Plotting Along with Air Force (Avalon Hill Battleline Edition, 1977)

Playing Air Force (Avalon Hill Battleline Edition, 1977) for my Game of the Week culminated in a game with the RockyMountainNavy Boys on Saturday night. Although I personally rediscovered my love for Air Force this week, the Boys had a lesser reaction.

At first I imagined a basic Battle of Britain dogfight scenario with Hurricanes and Spitfires versus Me-109s. That was until Youngest RMN Boy got his hands on the Aircraft Data Cards (ADC) and found the Me-262. He absolutely wanted to fly the Schwable. He also asked about shooting down bombers. So I quickly scratch-built a scenario where a single B-17G, separated from the bomber stream but escorted by a pair of P-51D, is jumped by a pair of Me-262.

Gameplay in Air Force is “Spot-Plot-Scoot-Shoot.”  In the interest of making for an easier first scenario we bypassed the Spotting rules and got straight into the action.

Youngest RMN Boy quickly discovered that the Me-262 handles like a truck. We had randomly rolled for starting altitude with the B-17G at 20,000 ft. In Air Force, when the Me-262 is at 20,000 ft. or higher, it has no Maneuver Speed and therefore adds the Level Speed penalty for maneuvers. This made the already ponderous Me-262 even more ponderous!

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Photo of Luftwaffe Me-262 being shot down by P-51 Mustang of the 8th Air Force, as seen from the P-51’s gun camera (Courtesy warhistoryonline.com)

I spent a lot of the game helping the Boys with plotting notations. The hardest part for them to envision was the aircraft Attitude, or banking.. Interestingly, Middle RMN Boy, my Autism Spectrum son, caught onto plotting faster than his brother. This may be because he is a bit of a “rigid thinker” and the predictability of the plot “clicked” with him easier than his more free-thinking brother.

The game lasted 15 turns, played out over about 90 minutes. The result was both Me-262 shot down by the B-17G, but with helpful contributions from the Mustangs. Unfortunately, in the same turn the last Me-262 was shot down, the B-17 fell too. This was in great part because the Me-262 used it’s Air-to-Air Rockets…and blasted the Flying Fortress.

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A B-24 “Liberator” of the 448th Bombardment Group, shot down by R4M missiles of a Messerschmitt Me-262 (Courtesy warhistoryonline.com)

After the game, we talked about Air Force as it compares to the other air combat game the Boys know; Wings of Glory. They both agreed that the addition of aircraft attitude and altitude was a large step-up in complexity over Wings of Glory. They also agreed that the flight model in Air Force gave a better comparison of the aircraft.

Although he had trouble during the game with plotting, Youngest RMN expressed a desire to try Air Force again. Next time, he wants to fly a maneuverable FW-190! I think the next game will be better; the hardest part of the learning curve for Air Force – plotting – is now behind them.

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!

Game of the Week for 05 March 2018 – Air Force (Avalon Hill Battleline Edition, 1977)

I started wargaming in 1979. At that time, the “new hotness” was Avalon Hill Battleline games. In particular, for World War II aerial combat there were just two games; Dauntless and Air Force. I own both, an actual 1977 Battleline First Edition of Dauntless (Pacific combat) and the 1977 Avalon Hill Battleline Edition of Air Force (air war over Europe). For this week’s Game of the Week I pulled out Air Force.

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Courtesy BGG.com

Looking over the game, I am immediately struck by how simple the graphics are. The box art is very appropriate for the air war in Europe, showing a formation of B-17 bombers dropping their bombs over a US Army Air Corps logo. The materials inside are very primitive. The rulebook and Airplane Data Cards all look like they were done on a typewriter. The mapboards (three sections, each folded and mounted) are plain light blue with numbered hexes. The counters come in three colors; Allies white on red, Germans white on black, and markers white on bright blue. By today’s standards, this product looks like a somewhat amatuer production.

 

The rulebook itself is 16-pages of two-column text. I have to remind myself that in 1977 these guys did not use computers for layout. They had to type the text and insert cut-out graphics to a master page. There are at least two different type fonts used indicating to me that when Avalon Hill took over distribution of the game there was at least some attempt to update the rules. My favorite rule may be II.C. COUNTER-SORTING TRAYS [sic]. Yup, there is a hyphen between “counter” and “sorting,” but it’s what follows that I love:

Two counter-sorting trays, included in previous editions, have been eliminated due to the petroleum crunch. Trays may be purchased from Avalon Hill while supply lasts.

Rules for the Basic Game start on page 3 and end on page 8. Optional Rules go from page 9 to 14, with Scenarios from pages 14 to 16. As I reread the rules, I kept looking for the usual Historical Commentary or Designer’s Notes. There are none to be found, which reminded me why the Avalon Hill house organ, The General, was so important (and thanks to the Internet Archive, still available).

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Courtesy BGG.com

The counters are bagged in matching small plastic ziplock bags. Similar bags are also found in my Battleline Edition of Dauntless leading me to believe these were included in both games at the time. I can’t remember for sure; maybe I bagged them all later. And speaking the counters, I now see it a a bit humorous that the aircraft silhouettes are fairly accurate, but the other counters (tanks, Flak, clouds, etc.) are a bit comical.

For my game this week, I think I am going to take the recommendation of the Basic Level Game and go with a simple 2v2 air combat. One of the recommended match-ups is Spitfire I vs. Me-109E – a classic Battle of Britain dogfight. This is also inspired in part by a recent Timeline documentary, 13 Hours that Saved Britain. Not your usual documentary as it focuses on the memories of people who were kids and youngsters on that day. Well worth your 49 minutes.

#WargameWednesday Retrospective – My 1980’s Skirmish Wargames

As part of my RPG Retrospective, I looked at the game Commando by SPI published in 1979. I found it interesting that Commando is considered both a wargame and an RPG.

Looking through my collection, I found several other near-contemporary skirmish combat games from the early- to mid-1980’s. These games are Close Assault (Yaquinto, 1983), Firepower (Avalon Hill, 1984), and Ranger (Omega Games, 1984). Now Close Assault and Firepower are literally the same game just covering different time periods (World War II for Close Assault, post-1965 for Firepower). Ranger is more a simulation than a game; it plays like a tactical training aid for the military.

What I Thought About Them Back Then – Super-tactical, or skirmish-scale combat was not the preferred scale for my wargaming group. We were heavy into tactical battles, be it land (Panzer-series from Yaquinto), sea (Harpoon), air (the Battleline version of Dauntless), or space (Star Fleet Battles by Task Force Games). I had Close Assault/Firepower and later Ranger because we thought they could be used as an adjunct combat system for our Traveller RPG adventures. It never panned out that way though.

What I Think of Them Now – Each of these games still stand the test of time. Close Assault/Firepower are a bit more chart-heavy than more modern games, and the combat system still has a strong I-go/U-go feel to it, but it still feels like a good simulation (and fun wargame). Ranger is an interesting creation, and could serve as a great story/adventure engine for an RPG.