Taking Command – First Impressions of NATO Air Commander (@Hollandspiele, 2018)

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Courtesy BGG.com

I am a Cold Warrior. I came of age in the 1980’s in the Reagan-era of the Cold War. I read Red Storm Rising or Team Yankee. In my wargames I fought the Red Bear at sea using Harpoon (Adventure Games, 1981/GDW 1987), fought them in the air in Air Superiority (GDW, 1987), and on the battlefields of Europe when playing Assault: Tactical Combat in Europe – 1985 (GDW, 1983). I even played the Twilight: 2000 RPG (GDW, 1984). In the late 1980’s, I joined the US Navy and we trained for the Big One – going toe-to-toe with the Russkies.

Fortunately, that war never came. Which makes NATO Air Commander (Hollandspiele, 2018) a sort of alternate-history game. I acquired NATO Air Commander during the 2018 Hollandays Sale and took it out for a few sorties. NATO Air Commander is another “wargame” in my collection that challenges the classic hex-&-counter definition of a wargame. Instead, NATO Air Commander is yet another waro in my collection; a wargame using Eurogame mechanics in a highly thematic game.

Presentation

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Courtesy BGG.com

NATO Air Commander has a very small footprint. The map by Ania B. Ziolkowska looks just like so many air charts of the day with simple, believable graphics superimposed. The entire mapsheet layout is easy to understand. I do wish the Basing box was a bit bigger; at the size given one ends up with a big stack of aircraft piled high. The counters are typical Hollandspiele/Blue Panther; thick and punch cleanly with simple, easy-to-understand graphics.

Playability

NATO Air Commander is a solitaire game and like most solitaire games the rules are very procedural. The rules are 12 double-column pages and step the players through the turn sequentially. The rules themselves are not difficult to learn; I personally rate them  a 2- Medium Light on BoardGameGeek. After just a few plays all that is needed to reference is the Player Aid on the last page of the rule book.

Mechanics

At it’s heart, NATO Air Commander is a card game. Players draw Objective Cards that reflect their commander’s needs for the turn. The players then allocate their precious (and dwindling) air forces (resources) to Raids. Each Raid is resolved using Resolution Cards and the advance, or (very occasionally) retreat of Warsaw Pact forces along six Thrust Lines (Avenues of Advance) is determined. The success of missions and advance of forces affects the number of Resource Points (RP) available to repair or replace lost aircraft or “purchase” needed upgrades like Precision Guided Munitions (PGMs).

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Courtesy BGG.com

NATO Air Commander is also a dice-less game; instead everything is resolved using the Resolution Cards. Typically, the player compares the relevant factor to the card factor modified by a track. If the factor is greater than the modified card number it is a success. Once the player is familiar with what track modifies what card factor resolving an event becomes easy and almost instantaneous.

Historical Flavor

Starting with the map, the game feels very period-thematic. Although the different aircraft types are not marked, if one knows a bit of aircraft recognition it is easy to see. Some folks on BoardGameGeek forums have groused about aircraft ratings. I am with the designer here when he says if you don’t like it, change it yourself!

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Courtesy BGG.com

Speaking of the BGG forums, some folks have complained about the number of acronyms used in the game. Sure, the rules could probably use a glossary but the use of those terms actually help become more immersed in the play. Except for one acronym – DEAD. As defined in NAC this is “Destruction of Air Defenses” which I learned as SEAD (Suppression of Air Defenses). It make absolutely no difference to play, just makes me grin as I move the track marker.

Overall, NATO Air Commander immerses the player in the period. The map, the aircraft, the relentless Soviet hordes, all make for a very tense game experience. There is also just the right amount of chrome. For instance, there is one (1!) Stealth bomber unit and never enough Precision Guided Munitions.

Support

Both publisher Tom Russell (BGG user tomrussell) and designer Brad Smith (enragedbees on BGG) are very active on BoardGameGeek forums. Questions are usually answered very quickly.

As a repeat customer of Hollandspiele games I also feel the need to address the “stinky” issue. Hollandspiele games are printed by Blue Panther in a form of print-on-demand publishing. The inks used by Blue Panther give off a smell that Steve has assured is not dangerous. Yes, the odor can be strong when the box is first opened. I find that if I keep the box open for a day or two in a lesser used portion of the house the odor goes away.

Bottom Line

NATO Air Commander almost feels like a game module for a larger game. Indeed, in approach this “air war module” is not that different from systems used in the Fleet-series (Victory Games) or the Next War-series (GMT Games).

Some commenters have stated that the puzzle of NATO Air Commander lends itself to an optimal strategy. Well, yes, there likely is an “optimal” way to use your air force. However, the fickle hand of fate, as embodied in the Resolution Cards, will most assuredly throw wrenches into your “optimal” strategy. Those wrenches are a feature, not a bug. NATO Air Commander forces one to think about allocating precious resources against sometime impossible needs to turn back a relentless horde. If there is one lesson that NATO Air Commander teaches its that defeating the Warsaw Pact invaders was not going to be easy and there was going to be steep losses. Those thematic lessons make for a very tense, stressful game that NATO Air Commander allows one to play with minimal rules overhead and a quick, diceless resolution mechanic.

