Wednesday, 23 December 2015

Why do Aerial Wargames Suck?

I own quite a few aerial rules, and a quite embarrassing number of 1:600 aircaft (a surprising number of them painted; they're rather easy and fun to decorate).  But I rarely play - there's always something in the various rules that mars my enjoyment. 

They don't even have to be hardcore historical.  I'd love to have pulp games where 1930s or 1946 weird fighters landed on Sky Captain/Avengers style flying carriers, or Yukikaze-style modern jets flying through a wormhole to duel in alien skies. Sky pirates, Crimson Skies style.  Dogfights amongst Last Exile style flying battleships.   Campaigns interest me - be it a squadron of Flying Tigers, a Battle of Britain squadron or a rag tag bunch of sky pirates, I'd like to see aircrew develop and be replaced, Mordheim-style.  

Here's some of the games I own.  They range from WW1 to modern jets.  I'm going to go through and check/re-read my collection again in the next week, but here are my offhand recollections. 

You've probably heard of....
Check Your Six
(+) Great scenarios
(+) Consistent and sensible mechanics
(-) Few planes per player (1 or 2, 4 at best)
(-) Written order/guess (pretty much old school Canvas Eagles/Blue Max)

Bag the Hun
(+) Card activation adds uncertainty
(+) Spotting and blinds are important
(+) Movement is not precise
(-) Eccentric assortment of houserules rather than consistent mechanics
(-) Weird abstraction of height/formation
(-) Planes are very same-y
(-) Damage overcomplicated

Algernon Pulls It Off
Same comments as Bag the Hun, only even more chaotic and irritating.

C21: Air War
(+) Good selection of aircraft
(+) Handles decent amount of planes/plays quickly
(-) No altitude(!); this is the wrong thing to abstract!

Wings of War/Wings of Glory
(+) Card based movement is interesting
(-) Guessing game mechanics
(-) Expensive/stat cards required i.e. "decks" for aircraft
(-) Only 1-2 planes per side

 Hands up to those who remember Crimson Skies?  
But never mind pulp air wargames, ANY good aerial wargame will do...

A bit more left field....
Luftwaffe 1946
(+) Whacky pulp planes
(+) Handles more planes (8-12?)
(-) Track moves from turn to turn; too many altitude levels (24)
(-) Pilot skill merged with plane performance/shonky stats

Luft Krieg
(+) Too many altitude levels
(+) Handles similar quantities of planes as Luftwaffe 1946
(-) Overcomplicates DP9s usually good damage/spotting

Sturmovik Commander
(+) Free
(+) Handles 8-12 aircraft
(+) Lots of aircraft choices
(-) Reminds me a little of Imperialis Aeronautica, but has written orders 



Mach/Mig Hunters
(+) handles decent amount of planes
(+) Sensible damage system
(-) Lots altitude levels (?20) or none; + speed recorded

Scramble!
(+) Blinds like Bag the Hun
(+) Very complete toolbox
(-) Dense, hard to read rules
(-) More complex end of spectrum without offering anything amazing

Wing at War (Tumbling Dice)
(+) Free demo
(+) Best energy management
(+) Handles more planes
(+) Clever victory conditions
(-) Energy managment needs 2 dice to track/a bit complex?
(-) Game is so bare bones it makes a skeleton look plump/poor differentiation between planes

Angels 20
(+) Quick to play, handles 4-6
(-) Issues with initiative; tail chasing/all plane too agile

I've heard of, but either don't have or can't recall....
 
AH's Flight Leader (OOP), Speed of Heat (too pricey), Birds of Prey (too complex, too slow); Fox Two Reheat (same guys as Scramble!) - also, I have in general dismissed any board games as the buy-in is too high to merely "test" a rules set on someone's say-so. 

 So, after all those games, what are you looking for?

