GrogHeads Reviews Colonial Conquest

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Colonial Conquest has landed on our shores.  But how all-conquering is it?  Jim O takes a look.

Jim Owczarski, 29 August 2015

I love the moment in “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure” when Napoleon, having told the protagonists how he will conquer Europe with water slides, is gainsaid by them and proceeds to smack what I’ve always taken to be a “Risk” board with his sword declaring, “triomphe Napoleon!”  It’s not only wonderfully silly, but it reminds me of why “Risk” remains one of the best games ever designed — for all its faults.  It’s simple, it’s nasty, and when you finally do kick your opponent out of Australia (yes, it can be done), it makes you feel like a conqueror.  Lots of games since have tried to capture what it is that makes “Risk” special — there’s enough branded adaptations to fill shelves — and so Argonauts Interactive’s “Colonial Conquest” (hereafter CC) joins a crowded field.  It’s far from a bad game, and it’s nicely priced, but I can’t help but feel it was shipped a bit sooner than it should have been.

Much here will be familiar and I think that works in the game’s favor.  The learning curve is certainly gentle.  CC is played out over a map of the world divided into national areas and sea zones.  The board is more granular than “Risk” (although some familiar friends are present) which tends to lengthen play.  There are some strange geographic decisions relating to which territories are adjacent to which.  If I read the support forums for the game correctly, some of these were unintentional and are being fixed.  Others, like that below, remain and cause no small amount of frustration for reasons I’ll get into shortly.

Seriously?  Those 580 troops can't march into the Ottoman Empire?

Seriously?  Those 580 troops can’t march into the Ottoman Empire?

Each sea zone is taken to be part of its adjacent land zone and cannot be selected separately.  This limits the naval portion of the game and is something that may change in later iterations.

As the title suggest, the game is set in the colonial era, a theming the game wears lightly.  There are three scenarios and each player takes the part of one of six major nations.  Depending on the scenario, each nation gets a certain number of zones to itself with the majority of the board being in the hands of unaffiliated “lesser” powers.  Each nation can be assigned to either a human player or the A.I., although, at the moment, only hotseat is available for multi-player.

The game is played out over annual turns broken down into four phases corresponding to the seasons.  Spring is the busiest allowing players to build troops, move troops, spy on areas they do not occupy, fortify land zones, offer peace (read: bribes) to opponents, and use cash to persuade armies to desert.  During the other three seasons nations may only move their armies.  All of this is handled simply and cleanly.

The spying mechanism deserves particular mention.  In exchange for a sum of money — it costs more to spy on territories controlled by one’s rivals than it does to spy on minor powers — players receive information about a nation they’re thinking of invading:  how many resources it produces, whether there are terrain bonuses to be had by defenders, and, most critically, how many troops are stationed there.  This information is not always accurate, however, and the spy’s report is given a grade as to its reliability.  It’s a clever system and well implemented.

Troops — armies and navies only — have a set cost that is different for each nation.  Each nation’s armies and navies also have different offensive and defensive abilities both of which are higher than the garrison troops belonging to the lesser powers.  Given the game’s economics, armies will be built in stacks that would make “Risk” players tremble.  Stacks north of 1,000 armies are not uncommon and I thought I’d seen everything until I rolled into Southeast Asia and got ground up by armies numbering 4,000 or more.

Rumania has displeased me.

Rumania has displeased me.

All movement is plotted by each player and then resolved at the end of the turn, although in turn order.  Each player’s movements are resolved sequentially meaning some thought must be given to the order in which you order troops into the fray.  One lack that desperately needs to be corrected is the inability to move a stack any further than one zone at a time.  Given the size of the map, its granularity, and the strange adjacency issues I mentioned above, moving armies from one side of the board to the other is an unnecessarily tedious exercise.

Fleets are a strange bird in this game.  On one hand, they can ferry an army anywhere around the world they can find a zone with a port in a single phase.  This allows armies to be whisked from London to Burma for the purpose of an amphibious invasion in a single season.  They also wipe out the notion of “protected flanks” as there are all kinds of ports hiding in what one might think were otherwise rear areas.  This breeds a healthy sense of paranoia on the part of the player and can be fun from a game perspective, even if it isn’t particularly “colonial”.  It should also be mentioned that fleets are significantly more expensive than armies and coming up with enough of them to ferry your armies about can a real challenge.  This is a delicate balance that I think works well.

Unencumbered fleets can be sent out to “raid”, i.e., seek out and destroy, enemy fleets that might be in an area prior to invasion.  Having the only fleet in an area results in a control flag being marked on the map, although I couldn’t discern anything other than a cosmetic effect.

Behold my flags...I guess...

Behold my flags…I guess…

When armies find one another, a battle is resolved.  It’s a bucket-of-dice system with defenders firing first, causing casualties, and attackers then returning fire.  Each unit (this is why we have computers roll dice these days!) “hits” on or above a certain number on a d10 depending on its nationality.  Terrain in certain zones offers defensive modifiers and fortifications allow defenders to fire twice before attackers can respond.   Despite the simplicity of this system, CC does a horrible job of displaying combat results.  Two armies slap into one another, numbers flash, smoke appears, and there’s some very satisfying explosions and counter-explosions.  I understand that, at times, the game is rolling thousands of dice, but something better than this could have been found.

