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Friday, October 09, 2009

Friday night firefight, Saturday night swordplay

The D.I. reached new extremes last week, as some of my readers already know. To equate this suffering consciousness to the grief of bereavement, breaking up, or some similar personal tragedy will probably surprise no one, but the sheer relentless physicality of my belabouring brainwaves is something I believe confounds the understanding of people whose empathic imagination avails them of naught but notions of feeling 'a bit down', or somesuch. In any event I consoled myself with a bash of light reading after the heavy duty WW2 history which'd been my recent diet. But it was writing last Tuesday's article that helped more than anything else.

Conflict of Heroes
Thanks to the DI it's a fortnight since I've played any boardgames. The old phrase 'got any gaming' doesn't work anymore. My ongoing life as a mobster in Mafia Wars @fB means that I'm gaming online all the time, albeit in a restricted gamespace reminiscent of a laboratory test rig for rodents: XP! Loot! Levels! -: lovely! More? Better still. Rinse and repeat.

Anyhoo, Badger was round a couple of weeks ago. The pair of us were still looking for the light relief which has characterised our recent gaming; and I was looking for something in the WW2 line a bit more substantial than Memoir'44; all of which proved an auspicious moment to introduce Badger to Uwe Eikert's highly successful entrant into the WW2 tacsim scene, Conflict of Heroes: Awakening the Bear - Russia, 1941-42.

Scenario 1 - Partisans: In the belly of the beast
The second World War's second summer campaigning season draws to a close in the heart of Russian Europe. Hitler's Wermacht is within sight of the gates of Moscow and the Soviet regime of Bolshevik infamy is soon to celebrate a 24th birthday widely expected to be its last. Remnants of the shattered Red Army surviving in the blitzkrieg's wake go to ground and regroup to wage partisan warfare against the crucial weakness of the apparently invincible panzers: their ever-lengthening supply lines.

It'll've been about a month now since Priliuki - a small town some 100km east of the Kiev landbridge between the Pripet marshes and the Dnieper - came under fascist occupation, barely enough time for senses to've recovered from the shock of impact. Those few short weeks later handfuls of desperate and determined men are already launching their lilliputian barbs against the Nazi goliath. On this day the partisans don't know their plans are betrayed and the Germans've decided to spring the ambush.

Scenario 2 - The Gap: Woke up next morning
Scenario 2 rewinds those 3 months to find the situation little better for the Russians some 650km almost due west. A striking feature of the early days of Barbarossa that summer, and one often overshadowed by the image of the blitzkrieg Goebbels carefully crafted, was the extreme unpredictability of the Russian response. All across the front entire divisions were disappearing into the German bag without a fight; yet here and there stubborn units threw spanners into the Wermacht's works as they found the wherewithal to resist in the face of a military onslaught hitherto unprecedented in its might and success.

Set in Poland the day that dawned after this stupendous blow first struck, scenario 2 represents a more conventional advance to contact. The Russians have found some terrain in which they can make a stand. Every bit as desperate though probably less determined, these units caught in the first wave of the fascist horde have no option but to sell themselves as dearly as possible for the sake of buying a bit of time which might add up to something if the action were to be repeated often enough elsewhere.

What went down
We played #1 twice, swapping sides- the honours were shared (we-ell, Badger did win our first game); and #2 once, with me as the Russians.

Score
Badger 1
Me 2
:0)

Afterthoughts
I was really pleased to play CoH again at long last. The 9 months since I first played have seemed much longer as I kept looking up to see the game stay on the shelves where it's rested for so long. I can report that since then, surprise surprise, there's been a bit of an online backlash against CoH, with fans of other WW2 tacsims recanting their initial enthusiasms with all the chagrin of the self-annointed prodigal (no names, no packdrill, since I'm not dealing with any of this in detail; you can check appropriate places at BGG and CSW if you're at all interested).

