In the variety show that is wargaming, purpose-built solitaire wargames are the plate spinners—sideshow acts compared to the notional stars of the show, the multi-player, face-to-face games. It’s not that these solo games lack flair or substance; indeed, there’s virtuosity on offer, but in almost all cases, the skills and decisions required in these games differ wildly from those called upon in traditional hex and chit wargames. The entertainment in playing a purpose-built solitaire wargame, as in watching a plate spinner, derives from wondering when it will all come crashing down; failure is the expected end point, success a function of failing less badly.
It’s this heavy focus on risk abatement as the primary game decision space that has long caused me to shy away from solitaire wargames, which tend toward rather tedious, process-driven affairs. The player’s decisions revolve around a few choices that add up to little more than different die roll modifiers for the next run through the chart-heavy sequence of play. Fighting a system with the odds stacked against you frankly feels like work.
But subject matter often overcomes hesitation with wargames, and when I heard that Hollandspiele had NATO Air Commander, a solitaire World War III air game, in the works, I knew I had to check it out, even though I am, as is perhaps now obvious, averse to the process-laden solitaire genre. Getting to command wings of A-10s and Alpha Jets against echelons of Warsaw Pact forces? I’m so very there.
NATO Air Commander: Solitaire Strategic Air Command in World War III
Designed by Brad Smith
NATO Air Commander follows what appears to be the standard Hollandspiele format, with a small-scale box (11.5″ x 9″), 22″ x 17″ matte map, a sheet of absurdly thick die-cut, double-sided 9/16″ counters, and in this case a deck of cards. Hollandspiele uses a print-on-demand process for components other than the cards, and while the saddle-stapled rulebook pages might be a bit thin, the colors on the map are crisp and the counters show no registration issues at all.
The counters do, however, suffer from what I consider a regrettable production choice: side nibs. The die Hollandspiele’s printing partner uses holds the counters together in the middle of the counter sides, instead of at the corners, leading to little bumps of cardboard on the sides. The corner edges are incredibly sharp as a result, with no flash there from corner nibs. Given that the counters are too thick to fit in my corner rounding tool of choice, the Oregon Laminations Counter Corner Rounder, preventing me from rounding them in any event, I suppose it’s an acceptable trade-off, but I’d much rather have thinner counters I can round and no side nibs.
The counter artwork hews towards the functional, with the aircraft counter art putting me (agreeably) in mind of GDW’s work in their Third World War series. There’s just enough style in the counters to make for a striking yet still usable presentation.
The map art I’m less enamored of, with a very busy cartographic map of West Germany and environs behind the spaces used for tracking the progress of the marauding Warsaw Pact armies, requiring odd shading tricks to get city names to show clearly. I like the concept, but I find it distracting in execution. A different background map might have produced a less cluttered look. Too, holding boxes for the air units tend toward the small size, forcing stacking of counters. I can see where the game’s compact form factor plays a role here, but I’d have preferred a bit more room.
The cards stand out as the high point, design-wise, of the whole package. The Resolution Cards drive the game, being checked to resolve almost every game function, and they clearly and attractively convey all the needed information at a glance. They’re sturdy, with a pleasant finish, but I would recommend sleeving them anyway, just because they are used and shuffled frequently throughout the course of a game, being the sole randomizer at work.
Players should not expect a highly detailed treatment of the 1987 air/ground battle space, the game sitting at a strategic level. NATO air units are the only distinct participants in the game, ground units being undifferentiated strength points. While the aircraft strength values feel broadly correct, particularly at this zoomed-out scale, there’s a lack of nuance that aficionados of the Cold War air conflict might desire. Not all F-16s were alike in actuality, for instance, with export variants having widely different avionics, jamming, and weapons systems, to say nothing of pilot training schemes, but here they all bear the same values. At least the F-111 E and F variants are differentiated here (by a single Strike strength point).
Three scenarios ship with the game, each postulating a different start to the hypothetical 1987 conflict, essentially providing three levels of difficulty for the same basic experience by tweaking starting aircraft allotments and force strengths on each side.
Each scenario plays out over ten turns, an undefined time period but most likely a week. Players receive tasking orders from on high, drawing cards demanding a certain number of Close Air Support “hits” against Warsaw Pact forces in a particular sector of the front or a certain number of raids to be conducted. In general, achieving these objectives will stretch a player’s forces severely. Rewards and penalties for succeeding or failing objectives take the form of Resource Points, which the player uses to repair damaged air units; purchase precision guided munitions, which increase attack power; or recruit pilots, special one-use counters that allow for second chances in combat resolution.
To achieve these objectives, players assemble available air units (each designating a wing—roughly three to four squadrons—of the same kind of aircraft) into raids, which are sub-divided into mission units (usually ground attack planes), escort units (fighters, ideally), and air defense suppression units. No nationality restrictions are built in, so raids can comprise West German F-4s tasked with ground attack, Dutch F-16s for top cover, and British Jaguars along to suppress SAMs. The decisions made in assembling raids and assigning them to targets form the heart of the gameplay.
To the game’s credit, the choices involved in this core decision process seem to matter far more than the focal decisions in most purpose-built solitaire wargames. A player can guarantee success on any given raid by ensuring enough strength points of the proper type (air combat, ground attack, and strike) in each sub-mission. The raid’s progress is broken down into phases, with each sub-mission’s particular strength checked in turn by drawing a card and comparing the corresponding Warsaw Pact strength in that area, the higher number succeeding (and ties going to the WP). But with a hard limit of five air units per raid, you might guarantee success in air combat and ground combat (representing air defense suppression) but then reach the target with not enough units assigned to actually do much damage to it.
