Retroplay Retrospective – Air Force (Avalon Hill Battleline Edition, 1977)

Air Force is a very old school-style wargame that has, for the most part, aged well. This week it was my Game of the Week. It is actually a very simple game that can mechanically be reduced to “Spot-Plot-Scoot-Shoot.” The game strikes a good balance between realism and playability – with a welcome emphasis on the playability. This week I have come to appreciate how awesome this game still is even after 40 years.

Spot – Maybe the only real negative. The rules only account for lack of spotting at the start of a scenario. Outside of a night scenario, spotting is almost automatic. Add in the lack of initiative or movement advantage for tailing and it’s hard to see value of the spotting game mechanic. But does it matter? This is one area that playability was obviously emphasized over realism.

Plot – A very old school mechanic that I know many “modern” gamers cringe at. Although there may be mechanisms that could achieve similar design effects, the truth is that plotting is fast and simple; it plain works. Among the greatest criticisms of the pre-plot mechanics in Air Force is the fact the rules do not have any initiative or tailing considerations. This can lead to situations where your opponent surprises you by going one way when you were expecting (plotted for) another. At first I was appalled by the lack of any sort of tailing rules, but after playing am not so sure this is a real negative. Given the limitations the flight model creates (see below) the ability to (generally) predict your opponents moves exist.

Scoot – I am coming to admire the simplicity of the flight model in Air Force the more I play. Fighter pilots talk about “energy management” in combat. In Air Force, your aircraft’s energy is a combination of speed and altitude. You lose speed for maneuvers or climbing and you gain speed through engine power or diving. The speed of the aircraft is also important for maneuverability. Staying at Maneuver Speed makes for the most cost-efficient maneuvers. Going faster (Level Speed) or diving (Dive Speed) means maneuvers cost more.

Altitude becomes a very precious commodity in Air Force as it can be traded for speed (energy) and more maneuvers. In several of my play-thrus this week, I found myself clawing for an altitude advantage as it allows you to dive into the target and maybe gain an extra maneuver to line-up the shot. If you are beneath the target your options are much more limited unless you have powerful engines.

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Battleline ADC (Courtesy BGG.com)

The flight model defines how aircraft move, and a worthy opponent will pay attention to not only where the opponent is, but what altitude and at what Bank they are. These are key considerations for plotting and if one is paying attention it signals the limits of what the opponent can do. For example, an aircraft in a Right Bank is going to have hard time turning left! Using the FW-190A ADC above, if the aircraft starts in a Bank Right attitude at altitude 15.0 (15,000 feet), it will have to move 1 hex forward before it can Bank Left to Level attitude, then 1 hex again before it can Bank Left again to get to a Left Bank attitude for a left turn. Now it can turn left, but needs to move 3 hexes ahead before the turn happens. This maneuver needs a speed of 5, which is actually Level Speed which penalizes maneuvers, meaning each Bank needs 2 hexes and the turn 4 hexes (speed 8). The flight model actually limits the ability for an opponent to rapidly change direction in a single turn, making plotting against this aircraft more predictable – assuming one is paying attention!

Shoot – Combat is dead-simple…and resolved with a single d6. Modifiers move you across the table. Damage is simple.

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Fan-made plot sheet (Courtesy BGG.com)

Look-n-FeelAs I alluded to before, the look-n-feel of Air Force is very dated. The physical components are very plain and simple. The plot sheets are ergonomically horrible (too small) and the tables poorly laid out. I own the later Avalon Hill version of Air Force with its rainbow Aircraft Data Cards. It would be interesting to see Air Force redone today with modern graphics or player interfaces.

Over the past 40 years I have changed my view of wargames. I am constantly balancing my gaming interests between my simulationist and gamer sides. Air Force has been criticized as not being a realistic model of flight, but does that really matter? To me, it is “realistic enough” that I get a taste of what air combat is using a fun, playable flight model that considers a few key factors. The real bottom line is that the game is simple FUN; easy to set up, easy to teach, easy to play, and downright enjoyable!

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