Most wargames slot the player into a particular job, a particular role: supreme commander, divisional general, platoon leader, even quartermaster. Alert Force, a 1983 “microgame” offering from Wayne Close and his publishing company, Close Simulations, provides gamers the quite unique opportunity to play as a member of the United States Air Force’s Security Police, the alert force guarding the flight line and the nuclear-armed alert bombers parked in readiness thereupon. Opposing the Security Police on this fictionalized depiction of a Strategic Air Command base, the other player takes the role of undifferentiated Terrorists, seeking to destroy the bombers, hamper operations, and even purloin a nuclear device if possible.
On the surface, Alert Force comes in as a simple man-to-man tactical combat game, with a tiny footprint, a thin sheaf of rules, and a quick play time, but some nuances in both scenario design and rules chrome make for a deeper presentation than the meager box might suggest. While not a groundbreaking game in any particular way, Alert Force nevertheless repays its brief time on the table with streamlined gameplay and an interesting, if obscure, premise. Indeed, you might just have to own a game company in order to get a game on this topic published.
Close Simulations, 1983
Designed by Wayne Close
Alert Force comes in a small cardboard tuck box, measuring slightly more than 4″ x 7″, fitting it squarely in the Microgame size range that was quite popular in the late-1970s and early-1980s. Two sheets of half-inch die cut counters are included, totaling 112 counters. A matte-printed tri-fold map (12″ x 14″), plastic storage bag, and thin saddle-stapled rulebook round out the package.
The counters represent armed individuals not with figures but with icons of the weapon type they carry: machine pistol, assault rifle, or machine gun; additional weapons, such as satchel charges and light anti-tank weapons, have their own counters, as do vehicles and the unarmed aircraft crews. Numbers on the counters indicate defense value and movement points; attack strengths are a function of the weapon type and range, and are listed on a side table.
The artwork is serviceable, clearly conveying needed information though without much in the way of flourish. Informational counters likewise show either unadorned words (damaged, incapacitated) or drawings of effects (craters, flames). Only a few colors are used (two shades of red and green), but again, while not fancy, they get the job done. The game comes entirely from the hand of Wayne Close, who, in addition to design, is credited with cover art, rulebook art, and map and counter graphics.
Physically, the counters feel sturdy, with an agreeable thickness and no splitting, and they round nicely using an Oregon Laminations counter corner rounder. Registration and die cutting on my copy was mostly fine, with only one instance of color bleed and generally clean die cuts. Given that at least one of the major publishers of the time, Avalon Hill, still produced counters with the dreaded side-nibs, one can charitably excuse Close Simulations for their appearance here. One of the surprises for me, in my occasional studies of game production, has been the considerable expense associated with the dies used for counter cutting. A small, low-volume outfit, especially, is not in a position to commission a custom die and might well be at the mercy of whatever the printer has available or can whip together cheaply.
As for unit designations, there’s no definition given to the identity of the Terrorist units, though the picture of the Terrorists attacking on the box back suggests nothing short of a Baader-Meinhof recruiting poster. The box back blurb posits the action taking place at Peace AFB, home of the 905th Bomb Wing; Pease AFB, in New Hampshire, played home to the 509th Bombardment Wing, which flew FB-111s and KC-135s, just like the fictional 905th. SP units are not named or otherwise distinguished by rank or any other feature.
The map, like the counters, falls into the realm of the acceptable. The few colors at work (grays, greens, and blacks) adequately portray the terrain but without any particular panache. The shade of light green used for woods and grass does contrast nicely with the predominantly white background. Sadly, the building depictions, as mere off-centered squares, feel like afterthoughts, but the most important “terrain” features, the aircraft, are lovingly detailed—the silhouettes are clearly FB-111 fighter-bombers and KC-135 tankers. The scale is fifty meters per hex.
No set scenario comes with the game, players instead picking a time of day (daylight, evening, and night) and a number of force points for the Terrorist player (15, 20, 25) with which to buy units and weapons. The Security Police player always has 45 points for purchases. Every permutation of time and Terrorist point levels has an associated victory chart.
Play proceeds in a non-interactive sequence, with the Terrorist player moving then conducting three types of combat: explosive weapon, direct fire, and hand-to-hand. The Security Police player then conducts the same sequence, but only with units that have been activated. The activation mechanic helps to balance things slightly, as the game begins with all SP units inactive. Typically, Terrorist units conducting any offensive action in line-of-sight of a SP unit (or approaching the fence surrounding the ramp, ostensibly fitted with motion detectors) will only activate the closest SP unit. So with some planning, a Terrorist player could maneuver stealthily, as it were, to maximize positioning before alerting the guards, allowing for ambushes or other high intensity strikes. However, because the SP player rolls at the start of each of his/her turns to activate all inactive SP units, regardless of range or line-of-sight to Terrorist units, it’s typically only a turn or two that the Terrorist player can hope to move without opposition.
So while the activation feature initially feels like a nice command-and-control feature, modeling the communication delays that would be inherent in any chaotic situation like the one presented here, particularly given the thirty second game turns, in practice the “free” roll to activate each SP each turn lessens its impact. With a two-in-three chance during daylight scenarios (and one-in-three at night), the SP player will quickly be able to move to contact before the Terrorist player can really set up.
