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Conflict of Heroes: Storms of Steel! – Kursk 1943» Forums » Reviews

Subject: CoH: Storms of Steel review rss

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D Bryant
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A review of Academy Games’ Conflict of Heroes: Storms of Steel, a wargame of tactical combat during the Battle of Kursk in 1943.

BACKGROUND

Storms of Steel is the second game in what has become Academy’s flagship series: Conflict of Heroes. I own the game and have played countless times, including solo, face-to-face, and over the internet via the Zun Tzu game program.

The game series is designed by Academy founder Uwe Eickert and features a game system that simulates tactical combat in an exceptionally playable manner.

The first game in the series was CoH: Awakening the Bear, which covered battles during the early phases of the German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941. That game--and its successor, Storms of Steel--won numerous awards for design elegance and graphic excellence.

Indeed, the visual impact of the CoH series is such that many non-wargamers, when first encountering one of the games, often asks "Is this a Euro-game?" The reason they do so is because of the high quality of the counters, markers, and gameboards . . .

ACT I--THE COMPONENTS

Thick, large counters. Hard-backed, mounted game boards. Graphics that are both visually appealing and highly functional in conveying essential game information. Add to that a full-color rulebook that is not only lavishly illustrated, but also well-organized and easy to read.

Must be a Euro, right?

Nope.

Storms of Steel is a wargame through and through. But with its high quality components and easy-to-learn game system, it’s no surprise that many first-time players wonder about its pedigree.

When you open a copy of a CoH game, you will quickly see that every component bespeaks the commitment to quality that has become a hallmark of Academy Games. The counters are built to last for literally decades of play. The boards are sturdy, attractive, and fully functional. The cards, markers, and other materials also maintain the high production values that separate Academy products from many others in the field.

This commitment to quality extends to the cover art as well. Artist Stephen Paschal’s cover images lend a great deal of atmosphere to the gaming experience, even before you open the box.

And once you get past the quality of the components, you will experience a game system that is itself a work of art . . .

ACT II--THE GAMEPLAY

The tactical gaming genre has a long and storied history. The giant in this genre has been the Squad Leader/Advanced Squad Leader series. Created in the late 1970s by the Avalon Hill company, it was (for its time) groundbreaking, in that it was one of the first attempts to simulate tactical level combat in a boardgame.

The SL/ASL series inspired similar efforts, among them the Panzer Grenadier series, as well as others.

However, while all of these games have many good features and shared the same design goal (namely, a playable game which did a fairly realistic job of simulating tactical combat), they all tended to share some traits which are less desirable to the low to moderate intensity gamer: lengthy rulebooks and long playtimes.

The CoH series has achieved the design goal of a playable tactical simulation while avoiding those two negative traits. Indeed, such is the simplicity (and I dare say, the genius) of the system that a total newcomer to tactical war-gaming can be taught the game and be playing it--proficiently--within thirty minutes.

The heart of the game system is Action Points. Each unit has a "cost" that it must "pay" in order to perform an "Action". Examples of "Actions" include Moving, Firing, or attempting to Rally and get back into fighting shape after suffering damage.

In essence, Action Points (or "APs" as they are called) are the currency of the game.

In addition, each side is provided with a set of "Command Action Points" (called "CAPs"). These points are sort of an Action Point Bank which can be drawn upon to supplement (or, in some cases, take the place of) an individual unit’s Action Points.

CAPs are an abstracted way of representing the presence and influence of leaders within each side’s forces. They replenish at the start of each game turn, but are depleted by the loss of friendly units.

Supplementing the APs and CAPs are cards which allow players to (among other things) take a "Command Action" (a one-time Action with any friendly unit), Rally a damaged unit, add strength to a unit’s Firepower, and more.

Each game counter represents an individual squad of 8 to 12 soliders, a single tank or Armored Fighting Vehicle, a single anti-tank gun and its crew, a machine gun team, and so on. The scale of the gameboard hexes is 40 meters.

The game sequence is igo-ugo, but with a twist. First, the side with the Initiative will "Activate" a unit. Each unit can be activated once per game turn and receives an allotment of APs when it activates. After that unit takes one action (e.g. Moving or Firing), the other side may activate a unit, which receives its own APs for its activation.

The twist comes from the fact that each side may use CAPs or Command Action cards to have non-active units take an Action. This leads to interesting choices for each player, as the decision to spend those CAPs or use that Command Action card for a non-active unit requires the player to consider the benefit of using those valuable resources at that moment in the battle.

All of that tells you the basics of how the game plays . . . and all of that tells you NOTHING about the suspense, drama, and challenge that the gameplay provides!

The exceptionally impressive aspect of the CoH system is that it is so simple, it allows players to focus virtually exclusively on tactics, rather than on the rulebook or on the game system itself. While there are occasional references to the rulebook (e.g. "How exactly do minefields attack?"), such references are rare and are resolved with seconds due to the quality organization of the rulebook.

Instead, players will spend their time asking questions such as "Should I fire on that tank now, or wait until it is closer?", “Should I fire my smoke barrage this round in order to cover my movement, or save it until next round to mask my attack on the objective?" and so on.

It is that immersion in the tactical situation which makes CoH shine. This is especially so in Storms of Steel. Players will find themselves challenged by a variety of tactical "puzzles" to figure out, each one providing hours of gaming enjoyment and a high degree of replay-ability.

