Friday, May 11, 2012

Conflict of Heroes - Awakening the Bear!: PC Review (Part 1)

Game: Review
Version Reviewed: 1.1 (release version)
What I like: Approachable but detailed rules, engaging back and forth turns, manageable number of units and map size. As a whole the UI is good.
Not So Much: Some trouble determining line of sight from unoccupied hexes. 
Other stuff you may like: Multiplayer via lobby, tcpip and hotseat. Editor for user-created firefights.
The Verdict: B+ (very good) – Potential to become an ‘A’ level game with an update
About my reviews

Official site: 
Conflict of Heroes - Awakening the Bear

Disclaimer: This review is based on a free review copy provided by Matrix Games.

I’m not exactly sure why, but Conflict of Heroes (CoH) has been one of my more anticipated games in a while. The promise of a detailed but approachable tactical game seems right up my alley.  I’ve never played the board game, but since I became aware of CoH’s impending release my anticipation grew. Since I don’t have prior experience with the game, my review will treat it for what it is – A tactical platoon-level wargame in which you command squads (infantry, crewed guns, or vehicles) in a turn-based fashion to meet objectives. The scenarios, called firefights contain conflicts between the Germans and the Soviet Union during WWII. The firefights are not tied together in an over-arching campaign and can be played in any order.

The game can be played vs. the AI or multiplayer through the lobby, over a tcpip connection, or hotseat at the same computer.

Getting Started
The 53-page manual does an excellent job explaining the game mechanics. I recommend starting there. The 3 tutorial firefights also do an impressive job and impatient players can probably start there.  I feel I may miss some of the finer points if I don’t read the manual, but players can probably use it as needed to fill in any detail not picked up from the tutorials. The tutorial presents information in static text windows while the user plays the firefight. The windows do allow the user to return to previous instructions in case they need a refresher.

The firefights are grouped into 6 different areas: 3 tutorial firefights, 10 from the board game Awakening the Bear, 10 Frontier Firefights fought in the Ukraine during Operation Barbarossa, 5 Commanding Heights set in the Crimean Peninsula, 1 point buy firefight in which the player spends points to requisition their choice of units, and support for user-made scenarios constructed with the included editor.

There are several options to customize your play which will be covered later.

Game Play
The goal of each firefight is to earn more victory points (VP) than your opponent within the allotted number of rounds. Victory points are earned by controlling locations on the map and killing enemy units. VP conditions are defined on a round by round basis for each side. For example, the Germans may receive 2 VP for holding a location starting on turn 3, while the Soviets receive 3 VP for the victory location starting on turn 2. Each firefight begins with a map overview and some general background for the upcoming battle. This is accompanied by a blurry, brief back and while video clip of war footage. I suppose the video is there to set the mood, but without context didn’t do a lot for me.

Turns are a little different in CoH than in most games I have played. Firefights are made up of rounds, and within each round are a number of turns. Action points (AP) are the currency spent by units to complete actions during a turn. Within each round, each side alternates taking one action (a turn) by playing a special action card, moving a unit, attacking with a unit, etc… until both sides pass. Then the next round begins. This system has some benefits. First, a player isn’t waiting for a long time between turns. Second, each side can constantly react to his opponent. In a typical turn-based game, one player moves all of their units, and then the next player moves all of his. This leads to unusual behavior since many units can move and attack without the opponent responding. In CoH a unit typically is taking small actions each turn so the action is at a more granular scale. The system works well and creates a more fluid feel to the battles.

A round may start with an initial planning phase that occurs before fighting begins. The planning phase may include placing reinforcements in deployment areas, targeting artillery strikes, placing fortifications – such as bunkers and barbed wire, and hiding units so they are more difficult to spot then the typical line of sight (LOS) rules define. It would be nice if the game displayed the unit stats during the unit deployment stage as I have a hard time memorizing the stats.

Throughout the review I am using the default rules.

