I own a lot of board games. Many of them are published by GMT Games (about one-sixth of my collection). Most of the unplayed games I own are also from GMT Games. This isn’t really that surprising when you consider that they primarily publish wargames, which tend to require quite a bit more time an effort than what it takes to play the latest Eurogame. They also tend to be more time-consuming than the average Euro; setting aside 6-8 hours for a game is not something I can regularly do. (Well, not when I’m so busy playing other games).
All of which doesn’t really explain why I haven’t played Conquest of Paradise until now. It’s a game for two to four players that takes less than 2 hours to complete. This is well in the range of most of the games I play.
In any case, I finally managed to play Conquest of Paradise last week. Playing the game with me were Brad, Josh and Mikey, who are mostly unfamiliar with wargames. However, Conquest of Paradise is by no means a traditional wargame; it instead feels far more like a civilisation game.
You win a four-player game by amassing 22 victory points, these points come from controlling villages, island chains, atolls, and cultural developments. It is notable that although you always gain points for the villages and culture, to gain the island chain and atoll points you require a stable chain of trade between them (represented by transport canoes). These are vulnerable to disruption, and this can cause some significant point swings, as we discovered in this game.
However, it would be fair to say we didn’t really realise this at the start. This was an introductory game, where we got used to how the mechanics worked. Although you do not need to pay upkeep on your military units, constructing the war canoes you need to disrupt trade and conquer other islands is an expensive endeavour. Losses in battle tend to be light – your units are more likely to retreat than be killed – but even losing one war canoe is a significant loss of resources. That would be part of the reason why we didn’t really commit to any significant offensives during the game.
We managed to make a mistake during the set-up; I’m not sure how much of an effect it had on the game play.
The other reason was because exploring the map was just so much fun. You have one exploration vessel, which can generally explore two to four hexes each turn; there’s a bit of “push your luck” about it, as you might find the exploration takes longer than expected and thus the expedition becomes lost, and you need to skip the next turn’s exploration. Exploration can discover open sea, coral atolls (relatively worthless) and habitable islands that can support from one to four villages. The better islands are rare, and – as we discovered – any island at all can be rare. Josh spent a lot of the game exploring open ocean before he found the major island just on his doorstep!
Just a word about the orientation of the islands: when an island is controlled by a player, it is placed to the same facing as the home island of that player; you don’t place markers to indicate who owns each island, although it’s likely that player has units there. Villages do have an inherent defensive force – more often the unit will be a transport canoe.
So, the course of the game saw us explore the nearby sea for new islands to colonise and settle new villages. It saw us try to manage our economy. That was tricky: you get one build point each turn from each village you control, which can only be spent on that island unless you have a chain of transport canoes linking your islands together. We began with two villages, thus two build points, and it costs 2 points to build a new village (or a colonist to settle a village on a new island). As the villages were worth VPs, you can see why building a navy of war canoes (also 2 points to build) was not high on our agenda in the early game.
However, the attention just to our own affairs meant that Brad was able to reveal he’d won without us realising how close he was to victory (the VPs from his cards were hidden until he played them, or revealed them to take victory). He’d amassed 24 victory points… enough to definitely take the game compared to my 19.5 (with Josh and Mikey a lot further behind on 12.5 and 12 respectively).
Obviously, we’d delayed our entrance into disrupting the other players a bit too long. In fact, there had been the beginning of some low-level conflict in the previous few turns. Why was Mikey so far behind? That would be because I’d built a single war canoe and moved it into his territory, cutting off the fragile transport link that connected his colonies to his main island. The turn after that, he’d attacked it with another war canoe, only for the attack to fail and his canoe retreat. In the next turn, I’d moved into Brad’s territory and began to cut his links – but I wasn’t able to do more before he won.
Brad had actually built up a large force on his own home island, which made me very wary of invading it (although I rated the potential of him invading me as unlikely). The independent islands to the west were likewise untouched. How big a force did we need to subdue them? We didn’t know, and we didn’t learn this game.
That’s fine. Some games we understand how they work immediately, others require more time. The Conquest of Paradise has a deceptively simple rule set. We had more tools than we used, so next time we’re likely to play more interactively from the start. There is obviously a point where going to war too early is as bad as going to war too late, but this just means there’s a lot of space to explore in this game.
GMT Games is currently taking preorders for a reprint edition of this game with significantly improved components – they hope to reprint it in early 2016.
Conquest of Paradise is a fairly simple game that wasn’t hard to learn the rules to, although it seems our strategy needs a lot of work! We made a few errors during the game – I parked a couple of decoy counters on an explored tile that I should have flipped, and I’m not certain if we always kept to the limit of buying only one culture card per turn. (I think we did, but it’s hard to tell). This first game took the four of us about 2 hours to play. It probably will run quicker as we get used to it, although perhaps not depending on how conflict slows it down!
Is it the best game in my collection? No, but it is one worth bringing out again and exploring more. I’m not sure when we’ll get that chance, as we tend to go for variety more than sustained play of one game, but now it’s on my radar and I’ll try and bring it out in the near future before I forget the rules!