*Pilot skill paramount
*However, planes SHOULD be differentiated i.e. P47 dive, Fw190 roll rate, Zero wing loading/turn
*Spotting important - most fights won without the other side even seeing them; obviously this is not overemphasized as it isn't too much fun, dying before you can react; but it's an important element
*Energy management - trading of height for speed and vice versa; extreme maneuvers bleeding off energy
*Represents chaos of dogfight; no "tail chasing" where players take turns being on tail/shooting
*Does not require stat cards etc (a la Wings at War) + unit builder for balancing scenarios
*Can track stuff without expensive fancy bases or (preferably) hex maps
 *No written orders or guessing game mechanics; consistent mechanics
*Minimal record keeping/fast to play - a game about high speed dogfights should play fast; preferably no hitpoints
*Allow to handle a decent amount of planes (or I'd simply play a PC flight sim)
*Inexpensive (not a boardgame?)
*Campaign system to allow the players to "run" a squadron

Like naval (and to a degree, space) combat, aerial games seem to resist the innovation sweeping through wargaming; many rules are just a re-polish of rules from the 70s.  Is aerial combat just too complex a topic to be successfully shown in a wargame?

Aerial wargames, for me, invariably fall into what I call the  "PC Game/Tabletop Overlap." Sometimes I'm playing a PC game and I think  "this might as well be a tabletop game" or  "I'd love a tabletop version of this"  -  other times, the opposite is true - when playing tabletop games like, Star Fleet Battles, Battletech, most age of sail and aerial games, I think: "I'd be better off playing this on PC."   Often (in the case of Battletech) this is to do with recording - i.e. who really enjoys tracking all those damage boxes in Battletech?  Other times, I prefer big battles between big blocks of troops (ancients, Napoleonics) on PC so to avoid tedious painting.  But other times, I feel that the rules for the genre simply aren't particularly good or enjoyable.

Perhaps my tastes have changed - maybe I'll find an aerial wargame I enjoy; after years of giving up on the genre.  Maybe I will finally find one to my taste.   Do you have any favourites you recommend that might meet most of the criteria?

But here's a broader question - are there any good aerial wargames, really? Are aerial duels a genre that are by nature ill-suited to the tabletop?

45 comments:

  1. I have very fond memories of TSR's Dawn Patrol. It was billed as an RPG but there are no RPG elements other than tracking your pilot's success in the battle. As I recall, it had pilot skill, altitude, variability among planes (like the Sopwith Camel being able to turn sharper right due to it's engine mount) and a beautiful critical hit table. What I don't remember is whether it would make the transition to tabletop very well. I'll see what I can dig up.

    I take it you never played Crimson Skies, the game? It has hit boxes to keep track of AND horribly complicated movement rules. Such a shame - the PC game was great, though.

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    1. You stole my suggestion. We loved Dawn Patrol back in high school, but its been so long since I've played it that I can't remember how many planes you can control. If I recall correctly, and I probably don't, we never played dogfights with more than a half dozen planes per side (1-2 per player max).

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    2. I suspect it falls into the Canvas Eagles/Blue Max genre (of which CY6 is derived) - one of those 70s originals everyone is still copying.

      Many of those games are what I call "convention game" style - 12 planes, yes, but 1 player per plane....

      Dawn Patrol does have a cultishly devoted website...

      http://www.dawnpatrol.info/

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    3. By the way, I do have lots of Crimson Skies clix but lost the rules. I recall both it and the original rules were hideous.

      Minis still available, albeit not cheap
      http://ironwindmetals.com/store/index.php?cPath=14

      $13 is X-Wing style expensive - yikes!

      I have lots of 1:300 "what if" 1946+ prop planes which also work well (and are cheaper).

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  2. The old Mustangs and Messerschmidts game would have filled a lot of that build, except when it came to the flight stands which were a pain to build and to keep calibrated correctly to reflect the different turning arcs. Oh and P47s roll almost as well as FW190, nothing like the torque from a radial engine.

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    1. Again, I think that is a 1 person, 1 plane game. That's not really a wargame... more a "duel"

      Might as well play a PC game.

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    2. I would question the ability to easily handle multiple aircraft if you are going to manage altitude and energy though. The complexity goes up quite quickly at that point.

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    3. In my experimenting it's very difficult to maintain speed of play. It's just a complex topic not well suited to tabletop.

      It's not helped by the fact (a) almost everyone goes the same design route (b) perhaps we are not abstracting enough of the right things; i.e. if we are a squadron or flight leader do we really control things in such detail?

