Table for One: NATO Air Commander (Hollandspiele) Review

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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.

Overview

NATO Air Commander: Solitaire Strategic Air Command in World War III
Hollandspiele, 2018
Designed by Brad Smith

NATO Air Commander, Hollandspiele, 2018

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.
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Game Preview: Red Storm: The Air War Over Central Germany, 1987 (GMT Games)

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Near the end of the Cold War, both NATO and the Warsaw Pact fielded impressively large and varied air forces that, thankfully, never contested the skies over Europe. Where the Warsaw Pact relied on larger numbers of robust but technologically-limited fighters and bombers, NATO offered up qualitatively superior but numerically inferior forces, making any conflict between the two sides one of doctrine as well as ideology.

Forthcoming from GMT Games and designer Doug Bush, Red Storm: The Air War Over Central Germany, 1987, seeks to model this potential conflict by enhancing the time-tested operational system originally designed by Lee Brimmicombe-Wood for his seminal work on the air war in Vietnam, Downtown. I’ve been lucky enough to work with Red Storm from the early playtest phase, and as a long-time admirer of both Downtown and its follow-on game, Elusive Victory, I find that Red Storm neatly brings the system’s strengths to the quite unique situation over Central Germany while addressing the complexities of the modern air battlespace.

Banner for Red Storm via GMT Games

As the playtest counter art shows, players will have at their disposal aircraft from several nations: the United States, the United Kingdom, the Soviet Union, the German Democratic Republic, the Federal Republic of Germany, Belgium, and Canada. And what a varied assortment of aircraft it is. From the top-of-the-line F-15s and MiG-29s through to the lowly Su-17s and puttering Alpha Jets, nearly every fighter and bomber that could have seen service in the Central German front makes an appearance. Doug has meticulously differentiated the airplanes, so that each flies, and fights, quite differently. Gamers who take the time to dig through the aircraft notes and make use of differences in radar, altitude performance, and weapon loadouts will be rewarded for their efforts.

Of particular note to me, the Su-25 Frogfoot close attack plane earns a few counter slots—it’s my personal mission as a wargamer to play every game that features this delightfully ungainly craft.

Playtest Art for Red Storm via GMT Games

Complicating both players’ plans, the electronic warfare support and anti-air missiles on each side make the mere act of flying hazardous. Going in on the deck might keep one safe from the SAMs, but then there are the copious low-level infra-red missiles and flak batteries to deal with. Successful ingress and egress require quite a few difficult choices. Making the initial flight plans could be a game in itself, and while players are never “on rails,” that initial planning does guide proceedings to a large extent, a hallmark of the system as a whole.

Planned scenarios range from contested bombing missions on both sides through to SAM-busting missions, rear echelon interdiction strikes, and escorting special forces on behind-the-lines infiltrations. One and two map scenarios will be included.

Red Storm promises to be both a worthy addition to the Downtown system and a signal accomplishment in air combat gaming in itself. Discussion of the game as it moves through development is taking place on ConsimWorld, and any gamer with interest in this hypothetical air conflict is welcome to head over there to follow along and participate.

(Playtest images and banner via GMT Games.)

Side-Scrolling Spitfires: Wing Leader (GMT Games)

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The art of design involves knowing what to remove as well as what to add. So I find what Lee Brimmicombe-Wood has done with Wing Leader: Victories 1940-1942 (GMT Games, 2015) rather appealing: he’s created an air combat game, at squadron scale, that eliminates an entire dimension, portraying the combat interactions of fighters and bombers from a side-on perspective. By focusing his game of Second World War air combat at the point of contact between the opposing sides, the need to maneuver squadrons to their destination has been eliminated, and with it, the need for that Z dimension on the plot. Wing Leader provides the sharp end of the stick, as it were, without the rest of the stick.

