Saturday, November 22, 2008

Conflict of Heroes - Big Wargame Award Winner of 2008?

I've gotten in four or five playings of Conflict of Heroes so far, all using the first scenario. Yes, the Germans have won in every case, and in some cases the outcome was dictated far in advance. However, after I taught the game to my light wargamer buddy Connor (our games have largely consisted of the lighter card-driven wargames like Hannibal as well as Combat Commander), I'm thinking that this game has the potential over time to outshine nearly every other game on that era (WW2), that level of complexity (low for rules, medium for operations), and scale (tactical). 

What makes me so high on this game? Let me count the ways:
  1. Teachability. I can have someone who understands the basics of line of sight and hex-based movement up and running on this game within about 10 minutes. For someone familiar with Combat Commander, perhaps less.
  2. Combat resolution. One of the downfalls of systems at this level is trying to show the wide range of possibilities without a billion markers or special rules. The chit pull system, like card-based systems, produces this range while keeping things extremely simple. As I've discussed with the designer, Uwe Eickart, the only thing making this less than perfect is that it's difficult to see exactly what each unit's condition is on the board without lifting a lot of combat units to see combat chits, something that could easily be remedied by using much smaller combat results chits that would fit in the middle of the unit easily. My other concern is that it becomes easier to kill units outright if there are lots of hits on units on the board, regardless of which side you are on, as it's a relatively small pool of results. 
  3. Component quality. Unlike Tide of Iron, which came with slightly warped boards right out of the box and plastic units that wouldn't fit in the bases without considerable work, CoH's components are very nice. No clipping for the units or markers (except for a bit of trim work in one or two cases in my set), the boards lay extremely flat on the table with zero warpage, and the rules are well organized and marked. Usually, "programmed instruction" rules do a fantastic job of teaching the game and a very poor job for those needing to find a rule, but the system is added on to in such a way as to make the rules   organization good for both needs. There are some problems here - a too-big rulebook in terms of footprint, the combat chit issue mentioned above, and the combat units have their flank defense strength printed toward the front of the counter rather than the rear compared to the front DS. For a first pass at a game, however, they did a fantastic job. 
  4. Story elements. While there are no condition cards as in the Lock'n'Load series (perhaps the best element of that game), there is still a wonderful sense of storytelling that CoH brings to the table. In our second turn of Thursday's game, I'd been very aggressive as the Sovs in bringing units forward to make it tougher for the Germans to advance. However, toward the end of the turn I was also down to one shot from a single used Sov unit with a +1/+2 DRM based on Command Action Points (CAPs). Connor had a single German rifle unit unused in the NW corner of the board, but he had enough Action Points to get it to the VP space in the middle of the board, although there was every chance that his unit would be wiped out. He decided to make a run for it (much as you would with a Hero unit in Combat Commander), and I waited until he was down to a single Action Point so that he couldn't then immediately rally the unit with his remaining CAPs. Of course, he pulled the Berzerk result, which lowered his range to 1 but improved nearly everything else. He ended up taking out the Rifle unit I had forward of the VP space, and once in the woods was nearly impossible for me to hit with a single unit (and you can't group in the first scenario). While I was able to take the VP space back later, the game was only really up for grabs for another turn or two, and by the fifth turn I couldn't get anything going enough to really challenge him. Keep in mind this is a small scenario with only five or six units per side once everyone has gotten on the board. 
  5. Wider range of units, including vehicles. Enough said.
  6. Multiplayer capability. While you might be able to retrofit rules for this into CC, the cards would make it tricky. CoH has specific rules and scenarios for larger actions with multiple players and/or teams. 
  7. Solitaire capability. CC is nearly impossible to play solitaire, at least without serious consideration of how to handle things like Opportunity Fire Actions. CoH does have cards, but there are rules on how to manage them. Also, there are rules for hiding units that are added into the mix fairly early, and many scenarios start with hidden units, so you have to either ignore this rule or else use rules similar to the Spotting rules in Panzer Grenadier to simulate this to a reasonable extent, but CoH seems to have the advantage at this point by at least a small margin.
  8. Geomorphic maps. CC has more maps, but they are all one size and can't be hooked together. CoH only comes with five maps, but like ASL they can be combined to form larger maps in a wide variety of ways. Of course, this is a big reason why CoH can include tanks, as they would completely dominate an area as presented in CC. CC, however, has done amazing work in providing additional maps, and I now count something like 30 maps available after the C3i #21 comes out this month with yet another double sided map included. Still, the edge goes (slightly) to CoH, in part because the maps will hold up for a longer time assuming no warpage.
These are very compelling reasons, at least for me, as to why this game holds so much promise. However, I still believe that Combat Commander has the edge for a few reasons:
  1. Breadth of subject matter. Where CoH is limited (for now) to the Eastern Front over roughly a year period, CC covers the entire war in Europe, or can at any rate. CC also covers a wider range of nationalities, as you'd expect, even in the base set. With a Pacific box coming out in about a month, you'll be able to cover almost any WWII action at squad level.
  2. Better model of leaderhip. The CAP system is brilliant, no mistake, and it abstracts the abilities of leadership pretty effectively for something so simple. However, it does not place specific leaders in specific places at specific times - in CC, if a leader is taken out at a critical moment, it can have a big effect on the opposing side's battle plan. In CoH, the leaders are (more or less) assumed to be everywhere, and are lost when the unit is lost (hence the loss of CAPs as you lose units). There is no question that the CC method is probably a better reflection of realities in combat, but there is a complexity cost associated with that model. 
  3. Random scenarios. CC has a random scenario generation system. While CC has a lot more scenarios extant as I write, that can change dramatically over time and it is the fact that you have effectively an unlimited number of scenarios through random generation that is the differentiating factor here. 
  4. Differentiation of weapons from teams. As with leaders, the weapons systems are broken out into separate counters. Thus, a team that loses use of a weapon through jamming or breakage can still be combat effective, but at a much lower level. 
  5. Differentiation of unit skills. By boxing different unit factors (movement, range, firepower) in CC, you can demonstrate that some units were capable of using different tactics, such as smoke, assault fire, or close assault improvements. 
  6. Battlefield chaos vs operational flexibility. In Combat Commander, you need a card to do anything, whether it's an action or an order, but you can keep doing it so long as you have the cards to do it. In CoH, you can do anything with anyone so long as units are either unused or you still have enough CAPs. This is a basic design tradeoff of simulation vs game. ASL chose to have extremely detailed weapon and organizational accuracy while keeping the commander firmly in charge. Both CoH and CC abstract out the detail to a large degree, but CC adds in the fact that about 90% of the men under your command can be trusted to act in their own best interest in any combat situation - in other words, stay where they are and not take chances. That's why not having a Move Order card in hand is acceptable if the simulation is the thing. CoH makes for an extremely engaging game on the other hand, that keeps things simple but pretends that your men will advance under fire whenever you'd like them to. 
  7. Uncertainty in victory conditions. As in battle, one side may have a treasure trove of valuable ground, documents, materiel, etc that the other is unaware of. This is modeled in CC through secret objective chits, which can even change as the game progresses. While this might drive some players crazy (and is a direct corollary of item 6 above), I love it. Again, realism in certain elements while preserving playability, tension, and literary elements are things I value, so like item 6, this item is more a matter of taste than anything else. 
Understand that I haven't gotten to a lot of the meat within the CoH system yet. I may find that the ability to include AFVs may put me right over the edge (and the fact that the combat systems are effectively parallel - you use units with blue (armor piercing) firepower to attack units with blue (armored) defensive values, and vehicles have their own set of combat results chits). 