I can see no good grounds for this myself, and am left with the impression that people were largely blaming CoH for not being the game they thought it was going to be; as opposed, that is, to letting CoH be the game its designer wanted it to be. I've followed the online CoH chat enough down the months to know that sure, there are some greater or lesser technical errors in unit representation, while the core system needs work if it is to survive intact the demands that will be placed on it with the range of supplements Academy Games have planned for CoH.

Conflict of Heroes's merits were all on show in our 3 games:
  • It is incredibly easy to teach:
  1. The graphic design makes the playing pieces easy to understand and interpret.
  2. The alternating sequence of play enables the 'pick it up and run with it' approach to teaching so ably supported by the essential simplicity of the core system.
  3. Scenario 1 has a near ideal low unit count, a limited range of terrain types, and an easy prescribed setup; so that it is almost absurdly easy to get it started.
  • Even at its most basic CoH is very rich:
  1. For all its simplicities, scenario 1 enjoys variations even in deployment alone sufficient to leave it still feeling fresh to me; I can only assume that this effect will be magnified in the more complex scenarios.
  2. The impulse-driven Igo-Ugo turn sequence has been artfully constructed so that no decision to commit a new unit to the fray can be taken lightly; ie. it keeps you on the edge of your seat all the damn time!
  3. The Action cards and the Hit counters are systems which add layers of chrome sufficient to satisfy this grognard.
  • The game is very dynamic:
  1. In another short session and with Badger a newb, we managed to play 3 games in no more than that many hours.
  2. The pieces move across the map with zip sufficient to allow players to attempt manoeuvres of satisfying scope.
  3. There is a brutal brevity to the combat system which allows local decisions to be forced and that contact's consequences to cascade across the battlefield, even in the short 5/6 turns which is the typical scenario length.
Badger took to the game quickly and declared himself satisfied, so I'm hoping that we'll see some more CoH at the earliest possible opportunity. Who knows, I might even get to use some tanks.

I should note here that Badger and I were playing the mutant 'not quite a 2nd edition' CoH which patches CoH:AtB with new rules from its sister game, Conflict of Heroes: Storms of Steel! - Kursk 1943. The changes are to the core rules for activating units and to the rules for group activation- very important mechanics in other words; and I have to say that I think they are well worthwhile if not utterly necessary. I find myself wondering how many of those naysayers would feel differently if they'd seen the game in action with these changes? It is to the credit of Uwe Eikert and those at Academy Games that they've taken so much internet criticism on board and come up with a better design at the end of it all.

Ivanhoe
A friend was visiting that same weekend. Although he's played computer games, Willy (previously seen accompanying me on my recent trip to the Imperial War Museum) has played no boardgames since the his family boardgames days. He was interested in having a go. I thought that Ivanhoe would be suitable for a newb.

I was right. Willy took to the game like a duck to water, and pulled off a creditable outright draw. That is to say, we were tied on all 3 of the metrics my notes enabled:
  • Games won.
  • Total number of tokens won.
  • Greatest margin of victory.
Score
Young turk 6
Brave Sir John 6
:-\

Afterthoughts
I always enjoy a good session of Ivanhoe, and that night was no exception. Willy was a quick learner and was soon playing like a pro; eg. there was a moment when, sitting on 4 tokens Willy just needed a single colour. Fearing a lead of that colour as a punt at the very least, I was puzzled when Willy made what looked like a weak lead. My puzzlement lifted when, holding the lead he promptly led the winning purple 7 which'd been prohibited the previous turn. I was impressed.

All that aside, I was also pleased the way that Willy quickly 'got into character'; that is to say: I was gratified by the way he took to Ivanhoe's expression of its theme. Regular readers might remember I commented once before that I think Ivanhoe is more thematic than it's typically given credit for, perhaps even that I addressed the issue tangentially some months back; so I was pleased to see this.

I'm not going to go into detail about this right now (I'd never get this post finished otherwise!); instead I'll just note my suspicion that some people might have expectations inherited from more obviously tactical skirmish boardgames or RPG's that confound their ability to interpret Knizia's method of abstracting the game from its theme. More another time no doubt. ;)
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