Sunday, November 2, 2008

Conflict of gamers

After our Vassal fun last week, it was back to regular gaming, and I won the toss for selection. It wasn't too hard to pick Conflict of Heroes, a game I bought several weeks previously, but hadn't really looked at since. I wasn't even aware of this one until our gaming friend Patrick mentioned it and I started some research, starting with the BGG entry. Pretty quickly I was sold on the game and it was one of the first games I purchased with my store credit from the recent Rainy Day Games auction, in fact I even placed a pre-order for it before the auction had even taken place.

I've been looking for a good squad level game for some time. ASL wasn't it, too detailed, too many rules to remember, and although it has a big following, it just wasn't doing it for me (although it was great to just read through the gorgeous rule book, and drool over the fascinating range of weapons and hardware). Combat Commander wasn't it, too wacky. Although I will play it, too often it's not very satisfying. (I still can't make up my mind whether I want to get the new Pacific version, but, for the moment, I haven't cancelled my P500 pre-order.)

So, over the past few weeks I've been following all the posts on BGG, and, boy, have there been a lot of them! And then some more! (46 pages in fact.) This game is generating a LOT of interest, and it's all positive, with everyone raving about how good it is. Can they all be wrong, or have they just been drinking the Kool-Aid? Time to find out.

Prior to our game, I decided not to do more than just read the rules, in order to keep a level playing field. That way neither one of us had any more experience than the other, although it was hard not to get it onto the table. The rules appear ridiculously simple, and the first major thing of note is that there are no leaders in the game, which comes as something as a shock to those brought up on ASL and CC. Instead, there are Command Action Points (CAPs), which represent the abstraction of command, that can be used to allow units to perform actions, or modify dice rolls. Each player has a CAP allowance, which is received each turn, unused points at the end of the turn being lost.

Players take turns being the active player, being allowed to take multiple actions per activation, and only when the player is done taking actions is their activation over. However, after each action in that activation the non-active player gets a chance to react by taking an action. During an activation only one unit, or group of units, may be activated, where it gets 7 Action Points, with each movement, fire, or rally, etc. being an action, and taking a number of APs to perform. Other possible actions are Opportunity Action, Command Action, and Play an Action card, and the reacting player may choose any of these three actions as a reaction to the active player's action. (The non-player may not choose a unit/group activation as a reaction.) The
Opportunity Action allows a player to use a unit/group to perform and action is response to a previous action. A Command Action allows the player to use CAPs to perform actions with units/groups. This is useful, because after activation or an Opportunity Action, a unit/group is flipped over to show they have been used. Note that CAP can be used on ANY unit, even one that has been flipped! The final action is a Card Action. Each player has a number of cards which allow a variety of actions to be performed, e.g. firing for no AP cost, adding to firepower, etc.

And that takes us, rather conveniently, to combat. Units are divided into 'hard' targets (e.g. armor) and 'soft' (e.g. infantry), marked by the color of their defense strength, blue or red, respectively, as well as frontal and flank defense values. Some units, e.g. armor, also have both types of attack strength (red & blue), and if using the 'wrong' type of attack strength for the intended target the strength is halved. Take the attack strength, apply any modifiers, add 2d6, and compare to the target's defense strength. Equal or greater scores a hit, 4 or more greater scores 2 hits, and 2 hits kills. When a unit is hit, the player draws a damage marker from the bag (for the correct target type) which identifies the impact of the hit, which ranges from pinning (no movement) to varies modifiers to action costs, defense and attack strength, and outright kills. This marker is kept secret and placed under the unit until it rallies and removes it. A hit scored on a unit with a damage marker removes that unit from the game, and each removed unit reduces the CAPs by one point.

As an example, to start their activation, player A could play a card, and in response player B may choose to do nothing. Player A may then choose to activate a unit, placing the AP marker in the 7APs space, moving it one hex for a cost of 1AP. In response to this player B may use CAP to allow a unit to fire on the moving unit as a Command Action, which means the firing unit isn't flipped to its used side. Player A could choose an Opportunity Action, firing with a different unit to the one currently active, which would flip the unit, but save CAP until later. And so it goes on, back and fore, until the active player decides he doesn't want to do anything more that activation. Pretty simple and straight-forward.

