Conquest of Paradise
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Conquest of Paradise is a game of empire building in the Polynesian Triangle of the central Pacific Ocean for two, three, or four players. Players explore the unknown ocean around them, hoping to discover the most lucrative island groups, and colonize them. They build canoes and train warriors to create a force to defend their empire, while forging lines of communication with their developing discoveries. Resources are scarce; using them wisely is the key to victory. Investing resources into cultural innovations can yield unexpected dividends, like tattooing, hula dancing, surfing, or even the giant moai statues of Easter Island fame.
Conquest of Paradise is a well-tested, fast-playing design geared to appeal to players who enjoy games like New World, Civilization, and Conquistador. You can learn the game in 10-15 minutes and finish a complete game in 60-90 minutes.
Sometimes I feel like a real hypocrite, when I'm always pushing games to have new themes, then don't show enough interest when a truly original theme shows up. When I first saw Conquest of Paradise (GMT Games, 2007 - Kevin McPartland), the theme of colonizing the Polynesian islands didn't seem that interesting, although the designer's enthusiasm certainly caused me to take a second look. After playing the game, I find myself very impressed with the marriage of theme to the mechanics; it has a unique feel to it.
Conquest of Paradise is all about island hopping and controlling chains of islands. Combat is certainly involved in the game but does not take precedence, and the phases of the game keep everything moving to a swift conclusion. There are some elements of empire building, but it's more about discovery than anything else. The discovery aspect may add too much luck to the game; but because the game takes about ninety minutes maximum, I found it interesting and engaging. It seems likely that it plays best with three players - mostly because of time and board space, and it has a "fresh" feel to it that should cause most folks to check it out.
Conquest does have a feel of a stripped down civilization game. There is an amazing twenty page designer's notes booklet that gives quite a bit of detail and background on the various islands and cultures in the Polynesian islands. While this certainly isn't necessary to play the game (many folks will simply toss it back into the box), I am very impressed with the designer's emphasis on historical accuracy.
The box itself is a typical GMT production with a thin cardboard fold-out board (I know it's to keep costs down, but I would so much prefer mounted boards) and piles of hexes, tokens, and decent quality cards. Interestingly enough, players don't have that many different types of units; the variety in the game comes instead from the exploration, rather than the different tracks of building. Don't get me wrong, players will utilize different strategies to determine what they should build next when playing the game, but the key to the entire game - in my opinion - is the exploration phase.
The map comes with several of the islands already printed on it - in their historical geographic location. However, to help emphasize the idea of discovery, the rest of the islands are printed on tiles that a player has to "find" on the main board. The discovery aspect is actually really interesting. The player draws from a bowl of discovery chits, as they enter each new unexplored hex. Many of these hexes are simply open ocean, while others have a random island group placed there. However, the chits drawn also show zero to three knots on them. A player can safely draw up to four knots and continue; and then they draw five knots, ending their exploration turn. But if they draw more than five knots, their exploration turn ends; and they do not get to explore on the following turn. This gives the game a bit of a "push-your-luck" aspect, because finding a juicy set of tiles is certainly something everyone wants, but to lose the exploration on a turn can put you behind.
Also, players don't have to reveal all the island groups that they have found, so it's quite probable that a player will hide a good set of islands until they can get their tribesmen there to settle them. All that the other players know is that the tile is an island group. At the same time, these hidden islands are screaming "good stuff" at the opponents; so a player takes a risk there and can even bluff their opponents.
One of the big criticisms the game has received is in the luck of the islands that are drawn. Some of them have spots for one village, while others can have up to four. Thus, it is theoretically possible that one player can have lush islands surrounding their home islands, while another player is stuck with miserable island groups. However, given the luck of the exploration phase, combined with the luck of the tile draws, I have yet to see this have a massive effect on the game. Besides, it's quite possible that a player can simply attack and conquer a luscious region of islands.
So far, I've pointed out a decent amount of luck in the game, but it also shows up in two more places. The player can buy Arts and Culture cards during the game, which may possibly give them an upgrade but is more likely to award them a number of points. Like the popular game Settlers of Catan, these point cards can be shown at any time. Therefore a player will likely save up enough of the point cards then suddenly reveal them near the end of the game, to claim the victory. Again, some of these cards are more valuable than others, and a few give more points to players if they control a specific island group. No matter what, however, a player takes a risk when buying these, because they are giving up buying a new colony to take a card that may or may not help them much. I personally like drawing the cards, but I certainly can see my building suffer setbacks because of this.
The last place luck shows up is in the combat. Players can attempt to take over neutral islands in the game or directly attack another player (which, as we all know, is much more fun!). There are only two battle units - warrior bands and war canoes, and only the attacker rolls a die. This die roll randomly and evenly destroys or panics (takes out of battle) one of the attacking or defending units. The die is rolled until the battle is over, since these stubborn tribes never retreat. It does feel quite odd to have one player roll the die that determines the outcome of the battle; but since war isn't necessarily the focus of the game, I don't mind it. A few cards give bonuses to the attackers and/or defenders, and the defenders have a slightly easier time of it; but battles are fairly random. If you want to win decisively, you simply send in a lot of troops and pray.
All of this randomness makes it sound as if the game is fairly light. And Conquest is light - the historical trappings are mostly there for theme purposes and don't add a lot to the rules. I can compare this to the recent GMT release, Blackbeard, which adds a pile of "historical" rules to simply make the game more complicated. In Conquest, the historical theme comes because of the mechanics and doesn't drive them. This does mean that the game is light but also improves it by keeping it short.
Don't misunderstand me - a player who thinks that the outcome is determined by luck will get destroyed by another player who cleverly manages their resources and explorers. Conquest can have the "Cold War" mentality, as players build up large forces of war canoes; but at the same time, villages are what score a majority of the points for players, so to avoid them would be foolish.
But what really makes the game for me is the whole island/sea thematic feel. This isn't some war game in which you can simply march troops into the next area. Instead, players have to carefully manage their islands and build up a network of transport canoes so that they can share resources, to build more improvements and buff up their army. Just because a lucrative island has been discovered, doesn't necessarily make it worth going after, if it stretches your empires arm out a bit. And the importance of war canoes is great - this is one of the few games where you'll see more naval units built than land units! I don't know how to explain the feel exactly, but the network of islands that a player builds just produces a very satisfying feel; and the game seems to flow back and forth.
Just as the final islands are discovered, the game will likely come to a close. Players can of course drag the game out through years (turns) of pointless fighting; but if exploration and discovery are high on the priority lists, then you're going to see fast expansion and quicker game conclusions. Once a person has amassed enough victory points, they can end the game (which, because of points on the cards - is remarkably like Settlers of Catan, and the revealing of victory point cards at the end).
A few advanced rules are included at the end, all of which I now include in my game for both thematic and game play purposes. The best of these is the "Sweet Potatoes" rule, which allows players to go off and hunt for this fabled vegetable. Since this adds more options, to me it adds more fun.
Conquest of Paradise didn't sound very interesting, even after reading the rules. But I am pleased to say that there is a very excellent game contained here, and that it's one that will have a high appeal, if only because the game play is so unique. With a beautiful board - especially when the whole game is finished, tremendous theme, and simple, fun tactics - Conquest of Paradise may still not be considered "civilization in a box"; but it certainly has the feel of it.
"Real men play board games"