Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Conquest of Paradise

I've always liked 4X games on the computer (eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, and eXterminate). There have been similar games available as board games since before there were computer games, but they tended to be long games like Avalon Hill's Civilization that often take six hours or more to play. They also tend to play better with more players. This combination makes it difficult for me to even consider getting them on the table.

Conquest of Paradise has changed that. This game shares a lot of similarities with traditional 4X games, but it plays just fine with only two players, and comes in at around two hours for a game between two inexperienced players (the box claims as little as half that time for more experienced players).

Unlike its predecessors, CoP features a South Pacific theme instead of the more typical Mediterranean one. It covers the period from 500AD during which the area known today as Polynesia was colonized.

The game is obviously a labor of love by the designer who includes a set of designers notes at least twice as long as the rules themselves, and contain mostly historical background. Unlike many other games that start with a historical theme rather than a set of rules, CoP achieves a great balance between that theme and playability.

The components are attractive, but not up to the quality level that people have come to expect from most board games today. The board itself is made of thin cardboard. It's Better than paper, but not as good as a mounted board. Counters are typical wargame quality cardboard chits. The cards aren't up to playing card quality, but are ok, especially since you only need to shuffle them once at the beginning of each game.

Each turn of game play consists of five steps. Each step consists of both players taking their actions before moving on to the next step. The steps are Turn Order, Exploration, Movement & Battle, Building, and Victory.

The Turn Order and Victory steps are essentially bookkeeping phases during which initiative and victory points are determined respectively. The meat of the game lies in the middle three steps.

During Exploration each player takes their explorer and proceeds to explore the map by entering unexplored hexes and drawing random chits to determine what is there. If an island is discovered, then a random island tile is drawn and placed on the map.

Players move their other units during the Movement & Battle step. These units consist of transport canoes, war canoes, colonies, and warrior bands. After movement is completed, units that have moved into a hex containing enemy units or villages conduct a battle during this phase.

After all movement and battle is completed the game moves to the Building step, where players calculate how many building points they have and use them to build new units and villages, as well as to buy cultural cards that can give victory points or bonuses to different activities, including exploration and combat.

Getting back to the four 'X's, the first obviously corresponds to the Exploration phase. The Movement & Battle phase corresponds to the eXterminate phase, although there probably won't be much extermination going on, as combat is usually pretty bloodless in CoP. The last two, eXpansion and eXploitation, are covered in the Build phase.

Compared to 4X computer games, there's not a lot of depth here. No tech trees or anything like that to go through, but that kind of thing is often better left to computers. CoP distills the most exciting bits out of 4X games so that the play doesn't get bogged down, at least not with the two player game. I can't speak for how well it works with three and four players as I've only played with two so far, but I suspect those games will be at least as fun as the two player game.

I can fully recommend this game to anyone who wants an entertaining and relatively quick playing 4X or civilization-lite style of game.

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