Too, packing a single raid for success is unlikely to leave enough (or good enough) units for other raids to achieve their objectives. Far more often, then, the player must take risks, balancing the need to secure multiple objectives against the danger of failing all of them for want of sufficient power in any of them. Meeting the demands of the Objective Cards will require multiple raids, and failing objectives tends to lead to a “death spiral” where the player loses so many Resource Points as to lack the ability to reconstitute the fighting force, leading to yet more objective failures.
After the raids have gone through, with any raid that fails to reach its objective through a busted strength check suffering one or more damaged aircraft, the Warsaw Pact forces on six different “thrust lines” check to see if they advance against the defending NATO forces, again via a Resolution Card check. When raids succeed in placing “hits” on the various Warsaw Pact forces, they modify this check. Pact successes here move their forces closer to their goal. If all six WP forces reach their goals, the game ends automatically; otherwise, the WP gains victory points as they move along their lines.
There’s a nifty Pollard marker system in place to track the strength of the forces, and should NATO win the ground combat check, the Warsaw Pact forces lose strength, represented by rotating the numbered counter. This being a solitaire game, of course, the WP forces all gain reinforcements each turn, again driven by card draw. At best, the player will still lose ground somewhere each turn, as success against all six thrust lines is, if not impossible, highly unlikely.
Various game mechanics allow the player to mitigate, a bit, against the vagaries of fate—dedicating a raid to a “decapitation strike,” for instance, allows the player to remove a card from play permanently, so that a card with high Warsaw Pact values can be punted from the deck. My experience shows that the deck will be drawn through six or seven times in an average game, which makes such a choice tempting. But dedicating a raid to that end also means a raid that isn’t helping to stop a WP breakthrough or fulfilling an Objective Card demand.
It’s in these kind of higher order choices that NATO Air Commander begins to provide a deeper decision space than the typical purpose-built solitaire wargame. Between the force structure decisions (to include using a limited supply of precision guided munitions and putting damaged aircraft back into service at the risk of eliminating them) and the options to alter random effects (the decapitation strike and the one-use pilots who can force a second Resolution Card draw), the player has the chance to directly influence events instead of merely nudge them in a particular direction.
Solo Play Suitability
There are perhaps two main types of purpose-built solitaire wargames: conveyor belt, as you have here, with an endlessly grinding and increasing threat on multiple fronts, too many to contain; and pachinko machine, as in Avalon Hill/On Target’s B-17: Queen of the Skies, where one after another “bad thing” happens in turn to be dealt with as best one can, usually via multiple die rolls and chart look-ups.
Games like B-17 are frequently derided as being decision-less dice fests. There’s not much stopping the damage results chart from blowing off an engine and injuring the radio operator and sending a FW-190 coming in three o’clock low when the waist gunner has no oxygen; the point of the game shifts from “winning” to trying to salvage something from a near-hopeless cascade of disasters. The player often identifies with the crew of the plane—the act of naming the plane and the crew members drives this connection home—and the decision to drop below ten thousand feet to keep the co-pilot, named after your best friend from high school, from freezing to death, even though it means leaving the safety of the bomber stream, thus becomes more than a negative modifier on an unforgiving chart.
One should not discount the narrative strengths of these process-driven games and their considerable appeal thereby. But for the narrative to really take hold, the solitaire game system itself should, as much as possible, get out of the way. B-17’s endless dice rolls and chart look-ups slow everything down, hindering the ability to get lost in the story the game tells, a common pitfall of most games of its ilk. You deal with the process because of your investment in finding out what happens, not because you enjoy the process.
I don’t find the same narrative strength in NATO Air Commander, nor indeed in most “conveyor belt” games. There’s not really much of a story on offer here, with numbered aircraft units and nameless pilot counters defending circles on a track. Where the game shines is in getting out of its own way. The basic rule structure—compare a value on a card to a number you’ve had a fair amount of agency in determining—works seamlessly and quiet cleverly. By providing a larger-than-normal decision space for the player, with a simple mechanic for executing those decisions, play seldom if ever bogs down while remaining interesting.
It’s one thing, after all, to fight a system; it’s another to have to fight a system and the rules and charts and dice. NATO Air Commander doesn’t need to invoke a strong narrative; the gameplay suffices.
Final Die Roll
For a quick-playing, well-developed solitaire experience, NATO Air Commander delivers what it promises, with numerous decisions (with actual consequences) to make over several turns. Though I’d wish for a more detailed look at the conflict, with more granular unit scale—perhaps squadron level versus wing level as here, with offensive counter air and air defense suppression tracked per threat line instead of in toto—I also recognize that the scale works well for this system. The general feel of orchestrating an air campaign, trying to fulfill all mission requests with an inventory of planes that can only decrease, in number and effectiveness, over time, comes through clearly and cleanly. NATO Air Commander isn’t attempting to be a monster game—it fulfills a particular design remit, playing fast and not overstaying its welcome.
I found the process of playing the game compelling, and though I confess there was little to motivate me to continue a particular playthrough once the inevitable death spirals began to set in, that didn’t stop me from setting up another attempt right after.
After all is said and done, NATO Air Commander is still a plate spinner, still a sideshow that will have to fight to get room on my table when compared to the full-throated main acts our hobby has to offer. But as far as plate spinners go, it’s a veritable Erich Brenn (ask your parents, kids!), and a game that Hollandspiele and designer Brad Smith can be justly proud of.