I’m Mad About Conan

Let’s talk about Conan.

In the past several years we’ve seen a variety of different Conan books, games, and even new comic books arise, all of them telling new and different Conan stories. Well, telling the same stories with a slightly different twist.

What inspired this post, however, was the new Conan board game. Not to be confused with the old new Conan board game. The new one is based around controlling Conan and a group of his close friends from the Conan novels as they murder stab their way through a bunch of people who want to stop Conan from doing whatever it is he wants. This is different from the previous game, which was arguably the more definitive Conan experience, and was about controlling a head of state in the Hyborian age as you attempt to gain primacy and your main interaction with Conan is hoping like hell he doesn’t fuck up all of your shit.

I have two major types of quibble with the new board game, but I would like to say at least that from everything I can tell, it is quite fun. The mechanics seem very interesting, the scenarios they produced are great, and I have a special place in my heart for asymmetric gameplay. Now with that said, I have two major embuggerances.

The first and most pressing is that they’re selling me half a game. The retail price of the core game is about $115. The kickstarter price for the core game was about $95. That’s acceptable to me. That is 100% within reason for a post Kickstarter markup. There was even a special king version of the game during the kickstarter which cost about $30 or $40 more, about $125, and contained additional content. And itself not an issue. The issue comes from the kickstarter version of the game for $95, or perhaps a better example is the version for $125, contains over double the amount of content as the base game on retail shelves. Over double the miniatures, almost twice as many playable characters, an extra 30% more game space, and that’s not to mention tokens beyond measure. Again, this is perhaps within reason, but it’s certainly annoying. Especially considering that most of the content that exists in the kickstarter game, but not in the retail version, fell under the purview of stretch goals. Nominally, at least in my experience, a stretch goal is additional content added to the game. However, since this content is not included in the retail version, and they currently have no plans to produce it for sale, and given the rather intense markup between price per content for retail and on Kickstarter, I’m not sure what the feasibility of purchasing it would be even if it was eventually available. I believe we can, for all intents and purposes, call this Kickstarter exclusive content. And here is where I believe they may have shot themselves in the foot, and pissed me off a great deal. There are eight scenarios in the base Conan game. Perhaps less than that in the retail version. These scenarios are not linked in any way, nor do they form the basis of any kind of campaign. That in and of itself is fine. I was a staunch player of HeroScape back in the day. I don’t necessarily need to have a linked campaign, as long as I have multiple ways to play, preferably somewhat varied, and the ability to create my own content. Which the Conan game has. However, they have an indeterminate amount of user created content behind an insurmountable paywall. Because odds are, if you bought the kickstarter, which most of the people who own the game at current did, and if you then create content, for any piece you pick up there is a 50% chance that the people who are reading your creation simply do not have that piece, be it an important hero, the pivotal monster or it’s statistics, a piece of detritus you were going to line your dungeon with, or the very map you arrayed for the encounter. And that’s bullshit. I couldn’t tell you why they made this decision. Their website has an under construction area for stretch goals, so I can only assume they intended to eventually release some of them, but even then a vast majority of important aspects, such as the additional game tiles, additional Heroes, and the fucking ape man from one of my favorite Conan stories, are Kickstarter exclusive, so you will simply not be able to purchase these models or play with them. This begs the question, are exclusives positive or negative for a community? Obviously, my thoughts on this are fairly simple. For a community, especially one where user generated content is the lifeblood, exclusives are a deeply negative factor because they artificially segregate the ability of the community to grow or create. Perhaps there were logistics issues in the process. Perhaps they simply didn’t believe there would be a demand for these items, even though this was perhaps the most successful Kickstarter board game. It’s very possible they genuinely didn’t have faith in their own product. I can understand that sentiment, I personally think everything I’ve ever written is garbage, but they did have some evidence to the contrary.