What just happened?

What just happened?

Seizure of zones leads to the acquisition of victory points.  Each game is played to either a preset victory point level or complete domination of the board.  I shudder to think how long the latter might take.

That, with only a few exceptions, is the whole of the game.  And that’s not necessarily a bad thing.  CC is very much what it says on the tin, but there are some bits that absolutely need to be fixed before the developers can claim that it’s done.

The first and most obvious is creating a more robust multi-player.  Given how quickly this game plays, and the fact that it’s got a turn entry system at its heart, it was built for both live and asynchronous play and should not have launched without it.

Second, the design of the “standard” scenario needs a serious re-think if it is to ever be considered acceptable for single-player purposes.  This scenario gives each nation only a small number of “home” zones and leaves most of the board available for colonization.  I had played this scenario several times and thought myself an heir of Mars as none of the A.I. players came within striking distance of me.  It was only when my seven-year-old son observed that the A.I. was allowing me to carve up entire portions of the map, never challenging my dominance, and allowing me to roll to easy victories, that I tried the two more historical scenarios and found matters improved.

The Monroe Doctrine IN EFFECT!

The Monroe Doctrine IN EFFECT!

In these, players are set much closer one to another and far more nations have already been colonized.  There are no “free” minor powers to feast on and attacking any of your opponents will set them to war with you.  Given how free-wheeling movement is in this game, getting into too many wars is a remarkably bad idea.  One must, therefore, pick and choose fights far more carefully.

The A.I. is still very weak, though, and seems willing to attack only during either the Spring phase when it has a chance to rebuild or when facing single-single-army stacks.  Having never programmed an A.I. in my life (I doubt “O.M.E.G.A.” or “Robo Rally” counts) I’m always careful about being overly judgmental in these things, but I would have thought a game as relatively simple as this one would have permitted the development of a stronger digital opponent.

I think the developers ought to take a hard look at CC’s event system as well.  There are event cards that pop up from time-to-time and are intended to have an effect on the game.  These have the potential to bring a pleasant level of flavor to the experience.  The one I think has particular promise is the “Spy” card that gives the player complete information about a land zone.  The problem in general, though, is that they seem wildly out of scale with the game as played.  When I’m earning 12 million pounds per annum, telling me a single province has had its income decreased by 10 percent or that the cost of armies has ticked up 10 percent just doesn’t faze me.  Worse, in  a game with the army stacks I described above, telling me that my people are so pleased with the course of the war that they’ve gifted me a whole 15 armies is all but nonsense.

Super, thanks.

Super, thanks.

And, as is often the case, there are some things that just seem undone.  I hope I’m not being overly picky when I object to being told that “Great britain” is up next.  There’s also a status screen that, I gather, is supposed to give me statistics about the game underway.  I consider myself a fairly smart fellow, but, I could make neither hide nor hair of it.  The fact that a few bits of it appear to be in French did not help.

Your guess is as good as mine.

Your guess is as good as mine.

Strangely, though, I like this game.  I want it to be what it seems like it can be and, from what I see on-line, the developers seem in it for the whole journey.  I hope this is so because, even at $10, it’s tough to recommend CC in its current state.


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5 Responses to GrogHeads Reviews Colonial Conquest

  1. Orpheus says:

    Thanks for your comments Jim. We re working on the game and hopefully some of the upcoming changes will address all this.

    Thanks for the bits in french, indeed they should not be there anymore

  2. Glenn Drover says:

    Nice review, Jim. I was a fan of Colonial Conquest back in the day as well. I played it on my C64 back in 1985 while I was in school at Marquette. (Small world).

    I supported this version’s Kickstarter and eagerly downloaded it on day one. I found some of the same problems that you did. I also ran into a strange bug where the enemy cut off one of my big armies by attacking the region where it came from (from the region where it moved to…in other words, they passed each other). My army then became owned by them for some reason. I could understand that it was maybe cut off and destroyed (harsh, but understandable), but it actually joined the other team.

    I look forward to a clean and smarter version of this game.

    • Jim Owczarski says:

      Damn, Glenn, I have forgotten about THAT Colonial Conquest. Leave it to you to out-old-school me!

      You didn’t sell off your 25mm Napoleonics before I could come down and play, right?

      • Brant Guillory says:

        >> You didn’t sell off your 25mm Napoleonics before I could come down and play, right?

        someone didn’t listen to the GrogCast with Glenn…

  3. Glenn Drover says:

    Hi Jim,

    I did actually sell them…but only to pay for an entirely new collection of 18mm AB Napoleonics. I got the ‘scale itch’ that sometimes afflicts us wargamers.
    I still have a ACW and Punic Wars minis in 28mm though, so come on down! …and the new Napoleonics are being painted right now. The French army should be done by Christmas.
    Here’s a peek:

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