I have a tendency to delve into the details of game mechanics which tend to be a little dry. This time I am taking a different approach. I’m going to present a basic AAR for the first tutorial mission. I chose the tutorial because I can illustrate the mechanics without giving away the secrets of one of the ‘real’ scenarios.
Game Play – Let’s Play
This let’s play illustrates the first tutorial as I didn’t want to give away one of the main scenarios in a review. The purpose is to display some of the rules and decisions a player must deal with. You can click on the screen shots to get a better view. The computer resolves all dice rolls by rolling 2 six sided die (2d6).  Screen shots follow the text describing the action.

Victory Conditions
The scenario lasts for 5 rounds (the clocks at the top represent the number of rounds). Each round, the side that controls the crossroads (hex with the star) earns 1 VP. 1 VP is earned for each unit destroyed. This information can be viewed by clicking on the commander circle in the upper right corner.

The Plan
I marked the hexes containing the visible Soviet troops with a red dot since the 3D models can be difficult to spot when in a forest. This is probably even more difficult in a screen shot. The counters are much easier to see, but I prefer the models. I will switch to the counters later. Pressing T toggles the terrain on and off, which is another easy way to make sure you don’t overlook any enemy units. The top Soviet unit is a Maxim MMG with a range of 9, allowing it to hit the approach via the road. Since our infantry doesn’t gain any movement bonus traveling on a road over clear terrain, we will make our own way. Our troops will swing to the south and use the trees for cover.

The other visible Soviet unit is a rifle squad, with a range of 5. Units can attack up to 2x their range, but anything over their range results in a -2 long range penalty.

Let’s Roll (Round 1)
I didn’t move my light machine gun (LMG) unit cautiously (hold Crtl key while issuing move order) which resulted in injury from the Soviet Maxim MMG. If you don’t move cautiously into a hex that doesn’t provide a defense bonus, such as clear terrain, the unit receives a -1 defense penalty. The cost of moving cautiously is 1 extra action point (AP). If I had moved cautiously, the attack would have missed. Note: Cautious movement is a rule that can be turned off, but I like it so I didn’t.

The wound he received is unnerved, which was selected randomly. There doesn’t appear to be any attribute penalties for unnerved, but one more wound and the unit is eliminated. Wounds can affect the unit’s attack, defense and movement ratings and would be displayed in the unit stats window . For example, a pinned unit can’t move.  The only way to remove a wound is to rally the unit. This is a fairly expensive action (5AP) and its chance of success is based on the wound type.

Note on combat: Units, except for mortars need direct LOS to their target. Mortars can take advantage of the LOS of virtual spotter units. The attack calculation is fairly abstract and heavily influenced by die rolls. The attack value is the sum of two 6 sided dice + the unit’s attack value (vs. armored or unarmored) + any attack modifiers. The defense value is the sum of the target’s defense (vs. frontal attack or flank-rear attack) + any defense modifiers. Having separate front / flank-rear defense ratings allows the game to model units with armor in the front, but not in the flank-rear. The UI displays that chance for a hit, so the player doesn’t need to guess at his chances.

I chose to move my injured unit one more hex because the forest will shield him from further Maxim MMG attacks. Hopefully there are no other Soviets waiting. After moving my injured LMG, the Soviet Rifle Squad is no longer in sight. A unit can see double their normal attack range unless blocked by terrain or smoke. Yep, some units will be able to place smoke on the battlefield to obscure the view. The UI does a nice job illustrating what hexes are within your entire forces LOS, along with the selected unit’s. At least one of your units can see into the light colored hexes, the selected unit can see into the yellow shaded hexes, while none of your units can see into the dark hexes. The log displays a message stating when the opponent moves a unit which is out of line of sight (LOS). I don’t think the player should be privy to this information. 

