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 COMPANY OF HEROES FROM BAD CROW GAMES To quote from the post on BGG: "Bad Crow Games is a consortium of game designers and publishers ...







To quote from the post on BGG: "Bad Crow Games is a consortium of game designers and publishers from Utah. The staff comprises multiple entrepreneurs and game designers that have previously published their own titles.
The group has come together to design games off of their new real time strategy mechanic that allows players the experience of RTS action video games in a board game format."
As a player of computer games who actively seeks out turn-based military games that recreate on the PC the hex and counter experience I love in board wargames, I may not be the best to comment on this reverse process.
What I can say is that Company of Heroes hits all my sweet spots and it's a great round of thanks to Bad Crow Games for providing me with this review copy. This is their second game to be published and what a choice and what a publication!
The immediate visual factor bowled me over.  This is the incredible stack that emerged from one of, if not the heaviest game parcels I've ever received.  For this review I'm going to focus on the massive core box, but hope to explore later the additional Cooperative/Solo expansion that was one of the generous bonuses included from Bad Crow Games

What emerges as these boxes are unpacked is astonishing, what's even more amazing is that the contents in the core box that I'm going to show you all repack in a way that I wouldn't have believed possible.

This is nearly everything, just from the core box which is one of the deepest I've come across.  First of all, that stack of maps contains four, each 30" x 20" and double-sided.  Each pair combines to form a 30" x 40" map: Stalingrad, Monastery, Trois Ponts and Hill 331.  The first three have clear historical origins from the Siege of Stalingrad, Monte Cassino and the Battle of the Bulge, while the last comes from the COH2 PC version, though the board game map itself doesn't seem to mirror the computer version as far as I could see..

They are all stunning to look at with large 3" hexes; Stalingrad [seen below] and Trois Ponts being my personal favourites.

The Mission Booklet provides  a wide range of scenarios from small ones using half of a single map to massive 4 mappers.  My only disappointment is that most of these Huge Scenarios demand maps from two copies of the game!  [That said, I'm lucky that a close friend and fellow gamer has his own Kickstarter copy,  so somewhere down the line everything is possible - just need a huge table now!] 

Next up comes the four sets of units for the four nationalities:  British, American, German and Russian.  Each is perfectly accommodated in its own separate plastic storage box.

Above is the German box.  Notice the tray on the right that houses each soldier perfectly making both storage and game play so smooth.  Just lift out what you need as required and slot back in as a unit is destroyed!  Incredibly compact, it helps to keep the fairly large footprint of this game down to a reasonably manageable size!

Apart from appreciating this major benefit,  I was stunned by two things: the variety of vehicles offered for each nationality and the quality of their casting.  Not only do they look great, they are of a weighty heft that I have not found even in many models designed purely for figure gaming!

Equally impressive is Terrain Pack 1 which was part of the amazing package Bad Crow Games sent me.  I had expected mainly good cardboard overlays, but instead we're treated to nine two story buildings in plastic.  Each has a removable section of wall to allow placement of infantry units inside to add an element of FOW [fog of war].  If you don't want to add in that advanced rule, the unit just sits neatly on the roof.

In addition you can see an assortment of barbed wire, sandbags and tank obstacles.  The strange central items are a key factor in the resource/victory point management element of the game - more about those later.

Returning to the core box itself, you'll find the next tray contains a fascinating array of mainly specialised dice and coloured cubes, along with a set of clear transparent bases for your various vehicles and infantry units.  The plastic bags contain figure markers to add to infantry bases to show machine gun and mortar units and notice the two sand timers.  Quality and storage are again first class - though here I have virtually my only concern about the contents... please supply more of the transparent bases, particularly those for vehicles.  I know that they are not as necessary for vehicles, but they are a great addition to the game.

As COH unfortunately wasn't available other than by Kickstarter, I shall have to wait until the upcoming Kickstarter COH 1.5 where, I've been assured, the popular demand for more will be satisfied.  Thanks Bad Crow to listening to your fans.

On top of all this are two sheets of cardboard items which when punched out look like this...

... and neatly fill the remaining empty spaces in the previous tray.

Finally rounding out all this hardware are four HQ boards, one for each nationality, 12 Building Cards and 20 Commander Cards, which I'll explain in more detail when I look at the game's system and rules.