Wing Leader: Blenheims in Trouble

Similarly, the differences between aircraft types have been smoothed down to a small range, demonstrating the broad similarities between aircraft of the same generation. There are certainly contrasts between, say, a Spitfire and a Me-109, but they come out in very subtle ways that require the player to use the planes to their proper, and historical, advantage. Which is not to say the game lacks chrome, as Wing Leader includes forty beautifully drawn aircraft types (with data presented on nice cardboard cards) from Great Britain, the United States, Japan, Italy, Germany, and the Soviet Union. I defy any discerning gamer to resist playing a scenario involving Regia Aeronautica CR.42 biplanes against RAF Hurricanes over Malta.

As can be seen in Lee Brimmicombe-Wood’s earlier large-scale air combat game, Downtown, once fighters start mixing it up in Wing Leader, they quickly become ineffective in combat, not from losses per se but from progressive disorganization. Squadrons deteriorate slowly and then very suddenly in this game, and a single dogfight can reduce a fresh set of planes to a leaderless gaggle over a game turn or two. Loss, morale, and status tracking takes place on a set of charts, using counters for various states. The ergonomics work well, as though there are quite a few variables tracked, the counters mostly flip when needed to the next state, and ammo is only broadly traced. It’s not fiddly, the bane of many a game that uses charts and counters for tracking.

Wing Leader: Wing Tracking Chart

I had the opportunity to try the system recently with regular gaming opponent Mike Vogt at the District of Columbia’s finest game store, Labyrinth Games. We played a scenario set during the Sedan campaign in 1940 that features both sides escorting bombing missions. It was a fairly hefty scenario, with seven to eight squadrons per side, but we gamed through it in a decent time frame, perhaps four hours tops, and came away with a good sense of why you don’t let Stukas reach their targets.

As with Downtown, once the fighters lost cohesion and headed for home, the end of the game dragged slightly, with little to do but roll up the final bombing raids and flak attacks, but the overall experience remained solid. The game flowed quickly, with a fairly simple sequence of play that allows for focus on tactics rather than rules. Proper usage of squadrons was rewarded, and poor usage penalized. (Mike won a German victory by four VP, helped by some abysmal British bombing, if anyone is keeping score at home.)

Wing Leader: Victories 1940-1942 stands as the first in a series of games exploring the development of air combat during the Second World War. The second volume is already under development, promising to bring more aircraft from later in the war into the system, and I’m keenly following its progress. Not, of course, that I need much more in this life than a game that gives me Gloster Gladiators and Fairey Battles in the same box.

Single Player: B-29 Superfortress

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It’s something of Air Combat Week here at Movement Point, as we take a first look at Khyber Pass Games‘ newly published solitaire wargame, B-29 Superfortress: Bombers over Japan, 1944-1945 (2008).

Following solidly in the footsteps (airstream?) of Avalon Hill’s B-17: Queen of the Skies (1983; originally from On Target Games, 1981) solitaire game of bomber missions over Axis-occupied Europe, KPG’s B-29 challenges the solo gamer with the task of shepherding a Superfortress and its crew on 35 missions against Imperial Japanese targets in the Pacific. And just as the B-29 was a far more complex beast than the B-17, so too does this new game add to the complexities of its antecedent. The chart and tables book comes in at forty pages, covering such minutia as celestial navigation and engineer instrument damage tables. B-17, by contrast, contains fewer than ten pages of charts and tables.

Cross-reference, check, roll, apply, and move on.

Complexity in a wargame can be a double-edged sword. There are people who live for chrome in their rules, but quite often, games that add layer upon layer of complexity wind up as “shelf queens,” destined to gather dust and the occasional comment from a visiting gamer friend to the effect of, “Oh, yeah, I have that game, too. Never did play it. Looks cool, though!”

