“This Must Be Just Like Living in Paradise…” Review of GMT’s Board Game – Conquest of Paradise
Conquest of Paradise – 2nd edition Game Review Publisher: GMT Designer: Kevin McPartland $57.00
Passed Inspection: Heavy duty box, high quality mounted map board. Durable thick, cut cardboard counters and tiles. Rules are clearly written and to the point. Playing pieces are painted wooden blocks for villages and cardboard counters for explorers, canoes and warriors.
Failed Basic: None. This game is almost perfect.
Jared Diamond’s 1997 book Guns, Germs and Steel is a brilliant study in the origins, rise and fall of imperialist powers. While today we associate “Imperialism” with the 18th-20th Century global domination by (mostly) western European powers, Diamond offered a scaled down case study of Imperialism in the form of Polynesian settlement across the Pacific. It’s a great book. Find a copy and read it. You’ll learn something. But before you do that, run out and buy a copy of Kevin McPartland’s “Conquest of Paradise”. Specifically, the deluxe second edition.
Conquest of Paradise is a game of exploration, settlement and conquest. The core concept has been around for a while in different packaging be it Sid Meier’s Civilization, Victory Games Pax Brittanica, or the old Microprose computer game Master of Orion. You explore the unknown. In the process you, discover new lands to colonize and bump up against groups competing for the same resources.
The game is designed for 2-4 players. Unlike some multi-player games, Conquest of Paradise feels like the same game regardless of how many players you have. There are even a robust set of solitaire rules for the solo gamer.
The game components are first rate, with a heavy duty, glossy color map board, heavy duty cardboard counters and map tiles and well executed painted wooden blocks for villages. Each player selects one of up to four island groups and places their starting villages and explorer.
The mechanics are straightforward. You explore, colonize, build and maybe fight.
Each round, the players take turns sending their explorer into the unknown and looking for new lands to settle. This is done through a blind chit draw that combines the results of the search with a ‘friction’ cost in knots. Accumulate too many knots and your explorer may get lost and lose a turn.
Once you find land, you draw a random tile from the pool. Each tile represents a historical island group. What’s different is that the historical locations will not be replicated in the game due to the random nature of the draw. This is actually a great mechanic as it ensures that no two games will ever been the same. You be hard pressed to devise the ‘master strategy’ that would win every game.
The logical outgrowth of exploration is colonization – organize groups of settlers and canoes to travel to these new exotic islands. Movement is straightforward and elegant. Players can build ‘transport’ networks to move between islands and then use canoes to travel to the newly discovered lands.
Of course, these settlers and canoes need to be created. And they need to be defended. In each turn, the players must allocate resources to grow their empire. These actions can range from literally clearing land to grow more food and support more villages to building warriors and war canoes to seize the other player’s tropical treasures. Given the initial starting budgets, warriors and war canoes are expensive items. You are talking about the aircraft carriers and Marine divisions of the Polynesian world and for each one you build, that’s a lot of coconut butter your people are not producing.
But the tools of conflict and subsistence are not the only products that may be created. Each player may also invest in the cultural arts. Doing so allows each player to draw from the cultural innovation card deck. Innovations range from improved canoes to yes, the giant stone heads (Moai) of Easter Island. The innovations are worth victory points and some cards have impacts to game play when revealed.
When your title has Conquest in the title, you expect fighting to feature in the game and you won’t be disappointed. The game supports combat between warships and other warships as well as warships, warriors and militia defending villages. War canoes are required to carry warriors into combat.
The combat system is simple – each combat round, roll the die. There’s an evenly distributed chance of either you or your opponent being effected. The side with the last pieces left on the battle line is the winner. It’s a different take from the standard war game of adding attack factors and rolling a single die. The even distribution of results on one die means you are launching an attack with no confidence in winning, even at 3:1 odds. Yes, having three times the forces allows you to sustain the attack for a longer time, but it does not guarantee victory. Just because the last die roll was a “1” does not make it more likely that my next roll will be a “6”. From a psychological standpoint, the combat system appears designed to discourage combat by making it unappealing as a strategy. It’s an interesting mechanism and one that reveals as much about the players as the game.
Example of combat
What do I mean by that? Well, let’s look at a small combat example and see how it works out.
