Publisher: Academy Games
Designer: Uwe Eickert
Artist: Steve Paschal
Year: 2012 (2008 for the first edition)
Genre: Tactical wargame covering the German’s Operation Barbarossa during WWII
Players: Two players
Playing Time: One to two hours for most scenarios
MSRP: $80.00 (which includes Wrecks and Destruction expansion)
I have to say one of the games which has been on my radar for a long time was the first entry into the Conflict of Heroes series, Awakening the Bear. Now that an updated second edition of the award winning title was released late last year and I’ve finally had an opportunity to take the game through its paces I’d like to share my thoughts about what is surely one of the best buys both die hard wargamers, and even casual gamers looking to pick up a solid introductory wargame, need to have on their radar. And, yes, I know I really should have titled this piece “The Germans are Coming!” since the setting is that of the German invasion of Russia during Operation Barbarossa but I just couldn’t help myself with a reference to a classic 1960s’ Carl Reiner/Jonathan Winters madcap comedy…
Although Academy doesn’t have a huge library of games available, what I’ve had an opportunity to get my hands on or even see up close and personal screams quality. Awakening the Bear (AtB) is no exception as the first edition was comprised of what appeared to be components whereas the new edition has upped the ante even further. From the comprehensive and easily understandable rules and scenarios (Fire Fights) book to the larger sized counters to the crisp and well mounted map boards you’re getting every penny’s worth when it comes to this title.
Awakening the Bear focuses on platoon sized engagements and the rules are set up to gradually introduce the core mechanics of gameplay one chunk at a time; you’ll begin by learning the basics about Unit Action Points, Command Action Points, Movement, Firing and Defense, Opportunity Actions, and just about everything which needs to be learned to tackle infantry combat. Then you’ll jump into the first two fire fights to grasp the mechanics and concepts only to move on to the next section which discusses the cards included to add more randomness and army specific tactics. Then it’s on to group movement and combat. Then vehicles enter play. This continues on until you have all the game has to offer firmly entrenched in the old memory banks.
I understand part of the promotional bullet points to the Conflict of Heroes series is the ability to learn the basics and get to playing in five minutes or so. While I can’t say that’s truly the case – especially for two novice players being introduced to the system – it certainly won’t take very long to get to the action with the first two scenarios. Truth be told, if an experienced player was teaching a newbie the game then it shouldn’t take more than ten minutes to get all the points across to start getting into the nitty gritty.
The rulebook is nineteen pages in length with about fourteen and a half of them devoted to how to play the game. This is certainly not a heavy slog by any stretch especially for those of us who were weaned on hundred plus page Avalon Hill rulebooks back in the day. The Fire Fight book clocks in at twenty pages and includes sixteen scenarios. Both books are lavishly illustrated and the rules include a multitude of play examples to make the learning experience than much easier. Or, in other words, top notch all around!
My understanding of the design philosophy for Conflict of Heroes was to provide a solid tactical wargame which wouldn’t get bogged down in the minutia of simulating every conceivable weapons system or battlefield situation while still providing enough meat to give a good feel for the bigger picture of combat command in the campaign or era being gamed. This most definitely is not a beer & pretzels type of wargame but it’s also not one in which you’ll have to take to the web to find an opponent who agrees with you on your concept of the exact capabilities of the “Stalinorgel” in order to keep peace at the gaming table. Personally, I think Uwe and the rest of the gang involved with the design and testing of Awakening the Bear did a fantastic job of providing the big picture to create a truly exceptional game.
By this point you’re probably getting the idea I really like AtB… Oh, yeah… I really do!
Another design decision was to keep as much information in front of the players’ eyes as possible and to keep the referencing to charts and player aids to a minimum. Once again, a great job as the combat resolution is easily calculated by simply taking the appropriate Fire Power rating of the attacker (these are broken into attacking soft and hard targets for many units), rolling 2D6, and applying any Command Action Points (CAP) you wish to spend (up to two) and combining the total. This number is then compared to the Defense Value (DV) of the target; this value is simply the rating found on the counter with any terrain bonus added. If you beat the DV of the target by four or more, the target is destroyed as this is considered a critical hit. If the target isn’t destroyed but took a hit, you’ll randomly draw a hit marker, check what the counter says, and place it under the unit while making sure to mentally track what effect that hit has on the unit. This is where some honesty comes into play because your opponent won’t know what that effect is. Any unit which takes a second hit is eliminated. All in all a very easy, yet elegant, way to keep the fog of war intact, and tension high, as many times you aren’t sure what your successful attack has wrought upon the enemy.
Your goal in each scenario is to A) hold onto specific areas of the board to score victory points at the end, B) knocking the snot out of the opposing forces because eliminating them scores you VPs and C) completing the objectives for that Fire Fight if there are any. Once you’re played through to completion the player with the most VPs is the winner. In the case of a tie? You both LOSE! So there!
Understanding many folks reading this may be intimately familiar with AtB (it has been out since 2008) and there are no doubt much more detailed and eloquent reviews of the system online, I’ll just take a higher level approach to the nuts and bolts of the game. Plus, I’m sure many people who already own AtB and are more concerned with being on the fence as far as purchasing the 2nd edition when they already have the first on their game shelf. I’ll get to this second point in just a bit.
Some of the aspects of gameplay which stand out to me involve the playability of the design as well as the revamping of some of the tried and true concepts of the traditional wargame. There are hexes and counters? Check. Attack and defense ratings? Check. Terrain modifiers? Check. Chances for opportunity actions? Check. Tons of rules and modifiers to remember or page through to find? Um… well… no that’s not here. yet what most wargamers will expect to find in a title which garners interest will be found in AtB.
