Teamwork is essential; it gives the enemy other people to shoot at. - Anonymous
I'm not a tactical wargamer. They never seem to strike the balance between rules complexity/playability correctly while maintaining decent realism. In strategic level games, a little abstraction in the name of playability is fine with me. For some reason, it really bothers me when it comes to tactical games, which is one reason I have stayed away from them. I desperately WANTED to like a tactical WWII game, but so far one just hasn't really caught me.
So my buddy Travis shows up at game night with Conflict of Heroes, made by a german guy from South America, who apparently thinks the nazis and communists are heroes. Draw your own conclusions about that.
Apparently you can teach the game in ten minutes, the scenarios are under two hours, it will support 2-4 players, and there is no downtime- you can react to everything your opponent does. At this point, I figured that Trav was full of shit and this was some sort of evil trick to get me to play some new Caylus expansion... I had recently played Pillars of the Earth Expansion with Travis, and I will never forgive him until the day I die. My children will hold a grudge against his children for that abomination.
I mean, no downtime? Playable under two hours? Sign me up, but color me skeptical. Of course, it did look good.
"Do not touch anything unnecessarily. Beware of pretty girls in dance halls and parks who may be spies, as well as bicycles, revolvers, uniforms, arms, dead horses, and men lying on roads -- they are not there accidentally."
Actual Quote from Soviet infantry manual, issued in the 1930's
The Rules in the game are very simple for the level of strategic depth involved. The rulebook is very concise and well written. The rules are concise, have lot of pictures/examples and are well written. They are printed on cheap glossy paper, like a magazine. We used the reference card a lot for the terrain effects, but didn't reference the rulebook that much.
The scenarios are varied and include some "starter" scenarios. For example, the first scenario is just infantry, no vehicles. Later scenarios introduce smoke launchers, tanks, trucks, hidden land mines, and lots of other stuff. There are a lot of scenarios and multiple ways to approach each scenario, so I think the replayability factor is here.
"Never worry about the bullet with your name on it. Instead, worry about shrapnel addressed to 'occupant.'"
The components are one area where this game really shines. The game is played on several smaller gameboards which are connected together to make a larger gameboard. It comes with 6 boards. The boards are mounted on heavy cardboard, like you would expect to see an a very expensive eurogame.
The board art for the terrain is attractive and functional. The counters are absolutely gorgeous. They have actual unit art instead of the typical nato symbols. They are one inch counters with rounded edges and a canvas-style finish. They are attractive and feel very durable. Once people get a look at the counter and boards, they will be at the doors of GMT headquarters with pitchforks and torches!
The cards that come with the game are a little cheap compared to the other components. The box is of good quality but it is a little small. All the components fit, but it is a tight, snug fit. I blame the eurogamers whining about overly large boxes for this problem. With one inch counters, this game is begging for plano boxes to sort them all out, but planos would not fit in the snug box.
The object of war is not to die for your country but to make the other bastard die for his. - George S. Patton
The scenarios are not based on any specific historical battles. I really wish they would have done a little research and tried to come up with more historical context for each of the battles. Some of the scenarios have a 2 or 3 sentence blurb, but this the history is pretty weak here. The back of the instruction booklet has some information on the units, which is much appreciated, but it feels like a consolation prize when what I really wanted was more information about the battles the game simulates.
One of the serious problems in planning the fight against American doctrine, is that the Americans do not read their manuals, nor do they feel any obligation to follow their doctrine...
- From a Soviet Junior Lt's Notebook
Although the components will be the subject of much discussion, the gameplay is really what sets CoH apart from other tactical level wargames. CoH takes a lot of mechanisms from other wargames and puts them to good use, then improves on the command and turn structure in a way that I can only describe as beautiful.
Moving Around and Shooting Things
The easiest way to explain the gameplay is to take a look at some of the unit counters.
What are all these numbers? Don't be scared, its pretty easy. I will look at the Pioneers Squad at the bottom of this picture to explain. First, this is a german unit, according to the cross in the bottom center. Russians have a red star. The "4" inside the cross is range, or how many hexes this unit can fire without incurring a penalty. The top two numbers are the costs to activate the unit. On the right is the movement cost and on the left is the firing cost. Terrain effects increase the base move cost. You can see that the Pioneers are a lot cheaper to move than the anti-tank gun. I'll talk more about how you pay for movement and firing in a moment. T
The bottom left are attack values and the bottom right are defense values. Red attack values are used for firing against infantry and blue attack values are used for firing against tanks or mech units. There are two defense values in the bottom right. The bottom one is for normal attacks and the upper one is for attacks against your rear. Interestingly, some units are mechanized for frontal attacks but count as infantry if you attack them from the rear. Hence, the blue AND red defense numbers of the anti-tank gun.
To attack, you pay the cost in the upper left corner, check range & line of sight, then roll 2d6 and add your attack value. You have to roll equal or greater than your opponent's defense value to score a hit. If you score a hit, the defender takes a damage marker from the damage chit cup and secretly places it under his unit. Another hit will now kill him. The damage markers have different effects and you can rally to get rid of them on your turn.
