Sunday, April 23, 2017

Spandaus and Lewis Guns

Over the last couple of years, when I go on about air combat rules, Kaptain Kobold has suggested his Spandau and Lewis Guns rules (you can find them here). I have been hesitant because the rules feature measured movement and movement allowances (I discuss movement allowances in a post from earlier today), both of which are mechanics that I do not prefer. Nevertheless, I wanted to give the rules a fair shake so I pulled out a couple of planes and set up a game. Here are the results.

Sam "Snoopy" Brown is patrolling in his Sopwith Camel when he spots a familiar red Fokker Triplane. "The Red Baron!" Both aircraft head towards each other.

Game Notes - I played this scenario on my bulletin board, which measures approximately 15" x 20". I was worried that the move distances were too long for the board so I used centimeters instead (e.g. a 6" move became a 6 cm move).

The Red Baron outmaneuvers "Snoopy." Bullets lash through his craft.

The enemies engage in a turning battle. Again the Red Baron fires and damages "Snoopy's" plane.

The Red Baron's experience pays off! He gets on Snoopy's tail; he has him dead to rights . . . and he completely misses. A lucky break for "Snoopy."

Game note - no hits on 4 dice!



The Red Baron outmaneuvers "Snoopy" again. This time he he does not fail.

Fortunately, "Snoopy" is a star and manages to crash land his plane. Though injured, he survives the fight.

After recuperating, "Snoopy" is back up in the air. This time he spots an Albatross.

Game Note - I enjoyed the first scenario so I decided to try another one. This time I'm using a slightly easier opponent. I also wanted to see what would happen if I used longer movement rates so it's back to inches.


The opponents try to line up a shot but the clouds block their view.

Game Note - I did not use any spotting rules for this trial, however clouds block line-of-sight.


"Snoopy" loses sight of his quarry.

Game Note - One of the drawbacks of longer movement; it's easier to really miss each other.



He re-engages and finds that he outclasses his opponent. He lines up a shot and begins to damage the Albatross.

Game Note - I rolled for the Albatross' quality and ended up with an inexperienced pilot. Between that and the Camel's superior maneuverability, "Snoopy" had a decided advantage.



"Snoopy" gets on the Albatross's tail. More shots do damage.

Closing in for the kill.

But the Albatross pulls off a sideslip and "Snoopy" zooms by. The tables are turned!

But not for long. The agile Camel gets on the enemy's tail, The Albatross is severely damaged!

The Albatross makes a break for home but "Snoopy" brings him down.

Analysis
How did S&LG do with respect to my wish list?

Solo-ability = High
Because the rules feature sequential movement they are quite easy to play solo.

Scale-ability = To Be Determined
I suspect that this will be high but I would like to test it out first. I'd like to try out an escorted bombing run and see how that goes.

Look and Feel = High
Not surprisingly, the planes with the advantage in pilot quality and/or aircraft maneuverability won both dogfights. The rules seemed to provide appropriate bonuses. I was especially pleased with the rules for pilot quality; I thought they very accurately rewarded the better pilot.

Tactical Thought = High
I was surprised by this. In my experiences, movement allowance systems usually make it too easy for the plane moving last to get into position. S&LG mitigates this in 2 ways. First, the player declares his speed (how far to move) before measuring. This creates an interesting range estimation challenge. Secondly, the players must roll to see how much they can turn their planes. A bad roll could prevent the plane from lining up a shot. These factors made the rules eminently more satisfying than the typical movement allowance game.

Portawargameability = Medium
These rules can be played in a very compact area. My test board was, as I mentioned, approximately 15" x 20". They can be played with few components so it is very easy to set up a game. Finally, the rules themselves are quick and easy to play, perfectly in accord with the spirit of portable wargames.

However, I downgraded S&LG slightly due to two factors:

  • "Large" board - I believe the suggested board size is 2' x 2' which is not really large. However, I'm working on games that can fit into an A4 sized box (approximately 8.5" x 12"). My land warfare boards are a tiny 8" x 8" and I'd like to fit a dogfight game onto a similar board. I may be able to use 2 8.5" x 11" boards joined together instead.
  • Not gridded - portable wargames traditionally make use of a gridded board, and I am particularly fond of grids. With its turns measured in 45 degree increments, I'm not sure how well it would adapt to a grid (although I may try it).
Admittedly, these are just niggardly quibbles. Nevertheless, they reflect my gaming preferences (or biases if you will) and thus the score is an accurate reflection of how well the rules meet my desires.


Adaptability = High
I haven't tested this either but I am confident that they can be made to work with later periods. The aircraft stats are not overly long or complicated so it should be fairly simple to work up stats for any plane you wish!

