  Playing alliances verses free-for-all gives the game a different feel.  You can also aim for a certain length depending on the victory conditions, which really change your strategy as well.  The dungeons add a whole new wrinkle into the battles as well, do you risk an army for a potentially great reward?  Wizards of the Coast has done well with expanding the D&D brand to the Castle Ravenloft and Wrath of Ashardalon board games, and Conquest of Nerath follows in that tradition.