Some of us remember sitting in a room, one made smaller by glowing CRTs and louder by whirring CPU fans. Tripping over cords and shouting insults at those sitting a few feet away. It was as close as we got in PC gaming.
Our poison was StarCraft. That seems so long ago.
Now the real-time strategy game is a mangled shell subsisting on a feeding tube. Starcraft II, the last seminal release in this circle, dropped in 2010. 2010. Christ, we’re old.
So it’s a bit of a laugh that this video game genre is finding a way to feel so fresh and revitalized in 2021. That’s because this one is made of dead trees and molded petrol. Just the way we like it.
I didn’t get into Company of Heroes 2 – the video game this board game is translating – until a couple of months ago. This board game did it to me. That’s sort of backwards, I know, but I just now finished a very intense match and I feel spent. That’s what this game does to you. It’s very good.
I’m talking about the video game. And I’m talking about the board game. In many ways they’re one in the same.
But first lets talk about how they are different. This is a board game so it’s not real-time. Well, actually it has an optional real-time mode of play with sand-timers and increased heart-rate, but it’s not a great fit. I wouldn’t do it if I were you.
Publisher Bad Crow Games previously released this underrated giant robot game called Mech Command RTS which was full-blown real-time mayhem, and it was surprisingly engaging. Company of Heroes feels as if it includes a real-time mode in homage to that previous game, but it fails to elicit the same response because the timed aspect of play is confined to only the movement portion of play. Since firing occurs in a separate phase, it removes any tension and loses the significance of timing windows in regards to line of sight. So just ditch the real-time variant and play the game as it was intended to be played.
Another divergence is with fog of war. This is that mechanism where you can’t see what your opponent is doing unless you position scouting units nearby and employee tactical voyeurism. Can you have a Company of Heroes board game without fog of war? It turns out, you can.
A great deal of tension is lost due to this. One of the defining elements of the property is your opponent’s Tiger tank rolling into sight and causing a cascade of loose bowels among your infantrymen. It’s just a thing and it feels fantastic if you’re the one giving instead of taking.
This board game does not shy away from its limitations. Instead it attempts to flank them.
While this isn’t a real-time thing, it is an experience that captures some of that feel. To explain this I need to break down the macro/micro dichotomy of RTS video games.
Macro is the side of this genre that best translates to board games. It’s the overarching strategic layer of play. You know – building units, researching upgrades, executing large scale maneuvers. It’s the contemplative and thoughtful portion of these games. A significant consideration, no doubt.
Micro on the other hand is all the mouse clicking. It’s minute tactical decisions such as selecting your conscript squad and moving them behind cover to escape the onslaught of an MG42. It’s frantically telling your mortar team to pack up the weapon and fall back while you select your Sherman tank to advance and give it covering fire. This skill is so integral to the genre that your efficiency is given a value. This is called actions per second (APS) and it’s a big measuring stick among the most skilled players in the world.
Company of Heroes in its cardboard version captures the micro aspects surprisingly well. Players do alternate in turns as we’re used to on the tabletop, but here you spend three action cubes before tossing the ball back to your opponent. We do this to and fro, alternating turns, until we’ve spent nine total cubes. And that’s a round of the game.
What’s interesting here is how it fundamentally frames the action around your implied focus. By breaking a turn down into action point clusters, you’re taking a turn issuing orders to units. Now, you can’t simultaneously tell all of your units to advance because you simply don’t have the capabilities to click them all with your mouse. You have to focus your attention in micro-bursts, ones small enough (three actions) that the alternating tempo produces a facsimile of simultaneous action.
I know, I know, alternating activations isn’t a new idea. But it does a really smart thing in that you don’t alternate activating single units. You can spend those three cubes each turn on any combination of units. So you could advance one of your infantry squads one hex, and then move your scout car two spaces. Your next turn you can come back and move that same group of infantry two more hexes and maybe an MG team nearby into a building.
It’s not so much trying to simulate every single unit in the game acting at once, instead it’s trying to simulate you and your opponent actively selecting and moving units, one click at a time. It succeeds at translating narrowed focus and attention to a turn-based mechanism. This is the core framework everything else is built atop of. Thankfully it’s sturdy as a pillbox.
All of the shooting happens after those action cubes are spent. In a surprising twist, combat is deterministic, kinda.
I tend to hate deterministic combat. I really do. I don’t hate this combat. That’s because the game finds many ways to sneak dice into the resolution.
While damage is mostly automatic, you instead get a saving throw if the type is not ideal for the target. So anti-armor attacks against infantry targets. Small arms fire against armored cars and light vehicles. Cover, in the form of buildings as well as scattered hexes with natural defenses, also grant dice-based defenses. Finally, mortars require dice to determine a range of possible hits with volatile effectiveness.
In practice this means some of the resolution is instant – such as a machinegun team laying into some riflemen – but much of it still requires some quick die rolling. This works to add a touch of drama and it keeps the action measured but still a bit spicy. Also, with a nod to Memoir 44, infantry damage is tracked by removing actual miniatures from the grouping. It’s very satisfying looking across the bloodied field and seeing your targets actually withered in strength.
Much of the tactical maneuvering in this game is conducted with the purpose of seizing capture points. Exactly like the video game, you’re looking to hold specific hexes which generate victory points each turn. Others dispersed across the board produce fuel, munitions, and manpower – the three resources spent to actually purchase units.