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  3. I note your observation that air games have not advanced, or evolved, much since the 1970's. I corresponded for a while with someone who played the Battleline / Avalon Hill Airforce and Dauntless boardgames with 1/144 miniatures, and considered this the best system he had ever played, (having an almost exclusive interest in air warfare, he seemed to have tried most of them). One he owned, but hadn't yet tried was a game called Black Cross / Blue Sky. This is a very expensive boardgame (about £70 in the UK) largely because of the sophisticated flight stands, which can be adjusted for altitude. The aircraft are represented by card cut-outs in the shape of the aircraft - all from the Battle of Britain, though there is a supplement for the Polish and French campaigns - but can be replaced by miniatures (1/300 I think). You can find a very informative and wildly enthusiastic video review on BGG by the effervescent Marco Arnaudo (summary: "I love this game! I love it!"

    I believe it derived from a set of miniatures rules of the same name, published in the 90's, though I have not been able to locate a copy. However, there was also a version for the early Pacific campaigns called Red Sun / Blue Sky, which can be found on eBay (historymakinggames). I recently bought a copy, though have yet to read it. It was not very expensive - though postage from Canada is another matter, unless you add other items to the order, as I did, and - ironically, in this instance - opt for surface mail.

    Here's a link to the above-mentioned review on YouTube:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z11O4fJy1Ao

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  4. "Often (in the case of Battletech) this is to do with recording - i.e. who really enjoys tracking all those damage boxes in Battletech?"

    Answer is: BattleTech Fans! ;)
    BT is BT. Thats all! Detailed mechanics (bogged, clunky? :D) with huge data cards and ugly old school minis ;).
    We love this game like an ugly but very smart child ;).

    Greets!

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    1. Nostalgia goggles - the view while wearing them is so rosy!

      I recently got out my rules and data cards, having considered rebasing some BT:Dark Age clix... ....read them, then quietly put them back again...

      That said, it is a game with a consistent fan base. It's got a lot to like; if it could use simpler, Warmachine-sized hitboxes/stat cards it would be a winner.

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    2. Did You hear about Alpha Strike rules? It is simplified BT rules (one Armor line and Structure line) designed specifically for large battles using a lot of minis and large terrain. Its included a lot of special rules and equipment and some campaign rules. Also AS Companion provides a lot of advanced rules and advanced Repair, Supply and Salvage rules for long range campaigns.

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    3. Yeah. Sadly they "simplified" away most of the things that made Battletech special.

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  5. You should contact Nick at Fen Edge Wargaming site; he's developing a set of Diesel Punk air wargaming rules with Too Fat Lardies; go here:
    http://fenedgewargaming.co.uk/wp/?page_id=1294

    I stumbled across it when looking at his 'Full Neff' rules:
    http://fenedgewargaming.co.uk/wp/?page_id=1698

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  6. Well, with the home brew rules found on the Airspace forum I am a big fan of Aeronautica Imperialis. They add in an XP system. The only thing I think it needs is a spotting mechanic/improved Xwing style initiative. I typically play it without the fancy bases and just use 10 sided dice on a side board.

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  7. Given your reservations about the viability of a board game meeting your requirements, you may not have taken my suggestion to investigate Black Cross / Blue Sky very seriously (assuming my history of comments on the blog had not already guaranteed this). In either event, I humbly offer the following quote from the BGG summary:

    "The result is a game system which allows a huge number of aircraft to be easily handled without the tedium of written orders."

    On the other hand, concerns about the cost are unlikely to be mollified by the following sentence:

    "Multiple sets can be combined to allow large games that are limited only by the space provided by the players."

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    1. Yes,the price is offputting.

      However, now my fading memory has kicked in: it is apparently the same system as Luft 1946 (a game I've got and reviewed see link/summary on it above). Here's a link where I discussed it back in my last "aerial wargame" phase a few years back:

      http://theminiaturespage.com/boards/msg.mv?id=228772

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    2. ....i.e. Black Cross/Blue Sky = Red Sun/Blue Sky = Luftwaffe 1946

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  8. Richthofen's War by AH was a lot of fun. Check Your Six! would be great but without the written orders. I really like Air War:C21. I'm good with lack of altitude. I have a lot of friends who don't game or are locked into Games Workshop mode. Compared to other rules it's easy to explain.

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    1. CY6 is simply a copy of an older game (Canvas Eagles/Blue Max? can't recall?) with a bit more polish.

      I do like C21 - it and Bag the Hun are the few air games that have actually got some play time; but while it ticks a lot of boxes for me, yes, the altitude thing is a big jarring. It's like space combat without vector movement... kinda misses the point.