Moving on to some other things that piss me off, I think it’s time to talk about the ism’s. Specifically, sexism and racism. I know a lot has already been said about Howard fantasy and sexism or Howard fantasy and racism, and I will be honest most of it’s fucking stupid. I’m not actually here to talk about Howard and racism, because, I’ll be honest, I don’t think it’s particularly racist, especially because they take place in a time before any conventionally extant “race” exists. Sexist maybe, but that’s a keener point to draw, and again I am not here to talk about the sexism or the racism of Robert E. Howard’s Conan. I’m not even particularly upset that, of the several hundred models available for this game, exactly four are female. That’s fine by me. Weird, certainly, but fine. Not really a matter of not being in keeping with the world. What pisses me off is that fully half of those female models are Kickstarter exclusive, and two of them are two of the three female Heroes. So if you play Conan and you want to be a female hero, you have to either go back in time and buy the version of the game that actually comes with the entirety of the game, or play is Belit the Pirate Queen. And I know for a fact the initial reaction to the words “Bilit the Pirate Queen” is that that sounds fucking awesome, and rest assured, that is the correct response. She is fucking awesome. She’s a Pirate Queen. It’s really pretty self-explanatory. The problem that you run into is that she’s not a broadsword swinging axe murderer, a crafty mage, a stealthy assassin, or any of the normal types of hero you task with combating jabbering hordes of Picts or malicious slave takers. She manages pirates, and you don’t always get to bring pirates. Ergo, so she doesn’t always get to be good at most of her stuff. The other two Heroes of a female nature, who include a swordswoman and a swordswoman with a murder wolf are Kickstarter exclusive, and you cannot have them. This is part of a practice often described as locking women behind a paywall, except normally in these scenarios you would at least have the option to pay more for the women. If that sounds bad, it’s probably because it is. But systemic fucked up sexism aside, I’m pissed because I mostly game with girls and none of them are going to want to be Belit and they are going to be super pissed if they find out that there is a wolf wielding warrior they can’t have for whatever reason. Hell I’m pissed off because I wanted to throw wolves at people. That’s fucked up in a nice tie in to the earlier fucked up stuff with the exclusive content, but I also mentioned racism.

So, for those of you who are unfamiliar, Conan takes place in the Hyborian age, thousands of years before all recorded history on planet Earth. I have heard a lot of people say a lot of things about what exactly is racist about Conan, and my normal response to them they should probably just shut the fuck up. 99% of people who are arrayed against Conan are assholes, Evil wizards, or evil wizard assholes. This is 100% true. It is true of everyone he meets, everywhere. Howard has a really weird idea of how evolution works, so there’s ape men everywhere, and sometimes people go too far north and turn it to Yetis and then they turn back into people. I fucking love the Conan books. You should read them. That’s not the important part right now, but I definitely needed to preface with it. There is a country called Khitai located approximately in the area China is today and named after Kitai, an old Russian word for China. It’s not China, but the people who live there have what could be described as Asian features, which is understandable because they live in what will eventually become Asia, and, last time I checked, that’s where a good number of Asians are. They also have many traits to their society that could be construed as eventually becoming traits prevalent in the society of the Han Chinese dynasty. Are you with me so far? I assume so, although I’m sure this is been very complicated. At some point Conan goes there, and kills more evil wizards. That’s pretty much Conan’s thing, and he’s done that everywhere. Presumably to avoid accusations of racism, in the Conan board game the people of Kitai have been replaced from their Proto Chinese aspect as the fucking Kaminoans of Star Wars. That’s pretty fucked up to me. When you would rather take a mythical culture and do away with it entirely because you’re worried that it might bear some resemblance to one that exist today, and then replace them with actual freakish monsters, I have to cry foul. The takeaway, then, is that the ancestors of the Asian people, in this case specifically the group that will eventually become the Han Chinese, probably have absolutely no representation in a game where they should feature, if not prominently, then at least distinctly. I’ll be honest, the thing that pisses me off the most about this is the this would have been my first real opportunity, to own passable Chinese miniatures. I know I’ve had opportunities before, I could have bought the Men of the East from The Games Workshop Lord of the Rings line, and I certainly still have my Atlantean Guild Mage Knight figures, but besides those two, and the Tongs from Legends of the Old West, I can’t think of a single Chinese miniature, and I really want to run a game of Qin, so it would be nice if they had some representation.

It should be noted that if you have read any other blogs or articles about the Conan board game, you’ll find that they have been accused of racism and sexism a number of times. That in and of itself would not bother me, Conan is a property that is often accused of such things, but their defense has almost unilaterally been that they are trying to stay true to the source material. That went out the window the second they introduced magic healing potions into the game, let alone on turning the ancestors to the Chinese into fucking giraffe people.
So I suppose the takeaway is that I like Conan, and I wanted to like this game, and instead I’m just pissed off again.

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