So on Wednesday Eric and I sat down, briefly recapped the rules required (it uses a programmed instruction style), and set up scenarios 1. (We used the set-up in the play book, although I note now that there is a correction.) I was the Russians, Eric the Germans, and has the Germans trying to kill units and take control of the victory location. Eric started by advancing strongly, and managed to capture the VP location at one point, but I forced him out and scored lots of casualties for a convincing win.

That took around 45 minutes, so onto scenario 2, which once again saw my defending Russians being attacked by Eric's Germans. This scenario introduces hidden units and group activation (costs 1 CAP to activate a group of units). There are two VP locations, one in the village that the Russians get more VPs for the longer they can hold onto it, the Germans more for capturing it quickly. I placed a couple of units forward, hoping to catch Eric quickly, and it almost worked as Eric activated a group and dashed forward up the road. I allowed them to move past the hidden unit, and then fired on their flank from an adjacent hex (+3 fire modifier). Requiring only a 5 on 2 dice I whiffed one of them, then when he turned to face me (a movement action, spending APs, so allowing me a response) I whiffed on both units requiring a 6. He fired, scoring a hit with one unit, but as I'd used two cards to allow fire for no AP/CAP cost, I used an Opportunity Action to fire again, finally scoring a kill, but Eric got his revenge and also took out my unit. That could have gone so much better for me!

Eric started a drive up my right flank, and I (stupidly) let him, rather than fire on him, eventually revealing my other forward unit when he advanced into my hex. In my reaction I fired in Close Combat (which is just fire, but with different modifiers), scoring a hit, and Eric decided to run away rather than risk losing an LMG unit (they're -2 in CC). The next turn he played a card that flipped one of my units to its used side, and chose the unit protecting the VP location. He then used his activations to gang up on it, as I didn't have any LoS to stop him, managing to capture it in turn 3 for mucho VPs. I did manage to capture it back again in turn 4, but Eric kicked me out again in turn 5, and those VPs were enough for him to take the win.

I think I can honestly say that this is one of the two most exciting and interesting games of the year for me. (The other is Napoleon's Triumph, btw.) The price is high ($75), but the production values are excellent. Great mapboards, luscious large counters, colorful rule book, play book and play aids. (The rule book was mis-collated, but free replacements are offered, and the customer service response (from Uwe, himself) to my request for a replacement was almost instantaneous.)

The game play is some of the most elegant I've seen, and it just flows together. The idea of CAPs work wonderfully, and gives some hard decisions to make, and each CAP spent has to be justified. I found myself spending CAP too quickly, allowing Eric freedom from response at the end of the turn, as well as playing a very poor tactical game in the second scenario, leaving my units without mutual support. The interactive flow of the game makes for some tense decisions and flexibility. This has obviously been some time in the production and must have seen serious play-testing as everything just fits together so well and so cleanly.

There's a time for a long, detailed, intricate game, and there's a time for something lighter, and this fits the bill for the latter category very well. Both scenarios took us no more than a couple of hours, which is a very decent length. Looking forward in the scenarios/rules there is armor, off-board artillery and larger multi-formation scenarios, so there is a lot of depth to go yet. I can hardly wait, as I think I've found that squad level game I was looking for. This is going to see a lot of table time in the future, and I plan to pick up the new installments as they're released. My CC:Pacific pre-order is in the greatest danger it's ever been, and is now hanging on by a thread.

6 comments:

Dug said...

Maybe it's just because I have lots of discretionary income and free time, but I see absolutely no reason why there isn't space for both Combat Commander and Conflict of Heroes. They both do things in very different ways, and each scratches a different itch. CC is, to my mind, very close to what real combat would be like for the commander of a platoon or two, trying to keep in touch with them, get them to do the things I want them to, etc.

CoH, on the other hand, uses the oh-so-popular Eye Of God scheme whereby players know exactly what is going on all of the time, will always be able to activate units (within reason), and everyone jumps when someone says jump.

Not that there's anything wrong with that. Or the CC system for that matter. They both do different things.

The CoH system has some things to figure out. First off, they need to have smaller 5/8" counters for the combat result chits so you can put them in the middle of the squad counters and see exactly what's what. Second, they need to change up the two armor values on the counter so the one that affects the front of the unit is the one oriented toward the front of the counter. This is backwards right now. Both of these issues can easily be rectified with a little DIY magic, of course.