Yet, it is not only this immersive aspect that makes Storms of Steel (and the CoH series as a whole) exceptional. It is also the ability of the system to simulate the real-life tactics as used by the two sides.

For example, in Storms of Steel, the German player will find himself benefitting from some very strong armored units (Panther and Tiger tanks, for example) that can literally dominate the battlefield. However, while they out-gun and out-armor the Soviet tanks they face, they are also comparatively slower than the Soviet T-34s.

The result is that the German player will (just like his real-life counterpart) attempt to engage the Soviets at long range, while the Soviet player (just like HIS real-life counterpart) will often send swarms of T-34s, using their high speed, to charge the Panthers and Tigers, hoping to get close enough to get a flank or rear shot at close range--which was, incidentally, a tactic used repeatedly by the Soviets at Kursk as they often found such tactics the only way to overcome the almost impenetrable frontal armor on those two types of German tanks.

These are the types of rich tactical decisions that players will face every time they play the game. And on top of all that, the game has yet another benefit: it plays FAST. Many firefights can be complete in an hour, and even the longest ones can be played in under three.

As far as support, Uwe and his team respond to questions the day they are asked. Answers are clear and the over-all attitude communicated is "How can we help you enjoy the game to its fullest?" It is this type of customer service that deservedly leads to returning customers.

ACT III--FINAL THOUGHTS

Quite simply, the game is a blast. It is so simple, yet so rich in tactical decisions.

I was never much of a tactical gamer, for the simple fact that the minutiae of many such games (and the complexity of their rulebooks) drove me away.

CoH has achieved the perfect balance: a simple game system that ignores the ultra-minute level of detail that some games possess and instead focuses on delivering a rewarding tactical experience that can truly, literally, be played.
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Larry Doherty
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Commish,

You obviously put some time into this so I for one wanted to say "well done". It does well to explain the game/game system/playability. I would post this on Amazon as it might convince others to buy the game through that vendor....
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Lowell Drake
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Most excellent review and I agree with everything you said. I haven't enjoyed a game as much a SoS in many years.
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Michael J
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Commish, have you tried the variable AP variant? I found that this added a nice amount of tension to the game. Roll 3 dice, hidden, and leave them under a cup. Your action points equal the high and low dice. Rather than counting back from 0 on your AP chart, you count up from 0 instead. Definitely try it, if you haven't already!
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Ian Noble
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mjacobsca wrote:
Commish, have you tried the variable AP variant? I found that this added a nice amount of tension to the game. Roll 3 dice, hidden, and leave them under a cup. Your action points equal the high and low dice. Rather than counting back from 0 on your AP chart, you count up from 0 instead. Definitely try it, if you haven't already!


I can verify that the AP variant works really well! Mike and I played the vanilla way at first, but after using the hidden dice, we found that it definitely added a nice variable element.
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D Bryant
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Thanks to all for the kind words! Much appreciated!

Mike and Ian, I play with a variation of the variable APs. I tried using the 3-dice method, but soured on it after some games in which the Soviets got some crappy rolls that really decided things . . . and by crappy, I mean that they got a number of rolls where (due to their high cost to fire) they went several rounds without being able to fire some key units. Turned several games that might otherwise have been interesting into routs.

Instead, what I use is an AP chart. I based it on one I found here at BGG or somewhere else (can't remember exactly). The long and short of it is that it is based on a kind of bell curve distribution, meaning that "extreme" results have less chance of occurring.

The kicker is that it ranges from a low of 5 APs to a high of 9 APs. I have found that this works pretty well. It means that most Soviet units are always going to have enough points to shoot if they want, but also allows for the Germans to get some good 8 or 9 AP activations that allow them to get some advantage from their lower "cost to fire".

Seems to work well . . . takes out the extreme cases (on either end), but still maintains the suspense of a variable AP system.

Thanks again for the nice words about the review!


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Andrew C
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Good review.

One thing I noticed recently after playing Space Hulk (third edition) is how similar the core mechanics are: a fixed number of action points per unit, plus an overall pool of command points to supplement them, along with opportunities to interupt your opponents turn to fire (for the Space Marines).

I like CoH, but its lack of leaders keeps it from being at the top of my tactical wargame list. Individual leader counters just add so much to the narrative that CoH feels much more generic than many of its competitors.

Finally, a minor terminology clarification. CoH is not an "I go, you go" design with a twist. That term is meant to designate a game where I move my whole army, then you move yours. CoH is more properly catagorized as an "impulse" game, where I move one (or a couple) of my guys, then you move one of yours, and we go back and forth until everyone has went, and the turn ends.

Minor nitpicks aside, solid review.
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Larry Doherty
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Commish,

Saw it on Amazon...gave it a yes as far as helping. Why, because I have two copies of the game and can claim it was due to your review. Yes, I have two copies of AtB too. Why, just because.
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Lance Richardson
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ldohrebl wrote:
Commish,

Saw it on Amazon...gave it a yes as far as helping. Why, because I have two copies of the game and can claim it was due to your review. Yes, I have two copies of AtB too. Why, just because.


OBVIOUSLY one of the copies is not meant to be played... it is simply for the all-important ability to open the box as if it were new and get you some of that NEW GAME SMELL! AAAAaaaahhhhhhh!
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Jesse LeBreton
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I think the new game smell would make an excellent perfume. There would be no better sent I could think of for a women to wear if she wants to attract that certain cerebral type of guy.
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