I spent several turns getting my healthy units with the injured one since each healthy ally gives a +1 chance to rally from a wound. There is a danger in stacking multiple units in one hex. If any unit in the hex is attacked, they are all attacked. This seems a little harsh, but the designers are probably trying to avoid stacks of doom. It seems a more realistic approach would be to check for an attack’s success against each unit until one is successful, or have each successive attack receive a small penalty to its success. The current implementation doesn’t decrease the enjoyment of the game, but it still seems slightly heavy handed. As long as the player is aware of the rule, they can properly consider the ramifications. Note: It can be beneficial to station a tank with an infantry unit in the same hex as the tank will provide cover from some attacks.

So far it seems there are no Soviet units with LOS to my stacked units, so I’m keeping my fingers crossed. The Soviet Rifle Squad was last seen moving towards the crossroad victory point location (VPL). My plan is to move into the trees and try and capture the VPL.

My rally succeeded and my LMG unit is no longer wounded. The Russians have been passing their turn as I move my troops into the forest. Does this mean they are out of AP or are they waiting for a more opportune moment to act? I’m not sure if the crossroads have been captured. If I also passed my turn, the round would end and round 2 would start, but I have more to do.

Now I’m in position and see that the Soviet Riflemen are outside the VP. I have a decision to make. His defense is 12 with a +1 bonus for occupying a forest. My LMG attack is a 4, so I would need a 9 (13 – 4) to hit. His unit would be impossible to destroy with 1 hit, because the attack roll needs to be 4+ more than the defense to destroy a healthy unit. Even a roll of 12 wouldn’t achieve this.

There are two features which represent the effects of command on the battle. The first are command action points (CAPs). These can be used to give units extra AP for the round. CAPs can also be used to improve dice rolls, such as improving the chance for a successful attack or rally. The use of CAPs adds some interesting strategic choices to combat. Deciding whether to use the CAPs for extra movement or attacks, or nudging combat in your favor isn’t always an easy choice. CAPs are replenished at the start of each round, but as you lose units the amount you receive are decreased. The second feature is special action cards. Each round a player may receive special action cards, which grant bonuses.  There are 15 different effects the cards can have on play. Each card I received at the start of round 1 can be used to grant one of my units a free action (requires no AP). My special action cards are represented by the two small square icons on the left side of the screen, about halfway down. Hovering the mouse over the icons gives an enlarged view with an explanation of their effect.

Another interesting feature is the ability to group adjacent units. Grouped units represent coordinated action between squads. All units in the group can act before the enemy gets a chance to react by taking their turn. There are additional benefits too. Adjacent group members can give an attack bonus to another group member, providing they have a valid attack opportunity on the target (in LOS and have the AP). When you use CAPs to assign additional APs to a unit in a group, all group members get the additional AP. The downside of grouping units is that at the end of the turn group members AP are reduced to match the lowest member of the group.

I decided to use some CAPs and a special action card to move my riflemen squad up to support the attack by my LMG. I grouped the 2 units together and used 2 CAPs to improve the attack roll of the LMG. My rifleman will be exposed, but I take the risk. The attack has a 72% chance for success.

I roll a 2 and missed. Bad luck. To add insult to injury, the Soviet riflemen still had enough AP to attack and wounded my exposed riflemen. Now they are unnerved.

I really want to take care of the Soviet riflemen, so I use my last special action card to perform another attack with my LMG. Using 2 CAPs to improve my attack I raise my odds to 58%. This time I hit to wound the riflemen. The Soviets had a special action card of their own to automatically rally their wounded squad. My wounded riflemen are my only units with AP left, but they only have an 8% chance for a successful attack (16% if I use my last CAP). Prudently I decide to move the injured soldiers to safety instead, occupying the same forest hex as my LMG. The terrain and the healthy friendly unit will both give a rally chance bonus the next round. The Soviet riflemen move closer to the crossroads. I don’t have any more actions so I pass. The Soviets are only done after they grab the crossroads.

Push To Take the Crossroads (Round 2)
The APs and CAPs are restored, and I receive a new special action card, which removes all AP from an enemy unit. That will be very useful. Their Maxim MMG isn’t an immediate threat since they don’t have any LOS to my units.