Final Thoughts
As I mentioned, I was hesitant to try these rules because they used some features for which I did not care. I must say that I am pleasantly surprised. Compared to a great many rules sets, some of them commercially available, S&LG provides for fast-paced air combat that still "feels" realistic. A lot of rules sets get bogged down trying to accurately recreate various maneuvers. S&LG takes a more abstract approach, but by adding piloting rolls it comes to the same end result.

Of course, being a typical wargamer, I can't leave well enough alone. I have some ideas for tweaks to the rules and plan to experiment. I also having given up on creating some rules using maneuver templates and will continue experimenting in that direction.

Overall, these are very good rules for some quick air actions. I'm pleased enough with them that I will be making a change to my 6 x 6 Challenge. Instead of my Lumbago colonial project, I will henceforth add Spandaus and Lewis Guns (I won't be counting today's dogfights).

Templates vs Allowances

In my experience, air combat games can divided into 2 types based on how they handle movement.

Templates
The first category involves the use of maneuver templates. Each turn, players secretly choose maneuvers from a template then reveal their choices.

A template example from Blue Max / Canvas Eagles
The players' planes are moved in accordance with the template, then combat is resolved. The old board game Blue Max is a perfect example of this category.  Ace of Aces and Wings of War / Wings of Glory are other examples of this type of system.

There are some drawbacks with these systems:
  • Low Solo-ability - in general, the challenge in these games come from out-guessing your opponent. This is hard to do if you are picking maneuvers for both sides. When soloing, the game devolves to sequential movement, with the plane choosing last having a decided advantage. This can be mitigated by choosing maneuvers for one side and randomizing the moves of the other.
  • Possible Unrealistic Results - If you mis-anticipate your opponent's move you could end up going in the wrong direction! This is a tad unrealistic; the pilot should be able to see the enemy's movement and make some corrections. Of course, this can be explained away. Perhaps the pilot lost temporarily lost sight of the enemy and headed the wrong way. If the movement rate is short, the issue won't be too pronounced and the lost sight explanation makes sense. Longer movement rates could be problematic.
Despite these drawbacks, I like maneuver templates. As long as the template does not have too many choices, it speeds up the movement phase. I also think it gives a good "feel" for combat flying as the pilot does have to judge where the enemy plane will go.

Allowances
The second category generally involves some sort of movement allowance. By this I mean systems where aircraft have specifications with regards to the number of inches (or spaces) moved and degrees turned. Players have a lot of freedom to tailor each craft’s movement every turn. Often, these systems feature initiative systems and sequential movement. Examples include old board games like Dawn Patrol and Air Force, as well as Kaptain Kobold’s Spandaus and Lewis Guns.

These games can also have drawbacks:
  • Static targets - The aircraft moving last in a turn won't have to worry about leading its target because the target is stationary. In an abstract way, this does provide a proper advantage to the plane with initiative (providing that the initiative system accounts for things like tailing). However, it generally feels a little odd to me, like the enemy is just hanging in space. This issue can be especially pronounced if each plane is allowed to shoot after its move. I've seen games where one plane circles around to the other's rear and shoots. Then the target (assuming it survives) does the same thing!
  • Slower pace - it seems to me that moving and turning planes a space at a time is slower than using a template. This has the potential to make the game drag on longer than one using templates.
My Preference
For me, templates win out over allowances.

Even though it is not entirely realistic, I like the guessing game approach. It makes me feel like I'm in the cockpit, trying to anticipate my enemy's next move and then put myself in position to make the kill. I just don't get the same sense from games with allowances. Thus, templates have the right feel for me.

There are some disadvantages to the template approach and up to now I considered those to be insurmountable. However, I have been experimenting with some solutions and feel that they are workable. I'll be sharing my solutions in later posts.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

The Aetheria Dogfight Project

As I experiment with air combat rules, I've been hankering to get some new planes for Aetheria, my imaginary, pulp-era world. I want to avoid well-known World War 2 models, in fact I'd like to get something a little more primitive, say early-mid 1930s.

I was looking through the Tumbling Dice website but unfortunately there aren't many pictures. I then checked out the PicoArmor website when I hit the jackpot!

P-26 Peashooter
The P-26 was obsolete by the start of WW2, but I think it's a cool looking plane. This will be my main Confederation fighter.

How about the Empire of the Iron Fist? The obvious solution would be to look at German fighters, but I decided to take a different tack. How about this?

Soviet I-16 fighter
I also like the look of this next one (even though it is technically a bit more advanced than a P-26 I can fudge things for my setting).

Macchi 200
Next I need to look at bombers. Pity that PicoArmor doesn't have B-10s.

