Sunday, May 20, 2012

Conflict of Heroes: Awakening the Bear! (Matrix Games) - Review

The original Conflict of Heroes Awakening the Bear! is the first title of a highly coveted and popular series of board games designed by Uwe Eickert. With simple rules, fast game play, high quality materials and exquisite artwork, it was one of the most refreshing surprises in the world of tactical board war games. Now that it was ported into the PC format by Western Civilization and published by Matrix Games, players have the chance to an introduction to the game designs of Mr. Eickert (in case you haven't played the board game), play the game in solitaire mode with full fog of war (newer titles of board game series have a very interesting solitaire rule-based opponent, but full fog of war is impossible to implement) and most importantly play the game with anybody around the world.

Conflict of Heroes is a turn based war game at the tactical level of World War II (Eastern Front). Maneuver units are infantry squads, tanks, and armored personnel carriers. Fire support units include machine gun teams, infantry and anti-tank guns, mortar teams, off-map artillery. Terrain is represented by hexes of different types (clear, marsh, corn or wheat fields, woods, stone or wood buildings, etc.) that are roughly 40 to 50 meters wide. In addition to the basic types of terrain types, the game also features roads, walls and elevation. Some scenarios include fortifications (trenches, bunkers, gun pits), obstacles (barbed wire and roadblocks) and area denial weapons (minefields).

Gameplay is turn-based, IGOUGO style. At the start of each turn each unit has a number of actions points that can be used for fire, movement, changes in facing, hiding, entering buildings and setting up a hasty defense. The starting player selects a unit (this is called "activating a unit" in the board game) and performs a single action with that unit (fire, move, change facing, etc.) at the expense of action points (different actions cost a given amount of points). Immediately after the completion of that single action by the first player, the second player can select one of his units and perform a single action with it. This is repeated until both sides run out of action points or choose to pass using them. At this point, both sides have all their units' action points replenished. This point of the game is called the end of a turn and the start of another and can be a bit confusing if you are accustomed to the traditional meaning of the term turn used in other games (moving all your units until they are out of action points, but with the other side not allowed to move his units). But once you see how it works in Conflict of Heroes, the confusion becomes an easily forgettable semantics issue. Because it works like a charm: it increases the pace of the game (less amount of clicks required to trigger the enemy's reaction) and reduces the so-called "idle time" (the time you have to wait until your opponent is done moving and firing). However, this results in a game that can't be played by e-mail (can you imagine waiting for an e-mail from your opponent containing just one move by one unit?). This doesn't mean that you can't play against another human (more about multiplayer later in this review).

Combat and fire is computed from the range between the attacker and its target and the terrain cover provided in the target's location. Combat and fire is resolved by dice throws. For a unit to fire, it is required to have the right facing (a fire arc is displayed from the front of the unit) and a clear line of sight on the target (this is also displayed when the firing unit is selected). Attrition due to enemy fire is accounted through hit counters: a unit can receive one hit and survive (but depending the type of hit it will penalized in its attack, defense and/or move allowances). The next hit on a unit already having a hit counter on it, the unit is destroyed. It sounds a bit extreme to loose a unit after two "hits", but keep in mind that this is an abstraction. Most frequently, for a unit to take damage it has to be fired upon from a relatively short range and be in open terrain. Or being shot by machine guns, infantry guns, mortar fire. All being said, get ready to take some considerable losses, sometimes really fast.

Action points are the life line of the forces engaged in Conflict of Heroes. Besides their individual units' action points, the player has a pool of so-called "command action points" that he can use to shift the dice throws or to pour extra action points into any of his individual units' pool. These command actions points are lifesavers: I used them very frequently to give an out-of-action-points infantry squad that little extra push to take the objective. But they go down fast, not coming back until the end of the turn (i.e. when all units have no action points anymore). Also available to the player, there are special actions which are shown as board game cards. Their availability and nature vary from turn to turn. These special actions include rallying (this will take away damage hit counter from units, if the special action succeeds), the ability to perform an action with a unit without using the unit's action points and more specialized actions like clearing a minefield. My favorite special action is the "mark as used" one: it removes all the action points from an enemy unit. If a "mark as used" card is applied to the enemy unit, it can't perform no action until the end of the turn (sounds a lot like real life suppressive fire!).