Note on movement and terrain: Units are assigned a movement type (foot, wheeled or tracked) along with the base AP cost for movement. Typically a unit can only move one hex, but some faster units can get extra moves when traveling in suitable terrain. Terrain affects the cost of movement, with separate modifiers for foot, wheeled and tracked travel. Some terrain is impassible for wheeled travel, while some terrain may immobilize tracked vehicles. Roads negate these modifiers making them quite valuable.

I want to eliminate the riflemen. I group my LMG and injured riflemen for a group attack, but only after using 2 CAPs to boost my attack roll to get an 83% chance of success. The Soviet riflemen are wounded, the first step to gaining control of the crossroads. The Soviets pull out another special action card, rally attempt. This one is not automatic and doesn’t succeed. Since my units were grouped and both started with 7 AP, they both are down the LMG’s cost of attack (2AP) to 5AP. Still enough AP for a second attack and with 2 CAPs to improve my roll the chance for success is 83%. The Soviet riflemen are no longer.

The Maxim MMG is no longer visible and I’m not sure where they went off to. I’m going to leave my busy LMG and riflemen in place in the forest to respond to any threats and move my rear riflemen to the crossroads. After getting them in place, the Maxim MMG decides to show up, but shouldn’t have LOS for an immediate attack. Now it’s time to take care of my injured riflemen and move them further into the forest. Since the move was towards the flank / rear it cost him an extra AP, but for now he is safe.

After my move the camera swung to the lower right corner, probably due to the Soviet reinforcements. I’m not sure why I get this indication as to where they are (or if it really is an indication). It is time for the rear LMG to move up to help protect the crossroads.  As my LMG was positioned, a Soviet rifle squad showed up and took a potshot at my riflemen guarding the crossroads and missed. It’s time to turn on the chits, which will be much easier to see. The chits can get obscured by the forests, but pop to the foreground if moused over. Unfortunately the chits get slightly fuzzy when moused over, but still readable. I hope the effect isn’t intentional because it isn’t friendly.

The chits do display a lot of information. The AP cost of attack - upper left, movement cost - upper right, flank / rear defense value and frontal attack defense value – lower right, unarmored and armored attack values – lower left, attack range – lower center, and unit icon in the middle. The unit facing is displayed with the handy arrow in the green section.

I plan to hold the VP and try to eliminate the threat. Next round I hope to build a hasty defense at the crossroads to give my riflemen +1 defense. My CAPs can be used to give them some AP to rally if hit. My top LMG has LOS to the new enemy riflemen, but my lower one doesn’t. I have enough CAPs to provide APs to my upper LMG for an attack and do so, but they only have a 16% chance to hit. Bam! Soviet riflemen are now injured.

The Soviets made fine use of the forest and surprise me with another riflemen next to the victory point location. My only action is to attack with my lower LMG with a 27% chance. Missed. Even with a +3 close range attack bonus the Soviet riflemen missed with a roll of a 3. I hope they are out of AP.

We have trouble; the Soviet riflemen moved into the crossroads with me and follow up with an attack. This is a close combat situation, giving the Soviet riflemen a +4 bonus. Not all units are better in close combat. Machine guns, mortars, and others like to keep some distance. My men are now injured. Some unknown Soviet rifle squad is moving in the distance. I can tell from the message log. I don’t think I should be privy to such information. More close combat occurs in the crossroads and I get lucky; the Soviets roll a 3. I last through round2, but there are still 2 unknown Soviet riflemen lurking. Somewhere.

Stand Tough (Round 3)
I receive my first and only reinforcement, a pioneer, in the upper right. They are tougher than the riflemen, both on the attack and defense, but have a lesser range. They are also equipped with smoke which might me handy.

Since an enemy is in the same hex as my injured riflemen, they can’t rally. If my other units attack the location, they risk hitting (and killing) my riflemen. To top it off, they are stunned and can’t move or attack. I’m beginning to think this is the end of the line for them. At least I’ll make the enemy use AP to attack him. When the Soviets are alone in the hex I’ll launch my attack. The 2 LMG group up and take out the Maxim MMG. The Soviets return the favor and put my riflemen out of their misery. Time to take the crossroads back!