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    2. "Check Your Six! would be great but without the written orders."

      Thanks for this! I'm actually going with this idea.

      I'm using the 'theory' behind it (stripping out charts, and written orders - surprisingly easy) as it is in a way similar to WaW with how it models energy.

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  9. The designer's website, which, after numerous spotting failures, I have just located, is www.blueskygameworks.com.

    This is important if you want to order the flight stands on their own. There are also some 'converters' for using miniatures rather than the counters which come with the board game.

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  10. I have a lot of sympathy for your argument. It's exactly why I find the whole X-Wing Star Wars type games to be so irritating, because they are 20th century air combat games with some chrome. Like Chris, I am old enough to remember Richtofen's War and for a hex game, it did the job. Another game of that era that was GDW's Blue Max, which also had a simultaneous movement system. The thrill of BM was picking damage chits from a cup, and there was always a chance that you'd draw the pilot killed marker which pretty much ended the game.
    Today I am only interested in strategic level games about air combat. Plane to plane games for me are like man to man skirmish games. Fun, I suppose, but you don't really learn anything.

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    1. Ah, you belong to the "we enlighten ourselves by playing with toys" school of thought. (Isn't that the view TFL espouse?) Whilst I think historic games should tend to reflect historic tactics and not be a fantasy game in disguise (cough Bolt Action cough), I don't quite go that far.

      X-Wing is (from my limited experience with it) pretty much a 20th century air combat game, which I guess is fair enough if it is attempting to simulate the Star Wars-modelled-on-Battle of Britain footage....

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    2. Yes, I'd say that pretty much describes my approach to historical games. Some of my gaming time lately has gone into Middle Earth, modifying TFL rules for that setting, though I am also looking at Dragon Rampant. The goal of that is just play, I suppose, enjoyable recreation that captures the excitement I had when I first read Tolkien or played D&D. Not much learning there. However, if I am playing an air war game, I suppose I want to learn something of what it was like to fly a biplane over Flanders in 1917, though that is more a type of role-playing, I think, then historical simulation. Wanting to fly an X-Wing against TIE fighters would have more to do for me about recapturing the thrill of seeing the first Star Wars film in 1977, while the adult part of my mind recognized, as you say, that the film was indebted to BOB footage.

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  11. Black Cross / Blue Sky is actually even more expensive than I thought, at over £75 plus postage (and, at that price, insurance). I'd almost made up my mind to finally bite the bullet, but on reading the Luftwaffe 1946 review, I see there is no provision in the system for pilot quality, which seems a curious omission. I remain on the fence for the time being.

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    1. There are half a dozen traits (aka special abilities) which allow some pilot customisation but it does not pervade the rules like say CY6, BtH or pretty much every other rule set

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    2. My 10c - If you can be content with 2v2, I'd go CY6. If you want to use more (and don't mind the TFL style) BtH probably best.

      You seem to get getting a lot of rulebooks of late. Is this a recent spurt of wargaming enthusiasm?

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  12. Bag the Hun sounded a bit messy from my reading of your review, and I believe you mentioned a lack of differentiation between aircraft types, which really killed off my interest in it. I haven't really got on with the TFL rules I've read, or attempted to, Sharpe Practice being a case in point; for some reason it just didn't come together in my head as I read it. (I've just discovered a revised, 'streamlined' edition is due next year; whether this will help matters in my case remains to be seen).

    I may well consider CY6, if it's playable solo. As I also buy board games on occasion - I own Air Force, the Avalon Hill game of 1970's vintage, but haven't played it - I have more choice in theory, but the only relatively recent design for WWII which has caught my interest is the Fighting Wings series, and I've strongly considered the latest iteration, Whistling Death, but some of the rules discussion I've read on BGG suggests its complexity might not appeal to me in practice. (I used to own - and play, to a limited extent, the same designer's first jet warfare game, Air Superiority, so I ought to be able to handle his other designs, I suppose, but then I'm a lot older now).