(By the way, the photos are from the PicoArmor website)

Thursday, April 20, 2017

RETROSPECTIVE - B-17 Queen of the Skies

It has been a while since I've done a Retrospective but I've had a flash of nostalgia. While searching for air combat games I stumbled across some references to the venerable solitaire game, B-17 Queen of the Skies.


I picked up the Avalon Hill version some time in the 80s and ended up playing it dozens of times. In this game, you are in command of a single B-17 bomber on missions against targets in German-occupied Europe during World War 2. Although you might occasionally have a milk run, oftentimes the missions were harrowing as you ran a gauntlet of enemy fighters and flak on the way to your target. And if you managed to drop your payload, you still had to get back home!

Although a wargame, B-17 had a bit of an RPG flair to it. You named your plane and crew. If they managed to survive they began to take on a life of their own. It really hurt when you rolled the dreaded BIP (burst in plane), demolishing plane and crew in one go. Such was the life of a WW2 bombing crew.

The game itself was primarily a die-rolling exercise. You rolled to see if you took off safely, then more rolls each time you entered a new zone to determine what the Germans threw at you. Rolls for combat, damage, the bombing run, landing, etc. Through it all, you were shuffling through numerous charts. It sounds tedious, and from a game design standpoint you could say that B-17 was lacking. In a recent post I mentioned that I wanted rules that required some tactical thought. There wasn't a whole lot in this game (you could choose which enemies to target with which guns and could move crew members around when some were wounded or killed). But then, when did bomber crews have much choice in their tactics?

Where this game succeeded was its brilliant evocation of its theme. Missions typically were filled with suspense (when are they going to hit us?) punctuated by terror (when enemy bullets ripped into your plane). As such, B-17 scores extremely high on the Feel scale.

Sadly, I no longer own this game. In the early 2000s I found a computer game that covered the same theme, but without shuffling through a bunch of charts. At the time, I felt that the computer game made B-17 obsolete. Unfortunately, the computer game was not compatible with newer computers so it too is obsolete. One nice thing about board games is that they aren't dependent on operating systems.

I would be interested in replacing B-17, but copies can go for nearly $200. I did stumble across a newer game, Target for Today, which states that it is "s an advanced update of Glen Frank’s classic game B17, QUEEN OF THE SKIES."


Very interested!

Down In Flames

For my first experiment with air combat rules, I pulled out a commercially produced, boxed game.

Down in Flames is a card game that replicates World War 2 dogfights. I picked up the original version in the 90s, then got rid of it for some reason. When I returned to wargaming four years ago, DiF was one of the games I purchased anew (I reviewed the new edition early in the history of this blog). It has since been languishing in my closet but I decided to pull it out now that I'm on an air combat craze.

Test Games
I played a few solo games to re-familiarize myself with the rules. I decided to start with a simple, 1-on-1 dogfight. I did not worry about altitude in this test.

# 1 - P-40 vs Zero
When I first owned DiF, I had the version that covered the early European war. I decided to try a different theater so I pulled out a Japanese Zero (I should have used the army version) vs. a Flying Tigers P-40. Although these planes have the same victory point value, the Zero historically was a better dogfighter. This is reflected by the higher performance score. I expect the Zero to win.

The opponents fly at each other (I really should have used a different background than a Miami Dolphins blanket).

The P-40 gained the initiative (random draw). It performed a vertical roll, but the Zero responded with its own roll (note the action cards above the planes). The P-40 maneuvered some more and managed to get on the Zero's tail. It unleashed a hail of fire, but the Zero pilot was an ace and was able to avoid getting hit.

The Zero turned the tables with a series of maneuvers that left him on the P-40's tail. He fired an accurate burst that shredded the P-40. Game over.

#2 P-40 vs. Zero (Take 2)
That was short so let's try it again.

Oops, the Zero gained initiative and quickly managed to shoot down the P-40.


# 3 Hellcat vs. Zero
Let's try a tougher challenge for the Zero - a US Navy Hellcat.

The Hellcat won initiative and gained the advantage on the Zero. Its volley ripped gaping holes in the Zero.

The Zero managed to get on the Hellcat's tail but could not line up a shot.

The Hellcat responded and got on the Zero's tail. The Zero used a tight turn to avoid the Hellcat's shots.

The Zero could not shake the Hellcat.

The American finally got in a good shot. The Zero went down.


Analysis
Those were fun and quick dogfights. So how does DiF rate in terms of my preferences?

Solo-ability = Low
While card games, like DiF can be played solo, I find it awkward to do so. Each side's card hand should be secret; in a solo game hidden information is known. This can subtly influence player choices. There are ways to mitigate this, but the experience will never be the same as a player vs. player experience. I also find it annoying having to handle multiple hands of cards.

Scale-ability = Low
I did not test a bigger game, but from my experience with a 1 on 1 dogfight, I think it would become exponentially more difficult for one player to handle more planes (which would require more card hands).