Also, CoH has no roll-your-own scenarios, and the scenarios that are there are early-war Russian Front only, with limited unit types. With CC (and just the original set, not Med or the Para battle pack), you can run scenarios from pretty much any battle between the three different nationalities, and with the Med pack that goes up exponentially to just about any action in Europe during WW2. I understand that CoH is going to be expanded as time goes on, but Academy is a small company with limited resources and is just starting to figure things out, so I'd be surprised if we had more than one more module in the next year.

All of that said, I think that CoH is a brilliant design, one that is actually easier to teach to a newb than CC (which is saying something - the combat system is very clean and handles a very wide range of combat results in an extremely elegant manner).

For me, the real question is when to sell Tide of Iron (note to the kids - plastic bad, cardboard good), and when to give up and realize that at 45, the odds of me ever picking up ASL beyond the starter kits is running out, if it hasn't already.

Jackson said...

Dug, to take it one step farther, the trouble w/the CAP system - coupled w/the Eye of God is that you know when your opponent is OUT of CAPS.
Now that I think about it, I believe a House Rule of Hidden CAP tracks is the way to go.

Overcoming Eye o God is NOT an easy thing. I HATE hidden units way too 'fiddly' and pen and paper! No way. That is the prime element that computers bring to gaming.
But, for table games, you have to go w/cards.
Why? Because we need to see the units to be able to play (especially solitaire) but even ftf, but we need to NOT know what they are capable of.
The always mentioned "fishing for a fire card" is actually the principle strength of CC.
Why? Because from the other side of the table, it allows real life events like Movement, w/out automatically getting Fired on.
Sure you see that MG sitting there, but will they fire? This lack of a fire card is MORE realistic than the ALWAYS fire (like ASL) And of course, the worst is the totally gamey moving past an "already activated" unit that is done for the turn.
That's what the CAP system fixes.

I really do like the idea of Hidden CAPS, it will add a Clint Eastwood like element- "Did I fire my last bullet or not, well did I Punk" (not even close to the real dialogue, sorry)

Anyway, I think the best part of CoH is actually the interaction of Infantry and Armor, which you haven't gotten to yet.
And of course the Euro quality.
Very cool game.
I could see Ewe even adding individual leaders/heroes at some point. That would add another missing element (Lock n Load's strong suit).

Good review, as always.
thanks
Jackson

Randy Shipp said...

Jackson said:

But, for table games, you have to go w/cards. Why? Because we need to see the units to be able to play (especially solitaire) but even ftf, but we need to NOT know what they are capable of. The always mentioned "fishing for a fire card" is actually the principle strength of CC. Why? Because from the other side of the table, it allows real life events like Movement, w/out automatically getting Fired on. Sure you see that MG sitting there, but will they fire? This lack of a fire card is MORE realistic than the ALWAYS fire (like ASL).

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I'm not sure I understand how it's more realistic that, under normal circumstances and with any regularity at all, a well-trained, good order German MG team wouldn't fire their weapon when an enemy crossed their LOS in the open. The times that they do have their heads down, it's probably as the result of some external stress, like covering fire. Games like Squad Leader model this just fine: one fire group lays down suppressing fire (breaking the MG crew) and then the maneuver group moves without worrying as much about the MG. Or, you advance slowly to lower the risk of crossing in the open. Or you cry "Banzai!", make a mad dash for it, and pray. But just approaching a street, seeing an MG at the end of the street and crossing because you think there's any reasonable likelihood that they'll forget to cut you down seems, well, not very realistic to me.

But worse than not having the Fire card you need is getting part way through an advance and running out of Move cards. Right, my guys will stop in the middle of the street and there'll be some command reason that they sit there getting their asses shot off rather than taking cover in the adjacent building? I'm with Eric and Mike: CC is just too wacky. I appreciate the boldness of their concept, but the feel is entirely wrong for me.

Randy...

Randy Shipp said...