Featured image courtesy Hollandspiele

#FirstImpressions – Mrs. Thatchers War: The Falklands, 1982 (White Dog Games, 2017)

I freely admit that solo wargames are not my usual thing. I dislike games that devolve into a repetitive set of processes that the player repeats until some victory condition is triggered. So it was with some hesitation that I picked up Mrs. Thatcher’s War: The Falklands, 1982 by designer R. Ben Madison and published by White Dog Games in 2017. In 1982, I was a young middle school lad with a great interest in military and wargaming. I watched the broadcast and cable TV stories about the Falklands War. Since then, the war has become a bit of a fascination of mine. Unfortunately, there are few games out there on the subject. So, after some hesitation, I let my love of the Falklands War conquer my fear of solo games and ordered.

I’m glad I did.

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Near end game conditions

Component-wise, the game is not very fancy. Printed by Blue Panther, the same company that provided POD for Hollandspiele, the two maps (8.5″x11″ Strategic Map and 11″x17″ East Falklands Map) and 88 counters (nice and thick that punch out neatly) make for a fairly small gaming footprint. If necessary, a small 3″x3″ card table could be used.

Rules-wise, the game is procedural, like I guess most every solo game is. the difference I found in Mrs. Thatcher’s War is that between the procedures there is enough player-choice to keep it interesting. My thoughts by phase include:

A. Appreciate the Situation – The weather is very important, making this first roll an item of major interest. Will you be able to fly? Or will the entire turn be skipped in Gales? Do you have an SAS Raid this turn? If yes, what target and when will they return for another raid?

B. Grupos Phase – Seemingly mechanical, until you realize that each Grupos will generate attacking aircraft in places you maybe don’t really want.

C. Task Force Phase – The British player only has a four ships; 2x Carrier and 2x Escort. With these few ships you have to fight off Grupos attacks, sink enemy ships, defend the carriers, supply the landings, and maybe even provide Naval Gunfire Support. Too few assets for too many missions means choices (risk) must be taken. Oh yeah, watch out for Exocet missiles too! Mess up and public opinion (BBC News) drops making the ground war more difficult.

D. Argentine Air Assets Phase – More mechanics, but his step gets the Argentinian aircraft in play. A simple placement mechanic makes the arrival of aircraft both random and sorta realistic.

E. British Air Assets PhaseHarriers arrive to fight battles in the sky.

F. Argentine Junta Plan Phase – More than any other phase, the Junta Phase takes all the set, easily recognizable mechanical procedures and introduces events that mess up all the plans. The Argentine aircraft, carefully placed in Phase D and defended against in Phase E now move around (realistically) into new areas that the British player may not be ready for! Again, too few resources (Harriers) against too many threats (Argentinian aircraft).

G. Air Battle Phase – At first I thought the single d6 resolution mechanic was way too simple. After play I realize it is a speedy way to get believable results of the battle without too much time or rules complexity.

H. Ground War Phase – The war may be on the ground but naval forces (like Escorts for supply) and aircraft (for Air Superiority) are important to the troops. Even the Ships Taken Up From Trade (STUFT) is important bemuse that is where your helicopters are – or not. This is also where the pressure in the game comes from; the Landing at San Carlos can be no earlier than Turn 7 and the game ends on Turn 19. You have to get the troops ashore and moved across East Falklands before the game ends. Helicopters help, but you must be ready to Yomp your way across the island if necessary.

I. Logistics/Invasion Phase – This is definitely an administrative phase with a reset of the game state for the next turn. The News Headlines Table is the random events action. If there was one part I disliked it was the repetitive nature of the News Headlines. Or maybe I just don’t roll random enough?

J. End of Turn – Lather, rinse, repeat.

Bias. I don’t think anyone will accuse Mr. Madison of being neutral in designing this game. My cover prominently carries the “Banned in Argentina” banner. This title unabashedly depicts a British view of the war with just a few good nods to the Argentinians. That said, even though Ben Madison repeatedly criticizes the Argentinians, he also points out the foibles of the British too. That is not to say the game is rigged for the British player; rather, the game places the player squarely in the role of the Task Force Commander who must use naval and air power to deliver troops to East Falkland and execute a land campaign – before the clock runs out.

Final Call. On July 4, 1982, as Task Force Commander Admiral Sandy Woodward lowered his flag, he signaled:

As I haul my South Atlantic flag down, I reflect sadly on the brave lives lost, and the good ships gone, in the short time our trial. I thank whole heartedly each and every one of you for your gallant support, tough determination and fierce perseverance under bloody conditions. Let us all be grateful that Argentina doesn’t breed bulldogs and, as we return severally to enjoy the blessings of our land, resolve that those left behind for ever shall not be forgotten. (Admiral Sandy Woodward, One Hundred Days: The Memoirs of the Falklands Battle Group Commander, ix.)

No wargame can recreate a war perfectly, but Mrs. Thatcher’s War does a better-than-average job of delivering the pressures of this short, little war to the game table. Like I stated at the beginning, I don’t usually like solo games but Mrs. Thatchers War has just enough player choice to keep it interesting in the midst of the mechanical actions. Most importantly, the mechanics of the game and choices create a narrative of events that seem both plausible and believable.