Monday, October 20, 2008

No. We weren't mooning you. (Conflict of Heroes: Awakening the Bear!)

Kozure and I got together for some extra-WAGSial affairs and played a recent wargame called Conflict of Heroes: Awakening the Bear!.

It interested me because of three main reasons:

#1 It was said to be simple, without being simplistic.
#2 It played 1-4 players
#3 Scenarios are short (1-2 hours)

In wargames, those three characteristics are hard to find in one system. Add the fact that it is a very nice package (large counters, mounted maps, very nice box art) and I was sold.

Note: Over at BGG, this is the wargame equivalent of Agricola at the moment (in other words, the hype machine is in overdrive, and it has shot up the charts to become the #1 wargame almost instantly). Considering I was somewhat disappointed in Agricola, how did CoH fare? Happily, much better.

I won't get into the details of the system, but I think I'd describe it as a wargame design with the discipline of a euro design. The designer has clearly spent enormous effort trying to make a clean, easy playing game system that still manages to give players a fun, immersive and interesting tactical experience.

Each player has a number of units under their command (interestingly, this first set only includes German and Russian units). The game system revolves around a point system which successfully creates a very fluid environment (similar to Tikal, where 10 points are spent doing a variety of actions, COH gives each unit 7 points). The stroke of genius, in my opinion, is the inclusion of "Command" points which are a central reserve that can be used as the player sees fit (to add to fire power, to activate units that are already spent, to organize separate units into an organized group, etc). This simulates a lot of leadership, planning, luck, etc that would often be modeled by a number of additional rules, but with little to no complexity. Opponents each take one small action at a time, keeping downtime to a minimum.

The second stroke of genius is the way damage is represented. If a unit is hit, it is either eliminated or it draws a token and place it on the unit. If a unit with a token is hit again, it is eliminated. The great part is that the tokens have a variety of effects, such as "panic", "pinned", "suppressed", etc. These are kept hidden, and affect the unit in ways you would expect (slow/ eliminate movement, hamper fire, etc). Thing is, you don't know what happened to the enemy you just fired at. The fog of war it creates is interesting, and again there are nearly zero rules required for all this.

There are also cards in some scenarios which further add to the strategy and fog of war for the game. All in all, it's very difficult to fall back on "gamey" tactics like waiting for opponent's units to be used so you can run past them with impunity. Sure, you can try it, but your opponent might use its Command reserve points to jostle a spent unit back to action, or a card might get played which allows some sort of counter-measure you hadn't anticipated. It works very well.

The first scenario involves a couple of units converging on a central crossroad. The russians are defending a supply route, I believe. It's a good scenario to learn the basics of the system, but otherwise I don't see myself coming back to it very often.
Kozure capitalized on his superior knowledge of squad level combat and took me out. I don't think I eliminated a single one of his units!

The second scenario introduces hidden units, cards and group actions. It involves the germans trying to take a bunker and spot a section of road behind it. THIS scenario was a lot of fun.

As the germans, I thought thing were stacked in my favour. The scenario had me set up on a road leading to the bunker. I had three sets of machine guns and riflemen, wereas the russians had few visible units. I knew two of his units were hidden, but I would deal with that later...

Kozure wins initiative and immediately fires on my frontmost units. They are all hit and go scurrying in the forest for cover. That didn't go well.

After rallying the units, I sent a small force to the right and a larger force to the left. I discover that a large stack of machine guns and riflemen puts out a hell of a lot of bullets. Kozure, surprised by the power of my attack, lost a unit fairly quickly. Unfortunately, my large stack of units walked right up to one of the hidden units and suffered badly at the hands of close combat. I did take them out, and I did manage to rally all but one of my units. Things were looking good. Kozure vacated the bunker, but chose to hide the units.

Things then started to go very badly for me. I came to realize how dangerous stacking units can be as I walked up to a second hidden unit (the former bunker force). I was destroyed. My last surviving unit had a "panicked" damage token on it, which lowers the front defensive rating but actually increases the rear defensive rating (I guess, in their panic, they spend a lot of time looking behind them). For this reason, it was in my best interest to put my rear towards Kozure's oncoming units. Kozure was puzzled by my move, and thought I was mooning him.

Simultaneously, the last hidden unit took out the smaller force I had sent out earlier.

I lost. I'll be more careful about those hidden units next time.

Anyway, the combination of cards, flexible point allocation and hidden damage tokens created an environment of uncertainty that I found quite exciting. The simplicity of the rules allowed us to spend more time playing, and less time looking up rules. Obviously, a certain amount of abstraction is inherent in a system that is this streamlined but I'll take playability over historical accuracy any day of the week. Great game, and exactly what I was looking for!


  1. To be clear on terminology, the building I was in was a Stone House, not a Bunker.

    I also enjoyed this game a lot - while very playable, it also manages to capture much of the essence of tactical squad-level combat. It treads a very thin line between overly controlled (CAPs) and chaotic (cards, chit pulls and dice rolls).

    It still feels a little uneven at times, but much more enjoyable to play (at least for me) than a similar unit density in ASL.

    Close Combat: Europe is so different an experience as to make them almost (but not quite) different game genres, despite the same subject matter.

  2. do you mean Combat Commander?

    Yeah, very different feel in that game. In CoH, you feel like you are playing the other player. In CC, you feel like you are playing (fighting?) the system as much as the other player. The first makes for a more satisfying test of skill and tactics, the second is perhaps more evocative of the chaos that is outside of the soldiers' control (and the psychological impact that can have on strategy). Both are quite enjoyable, though for my purposes the 2-4 player ability is an important differetiator.