Saturday, January 17, 2015

RETROSPECTIVE(S) - Air War and Ace of Aces

For today’s Retrospective, I’m going to reflect upon a pair of air wargames. My father was a pilot and from an early age I wanted to follow in his footsteps, become an Air Force pilot (hopefully a fighter jock) and then have a career in the airlines. Given my dreams for my future, it was only natural that I would gravitate to air combat games.

In the late 1970s, my father gave me a copy of SPI’s Air War for my birthday.

This board game was considered the pinnacle of realism, with very detailed rules designed to replicate actual aircraft performance. I was very excited with the gift; I could be a fighter jock! I read through the rules and then tried a game. I don’t remember any specifics of how it worked. I only remember that our one dogfight, which would represent a couple of minutes, took what seemed like a few hours to play (it may have been less; I just remember it taking a LONG time). It felt more like a long, drawn-out chess match rather than a seat-of-the-pants dogfight where the pilot has to make split-second decisions. This was realism?

It may have been that very same birthday when a friend gave me Ace of Aces.

This is a very clever WWI air combat game. The heart of the system was 2 books (one Allied and one German) with a variety of pages showing a view from your cockpit toward your opponent.

At the bottom of the page are maneuvers you can perform. Each turn, both players select a maneuver, and then cross reference the numbers under the selected maneuver, which points you to a new page showing your new relative positions based on the selected maneuvers. There is not a lot of differentiation between aircraft (in the basic game a Fokker Dr. I will “fly” exactly the same as a Sopwith Camel) so this game can hardly be said to be a realistic simulation of air combat. Yet it felt realistic. We played quickly, shouting out our maneuvers at a breakneck pace. It seemed like that seat-of-the-pants dogfight I wanted.

This was one of my favorite games in high school and we played it to death. It was very portable (for the basic game you only need the two books) so I brought it to school. My friends and I played it during lunch, between classes, and even during class (using hand signals to designate our maneuvers). The major drawback was that it was pretty much limited to 1-on-1 dogfights. There were rules for larger battles, but they seemed a bit clunky. At one point I was able to figure out how the maneuvers worked and translated them to a board, but I never got around to playing it that way. Nowadays, if I have a hankering for air combat, I usually play a video game (although I still own my original copy of Ace of Aces and have experimented with some modern games, such as Eindekker and Down in Flames).

My experiences with Air War and Ace of Aces would leave an indelible mark on my gaming. Air War, with all its technical accuracy, utterly failed to evince the rapid decision-making of a dogfight. Ace of Aces, despite its abstractions, succeeded. This contrast showed me that more complex was not necessarily more realistic. Ever since, I have been a fan of simple rules that can still “feel” right.

1 comment:

  1. Air War could be played quickly if you played it enough to learn how to do it. A friend of mine did, and really enjoyed the game. I never got on with it.

    I never payed Ace of Aces, but I think the one-on-one dogifighting would put me off.

    WW1 air combat is really the only genre that interested me, and, of course, I ended up writing my own rules :)