Friday, November 27, 2009

Storm of Cardboard

Mike was the only person to show up this past Tuesday to the regular gaming session, which was not a huge surprise considering what for many in the US is a long four day weekend (and the infamous Black Friday shopping orgy that is going on as I type). Torn between The Caucasus Campaign (which Mike is playing against Eric next week) and Storm of Steel, the latest Conflict of Heroes game, we chose the latter. Mike had played with the updated Awakening the Bear rules (I had not), so we had to do a bit of figuring out as we went, but in general we got the game down.

AtB was on my list of 2009 gaming goals to get through all of the firefights, but that just never happened. It seems that Combat Commander tends to be the game of choice for relatively (3-4 hour) tactical WW2 games, and I played a *ton* of that in 2009. Uwe, the designer of the CoH system, made a lot of small but important changes to the rules, such as both players being able to active units at the same time, in essence breaking the limit of only being able to do Command, Card, or Opportunity actions while the other player had a unit Activated and using APs. It's a good choice, but it does kind of destroy the entire point of Opportunity actions, and in fact we never did any in the two scenarios we played. There is also the ability to burn an AP to force your opponent to do something, which I like and got used once or twice.

We played both Firefights 2 and 3 (#1 being a solitaire scenario), but for those familiar with AtB, both 2 and 1 use the same "programmed instruction" ruleset that correspond with Firefight 1 in AtB, and the same is the case for FF2 in AtB vs FF3 in SoS. Hope that made at least some sense. In other words, I am now exactly as far along the curve with the new ruleset as I was a year ago when Ken C and I played at Chris' Dec 08 Salishan gaming weekend.

FF2 did not go well for me, mostly because it was my turn not to be able to roll dice to save my life. I think I was able to kill one Soviet unit the entire game, while Mike was wiping me out regularly. I'd even saved a Command Action card to take a shot at him if he thought he could get away with a close assault on my first unit on the board, but then managed to roll a 4 when I needed a 5 or better to hit him. We also seemed to draw the sadly misspelled "Unnerverd" combat result chit repeatedly, meaning that the units had a hit and no more. I also couldn't roll rally actions either, and so it didn't take long for Mike to scrub the floor with my Germans.

FF3, if possible, went less well for Mike, although in this case it was a combination of a poor tactical decision (hiding his units immediately then grouping them in a single hex - when I took a guess at where he was in the wheat field and nailed one, then proceeded to kill them all within a few rolls, that was the effective end of his assault), but also some really *good* rolls on my part. The Soviets really have no choice but to use human wave tactics to get across the field, but with the group movement rules they *can* do so in a mad rush, and in fact they must. Hiding them and hoping that they'll get to the village within five turns won't work, and you simply don't want to stack units unless there is no chance they'll get shot at. Also, given the way that players expend activations, if you have twice as many units you'll be able to let the defenders expend their activations in time to allow at least some of your units to advance, although it is slow going through that wheatfield (but still twice as fast as with hidden movement). That's a tactical thing, though, not a poorly designed scenario.

As such, not the most satisfying of gaming experiences, but then these are early scenarios intended to teach the system. While I think the game "works" for infantry-only actions, I believe that this is a game that wants badly to see the armor hit the board, which is a key differentiator between it and Combat Commander. Given that the theme of SoS is what turned out to be the largest battle between primarily armored fighting vehicles in our history, it would make sense that we'd want to get there fairly soon, and I may run through the remaining scenarios solitaire just to finally get the system down and not have to fiddle with constantly teaching the baby steps that the rules force you into. Wargamers can handle the larger rulesets, and really there isn't that much that gets introduced from a rules standpoint (although it does tend to affect tactical decisions).

In all, I think the game is an improvement. The rules, at least what I've seen so far, are definitely clearer in describing how things work. Last year, Ken and I struggled to understand the grouping rules before we finally got it. This time, the text seemed to be much clearer in it's intent, as you would hope for a second edition (for all practical purposes). I was disappointed that some of the component issues were not dealt with - hex numbers on the boards are reversed from most games (they run the letter along the hex grain, the number crosswise), and are still far too small to read on the gameboard and some terrain obscures them even further. I suppose that it wasn't possible to make either the damage chits or units smaller so that one could sit on top of the other and make it easy to see both at the same time (valuable as the effects of the combat chits are located in the same corners as the factors of the units they are associated with), but then again the new game makes the chits hidden from the start rather than as an optional rule, which does make for a more tense game and allows compatibility with the first game. I'm still unhappy that the front arc defensive value is oriented toward the *back* of the counter rather than the front, and vice versa for the flank value, but again I'd imagine there is a compatibility issue with AtB. Also - no tuckboxes for the counters, which were handy for storage, although there seem to be a lot more counters in this game than the previous one, but I'm just not sure.