Mike,

I also thought Conflict of Heroes was fun (you can read the reactions of Tim and me over at http://twoguysgaming.blogspot.com), but it strikes me as a fairly gamey way of handling command. While having to manage the CAPs "resource" is elegant, Euro-like, and introduces some cool tension into the players' decisions, I'm not sure it's all that realistic. I mean, were some good leaders always good leaders, or did they all "dry up" at some point every couple of minutes? And were all NCOs equal? Is it reasonable that there's a sort of uniformity to the quality of the leaders, even across squads from different units? (I'm assuming a common CAP pool is used, even when armor and infantry work together, for instance.) I realize it's a useful abstraction from a gameplay point of view, but I do lament a little bit the loss of feel that I get from these little underlying breakdowns in realism.

That said, give me this over CC:E any day!

Randy...

Jackson said...

Randy

I respect your comments, and understand why A LOT of people love ASL. I do wonder how much CCE you've played. I ask, because the Fire action/order cards are the most plentiful, and in the 50 or so games I've played, I think I've allowed a unit to cross in front of an MG maybe 2 times!
You do have a handful of cards (sometimes I've had as many as 4 or 5 Fire cards)....
As far as a movement order which leaves troops stuck out in the open, all I can offer is:
Watch Band of Brothers, and in episode 3 I believe, Winters leads his men up a road towards a town,and they panic under fire- basically just lie down in the road- and he has a hell of a time rallying them. And that's from Real combat. SO it did happen.
In ASL, can that happen? Probably, now remember in CCE, you can manage your hand,and choose not to move until you have multiple move/advance cards, as well as rally and smoke.

The real genius of CCE is the smooth way that random events and chaos is seamlessly brought into the game.
That is what makes it my favorite game of all time.

Much like ASL folks love their game.

It truly is all good.

regard, Jax

Randy Shipp said...

"I respect your comments, and understand why A LOT of people love ASL. I do wonder how much CCE you've played."

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Two or three games, I think. Enough to realize that I didn't enjoy playing the game. To play more would have been like hitting my thumb with a hammer, but doing it again just to be sure it hurt. ;-)
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"I ask, because the Fire action/order cards are the most plentiful, and in the 50 or so games I've played, I think I've allowed a unit to cross in front of an MG maybe 2 times!"

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I assume you've played a lot. So, I don't understand: you claim that the ability to cross the field of fire of a MG is important, and that the vagaries of the cards in CC:E allow this to happen, but then you say you've only ever had it happen twice? Is it a big feature of the system or something that almost never comes up?
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"You do have a handful of cards (sometimes I've had as many as 4 or 5 Fire cards)...."

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What does that represent? When does the company commander have no trouble at all getting his units to coordinate their fire effectively, but no ability whatsoever to get them to move?
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"As far as a movement order which leaves troops stuck out in the open, all I can offer is:
Watch Band of Brothers, and in episode 3 I believe, Winters leads his men up a road towards a town,and they panic under fire- basically just lie down in the road- and he has a hell of a time rallying them. And that's from Real combat. SO it did happen."

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Your example works better with my argument. :-) In your example, the men break under fire. Admittedly, in Squad Leader they would automatically rout toward cover; if unable to do so without crossing open ground, they'd be eliminated. But they didn't get partway across a road, then suffer some kind of command failure, freeze, and THEN come under fire in the open. In other words, they broke under enemy fire, they didn't fail to draw a Move card to finish a multi-turn maneuver.
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"In ASL, can that happen? Probably, now remember in CCE, you can manage your hand,and choose not to move until you have multiple move/advance cards, as well as rally and smoke."

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And of course, this is what you do, time permitting. I can't think of where I'm fishing around for a smoke canister...don't I either have one or not? And wait for a Rally card? So, a company commander at some point realizes, "It's no big deal if my boys come under fire now...I know in advance I'll be able to rally them!"?
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"The real genius of CCE is the smooth way that random events and chaos is seamlessly brought into the game.
That is what makes it my favorite game of all time."

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Well, you have more experience, so maybe the good experiences balance out the "wacky" elements I and others have seen. But there was nothing seamless about the aforementioned card droughts, and there certainly wasn't anything seamless about random events such as having a dead Russian mortar crew rise from the dead and appear behind the line of the German advance, in a hex they just marched through a turn or so before. It was...random.

I appreciate that many people love their game, and I kinda see what CC:E was going for (it wanted to be Up Front: the Boardgame), but I think they went very wide of the mark for me.

Thanks for the interesting discussion!

Randy...