However, in a solitaire game, complexity can often mask, or at least minimize, the sense that you’re merely rolling dice to see what happens. One of the real knocks against B-17 is that the limited number of decision points the solo player encounters reduce the game to a dice rolling exercise—you might as well just roll the dice once: 2-6, you win; 7-9, you draw; 10-12 you lose.
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Game Preview: Nightfighter

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It looks like the next air combat game to come from designer Lee Brimmicombe-Wood, who previously brought us Downtown (GMT, 2004) and The Burning Blue (GMT, 2005), will be Nightfighter, focusing on, well, air combat at night in World War II:

Nightfighter will recreate the tactics of night fighting, from the ‘cat’s eye’ fighting of the London night blitz to the Mosquito intruder operations at the end of the war. Scenarios include Freya AN interception in the Dunaja dark fighting zones, Himmelbett zones, the introduction of AI radar, Wilde Sau and Zahme Sau tactics. The evolution of electronic systems and countermeasures is modelled, including the use of ‘Airborne Cigar’, ‘Window’ and ‘Serrate’.

Most interesting to me is the use of one player as an “umpire” to simulate the uncertainty of locating attacking forces at night, sort of a “single blind” situation. Lee Brimmicombe-Wood’s prior two games both featured one player pre-plotting an attacking air raid that, while not “on rails,” was restricted in its ability to alter course once the defender engaged. Both sides still had plenty of decision points in those games, regardless of any tactical restrictions.

Nightfighter seems to move the attacking force even more strongly into an automated mode, with the umpire more of a moderator than a player, raising the question of how much fun the game will be for the umpire player.

Discussion by playtesters over at the ConsimWorld Nightfighter topic suggest that the game is enjoyable for the umpire, owing in part to the umpire’s omniscient view of the battle. Depending on game length, it might be feasible to play one and run one in an evening’s gaming. I can see myself enjoying running a bomber stream even without many decision points, if only because I can make droning bomber noises and fake cockpit chatter while my erstwhile opponent sweats out the details of the raid . . .

Nightfighter playtest map detail from http://www.airbattle.co.uk/nightfighter.html

The graphics, even in their playtest state as above, taken from the Nightfighter site, look great. Not that we spoiled gamers have come to expect anything less from Lee Brimmicombe-Wood.

Doesn’t sound solitaire friendly, but then anything with hidden movement/placement seldom is. With luck there will be a VASSAL module produced shortly after this game comes out to facilitate online/PBeM play, as we had with both Downtown and The Burning Blue.

Some of the playtest materials that have been posted bear a GMT logo, so it’s likely Nightfighter will be offered there first. I’m looking forward to this one and will pre-order as soon as it’s on any company’s pre-order list.

Game Preview: Birds of Prey

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You know, some mornings, you just wake up and say, “Gee, the world needs another jet era air combat game that fits somewhere on the difficulty scale between Air Superiority and Speed of Heat.”

If that was you this morning, then you’re in luck:

Birds of Prey playtest set, taken from http://www.airbattle.com

Birds of Prey (Ad Astra Games), which just entered its pre-order stage, is a tactical air combat game focusing on jet dogfights, notable for its use of pitch and altitude markers under “box minis” that actually tilt the plane in its proper attitude—sort of a counter-miniature hybrid game.

Sadly, there’s not much information available on the Birds of Prey website beyond some basic marketing text. Not enough, at least, to justify a pre-order from me as yet—particularly given the strange self-e-mailing PDF pre-order system they’re using that is incompatible with the default Mac OS .pdf reader—but I’m hopeful that they’ll get a proper site with more details online soon.

In particular, I wonder about the “box minis”—will the registration on the die cuts be tight enough, and the construction simple enough, to produce aesthetically pleasing results? The “box minis” look pretty good in the playtest image above, but what about average results? I’m not renowned for my arts and crafts acumen. Board wargamers want to punch and play (or at the very most, punch, trim, and play). Don’t make us glue and fold stuff.

Worth following, though, and they’re shooting for a Summer release at Origins.

Update (March 14, 2008): Phil Markgraf has been in touch with me regarding the pre-order difficulties noted above. He’s put information on how to pre-order via e-mail on the Birds of Prey website.