I'll also note that there needs to be a better terrain key than the weak one in the rulebook. There are lots of spaces on the wheatfield on board 8 that look like open areas but are not clear terrain, just wheatfield that look like it's been cleared or burned. Nice artistically, bad from a clarity perspective. Also, IIRC the rule is that if a center dot is surrounded by a terrain type then that hex is considered to be of that terrain type, but there is also a spot on board 8 with two tiny trees surrounding the center dot and I can't believe that those two lone trees constitute a forest. I suppose I need to be more willing to use common sense, but the problem is that two wargamers can disagree, both using common sense, and that is exactly why these games need to have everything nailed down, including terrain.

There are a lot of things that Uwe learned, however. No more square rules/scenarios, now they are standard sized (8.5"x11" in Imperial units). There is a time track on the player point tracking sheets, so you don't have to keep the firefight booklet flat and the counter on it. No more ambiguity over what types of units get the bonus in close combat, and which get the penalty, as those combat values have a white circle around them for the penalty. Certainly a cleaner ruleset, as mentioned above.

I think that the reason this game doesn't come out like Combat Commander is twofold. First, you more or less have to start from the beginning with someone who hasn't yet played. I've played AtB more than enough times to get through the entire set of firefights, but because almost all of my opponents have been new to the game I've played the first scenario 12 times and the second one once, and the rest haven't been touched. Second, the early scenarios have very few units and only a handful of turns, and thus one bad roll can really hamper your chances to win. That first scenario had exactly four Germans, and once you start losing them (and the CAPs with them) it's pretty much all over but the looting.

All of that said, I'm still planning to run a CoH event at the upcoming Gamestorm con in Portland in March. My goal is to start encouraging wargamers to attend the con (it's mostly RPGs, CCGs, and Euros right now), and this seems like a good start seeing as the game is definitely a crossover title a la Tide of Iron. Now *there* is a flawed game, when you have to move into a hex and take op fire in order to lay smoke that persists for *one* turn.

But I digress. My initial idea for a CoH event is to have a series of boards set up with two to four players per, representing the entire front of a large scale action. I think it will probably start out as a recon-type action, with both sides trying to take strategically important ground in the center of the board, and follow-on scenarios will have semi-random forces trying to knock back the forces that took the area in the previous battle, or even moving on to other maps if one side or the other is doing well. I'd like to work up some ideas for having the results of one battle on a neighboring board affect your board as well. There is no way I'm going to be able to come up with four to eight scenarios (I'm an optimist) that will take the *initial* situation in to account, much less more depending upon results, so a lot of the event will require me to throw things at the players, such as giving them hidden units that the other player doesn't know about! All in all, it should be a very interesting situation for me as GM, and one I'm really looking forward to. Fortunately, Uwe has promised both prize and play support, which will help immensely, and if it's successful I may try to leverage it into something I can do at other cons as well.

More on my thoughts on how to make a wargaming event in future posts.

Based on this play of SoS, I really can't make a strong recommendation for the system other than to say that if you really liked AtB, SoS is a massive improvement in many regards, and even better most of those improvements are already retrofitted to the original game. Once I've had the chance to get the full ruleset under my belt, I'll have a better sense of how the system fits in with other tactical systems out there.

Thanks to Mike for coming over and playing these two firefights, even if they weren't the tensest of affairs.


Uwe Eickert said...

You make some excellent points in your writeup. Thanks for taking the time. :)
Can we give you any support for the con early next year? I do appreciate you promoting the hobby by running and teaching games there.

Uwe Eickert

PS - Dangit, get to the tank firefights! ;)

Dug said...

Thanks for the comment, Uwe. You have already promised materials for the con, which I appreciate immensely, although we had not worked out details (I will need to get to that very soon).

As for the tank firefights, I'm working on it. The problem, as mentioned above, is a consistent opponent that I don't have to teach the early parts of the system to. Considering how popular some of the scenario-based games are with gaming friends of mine, this one just hasn't gotten the table time yet.