There’s so much which will be familiar to longtime wargamers where the feel isn’t as if Awakening the Bear is coming out of left field but the way many familiar concepts are incorporated (or dare I say morphed) to simplify and speed up game play, yet still provide a solid grognardgasm, is nothing short of brilliant.
You really do get the impression this is a great game don’t you?
Overall there are Action Points (AP) which allow you to do different things with your units. This could be to move, or fire, or move and fire, or fire and move, or fire twice, or keep moving, or anything allowed by that unit spending APs. Then you have those CAP which allow you to do more with your units than the standard APs may; you’ll really want to spend some CAP when you attack because that extra one or two points of attack value can make a world of difference. Then you have the cards (once you’ve moved beyond the first two scenarios) which can also be played in conjunction with actions points being spent. This means throwing a whammy at your opponent, because while they thought you threw everything you could against them, you had an ace up your sleeve to completely bullocks up their plans. For even more randomness and chaos I suggest trying a couple of scenarios with the optional random AP rule (normally units have seven APs each turn) and you’ll find the game becomes even more of a nail biter.
While most traditional wargames (and many games in general) stick to an I go/you go mentality with some chances to take an opportunity action here or there, AtB calls for the activation of a unit followed by performing actions with that said unit and then allowing your opponent to activate one of their units. Where there’s some difference here is with the CAP, which allow you to perform an action with a unit which by all accounts has shot its load; until each player has exhausted their supply of CAP you never know what your opponent may throw at you.
This isn’t to say concepts of the CoH system haven’t been seen before because they have; alternating unit activation, damage chits, event and special action cards, and so on are old hat in plenty of wargames. Where AtB is special is in how all of these mechanics are incorporated into a cohesive whole and where most scenarios can be completed in an hour or two. Cracking out Awakening the Bear doesn’t mean the game is going to be set up on your dining room table for the entire weekend but I’ll guess most players aren’t going to simply play one Fire Fight and call it a day.
Even though I believe AtB is a fantastic game, I know it’s not going to be all things to all people. The title will be over the heads of those who think Memoir ’44 is a wargame (it’s a game, it’s a good one, but it’s nowhere near being a wargame) while those who believe Advanced Squad Leader is a touch too abstract for their tastes won’t jump on the bandwagon either. These arguments are completely legitimate and I’m not dishing out a knock against people who live by the Days of Wonder title or that of Multi-Man Publishing. What I can say is Awakening the Bear has enough going for it where those who love a beer & pretzels game won’t be overwhelmed by a huge number of rules whereas others who can easily invest themselves into a complex simulation will appreciate the simplicity of design decisions. Sure, some of the scenarios have touch of a generic taste for true grognards and, although many of the Fire Fights take place in the Winter the game boards show Springtime in Russia for Hitler, this doesn’t detract from the overall quality of the game system.
Which now leads me to those who already have the first edition of Conflict of Heroes: Awakening the Bear.
One of the reasons I shot an unboxing video (right below) was to give gamers a feel for what to expect from the second edition. Since I was nowhere near familiar with the initial print run all of this was new to me. Seeing I only had a chance to catch some people playing Awakening the Bear at Origins for a few minutes a couple years back it wasn’t as if I’d mentally cataloged everything I saw; I try to be sharp on the uptake but I’m not THAT sharp… With this full disclosure, I can tell you the quality of the components have been ramped up. The counters are bigger and easier to read; the artwork is all new; the maps are thicker and, I believe, there are more of them; the rules have been tweaked a little and expanded upon with more graphics – yes you can always download a PDF of new rules – although there are a few errors which squeaked past proofreaders and the turret firing rules come to mind as the book states one thing and the player aid another; the cards have been redesigned; you get five new (once again this is off the cuff) scenarios although they aren’t monster Fire Fights and a bit smaller than you may have expected but all the scenarios have been addressed as far as some balance issues gamers had with the earlier edition.
If just writing the above has whetted the appetites of those who already own AtB 1st edition to run out to snag a copy of the new edition I’ll just leave it at that. If you’re still on the fence I’ll make a recommendation, although I might get smacked upside the head by Uwe for suggesting this; go online and see what retailer has the lowest price. I’m guessing somewhere in the $60 to $65 range can be found so you won’t have to foot the full $80 MSRP. Don’t worry as Academy Games will still get their cut – granted not as big a cut as ordering directly from them but the company already made deals with distributors so that’s not your concern. Although ordering through Academy scores you a copy of the Wrecks and Destruction expansion (MSRP of $10) I can’t say those additional counters do much more than add a little zest to the game maps or add some additional rules which you can easily live without. Once you’re received your copy of the second edition either give your initial copy to a friend or, better yet, head over to your local VA hospital and make a donation. You might not realize this but our men and women in uniform are big gamers and how better to put to use something you’re honestly never going to play again (and you won’t because now you have the second edition) to good use than by helping to take the mind off of the troubles our wounded warriors have to face? It’s a hell of a lot more satisfying than scoring twenty bucks on eBay too!
For those who haven’t gotten on board with Conflict of Heroes, the second edition of Awakening the Bear is the perfect jumping on point and ranks up there with titles which need to be on your gaming shelf. As with all genres of games, there are some titles which truly deserve to be part of your collection (Twilight Struggle, Wits & Wagers, and Carcassonne jump immediately to mind) and the second edition of AtB surely fits right in. Obviously, if you’re the sort of person who finds issue with any sort of conflict simulation and morally reprehensible this isn’t a title for you but, then again, if that’s the case it’s highly unlikely you clicked on this review in the first place. For the rest of us Conflict of Heroes: Awakening the Bear! (Yes… I finally used the exclamation point…) is one of the most solid, challenging, and fun games out there even if you don’t count yourself as a wargamer.