2d6 creates a pretty nice attack bell curve, so luck isn't a huge factor here. There is some uncertainty, but you can usually see what your chances are. There are a couple of other modifiers that come into play. For example, you get a +3 bonus for short range (adjacent) and you can shoot twice your range for a penalty. There are also terrain modifiers which differ depending on unit type. Those are on the summary card for easy reference.
Command System and Turn Structure
The command system is where the game really shines. As I said above, you pay for movement and firing with action points. Each player takes turns choosing a unit to activate. That unit gets 7 action points to spend. When you've spent your 7, you flip your unit over to show it is used and its my turn to pick a unit to activate. As you can see from looking at the costs on the units, 7 points is enough to do a lot and fire several times with a weaker unit, but for more powerful units it isn't. In the game, this shows the mobility and flexibility of the smaller units and makes every piece useful.
You can see here the player track sheet where you keep track of VPs, action points, and command action points.
The most innovative mechanism in the game, the one that made me want to review it, is called Command Action Points. In addition to the 7 points you get to spend moving and firing each unit, each scenario grants the player a number of CAPs each turn. You can spend the CAPs to supplement your 7 point allotment OR to take actions on your opponent's turn. THIS is why there is no downtime in the game. You have a very limited number of caps, so you must use them wisely, but you can really muck up your opponent's plans with them.
Basically, when one player activates a unit, he does each of his expenditures of action points, pausing between each to give the other player a chance to react. For instance, I might be planning to move, move, move, then fire. Between each movement, my opponent would get a chance to react by spending his CAPs. He could see what I am doing and move his unit out of my range. Perhaps he could get some opportunity fire on my advancing unit. Of course, he must spend his CAPs wisely, because running out leaves you open to all kinds of problems. This means there is never any downtime. While your opponent takes his turn, you always have a chance to counter him - as long as you have CAPs left.
CAPs are the centerpiece of the game design and eliminates a lot of the unrealistic tactics you see from time to time in other games without adding too many rules. While another game might ignore opportunity fire or have a complex mechanic for when you get it, this game just lets you go to town if someone stumbles into your field of fire. Sneaking up behind a tank for a rear shot is a lot riskier when the tank can turn around and blast your ass on your turn! Of course, with a limited number of CAPs, you need to spend them wisely. You also lose one CAP a turn for every unit you lose, so if you start getting shot up, its tough!
Each scenario sets a number of turns to be played. You get a certain number of VPs for each unit you kill and a certain number for completing various goals- controlling a bunker or certain areas vital to the mission, etc. Whoever has the most VPs at the end of five turns wins.
Because I am far from being an expert at the game, I am hesitant to comment on the balance of the scenarios. In all the scenarios I played, the defender (who started closer to the VP hexes) seemed to have an advantage, but that was likely because of our inexperience. Typically, the rewards for controlling hexes or capturing objectives are large enough that you can't ignore them completely and win by just killing units.
While CoH is a pretty simple system, I don't want you to think it is totally without its bells and whistles.
The game also features cards which give you random bonuses and powers. One common card gave one unit +1d6 action points, another allowed you to mark one opponent's unit USED, the sniper card lets you take 1-3 CAPs from the other player. There is a whole deck, parts of which are removed for certain scenarios. These add some needed unpredictability to the game.
There are other special cards with certain weapons you can give troops, like hand grenades, rockets, etc. I am not mentioning these things in detail here because the scenarios I have played did not use them. I think there is an off-map artillery card, secret objective cards, and some other things we didn't really get to use.
Other chromey bits include truck units which carry troops, very simple hidden unit rules which allow for limited fog of war, hidden land mines, smoke launchers, modular terrain tiles representing things like barbed wire, roadblocks, etc., and tough-to-crack bunker tiles. All of these things add interesting twists to the gameplay and tactics without adding too much additional rules baggage. Plus, they aren't used in the introductory scenarios.
In wartime truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies.
- Winston Churchill
This is a brilliantly designed game, and it might be "the one" as far as tactical level wargames go. It plays very fast and the rules are simple. You are constantly analyzing what is going on and you have to react throughout the game with your CAPs and cards. It makes for a very tense game where you second guess your decisions CONSTANTLY- usually the sign of a good game. There is never a moment where you aren't watching what is going on with bated breath because every maneuver of your opponent is important.
Its fairly short and time flies, but the five turns are enough to create a pretty good narrative of the battle. At times, it reminded me of chess, as I tried to analyze my opponent's next move, then analyze what I should do, only to realize that there are so many possibilities I just needed to make a plan and stick to it.
Attacking a unit with overwhelming firepower superiority from a heavy tank, or tripping someone up with a land mine, or revealing your cleverly positioned hidden unit are all a LOT of fun. Having the other guy blow up your tank with his squad of random soldiers who got good position and a strong die roll can be fun too. This is a great game, and I think it even has the potential to catch on as a bit of a euro crossover hit because of the light rules, 2-3-4 player support, fast playing time and overall low chaos level for a wargame.