Look and Feel = High
Even though it's abstract, I feel that the cards do provide the feel of a dogfight. The opponents trade maneuvers in a fast-paced effort to out-think one another and get in position to fire. The action is fast and furious. DiF also does a good job of simply modelling differences between aircraft. For example, the better maneuverability of the Zero was reflected well in its dogfights against the P-40. Historically, the P-40 compensated by using its better diving ability. Perhaps if I had used altitude the results may have differed.

Tactical Thought = Medium
DiF requires a good deal of tactical thought. How do I sequence my maneuvers for best advantage? How do I manage my plane's energy (card hand)? Do I go for broke now or hold some cards in my hand for later? Unfortunately, some of these decisions are nullified when playing solo. When you know the opponent's hand, some of these decisions become foregone conclusions. Thus, for player vs player actions, I would rate this High but since I'm playing solo I downgraded it to Medium.

Portawargameability = High
In other words, does this game feature the characteristics of a portable wargame? Being a boxed game, it is literally portable. Although it does not use a board, it can be played in a small space. The basic rules are simple so a game can be played quickly (all 3 games probably took a half an hour). Therefore it does meet many of the portable wargame characteristics.

Adaptability = Low
The author of DiF has adapted the rules for World War I so it is possible to adapt them to other eras. I downgraded the score in this area, however, because to do it right would require custom cards, I just am not crafty enough to make my own cards.

Final Thoughts
While DiF is a fun game, it is a little clunky for solo play. For this reason, I doubt it will become my preferred set of air combat rules.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

What I'm Looking For in Air Combat Rules

A few days ago I mentioned that I am on an air combat kick. I don't have a go-to set of rules so I decided to experiment with a variety of rules. To help me analyze these rules, I jotted down the characteristics that would make the ideal game for me.

Solo-ability
I do most of my wargaming alone therefore the game must be playable solo. This is a tricky requirement because many good air combat games rely on a guessing game between enemy pilots. Ace of Aces, my all-time favorite aviation wargame, is very much of this ilk. As good as these games may be, they just won't be useful to me.

Scale-ability
Some air combat games work fine for 1-2 planes per player but break down if you add more. Right now, I am primarily looking for a game that will handle small dogfights with a main character and his wingman vs. the enemy. However, they may find themselves in hot water and have to fend off 3-4 enemies or they may be doing escort duty for a couple of bombers. Thus, I want the game to scale up and easily handle up to a half dozen planes a side.

Look and Feel
First and foremost, the game needs to "feel" like a dogfight, and that means fast and furious action. Alas, some games feel more like protracted geometry exercises (Air War) that remove any excitement from the dogfight.

Secondly, the game must "feel" realistic. I'm not shooting for strict accuracy like many complicated games. However, the game should model general performance differences. A better plane should generally perform better in game (assuming the same pilot skill).

Finally, I would prefer a game that looks good, especially if I can use pretty (or not-so-pretty with my painting skills) airplane miniatures.

Tactical Thought
The game should require some tactical thought for me, the player. If everything is dictated by dice rolls and I have no decisions to make, then I will get bored. I think this is one of the reasons I stopped playing Eindekker. The decisions in this game primarily relate to resource management (do I continue the mission with my damaged craft or do I abort?). Dogfights are straightforward dice-rolling contests without much tactics. I really want to decide how to fly my planes.

Portawargameability
I just made up a long word to indicate whether the rules would make a good portable wargame. Earlier this year I successfully experimented with a game in a box and I would like to do something similar for my air combat game.

Portable wargames typically include the following features:

  • A small board - my boxed game has an 8" x 8" board. Can I fit an air combat game on a similarly sized board?
  • Gridded - I love gridded games and would like to use one for this project. It's not a hard and fast requirement, however
  • Fast and simple rules - portable wargames typically use simple rules that allow battles to be completed in a short period of time.

Adaptability
While my latest aviation craze was inspired by reading about World War I, my thoughts have turned to an imagi-nation campaign that I began a couple of years ago. Aetheria was set in a 1930s pulp environment and even featured a Four Against Darkness variant with a character named Dirk Daring. I'd love to game out some of Dirk's dogfights against minions of the Empire of the Iron Fist. To do this, I will need to adapt any rules I pick to include mid-30s style airplanes (and perhaps make up some of my own, a la Crimson Skies).

So those are my requirements. Let's see if I can find a rules that meet many or most of them,

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Happy Easter!


"When they entered the tomb, they saw a young man clothed in a white robe sitting on the right side. The women were shocked, but the angel said, “Don’t be alarmed. You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He isn’t here! He is risen from the dead!" Mark 16: 5-6 NLT)