– Samoa (the Red Force) having decided that conquest of the Tongan people (the Yellow force) is the path to victory launches an invasion of the island group of Nuie with a war canoe and a warrior band. The single Tongan village can only muster their local warriors in the defense.
– Both sides form the battle lines with the war canoe and warrior band facing the local warriors. The battle is joined.
o The Samoans lose a unit in the first turn – the warrior falls.
o The Samoans have a unit panic. It has to be the sole remaining unit left – the war canoe.
o With no units left in the battle line, the Samoan’s lose the battle and must retreat back to their home islands.
– Resolving the entire battle took maybe five minutes.
So how does it play? In a word – great! It’s quick and flows well in the turn sequence. Very difficult to get lost in the turn. On the rare occasions our new players had questions, the answers were easily found with the well indexed rulebook.
In our early playtests we were so focused on exploration and colonization that the end of the game – defined by victory points – snuck up and surprised us. We all felt that we expected a couple of more turns to occur, but then I look at the score, look at the board and realize this game is over next turn. The down side here is that you get behind early – either not finding an island or worst case – your explorer gets lost – it’s tough to recover.
Kevin McPartland has captured a great tension in Conquest of Paradise – there’s a strong tendency to focus on the economic expansion, but by the time you identify a clear leader that can threaten to win the game, there’s not enough time to shift to a ‘war’ footing and take them down. It’s an easy trap into which you can fall. Once behind the curve it’s tough to recover. The best way to avoid falling behind is to plan to shift to building arms around turn three (really – turn three!) so you can start to threaten your opponents before it becomes a runaway game. Once you do, the other players have to shift in response and the arms race has begun!
I’d go so far to say that if your explorer gets lost you’ve reached the decision point at which you shift to conquering your neighbor. Even if you don’t seize their islands, smash their transport network. Without this key infrastructure, you’ll cripple their ability to build, expand and earn victory points.
Conquest of Paradise succeeds at doing what a great game should do – it teaches. I don’t mean preaches, I mean teaches. It teaches geography (the actual locations of the islands are printed on the map for reference), it teaches aspects of Polynesian culture, it teaches ecology and why pre-industrial empires fail. It also teaches how to weigh risk and return. For example, looking at the map, you could ‘turn inward’ and attack islands groups to the west that are already settled. Except they are full of many warriors and mosquito borne diseases, it makes pushing off into the trackless unknown of the Pacific ocean seem a much safer proposition. Which was the historical path taken by the islanders. Education – wrapped up in a fun gaming burrito. That’s a quality product right there!
Conquest of Paradise really lends itself to solitaire play. Exploring the unknown and expanding your empire are both activities that can be done well in solo play. However the provided solitaire rules give a much richer game play by simulating the actions of phantom players including seizing ground and launching attacks against you. It’s a great way to learn the game mechanics and have a rewarding game experience.
Armchair General Rating: 95%
Solitaire Rating: 5
Ray Garbee has been a gamer for the past four decades, Ray’s interests include the Anglo-Sikh Wars through the conflicts of the 20th Century and beyond but his passion remains ACW naval gaming. Currently, Ray works as a business analyst in the IT field while continuing to design tabletop games. His past works include Iron Thunder, Anaconda, Anaconda: Capital Navies and articles in a number of defunct hobby magazines. When not busy gaming, Ray enjoys working on his model railroad, hiking and sport shooting at the local range.
I wonder if other gamers have the same feeling as I have on the way games make you feel.
When I play ‘Navajo Wars’ this excellent game produces a somewhat depressing experience because you know the Dine people are fighting a losing battle for their survival; the odds are against you even in normal game situations and it’s sobering to end up with broken families suffering drought, etc etc.
Playing the equally good ‘Enemy Coast Ahead’ has a similar effect – the map reproduces the fact that the dambusters raid was carried out at night – it’s all dark and gloomy…
But ‘Conquest of Paradise’ makes me feel good even when I lose – it’s all bright blue, sunny South Pacific sailing, miles of open ocean….
Is it just me?
Good question! I don’t think it’s just you. The folks in my play through group are as bloodthirsty a gaming group as you’ll ever meet. But they displayed an atypical avoidance of combat in this game. Could it be that the color palette used reinforced the trope of peaceful islanders living in harmony with nature? Maybe.
The visual aspects of a game are important – I agree with you, the light, sunny feel of Conquest of Paradise likely does shape the game experience in ways I didn’t consider as part of the review.