Uncommonly for a tactical man-to-man game, armed units possess a zone of control, costing units moving into or within it extra movement points per hex moved. Many tactical games substitute interactive fire phases for ZOCs, forcing the defender to spend a quite valuable resource—attention—to hinder enemy movement. In other words, you shoot at someone you don’t want to enter a particular hex, but you usually can’t shoot at everyone. For a single individual to control a 150 meter diameter space against all comers stretches credulity just a bit.
While fire combat is separated from movement, units that move more than half their base allowance fire with halved power, and units that exhaust their movement allowance cannot fire at all, a nice reflection of the very short turn lengths and a fair balancing mechanism in a game without turn sequence interactivity. Weapon ranges stretch out to eight hexes for machine guns, but oddly units possessing them move as far in a turn as those with assault rifles or machine pistols. A bit of variability here would have been welcome, both from a balance standpoint and a realism standpoint. That a single person can lug a M60 (with unlimited ammo) as far as a person with a machine pistol slung over her shoulder beggars belief in an otherwise fairly realistic simulation.
Vehicles take up far more of the game’s rules verbiage than their inclusion really merits, with an extended passage given over to the interaction between movement points, loading, and unloading, plus collateral damage rules regarding shooting at vehicles as opposed to the units inside them. But there are also rules for ramming fences and aircraft with armored cars, so a little extra rules lift in an otherwise quite simple rule set can be forgiven.
Indeed, for the relative wispiness of the rules, Wayne Close packs a lot into the sixteen page booklet, including rules for nuclear weapons theft (down to an assumption that a disgruntled airman has turned traitor) and the use of tear gas grenades. Most notably, and possibly the most interesting aspect of the game, there are rules of engagement for the SP player. Security Police units may not conduct explosive or direct fire attacks against Terrorist units that have not themselves engaged in hostile actions. Setting aside the “telepathy” that somehow informs each SP unit of the past actions of Terrorist units, it’s both another balancing mechanism and an intriguing look into what, I would assume, was a real-world RoE for USAF security forces. Hand-to-hand combat is allowed against non-combatants, but given that such combat is always non-lethal, it would make sense that the RoE allow it.
Play continues until all Terrorist units are eliminated or have exited the map. Victory points only accrue to the Terrorist player, with no points deducted for the loss of units, only for damage inflicted to the SP player through the elimination and/or capture of the alert crews (unarmed units representing the crews of the bombers and tankers sitting on alert) and damage to the flight line and/or aircraft. A massive fifteen points is awarded for stealing a nuclear weapon and removing it from the map, sufficient for a Terrorist victory regardless of any other points scored.
Solo Play Suitability
Alert Force, as a non-interactive game, sits squarely as one of those solo-indifferent affairs. There’s nothing really hindering solitaire play, like hidden units, but neither are there many gameplay elements that lend themselves especially towards it. The variable setups, including sequential force purchases for each side, might make it hard for some players to approach the game in a “both hats at once” mentality. The Terrorist player must come up with an approach in order to succeed—mad dash for the bombers and tankers, striking at the vulnerable alert crews, going all out to steal a bomb, or some blend thereof—but since the Security Police player purchases and sets up first, as long as the solo player tries not to formulate the SP setup with a particular Terrorist setup in mind, it remains be feasible to carry out in a “neutral” manner. Combined with the SP activation mechanic, the solo player should be able to carry out some semblance of the Terrorist plan before the SP units come into play.
The lack of player interactivity, which relegates Alert Force to the simpler side of the tactical genre, makes for quick action and does help somewhat with solo play. A more detailed tactical game, with reaction or defensive fire, causes problems for the solitaire player, since those games rely on feints and subterfuge to tease out defensive shots before making the decisive offensive moves. Here, movement is unhindered other than the simple ZOC rules, and doing the best for each side will suffice.
Given the number of force purchase options available to each side, the game has a sandbox feel. One playing can feature a swarm of inexpensive Terrorist units with machine pistols overwhelming the vulnerable alert crews, while another can arm a few Terrorist units to the gills with anti-tank weapons, satchel charges, and tear gas, riding in an armored car straight for the flight line. Similar options exist for the Security Police player, and while the results might wind up unbalanced or unfun for one side, playing Alert Force solitaire allows for these flights of fancy without worrying that your opponent is getting bored.
Final Die Roll
Alert Force goes about its business in a yeoman-like way: straightforward, unfussy, and clear, both in graphical presentation and in gameplay. The rules have a few moments of ambiguity, but they nevertheless present a complete package, with just enough chrome to keep a gamer interested for at least a few plays. I don’t really have a better sense of the intricacies of securing an Air Force flight line from the game, but there’s no pretense to history here. This game is not held forth as a training aid for Security Police—though it is worth noting that two of Close Simulations other games, Check Six! and FEBA, were part of the USAF’s Project Warrior, which disseminated wargames as a means of increasing mission awareness amongst service members.
What I do get from Alert Force is an awareness of a particular field of combat that I hadn’t really considered before. Some wargames highlight command and control issues, others logistics and supply; Alert Force reminds players that rear area security matters just as much. Wayne Close doesn’t break new ground with Alert Force in terms of rules or approach—after all is said and done, it’s a fairly standard man-to-man game—but the setting makes it stand out. An impressive accomplishment indeed for such a small box.