Publisher: Academy Games
Game Designer: John H. Butterfield, Uwe Eickert, Gunter Eickert
Playing Time: 30 minutes
Suggested Retail Price: $50
Expanding your horizons
I’ve been working my way through reviews for several Academy Games titles in my queue these past few months. Conflict of Heroes – Awakening the Bear was first, followed by Conflict of Heroes – Guadalcanal. Both are excellent squad-level tactical games with a tremendous amount of action for two to four players, and can mostly be played solitaire pretty well.
But let’s face it, there are times that you just want to hook up, shuffle up and jump right into some WWII action with nary an opponent to be found. You can wear two hats and play both sides, as most wargamers generally do, but trying to outsmart yourself isn’t nearly as satisfying as taking on a clever opponent. In that case, it’s time to crack open the Eastern Front Solo Expansion and get to work!
Alone against the odds
The Eastern Front Solo Expansion (EFS) stays true to the flavor and mechanics of the base game but does change things up a bit to accommodate solitaire play. Your opponent here is the Athena AI, which uses emergent behavior and agent based logic to adapt to the tactical picture on the board. It runs through a situational list of orders from a deck of cards to carry out actions which are based on player unit proximity, in response to player actions, objectives or specific mission orders.
As mentioned, things have been tweaked a little in comparison to the standard CoH multiplayer format. Gone are APs in the sense that we’re familiar with from the base game. They’re still there in function but player units no longer have a full complement of seven, nor are they tracked. After each single action, an AP spent check is made by drawing an order card and comparing the AP number at the bottom of the card with the cost of the action just taken. An exception to this is the Remain Fresh symbol, which allows you to disregard the spent check number.
If the action is less than the number shown, the unit (or units in the case of a group action) remains fresh and is capable of further actions. A number equal to or greater forces the unit(s) to become spent, so you can easily find old Dieter hanging in the wind where Ivan can get a clean shot. Not a smart place to be, but you’ll quickly find out that gambles are necessary in order to be successful against the AI. You just have to remember, the actions you take and the responses from the AI are more often than not in direct correlation.
Spent checks can be avoided by using CAPs, but without that seven AP buffer you’ll find these even more precious in the solo module. Never knowing when a unit will be spent makes for some weighty decisions and a really good risk/reward feeling in each turn.
Once you dig into the AI’s turn is where the system’s innovative design really shows its worth. Rather than simple scripted behavior, Gunter and Uwe Eickert have devised an expedient way to posit a variety of believable and realistic actions using a deck of order cards with mission specific orders to further support them. These tailored responses to the player’s actions and the overall tactical situation increases replay by yielding a different outcome each time.
While running the AI, the system takes a load off of the player by limiting them to simple determinations rather than decision making. So you’re not on the hook to plan the best move for the AI, as when you play both sides of the fence. Your job is to simply follow the card’s hierarchical series of orders and choose the AI unit that acts based on the criteria listed. It’s as elegant as there is currently for a solitaire tactical system, and it will beat you repeatedly.
This ingenious system breathes life into your artificial opponent, making it a true challenge to not only beat but to survive. Think I’m kidding? Wait until you see a wounded AI unit bail to heavy cover, carefully move to flank you, or pursue you relentlessly like a shark on a feeding frenzy. It’s amazing how well the order deck, coupled with Mission specific orders and Counteractions smoothly responds to what’s going on around it.
Orders are broken into two distinct sections, Priority and Tactical. Priority orders deal with close combat, short range and counteractions. Here, the closest AI to you will either move to engage in close combat, disengage, rally, change facing or even group attack. The last Priority option is to execute Counteractions, which are mission specific orders such as moving towards the closest spent player unit, executing a fire attack or bringing more units onto the field.
Tactical orders deal with more movement, either towards player units or objectives, but are also used for rallying and engaging player units. Lastly, just as with the Counteractions, there are specific Mission Orders that are carried out if no other order can be followed. Again, these deal with movement but also can have the AI pass or fire. There is always something the AI will do, and you’ll find that it surprises you more than you expect.
Hidden units have always been a sticking point when playing solitaire in some scenarios of AtB. Granted, there are ways to simulate some fog of war but that’s no longer the case with EFS. Now there are Rumored Enemy (RE) counters that fill the board in some missions, with generic counters depicting their location. RE units act and move as regular AI units, and the only way to find out if they are real or not is usually recon by fire or to be close by. Once revealed, a counter is drawn from the AI counter cup. There are some dummy ‘no enemy’ counters in the mix, guaranteeing you some false reports, but pulling those chits always makes for some good tension.
The elegance and seeming intelligence of the AI is all due to this solitaire system being purpose-built specifically for Awakening the Bear. With a general AI meant to encompass any game, it would be more difficult to prioritize responses as well as we find in EFS. This makes for a great experience and high replayability in the ten included missions, but after a while you may be wanting even more. Well, Academy Games has us covered there with their Firefight Generator expansion. Now we can extend our solo and multiplayer experiences with Conflict of Heroes – Awakening the Bear, creating an unending parade of missions across the Eastern Front. I’ll be taking a look at that in another review very soon, so stay tuned.
It’s amazing what good design work can bring to the table, and Gunter and Uwe Eickert have constructed a system worthy of the fantastic CoH series. It brings things full circle, allowing gamers to play AtB at any player count and never second guess if they’re cheating themselves in the experience or not.
EFS is a solid system that challenges you with tough decisions in every turn. The cards dictating everything are nicely balanced, both in controlling the AI and determining if your units are spent. With the amount of information and options on the cards each gameplay experience is unique and fresh, with different outcomes every time. Here’s hoping we see this solitaire system expanded to cover all games in the CoH line!
Creating a solid AI system is not an easy task, it’s as much art as it is math. Working through the probabilities of responses is one thing, tying them all together into a workable and challenging package is quite the achievement. Academy Games has done an outstanding job to bring us an AI that gives us the feel of a real live opponent. There is a true action and reaction dynamic in this system, making it a much valued expansion well worth the price of admission.
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Note: A copy of this game was provided to me for this review.