Wizards of the Coast has really been churning out the board games recently, and most of them have been pretty good. The Castle Ravenloft series does a good job of bridging the boardgame-to-RPG gap (something that's in Wizards' interest from a marketing perspective, to be sure) but Conquest of Nerath is a different animal entirely.
I love "men on the board" games. Love 'em. Although I write RPG supplements and such, my primary love has always been board games. I was raised on all the classics, and later in the 1990s I discovered Eurogames and things wweren't really the same after that. Setters of Catan, Carcassonne, and Puerto Rico—I think of them as the big trio—taught me to view board games in a whole new way.
But even so, I delight in board games of conquest (no pun intended) and Milton Bradley's Gamemaster series was great. I was raised on RISK after all, and enjoyed it for all its faults. I found an unopened Samurai Swords (a Shogun reprint) on ebay for about $30 about 10 years ago and nearly thought I'd gone to heaven. Although much of my time is spent punching cardboard after opening the latest Fantasy Flight release (do they own a cardboard factory?) I still long for new "men-on-the-board" games. My holy grail is to find something to replace some of my "flawed" favorites:
Axis & Allies - too bloody complicated
Godstorm RISK - nice but too luck and card driven
RISK 2210 - a modern classic, but strategies become repetitive
These games are about enjoying some controlled aggression with friends. No cooperative stuff here! Players will win and other players will lose. Alliances are fickle and fleeting. And the game will take most of your evening. But strategically and emotionally, they ask the most from me and deliver the best pay-off.
Conquest of Nerath looks to be a good, middle-weight fantasy "men-on-the-board" affair. I say looks to be, because I haven't played it yet, but I've got enough board game experience under my belt that I feel I can give a decent preview.
The game cost me a hefty $80 (I frequent brick and mortar stores when possible), but production is nice. Lots of minis? Check. Gorgeous board? Check. The minis have the added benefit of being, in part, different for each player. Every player get a different dragon mold, etc., which is awesome. (The minis are closer to 15 mm scale, so they can't really serve double duty as D&D minis.) The rule book is also nicely laid out and furnished with illustrations. Rulebooks can look nice and still be confusing—the Fantasy Flight rule books fit squarely into this category I feel—but it's clear here that WotC put care into the instructions.
The game itself pits four fantasy races against each other: undead, elves, goblins, and humans. In a particularly nice touch, each race feels different. Some races start with better board positions and/or greater initial forces, whereas other forces, such as Nerath, start weak but can call in powerful reinforcements via card play. Playing this game will be different every time if you choose different races.
Gameplay looks to be right down the middle, complexity-wise. More complex than the original RISK but less than, say, Axis & Allies. Basic play involves expansion of armies into adjacent areas, but other factors come into play. Dungeons, spread across the board and lovingly named after classic D&D dungeons of legend, can be raided for magic items that grant the player benefits. A player can choose which troops to buy. Dragon or ship? Monster or heroes? Like the latter RISK variants, aggressive play is encouraged and rewarded here—no sitting back and reinforcing Australia for 5 turns in this game. Initial, non-random army placement also guarantees that you begin with at least one enemy right in your backyard, so battles will come sooner rather than later.
I'm looking forward to this one. Stay tuned for a post-play account soon!