These come in three handsome booklets providing Basic Rules, Advanced Rules and Missions.  All three mirror the game's component quality being printed on thick glossy paper, with even more substantial card quality outer covers.  The rules themselves are abundantly illustrated throughout and follow the easy to understand chronology of the sequence of play.  This is a game that can please and be enjoyed and understood by 
 both newbies and grognards.

Looking beyond the deluxe quality, we come to what sets Company of Heroes as much more than what might place it as a super rival to Memoir 44 or Tide of Iron.  The game's system is built on a familiar basic format.

Manoeuvre Phase;
Turn 1
Turn 2
Turn 3
Damage Phase
Supply Phase

A very familiar outline, but each Phase introduces novel elements and successful developments.  Also, it is important to note the use of "Round" for the more familiar word "turn" [which has a different use to divide up the stages of the Manoeuvre Phase, as will be explained further in the next paragraph].

First of all, Manoeuvre springs an immediate surprise - each Player begins a Round with nine Command Points to be spent on moving in the Manoeuvre Phase.  These points are spent over those 3 turns with a maximum of 3 pts spent per turn.  You cannot hold back points to spend in a subsequent turn - so, for example, no spending 2 pts in turn 1 and then 4 pts in turn 2 and then 3 pts in turn 3.  Nor can any individual unit, with a few special exceptions, spend more than 3 pts of movement over the whole Round.
Here an M10 Wolverine has used its maximum 3 pts of movement in a Round and falls just short of being able to enter and take control of a Munitions control point.
Each player spends his/her parcel of 3 pts alternately.  I've already found this produces a new and enjoyable tactical element to moving, as players jockey for position.  Do you counter your opponent's direction of movement?  Do you pursue your own separate goal?  Can you deceive your opponent as to your main goal or are you being lured astray by your opponent?  A great sense of interaction is easily and effectively developed with minimum effort and very simple rules.  

Closely allied to these movement rules and adding a further influence on where you may decide to move are the rules for the third Phase of a Round: namely the Supply Phase.  Being used to the conventional and while nigh universal concept of supply in board wargames being trace back to a supply point or suffer some penalties either in movement and/or combat, COH's approach reflects both its computer origins and a strong dose of Eurogame influence.

Here's where those strange looking objects shown earlier come in.

They mark in 3D where various types of supply are located; the range includes Manpower, Fuel, Munitions and Victory Points.  Also, when you capture a supply hex, you place a coloured flag to indicate control.  All the mapboards have such locations' symbols printed on them and these are the default locations.  However, many of the scenarios introduce different locations and provide a cardboard marker to show the type of supply.
This feature of the game is a great illustration of Bad Crow's willingness to go the extra mile to try to cater for and satisfy individual player's preferences and can be exemplified in the photo below, taken from a close up of the Stalingrad board.

At top right you see the printed supply location of a hex that contains both Fuel and Victory Point symbols.  To the left is a location with a marker showing Munition Supply and the 3D flag pole, plus a red flag showing which Player controls it.  Finally, on the far left, you see the Manpower marker [the fist on an olive green background] and for those who might find the 3D marker not to their taste, you have the alternative of a cardboard control marker.  
This striving for different types of supply is for me a crucial and rewarding aspect of the game, as these locations and fighting for them directs and fuels the major thrust of the game.  It also influences and drives other key decisions made in the Supply Phase. Each Round you adjust the different types of Supply Income according to what you already control and what you have newly captured.  Inevitably, a Supply Point captured from the enemy increases your Income by one, but also decreases your opponent's by one.  These points are then added to your stockpile and used to buy a wide range of items.

This is where the well designed HQ Board, shown in the photo above,  plays its part.  The white cubes mark your Income in the upper part of the display and your Stockpiles in the lower section.  Default starting points for scenarios are as seen.  Again Bad Crow Games have produced the perfect model by using recessed boards and good cardstock mounted on plastic bases. 

So, fighting for Supply has been made an important and rewarding part of the game, providing not only a narrative drive, but opening up a new dimension in subsequent game play.  The wide range of choices and how the designers have factored them in are another major reason for my rating this game so highly.  This brings me to the next original element: the Building Boards.