The macro stuff is easy. Each faction possesses three “buildings” which are oversized cards you flip when purchased. They cost resources and allow you to purchase better and more varied units. This is similar stuff to the StarCraft board game and it’s a simple overall system that’s familiar.
Nothing is particularly groundbreaking here. It is somewhat disappointing that you unlock your buildings in straight tiers instead of branches, so advancing up the small ladder will remain consistent play to play. Each faction is completely asymmetric with unique units and personality, but the progression is steady for the most part. There is an exception – this is a board game, there are always rules exceptions – in that the U.S. and British forces may jump straight from tier one to tier three at a rather hefty cost. I like this as it adds a tough decision that you must address relatively early.
The tempo of progression is pretty solid for the length of play. There is a slight niggle in that you often don’t get to spend much time fielding your best tanks and weaponry as you unlock and acquire these assets late into the session. This plays out relatively similar to the video game and it’s not too big of an issue. The rulebook suggests playing longer games by upping the point threshold for victory if it bothers you.
The more interesting macro element is the commanders. These provide a second progression element where you unlock unique commander specific abilities and units. Again, this is a system ported from the video game and it translates well. Each faction has several leader options which produce sub-specializations and custom approaches to each battle.
This review is getting long, but it’s a big game. Like over 20 pounds for just the core set. When I lift the box I worry the contents are going to tear through the bottom like a panzer through the wall of a Polish townhouse. There’s just so much stuff.
You get multiple double-sided maps that are enormous. Really big and hefty.
There are full plastic trays with lids for each faction. This is slick because you can just hand a player their tray and then begin war.
There are cubes to mark actions and track experience – another sub-system resource you gain and spend to upgrade units in a clever twist.
And there are tons of dice. Bucketfulls. More than you could roll with Andre the Giant sized fists.
I smile every time I upgrade a unit, such as adding another anti-infantry damage – and mark this on the squad by placing one of those custom dice in their little movement tray. It elicits the same satisfying feeling of slotting a cube into a double-layered board, which is another thing you actually do in this game too.
But all of this stuff is costly. Not just in terms of real world bucks, but in physical toil. I’m actually impressed by how streamlined the overall game is. It’s a 60 minute two player affair stretching to 90 or 120 with four, but it simply moves. Setup is also smooth in that you only place two infantry units and nothing else on the board. All of the victory points and resources are pre-printed and it wants you to get shooting right away.
Yet, it may sound stupid, but actually hauling that beast off the shelf and committing to playing it feels much more straining than it oughta. Some of that is the additional effort of expansion 3D elements – something I will discuss more in a follow-up article. Some of it is simply unpacking all of the trays and boards and being careful not to damage this beautiful artifact. This thing will definitely get played, it’s just a bit intimidating is what I’m trying to say. Which is odd because it’s an elegant and simple game overall.
My main concern for Company of Heroes is that it may not find an audience. It’s a very expensive and grandiose product with a simple and streamlined ruleset attached. It’s best described as a step up from Memoir 44, but a small one. It’s not as complex as Tide of Iron or Conflict of Heroes. Not even close. While I feel there is a surprising degree of depth to plumb, it’s easy to point out that it’s not going to give back in the same way Combat Commander: Europe would. That’s just a much more rich game that features additional complexity to create very sophisticated emergent situations.
The other side of this is that Combat Commander is much less likely to hit the table with a substantial gap between plays, as the rules are will need to be re-read and attention devoted. I’m confident Company of Heroes will get played months or even years later, because its core system is so simple and elegant.
The game is well balanced for the amount of content in the box, yet there does still exist the occasional blowout. This typically occurs due to tactical decisions and failing to counter your opponent’s unit builds (a strong component of strategic play), but when it occurs it can be painfully obvious one side is doomed a few turns before the session actually ends. This is yet another quality that parallels the source material, although I would say you get an overall more healthy pace of close matches on the tabletop.
Of lesser concern is the game’s slightly cavalier nature with historicity. Much like the video game, it mostly feels realistic and authentic to its 1940s setting, yet there are some odd edge cases such as infantry squads taking out armored cars with rifles, or the occasional unit which feels miscast in terms of its role (the British Churchill functioning as a tank destroyer comes to mind).
The product is also stuck in a weird position in that it includes four full factions – the Soviets, U.S., British, and German – which are all well represented and a delight to explore, however, playing a four player match requires the Wehrmacht team up with an Allied companion. That feels simply wrong, but I am able to brush this aside somewhat because it’s based on a video game and I don’t expect it to be a historical simulation. Although, yes, the video game doesn’t have this limitation which is a philosophical contradiction with this excuse. There is one solution: you can buy an additional German faction, the OKW, which includes all new commanders and units. But of course that requires more money and space.
That final issue may be a bridge too far for second world war buffs. I wouldn’t blame you.
Company of Heroes is perhaps a little past its time, with its source material now going on nine and the WW2 genre reaching a point of maturity where maybe it should be put into a home. But I’m not sure I really care about any of that. This is quite the game. Each play I keep marveling at that satisfying action point system.
It’s simply cinematic and dynamic in its approach to capturing the RTS micro feel. The strategic level choices are satisfying. It’s incredibly easy to learn and play while still packing some tactical grist for the mind. I’m also not going to complain that it’s beautiful to look at. This is one that I’ve played quite a bit, and hope to play quite a bit more.
A review copy was provided by the publisher.