The Soviets play the dual attack card, forcing me to lose a turn. The injured Soviet riflemen fail to rally and move to cover the approach of the pioneers. The riflemen’s range doesn’t pose a significant threat to the pioneers, but will make me take a safe route. One of my LMG units attack the crossroads, using 2 CAPs for a roll bonus .I missed, so my advance is delayed. My pioneers now have company – Soviet Riflemen #4.

My pioneers pivot to face the new threat. Once the enemy is eliminated, the pioneers can use the forest for cover to approach the south. The Soviets miss the pioneers, who only have a 25% chance to successfully return the attack. The light forest is providing some shelter. I miss and the Soviets move to the SW. I’m not sure why.

I just remembered that the pioneers have smoke, so I could use it to reduce the risk of getting hit. I decide to stay on the offensive and attack. I hit him, but another Soviet riflemen appears from the S; the second and last of their reinforcements.

The pioneers try to eliminate the immediate threat and fail. They are now out of AP and the new riflemen move closer. I need to get the crossroads to accumulate some VP. My LMG attack with the help of +2 CAPs for a 72% chance to hit. Got’em! I successfully rally my injured riflemen, so my troops are back to full force. Once again, the Soviets attack the Pioneer and fail. There are no Soviet units with a good shot at the crossroads, so I use a free action special card and 1 AP to take the crossroads. My pioneer finally gets injured with the Soviet attack.

Stand Tough – Part 2 (Round 4)
My first attempt at standing tough didn’t go as planned, but I have a better feeling about this. The Soviets get the initiative and try to rally the riflemen who have been harassing my pioneers, and fail. I received a new dual attack action card, so I play it. The plan is to rally the pioneers and counter attack. This time I use 2 CAPs to improve my rally chance, so I only need a 5 instead of a 7. They are good as new. Another +2 CAPs for my attack and the Soviet riflemen are dead. I’m up 6 points to 2 and hold the victory point location in round 4.

I prepare a hasty defense at the crossroads, just in case the Soviets position themselves for an attack. My riflemen move to flank the Soviets near the crossroads. The defense penalty for a flanking attack wasn’t as great as I would have expected. The other riflemen manage to close on my pioneer and wound them.

My riflemen squad needs 2 CAPs to acquire enough AP for a flanking attack. This will be against the flank defense value, which is lower than the normal frontal attack defense. My chance is only 41% so I use 1 CAP to bring it up to 58%. They are eliminated! I would like to clear the table, so I move my LMG to attack the remaining enemy squad.

They are now damaged and the round is over. Stand Tough – Part 2 is a success.

Mop Up (Round 5)
The Soviets gain the initiative and rally, making it more difficult to kill their remaining unit. After several attempts I only managed to wound the last unit, but achieved a 9 to 2 victory. This was only a tutorial scenario so I’m sure it wasn’t intended to be challenging, but it was surprisingly fun for a tutorial. Conflict of Heroes is off to a good start!

The User Interface
Whoever designed the user interface for CoH deserves to be commended. CoH uses a logical method to select units with the left mouse button and issue move orders with the right. The camera can be manipulated with mouse or keyboard commands. Rotating the map by clicking and dragging the right mouse button wasn’t always responsive, but the other methods worked well. If you wait for the cursor to change to a camera, the rotate function works as expected. As a whole, the UI does a great job providing information and easily allowing the player to manage the battle.

All relevant information is at the players fingertips. The terrain is clean and uncluttered, but the 3D units can be hard to spot. I believe this is going to be improved in an update. There is one oddity regarding LOS. I learned from a helpful forum member that LOS rules draw a line from the center of the unit’s hex to the center of the target hex. Sometimes terrain features, such as trees can lead to unexpected LOS. It is clear where your unit has LOS, but it can be confusing as to why it is the way it is. There are also situations where it would be nice to check LOS from unoccupied hex so you can determine what you would see before committing to the move.

