|Age of Conan | Published 27 February 2009|
By Roberto Di Meglio
One of the big design challenges of AGE OF CONAN was the definition of the role of Conan in the game. There was no doubt that the barbarian hero would have to be under the spotlight in the game. At the same time, we had a number of issues to deal with: Age of Conan was supposed to be a STRATEGY game, rather than a game focused on the adventures of the hero. The figure of Conan should have an impact on the Hyborian nations, rather than focus on his personal achievements. There would be only ONE Conan, and it was not acceptable to assign the role of Conan to any single player, making him ”cooler” than anybody else. Conan was to be an important element/factor in the achievements of the player, in spite of him not being controlled by any player. The hero plays a number of different roles in the original stories, and those should be somehow represented in the game.
We soon settled on the idea that the control of Conan would be passed along between the players, and that somehow three different areas of activity should be significant:
This was a lot for Conan to do, especially considering that each of these activities would have to be resolved with simple mechanics: only one player at a time would be handling Conan directly, so too much detail would produce downtime for the other players. Moreover, the players would be acting as rulers of kingdoms, so they should have enough on their hands without bothering with Conan – but they should not be able to forget Conan, either!
The first attempt tried to handle all the different activities through what later became the Adventure deck. Unfortunately, the outcome of this system was in the end either too random, both in gaming terms and as a representation of the source material, or too tight and pre-determined. The turning point was the design of the mechanic for determining the control of Conan: with a simple system of limited bidding resources (tokens and cards) we were able to let the players decide for themselves if the cost of getting control of Conan was strategically worth the effort, or if those same resources were better spent for their own direct advantage. After that, the various elements more or less found their place. Once we decided that the presence of Conan was a significant military bonus for the player controlling him (mostly, the Conan player has the barbarian in the lead of his armies) we realized that Conan could work also as a hindrance to non-Conan players attempting to attack a neutral province simply containing Conan (a situation nicely representing the ubiquitous role of the barbarian in the stories showing up to boost the defenses of a small kingdom). More or less at the same time we found a way to accommodate two different needs through the same mechanic: the presence of the “Conan action” on the fate dice. The Conan action allows a non-Conan player to have an influence on the barbarian, interfering with the choices of the Conan player, while allowing the Conan player a direct use of Conan as a raider to damage and harass his opponents (a side note: the original concept was to use a different die - or multiple dice - to control Conan, but this was found to be unnecessary and the simpler solution used now was devised).
The adventure mechanic was possibly the most difficult to fine-tune: we wanted to have enough flavor to keep some of the elements of the stories, but we also wanted to keep this mechanic very simple. So, after a first attempt we discarded the idea of making each adventure card completely different in terms of how to deal with the adventures and their rewards. We decided for a slightly abstract approach, which still maintained the “archetypes” of the rewards gained by the hero, namely monsters slain, women in love, and treasures. We had a few ideas to make some of these rewards more definite, and while some of those ideas became what are now the Artifact cards, other ideas could possibly appear in a future expansion . The current adventure token mechanic, while quite simple, introduced the type of duality that we like very much in War of the Ring – the choice between character-oriented actions (destroying or hunting the Ring) and military actions. In Conan, this type of duality exists in the way you handle Conan and the adventure tokens.
You can decide to move Conan to help with your armies and intrigue – and lose tokens; or you can let Conan free to pursue his adventures – and gain tokens. You can decide to keep tokens to score in the end game, or you can decide to use them as immediate rewards to aid your kingdom. Such choices are very important in the game, and like War of the Ring, they can have a dramatic impact especially in the end game – when you can try to crown Conan as ruler of your kingdom. This brings us to the other big design challenge: how to deal with the rise of Conan to kingship. Of course this event was to be as significant in game terms as it is in the stories, and we considered various possibilities, from a mid-game event where one player would end up playing “Conan vs. everybody else” in the last part of the game, to an event which was only a bonus to a player, to the current version.
The ‘sudden death’ end of the game when a player tries to crown Conan was possibly the last significant development in the game design. The idea that a player can win or lose the game by this event made the choices involving adventure tokens during the game very significant. At the same time, you can still devise a strategy (like a purely military strategy in War of the Ring) where you just ignore this possibility and focus on developing your kingdom.
Many times, the player who successfully crowns Conan wins the game – but this is no way guaranteed, as the attempt itself may bring great reward or the loss of the game.
When everything was done, the Conan mechanics ended in taking up a very significant part of the game rules; the way it should be, in our opinion. This is the Age of CONAN after all, isn’t it? And how could we afford to risk the rage of our favorite barbarian?
This article regarding the development of the Conan-mechanics has done more to garner my interest in the game than any other marketing or explanation.