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

Dining on #wargames – First Impressions of Table Battles (@Hollandspiele, 2017)

Truth be told, I am a 20th century or modern-era wargamer. Most of the wargames in my collection are World War II or later. Knowing that factoid it would seem that Table Battles (Hollandspiele, 2017) should not interest me since the battles range from The Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485 to The Battle of Brooklyn Heights in 1776. More importantly, the publisher’s blurb makes Table Battles not even really come across as a wargame:

Here is something new and exciting, something completely unlike any other game on your table. Table Battles is a thinky filler, a light dice game that nevertheless will have you scratching your chin and agonizing over your decisions. It reduces armed conflict to its essentials, to the absolute universal truths behind all battles: the threat of force and its application. It’s about leverage, about feints and counterfeints, threats and counterthreats, about creating openings and then going for the jugular, about leaving openings and springing a trap.

I picked up Table Battles in the 2018 Hollandays Sale and I am very glad I did. What designer Tom Russell claims to be a simple “thinky filler” and “light dice game” is actually a very fun, yet thematic, wargame of older battles that looks good on the table, is easy to learn and play, delivers a believable history of the battle, and makes you think really hard!

Presentation

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Set Up for The Battle of Marston Moor (2 July 1644) – Royalist in Blue and Parliamentarians in Red

To an old hex & counter grognard like myself, Table Battles appears heretical. I mean, it uses cards for formations, little wooden sticks for unit strength, and to attack you place dice on those Formation Cards instead of rolling them against a Combat Results Table. It doesn’t even use a map – you literally play on your tabletop. This os not a wargame, but a new-age wargame-Eurogame (weuro?).

Playability

The rules for Table Battles take up a whole four-pages of double-column type. The rules are easy to learn; most of what is needed is already on the cards. The rule book explains the Flow of Play (or Sequence of Play to this old grognard) and the definitions of what the iconography or text on the cards mean. The game can literally be taught in five minutes or less. Each game takes 20 minutes – or less – to play.

Mechanics

Mechanically, Table Battles has two parts each turn. In the Action Phase, a single unit (one Formation Card) can Attack. This might cause an automatic Reaction. Some units can take a special action, such as Bombard or Retire. For any formation to do anything, though, it needs to “be readied” with dice.

The “light dice game” is actually the heart of the game. Each side has six dice. In the Roll Phase players roll dice and can add them to Formation Cards. Each Formation Card has a Dice Area that show what dice can be added. Players can only add dice to one Formation Card in each wing (usually one or two wings).

As that old grognard I was looking for combat ratings and it took me a while to parse what the Dice Area means. It is truly amazing how designer Tom Russell uses the Dice Area to show how capable different units are. In Marston Moor, Cromwell can use Any dice to load up, but other units (often artillery) need a “Straight 4” – or four dice showing sequential numbers – to become readied. Obviously, this means it is much easier to get Cromwell ready while the artillery takes longer!

Once the unit is readied it can attack, but only certain other units. Once a unit is reduced (losses all their sticks-of-strength) it becomes Routed. When units Rout the player losses one of their precious Morale Cubes to the other player. If a player losses all their Morale Cubes, or enough of the enemy units have Routed that they do not have a formation able to attack any of your units, that player wins. Simple. Direct.

Historical Flavor

If one is looking for in depth analysis of warfare in this era then Table Battles will disappoint. However, if one is looking for a simple look at the units involved, their relative strengths and weaknesses, and a somewhat high-level take on a battle, then Table Battles will more than suffice.

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Royalist defeat at Marston Moor. An earlier Bombard by Parliamentarian Artillery took one Morale Cube and the Rout of the Whitecoats- brought up from Reserve when Tiller’s Right had to Retire – by Manchester completes the victory.

Like the historical Battle of Marston Moor my game resulted a Royalist defeat. Although my game ended pretty much as history did, I also see great replay potential in each game. Just because the battle goes one way does not mean it will always go the same, if for no other reason than the Dice Gods will play havoc with the rolls in the next game.

Support

Hollandspiele has two expansions for Table Battles for sale, Table Battles Expansion No. 1: War of the Roses and Table Battles Expansion No. 2: Age of Alexander. If you have the inclination, the base game and expansions are also available as print-n-play through WargameVault.com. Tom is also very active on the BoardGameGeek forums for Table Battles and questions are usually answered very quickly.

Bottom Line

Although designer Tom Russell likes to call Table Battles a light-thinky-filler-dice game he actually has designed a very simple, yet elegant, small waro/weuro that challenges players to focus on the fundamentals of combat. Although some might call the dice mechanic too swingy, it actually fairly represents the fog of war and reflects the different efforts it takes to get units into battle. Yes, Table Battles uses dice. Yes, Table Battles plays in as short “filler” amount of time. But Table Battles is very “thinky” and a legitimately challenging wargame for grognards old and new.