I have to admit, about twenty minutes into the first game, I was in love. I had kablooed a couple units with a big tank, my opponent was shooting up smoke grenades to screw with my line of sight and coming around my flank to breach my perimeter without messing with my roadblocks. He didn't think I would risk my big tank since it was a VP objective for him. I drove it right at his forward units, forcing one of them to have to move through a road block and risk immobilization to avoid getting blasted! Unfortunately it breached my line and wreaked havoc on me for the rest of the game. What a blast!
Although I was in love after the first few minutes, by the time we completed the other scenario, the system's little warts had shown themselves and I was having second thoughts. This is a very good game, easily the most engaging tactical WWII wargame out there with a rulebook and playing time this short. BUT there are a few little issues I wish the designer would have handled differently.
We are not retreating - we are advancing in another direction.
-General Douglas Macarthur
CAPs. I really hate to criticize these, because this system is completely brilliant and really makes the game innovative. One thing that really bothered me were the gamey situations that came up because of the CAPs. You have a limited number of CAPs per turn and your opponent can really alter his tactics once you have used them all up. You become much less flexible on your opponent's turn if your CAPs are gone. This leads to some VERY gamey tactics.
For instance, we found ourselves taking infantry units and running circles around tanks. Your opponent only has 6 caps in this scenario. Your infantry unit can't hurt his tank unless he is adjacent to the tank for the +3 bonus AND he can get behind the tank at its rear armor. So, you can take your 7 action points, a weaker unit, and move behind the tank to get this shot. Tank's owner can spend a CAP to shoot you, but then he is out of CAPS and you will have enough action points left to rally and possibly remove the damage marker. He can pivot to deny you his rear, but every time he does that, he spends a CAP while you spend only an action point.
We had several situations where infantry units were running circles around tanks, tanks pivoting in place, to run the tanks out of CAPs. This seemed gamey to me... but running your opponent out of CAPs by doing whacky stuff, then going on the real warpath, is a solid strategy in this game. If not, he lets you have his rear and you can kill a tank with a scrub infantry unit. It just felt odd!
Line of Sight- In Conflict of Heroes, you have a tactical wargame that builds on its predecessors, taking the things that work, and changing things that don't work. Except LOS, where the designer took the same confusing argument causing system that many wargames use and left it totally untouched... adding complex hill rules that are a total pain in the ass. Line of sight typically resolves cleanly, but you will find several situations where it really frustrates you. The game doesn't come with a straight edge except for the books and paper. Keep them handy, as you will often draw a line from the center of one hex to the center of another. Of course this telegraphs your plans to your opponent and can cause arguments if people disagree over whether a line crosses a certain hex.
Too much open information! Knowing the exact stats of every unit, being able to calculate your exact probability of success in an attack, knowing exactly how far your opponent is going to be able to move.... it doesn't feel like war. There isn't enough chaos at times. I mentioned earlier that the game sometimes feels like chess. Thats sometimes good and sometimes not! There is a variant where you roll 2d6 for action points instead of just taking 7 per unit. I think this would help the too much information problem. The cards and hidden unit chrome provide another level of hidden information. There is a balance to be struck between leaving too much information out in the open and making the game too luck based. I don't want this to become a luck dependent dicefest, but at the same time I think the game has too much open information for a wargame.
The VPs occasionally create some gamey situations, like where you drive your trucks to an obscure part of the map to deny your opponent easy VPs for blowing up a truck. Pretty minor issue really...
Finally, the price. This game is $75. Its definitely worth that much looking at the great components. Problem is, it could have had "GMT level" components and sold for $40-50, and it would have played exactly the same. Mounted maps are best sold as optionals, I'll keep my plexi thank you. The chits in this game are gorgeous to the eye and the finger, but in the end I would have preferred it to be a little cheaper.
General Jack D. Ripper: Mandrake, do you recall what Clemenceau once said about war?
Group Capt. Lionel Mandrake: No, I don't think I do, sir, no.
General Jack D. Ripper: He said war was too important to be left to the generals. When he said that, 50 years ago, he might have been right. But today, war is too important to be left to politicians. They have neither the time, the training, nor the inclination for strategic thought. I can no longer sit back and allow Communist infiltration, Communist indoctrination, Communist subversion and the international Communist conspiracy to sap and impurify all of our precious bodily fluids.
- Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb
I don't want all of my bitching about this game to give people the wrong impression. This is hands down the best tactical WWII wargame I've ever played. It avoids a lot of the bad genre tropes and strikes a real good spot on the realism/playability/complexity scale. The game is simple, short, does 2-4 players and isn't overly luck dependent. Every second of the game is tense and you are constantly thinking, reacting, formulating new plans, etc. Even euro players should take a look at this. It might not be your thing, but it will probably make you say "hmm, I see how some folks like that" the same way playing a really great eurogame might garner admiration from non-fans of the genre.
Conflict of Heroes really sets the bar higher for wargames in a number of ways, and I hope that other wargame designers follow what Eickert, CoH's designer, has done with the CAP reaction system eliminating downtime. I'm sure they will after this game has the commercial success that it should have.