The game can be played in a full 3D view or a top-down 2D view. The terrain graphics are very good and map navigation is done with the mouse. The maps are aesthetically appealing and it is easy to navigate across it using the mouse. A minor annoyance for me was tilting the 3D map: for some reason that specific control didn't feel as responsive for me as the other one for moving across the map. The menus and interface are also top notch in terms of functionality and graphical appeal. Another minor gripe of mine is that the in-game interface buttons and menus occupy too much real estate. The user interface can be turned off entirely by pressing the I key. But this is just a minor issue that bothered me in bigger scenarios only, when I needed as much screen as possible showing what's going on across the map.

The units can be shown as 3D models or as board-game-style chits/counters. The 3D models are very lively and animated. The infantry 3D models tend to blend too well into terrain like woods and time to time is difficult to find them. The board-game-style chits, on the other hand are very easy to spot on the map. The top of the chits, containing all the information about the unit (attack/defense value, actions points at the beginning of a turn, range of fire, etc) is better seen at high angles of view when using the 3D map. The best angle for seeing the chits is off course 90 degrees, and fortunately the game can be played entirely from a full top-down view by just clicking a button. The chits are not very sharp when looked up close and I hope this is something that can be fixed or modded because they are a beauty in the paper version of the game.

As I mentioned before, this is a game designed for fast play (between half an hour for small scenarios and two hours maximum for huge scenarios). Don't be fooled about this, though. Fast play is just a bonus you get out of this superbly designed game. You really need to use combined arms tactics to achieve victory. A lone infantry squad advancing through the open without covering fire is a very bad idea. A single-tank rushing into an AT gun nest is a recipe for disaster. I have also lost more men than I'm willing to admit because of poor management of action points and special actions.

In case you are a veteran of the board game version of the game, in this PC version you can choose between the classic "non persistent action points" and the new "persistent actions points". I will leave a discussion of the impact of these two gameplay modes for a future write up. For now let me tell you that I prefer the classical mode as it was presented in the board game version.

The game can be played against the computer opponent. The computer-controlled units provide a decent challenge. I've seen Soviet enemy units both rushing into the teeth of my machine gunners, or patiently trying to outflank my strongest defenses as well. Much to my surprise, I witnessed computer controlled units not to proceed with an assault before having a fire support unit in place (very nice!). The computer controlled units are controlled by a series of contextual scripts (i.e. scripts that play out differently depending the situation in which the unit is). For example there are scripts that make the units to look for, assault and defend the closest victory location, scripts that make units to move into contact and try to outflank the unit that poses the major danger, move into contact and just rush the enemy unit detected, etc. I've read other reviewers frown upon the AI's capabilities (good sometimes, very bad other times) but I feel that with a bit of patience and additional work the computer opponent's scripts can be mixed and matched to make up a fierce opponent.

As with any other war game, multiplayer is the best part. The game needs the two opponents to be online at the same time (no play by e-mail) and the game has an online lobby where you can see other fellow gamers online and messages/challenges left by people offline. At the time of this writing, the lobby is not quite populated and I hope that the interest and amount of players increases over time.

Scenario editor.
There is also an scenario editor, which allows the player to create maps, scenarios and battle plans (the scripts I mentioned before) for the computer opponent.

A bonafide, seamless port of an awesome board game with a tremendous amount of value added. Excellent artwork, professionally designed user interface and graphics, plenty of scenarios, a fully functional editor (your imagination is the limit) and a window to play this great game with anybody around the world. A great game made even better. Highly recommended.