Each nationality has three each and at the start of a Scenario, you have access only to the first Building Board.  In the photo, this is Wermacht Headquarters.  These give you all the information you need about each of your type of units that are currently available.  The default starting units for scenarios are any two infantry type units.  Reading along the top line, you start with the unit strength, its range for fire, its type of attack, any special ability and cost to buy.  The second line divides into two sections: on the left, upgrades that can be built with Experience points [this is an advanced game rule] and on the right, basic rule upgrades bought with Munition points.

New units don't just appear according to some preordained scenario schedule, but have to be bought from combinations of different types of Supply.  Showing its PC origins, the terminology used in the rules  for producing your reinforcements and where they appear which is actually printed on the Mission booklet maps is the word ... SPAWN!  [Urrh! Sorry, guys, but this just conjures up sinister eggs, face-huggers and aliens!  Please this is WWII.]
Anyway that's what the Supply Phase is all about - logging your current Supply income, adding it to your stockpiles, buying reinforcements and buying their available upgrades. There are two final vital actions that can be performed in the Supply Phase.  One is to unlock your 2nd and 3rd Building Cards which will provide a wider and stronger range of units to buy.  The other action is introduced in what can best be described as a coda to the Basic Rules.  This involves Experience Points that are gained by damaging and eliminating units and can be spent either to unlock further unit upgrades or to buy abilities from the last component in the core game: Commander Cards.  Each nationality possesses several of these, but only one can be chosen for any scenario.

It is very much these Building Cards and Commander Cards that give each nationality its individuality, flavour and variations.  Again, this is a major plus for the quality and scope of COH.  Should this not be enough for you, the core box rounds off with a slim Advanced Rules booklet that adds mainly minor refinements to rules for some some units, such as arcs of fire, retreat for infantry in addition to manoeuvre, refined pinning, slow units and turrets. The two new introductions are damage to buildings and the ability to build battlefield defences like sand bags and razor-wire.  
Having skipped from Phase 1 Manoeuvre straight to Phase 3 Supply, to complete my exploration we need to return to Phase 2 Damage.  In other words, what's normally titled Combat.  In keeping with the originality seen at every step so far, Damage has plenty of newness to offer.  No CRTs [Combat Results Tables], no conventional six sided dice, no attack nor defence strengths.  Instead both sides place their Damage dice in the Damage Phase into the hexes of those units they can and want to attack, with the appropriate Damage symbol uppermost. There are just 4 types of damage: Anti-Infantry, Armour-Piercing, High Explosive and Flame.  A display shows what a particular type of unit can attempt to defend against and what it must automatically take a hit from.  As there are only four types of unit: Infantry, Light Vehicle, Heavy Vehicle and Emplacement, this results in an ultra-simple 4x4 matrix to work with.  Placing damage dice and rolling for saves is simultaneous.  This not only replicates the real-time play of the original computer game, but also is perhaps a more realistic representation of combat. Below is a typical example of infantry combat, where both sides inflict an automatic hit.  Obviously this is an aspect of the game that will draw support from some and disapproval from others.  Personally, this balance of automatic and hits and those that might be saved is an effective and successful approach.

Consequently, the Damage Phase is remarkably swift and easy to execute.  Roll all the dice that can attempt to avoid damage and then take the hits that remain.  This Phase is very easy, very visual and very satisfying and I particularly like the fact that some of those potential upgrades I've discussed earlier include the ability to add defence shielding dice and increase damage abilities.  A great idea, illustrated below with an American infantry stand that has been given a shield upgrade.

Oh, one last item - the sand timers.  If you want to recreate a flash of the hectic play of the original realtime computer game, then these can be used to hasten play along.  Never having had lightning reflexes, this is not a factor for me and would detract from the pleasure of move and countermove that the game so satisfyingly creates.  But the choice is there, which is one of the many strengths of this design.  Though COH is primarily a game of tactical warfare, it also has the flexibility of a superb sandbox to create your own scenarios with designated supply provision, reinforcement entry, specific goals and much more.
At the moment, however, I'm still happily exploring the Mission booklet and learning the strengths and weaknesses of the different nationalities and the different forces each can field. 
Unfortunately, the one and only draw back is that this was not produced for retail sale.  On the other hand the good news is that a Kickstarter for COH 1.5 is in hand.  I shall certainly be exploring some of the expansions and getting some more of those promised additional excellent figure trays.  If you haven't yet bought into this system, I would strongly recommend it as high on any list to consider for its superb quality, accessibility, scope and innovation and sheer pleasure to play.