Conflict of Heroes: War before Simulation

By Matt Thrower 30 Sep 2016 0

Re-usable game systems have been a thing ever since there were games, especially in the field of wargaming. After all when you've put in the research to model infantry on armour tactics in the battle of Kursk, why not also apply them to Smolensk or Operation Mars? The further you stretch the effort, however, the weaker the model becomes. Plus, players do get tired of the repetition and move on, looking for new challenges of command.

Porting mechanics is a particular feature of tactical games, from Advanced Squad Leader to modern pretenders like Combat Commander or Band of Brothers. Small-unit tactics have more in common across time and terrain so it makes sense. Most of these systems still face the same problems of re-usability as their grander cousins. With one bizarre exception: Conflict of Heroes.

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You can buy one Conflict of Heroes game and learn the basic mechanics in ten minutes. What you've learned will let you game on the Eastern Front and in the Pacific. In Normandy, too, as in the near future. It will permit you to command infantry, artillery and tanks, even mad experimental vehicles like the 100-ton German Panzer VIII Maus. You'll be able to play solo or with up to three friends. You can select from a wealth of scenarios out of the box or engage in a pre-firefight mini-game to generate a random one. You can also forget about the cardboard and play on a computer.

This wealth of opportunity almost defies belief, yet it works! Picking up a new iteration or a new expansion is like settling into your familiar slot on the sofa. Comfy, familiar, and always a pleasure.

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Much of this success is down to clever design tweaks. The system uses action points, and each counter has its own movement and firing costs printed on it. Then, each player has a pool of ultra-flexible command points to spend alongside each unit's normal allowance. This makes it very easy to abstract away differences in command doctrine. Soviet units, for example, were often ill-trained and ill-equipped compared to their German counterparts. So they have higher costs to fire and their commander has less command points to play with. They were, on the other hand, cheap so there are usually more on the board.

Such economy of design pops up elsewhere. Differing attack and defence values for armoured vs unarmoured fire make it easy to work infantry and tanks into one system. Plus it offers a simple way to model partly-armoured units like anti-tank guns and half-tracks. It also makes a good foundation for additional scaffolding. In the Pacific, for instance, Japanese troops have an extra "Banzai" point track which rewards them with command points for following their rigid training. Just like the real dilemma facing Japanese officers, however, following training isn't always the best way of achieving objectives.

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If you want to play a wargame outside of the typical setup of two players face to face, you're also well catered for. The solo expansion has a clever system of programmed moves that vary depending on the threat being faced. The base game has little hidden information and can be experienced in the time-honoured fashion of playing both sides. It also has scope for multiplayer scenarios with individual win conditions, mimicking commanding officers competing for glory. Slitherine has a computer version which allows solo or network play, due for a remaster and a Steam version within a few months. There are enough ways to play to satisfy almost any requirement.

Flexibility like this is unquestionably down to the simplicity of the mechanics. The more detail a system tries to model a specific concept, the harder it is to change to a different one. Conflict of Heroes tries to abstract as much away as possible, making it easy to erect further abstractions on top. Germany and America are well-oiled and powerful military machines. Russia relies on strength of numbers and steady morale. Japan is terrifyingly steadfast and aggressive. All sides have a wealth of unit types, assets and material to draw on in a realistic re-creation of combined arms.

It's worth bearing in mind though that at the root of this system is a simple game of bluff that's quite appealing. When it is your turn to take an action you can choose to pass and by doing so force your opponent to either spend their precious activations or to pass themselves, ending the turn. Gaming this system means you can try and force your enemy to run out of activations early, leaving you able to move your units unhindered. This is, of course, absurdly ahistorical but thankfully isn't a common occurrence.

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Mostly the need of the attacking side to secure objectives keeps things moving in the tit-for-tat way they should. But the mere fact that it's possible seems to annoy some grogs. Trawl relevant forums and you'll find complaints about it fostering strange and unrealistic tactics or about how "gamey" it is. How it's too simple and random to be making strategic decisions. Alongside these comments you'll find a whole lot more telling you how fun and interesting the game is regardless.

Perhaps it is because creator Academy Games has only recently been taking excursions to the Pacific or the land of solo play that the flexibility hasn't been discussed more often. In Conflict of Heroes we have a system that can be learned once and enjoyed in a dizzying variety of places and variants. It's an absolute magnet for people who might otherwise never dip a toe into Conflict Simulation. And that, alone, is a reason to cherish the series however much it puts the Conflict before the Simulation.

This article references a game developed and/or published by members of the Slitherine Group of companies. Please see the 'About Us' page for further information.

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