I prefer the look of the 3D unit models, but they are a little difficult to select sometimes.

Some additional improvements could be made. Before an attack the % chance for success is displayed. It would be helpful to also display the % chance for success for rallying a unit, with applicable modifiers included. Unit action buttons are disabled when the unit can’t perform the action, but there isn’t any information as to why. For example, the hide button was disabled when I didn’t have enough AP, but became enabled as I converted CAPs to APs for the unit. A tooltip would have been nice to inform me that I needed more AP to hide when I didn’t have enough. A message or two in the message log was a little misleading until I asked a question on the forum. The developer said they would improve the message in an update.

There was also a bug loading a saved game from within a scenario, so your best bet is to load the game from the main menu. The player may get extra AP and action cards when loading from within a scenario.

Customizing Your Experience
There are several options for players to tweak the rules of the game. Fog of War can be toggled on or off. I prefer on but everyone is free to choose. 4 difficulty levels are available. I already mentioned the cautious foot movement rule. The troop quality of regular quality units can be randomized to provide more variety to the firefights. By default, units receive 7 AP at the start of each turn. The player can change the default behavior so units receive a variable number of AP each turn. Many players of the boardgame complained when the handling AP was changed for the computer game. In the computer game a unit’s AP are retained in a round even after the unit is deselected. This allows the player to order unit A, then use unit B the next turn, and return to using unit A. The last option isn’t fully implemented yet, but if turned on a unit loses all remaining AP whenever they are deselected. If this option is turned on, the player can’t give any orders to the unit until the next round once they are deselected.

Graphics and Sound
Other than some of the graphical oddities mentioned in the review, the game looked very nice for a hex-based war game. The look was clean and clear. I sometimes surprised myself when I realized I was enjoying some of the music. Typically I don’t care one way or the other and my only hope is that the music in strategy games isn’t annoying.

Technical Performance
I didn’t experience any slowdowns or crashes, but I did encounter a few bugs. None of them seriously hampered my enjoyment of the game.

My Specs: Windows 7 64-bit. Intel Core i7 860 @ 2.80 GHz. 8 Gig RAM. ATI Radeon HD 5850.

Some Thoughts
The terrain can also contain interesting features which were not used in this tutorial. Some scenarios contain structures which some units can enter to gain an additional defensive bonus, but may also put restrictions on the unit’s facing. Bunkers, gun pits and trenches grant defense bonuses. Barbed wire and roadblocks impede movement. Landmines decrease your turn times because you’ll have fewer men to move around. Boom.

I was tempted to hide some units in the forest early in the scenario, but I opted not to. If a unit is out of LOS for all enemy units it can go into hiding. Units hidden in clear terrain are spotted by enemies within two hexes, but if the unit is hidden in a hex that provides cover, such as a cornfield, they aren’t spotted unless an enemy enters the same hex. This is a nice way to set up some ambushes for the enemy. A unit can still move after being hidden, but at an extra AP cost. If you suspect that a unit is hidden in a particular hex, the player can target it for an attack without being aware of the unit. Hey, sometimes it pays to follow your instinct.

The unit attributes are detailed enough to provide a deep experience without needing to know the different muzzle velocities of each weapon used during the war. Planning for the use of CAPs and special action cards adds to the fun. The rules have enough depth so the player has to constantly make interesting choices. Many times I use the word gamey with a negative connotation but with Conflict of Heroes I use it in a positive way. It does feel very gamey, but in the same way a game like the card game Dominions does. The rules feel elegant and the many abstractions don't feel hokey. I didn’t notice any bizarre moves by the AI in the tutorial, which remained competitive for most of the scenario. Unless the scenarios take a huge turn for the worse, I expect to enjoy Conflict of Heroes very much. I am refraining from assigning a score until I play more scenarios and will have more to say in Part 2.


  1. Looking forward to your final score for this game.
    I will grab it immediately if it removes 3D and improve its 2D presentations.

    1. Part 2 is up. In my opinion it is worth getting as is, but should be even better with a future update.