Of course, when you're as compulsive as I am, there's really no reason why you can't have both game systems. After all, I also own most of the AH/MMP ASL material, most of the Avalanche Games PG material, both the original AH and first Critical Hit versions of Tobruk (later Advanced Tobruk System), Combat Commander, Tide of Iron (gotta sell this someday), and of course, Conflict of Heroes. Among other things. They definitely scratch different itches, although I would start a non-wargamer with Conflict of Heroes before I moved them on to Combat Commander just because of the leader and weapons unit breakouts in the latter and the programmed instruction rules presentation of the former.

Otherwise, both games have (so far) good support from their parent companies, with GMT providing regular additional content (both strategy and scenarios) in their house publication C3i and through Battle Packs (although at a cost), while Academy Games has provided a couple of extra scenarios and an extra board (again, at a cost). Both have very enthusiastic and accessible design teams that are willing to listen to their customers, in not agree with them every time. In conversations with Uwe about some of the component issues, he was intrigued with the idea of switching the Defensive Values on units and putting a hex symbol around them to better convey the idea of which value was associated with which part of the unit in an intuitive manner. I think he also liked the idea of smaller rulebooks and smaller combat chits, and here's hoping that they get put in the next iteration of the system. I'd also like to see scenario cards rather than booklets, although I understand there is a cost issue, and both systems present their scenarios in booklet form at present (battle packs and C3i scenarios from GMT excepted). 

