Kupe sits in the small boat that is his livelihood, his eyes intent on the horizon. He scans the sky, the sea, hoping desperately for some glimpse of land. The people at home are restless, the island nearly bursting at the seams. He must find new ground to till, new fishing grounds for his tribe, lest they be overrun by their rivals. He grips his knife tightly at the thought: his brother is preparing to sail with a large war band to seize a nearby island. If Kupe can find new lands, war may be averted...at least temporarily. He hopes the cultural work of the village elders will generate something more useful than delightful stories. Suddenly he spies a great bird flying away to the east; flying home to its nest. He hopes the bird will lead him to a great island, and not some lonely rock in the middle of the vast ocean. It must lead him so; it is a matter of life and death, the survival of a great civilization.
Conquest of Paradise, designed by Kevin McPartland and published by GMT Games, is a game that simulates the expansion, development, and conflict between several would-be great Polynesian empires. The unknown runs thickly through the games veins, much as the unknown must have seemed a overwhelming barrier to the peoples of Tonga, Samoa, Hiva, and Raiatea. There are three aspects of the unknown that your burgeoning empire will be forced to grapple with, and balancing among the three based on your position relative to other empires is the key to achieving dominance above the other Polynesia tribes.
The heart of Conquest of Paradise is exploration, and just as in history, each player must send out their brave explorers without any guarantee of good fortune. Perhaps your woeful hero only finds barely usuable atolls, or the great islands of Hawaii or Aotearoa, or even islands lost to myth such as Kuporu. Or you can send them to into the semi-known, where your rivals have found a chunk of land still hidden from you. Regardless of how bountiful nature smiles on your loyal explorer, the critical question is: can you hold what you possess?
If you have little success in finding fertile lands, or perhaps if you have abundant success such that you cannot grasp it all at once, you will likely find yourself falling into rapid conflict with your neighbors. The South Pacific is only so large, and there are only so many places for your people to live. Whether you find yourself defending against enemy incursions or aggressively seeking to make up for your shortcomings, you will need to train warriors in the art of battle. War is not normally a bloody affair here in Polynesia; your people value life greatly, and are more likely to fall back quickly in the face of death than to rush into it. Nevertheless, you had better be sure of yourself before any aggression: failure will probably mean retribution against your own island. On the other hand, even success has its dangers: will your warriors prepare for a counterattack or exchange their spears for fishing rods and plows?
Perhaps you have receive little luck from the seas and are too timid for military conquest. You have still another alternative: cultural development. But wisdom cannot be forced, and what arises from your wisest of your people may be a small or a large help. Maybe they can help your explorer sail farther and faster? Or your warriors more deadly and persevering in the heat of battle? Or maybe they will simply learn the glorious art of surfing. Either way, seize what advantage they provide or be doomed to obscurity.
Luck, whether drawing islands from a bag, cards from a deck, or the roll of a die, runs throughout this game. To bring glory to your tribe, you must hope for the best, but more importantly, you must be persistent in pursuing success wherever you can find it. Of critical importance are the other tribes: you cannot allow yourself to fall to far behind them in any one area. Slip in military strength, and they will seize your holdings. Slip in infrastructure, and they will quickly surpass you. Slip in cultural development, and they will surprise you with a win while you are only halfway to your goals.
Above all else, you must know your enemy and subvert his knowledge of you. Is he expanding too rapidly? Amassing warriors for a large scale attack? Sitting back and smugly drawing card after card? Tailor your play accordingly. Similarly, do what he does not expect. Develop faster canoes and strike from a distance he did not expect you to traverse. Hold colonies and transports in reserve, ready to colonize several island groups at once to his chagrin. Force him to bulk up his military in response to your large stack of rumors or transport canoes. The chaos of the unknown will rage around you, but in the end your success or failure will be determined by how well you anticipate your opponents and how slyly you mislead them.
In summary, Conquest of Paradise is a game of managing between three luck driven systems and holding tightly to whatever advantage you can over your opponents who will be in similarly precarious positions. The setting and theme of the game are what make it stand above many of its peers and the mechanics used perfectly suit this setting. The components will not satisfy some, but they perform their tasks well; the luck-driven nature of the game will not satisfy some, but I find the beauty of the game centered on this nature. It requires the right group for full enjoyment, but I judge it to be lovingly crafted, boldly unique, a game of the highest caliber.
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The beauty of this game and the pure astonishment toward the Polynesians and their naval accomplishments convinced me and my girlfriend to visit Hawaii!
This is one of the rare games that has had an impact on my life!
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- Such a vast majority of civ building games are based around the civilizations surrounding the Mediterranean and Europe. The theme for this one is refreshingly unique and very deep game wise.
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