All of this comparison aside, there is no question in my mind that Combat Commander was the best wargame to come out of 2007 (released in 2006, but not widely available until Jan 2007), and Conflict of Heroes should be the big award winner in 2008's wargame awards. Both of these games have made tactical-level WW2 wargaming approachable to the masses, but CoH will get even eurogamers (fussy about small counters and paper maps to a degree I'd normally associate with the Inappropriately Entitled) excited. A fantastic start for a new game company, and I wish them all the best. 


wulfgar said...

Very interesting read. I had CC, but none of my regular opponents was up for the it very often, so I sold it off. I'm very close to picking up CoH as it sounds like it would meet my wish of being much more in depth than Memoir '44 but still very approachable for the casual gamer.

I would quibble with your comment about CC better simulating subordinate units trying to do what is best for them at all times by staying still unless ordered otherwise. If you're stuck out in the open and taking fire...standing still is hardly the thing to do for self preservation. Speaking in terms of real world combat, especially in the offense, it's critical to keep moving if you want to win AND if you want to live.

Dug said...

I have heard (sorry, no source) that one in ten soldiers does what they are supposed to do in a combat situation on average. That means that green units might see one in twenty do what they should, while veteran units will see more like one in two or three.

The human desire for survival is really not calibrated for the kind of massive killing that modern weaponry can deal, and in cases where our brains can't manage what our environment is handing us we tend to think *very* short term. Thus, if I, for example, was in a war (those who know me are cackling even now) and being shot at, my first impulse would be to drop to the ground and curl up in a ball. I would almost certainly be shot in that case, assuming no cover in the immediate vicinity. By "immediate" I mean in the exact spot where I dropped.

Of course, what *I'm* referring to by staying still is that if you're in cover, you're going to stay there unless you have some overriding factor suggesting you do otherwise. Under enemy fire with green units, that's going to need to be a more compelling factor than for a veteran unit, but then the veteran unit has learned how to deal with the lethal environment and isn't as likely to freeze up.

CC manages this through a combination of nationality (through the order deck), leadership, unit characteristics (factors), in particular morale. If you think of the number of Move cards in the deck as how likely an average unit is to move (or perhaps something above average), then broken units create less likelihood of movement because they can't take orders, then also you are more likely to use your better units all other things being equal.

There's also the issue of how good a communication net a given service has, which I think is part of the Nationality argument given above.

In other words, in a gross sense an army will move forward and do what it's supposed to do, but it does so in spite of the individuals who make up that army. Ask anyone who served in a war, and they will say they were not a hero (mostly because they know just how scared they were), but they will say that they served with many heroes (because they don't want their friends knowing they were just as scared).

Combat is chaos personified. At the tactical level, it is a challenge getting people to do what you want to, and it wouldn't work at all were there not a bunch of people on the other side just as scared (if not more). It's kind of too bad that so many wargamers want to just ignore this essential fact about combat, but it remains that at the individual level, morale is the most important element on the battlefield, and that's why I like Combat Commander so much - it deals with it in a variety of ways, not just the break/rally element.

All of that said, you are right that the smart thing to do when in open ground is to seek advantageous terrain whenever possible. However, in CC most of the time you are already *in* advantageous terrain, the idea is how to move *out* of it toward your objectives! That's where the desire to stay put comes into play.

wulfgar said...

War is chaos. No argument there. I have no problem with the way CC tries to emulate that.

All I was doing was nitpicking what I think are 2 contradictory statements you've made:

1. Soldiers will do what is in the interest of their own survival if not given other orders.

2. Soldier will stay in their current location if not given other orders.

In some cases those go together, but in many cases they don't. Staying put will get you killed lots of times.

Of course soldiers to get suppressed and they do run away. They also disobey orders from time to time, and I think CC captures all of that at some level.

Looking forward to reading some more of your blog as I get the time.

Dug said...

I think we're saying exactly the same thing. My original comment was that people would stay in place, but my meaning was that they wouldn't leave cover in a particularly willing fashion. Allow me to restate my position: CC simulates how even unbroken men in combat will often not do what their commanders wish they would, for a wide variety of reasons, often by keeping their heads down in whatever cover they might be in, including laying flat in the middle of a field, and that's the unique aspect of the game.

Having played the second scenario (at last) of CoH this weekend, I can say that my opinion has only gone up of this game. It will be extremely accessible to boardgame hobbyists who haven't gotten into wargames, and even perhaps to lighter gamers with a particular interest in history.