    The last air game I bought was GMT's Night Fighter, quite recently, but as yet unplayed. The designer, Lee Brimmicombe Wood, is an air warfare specialist, but has not, to my knowledge, designed an all-purpose tactical game (I'd be most interested to know why). His latest game, Wing leader, as you may know, represents large formations of bombers and fighters in side-on perspective to emphasise altitude. Each counter represents a squadron, I believe, so the manoeuvres of individual aircraft are not relevant. It appears to be an excellent design - as all his games are, as far as I can see - but, as with the others, it occupies a specific niche, leaving the field for fighter v fighter games still open.

    As for my recent rules purchases, this is a highly pertinent question, I must admit. I was going to discuss it with my therapist, but you'll do, particularly as you are partly responsible, as I've discovered a lot of rules here, and - still better - much useful discussion of both the ones that were new to me and others I was already aware of to one degree or another. This has prompted me to, shall we say, fill in 'gaps' in my collection...? (Though as many of those gaps were previously unidentified, or even suspected, another term may have to be found before long. I don't believe I've mentioned my most recent aquisition, Mayhem, which was entirely attributable to your review, though I seem to recall that I found this blog while searching for reviews of The Battlefield, which I have yet to buy, but fully intend to).

    I've also bought a few RPG books, apart from Solomon Kane, which have even less likelihood of being put to any practical use than the wargame rules. (I lack not only gaming friends or potential opponents / collaborators but people who even remotely understand my obsession).

    And that's without mentioning the figures. The rules purchases will have to slow down for a while as I'm committed to a large purchase of fantasy figures, primarily more Zenit (for Nemesis rather than Kensei, but usable in other settings, or so I tell myself. Probably not Mayhem, though - for that I'm thinking of Copplestone 15mm, though I normally don't care for the scale).

    To summarise, if I had a personal stat card it would be rather skewed. Enthusiasm: high, perhaps excessive. Discipline: low. Practical application: almost non-existent.

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    1. "This has prompted me to, shall we say, fill in 'gaps' in my collection...? (Though as many of those gaps were previously unidentified, or even suspected, another term may have to be found before long."

      --This makes perfect sense to me. In my more affluent youth I used to collect rules for periods I only had superficial interest in playing...

      --Coincidentally, I have recently been looking at Copplestone 15s for a "caveman riding dirosaurs" game prompted by playing with my 2 year old's toys (I..e "hey this T rex is in 15mm scale...")

      --TFL have improved a lot from their chaotic style - I found thier recent "Chain of Command" very readable in comparison to their usual

      --CY6 is a refined version of the "traditional" air war game. If you belong to the google group, odds are I'll post up a "order-less" version I am experimenting with. That said, I find orders do not exclude solo play. I just hate writing stuff down when I should be swooping models around making pew pew noises.

      --BtH is very different from traditional air games, and worth having if you are a true collector.

      --Word of warning: Mayhem, is, possibly, amongst the worst laid-out books I own. Ingenious design, but terrible layout (not shared by the later Spivey rules which are 100x better). I'm willing to forgive that, but for me the lack of unit builder puts it behind rules it is superior too, gameplay-wise

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    2. Also, BtH works better for early war games. It's late war it seems a bit samey.

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    3. Thanks for those points (and the understanding, though I am neither youthful nor affluent, simply irresponsible). I've read the reviews of both CY6 & BtH, but will return to both. I recall the comment about the lack of differentiation in late-war aircraft in BtH, almost as if their inclusion was an afterthought, which was another factor which put me off it. I suspect it could do with a thorough overhaul to realise the potential it obviously has. CY6 is looking like an impending purchase, however, and I'll definitely be interested in your amendments.

      I'm a bit surprised by your caveat regarding Mayhem: are you sure you don't mean Havoc? I've already bought that, but rather regretted it, for the very reasons you describe. I've read most of it, but found it very difficult to absorb, as well as having some philosophical objections (e.g. a javelin is identical to a pike, a catapult to a cannon). I haven't started reading Mayhem yet, but it certainly looks vastly better. I still need to get Rogue Planet and The Battlefield.

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    4. Duh, yes.

      Havoc = very clever but obscure fantasy skirmish

      Mayhem = clever AND readable mass-battle mix. It's DBA+++

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  13. A quick note on the dangers of inattention: of course, CY6 is hardly likely to be viable for solo play, with its written orders & simultaneous movement, it it? I knew there was a reason I'd dismissed it. On the other hand, I own plenty of games which are equally unsuitable for that purpose, bought and retained in a mood of as yet unfulfilled optimism...

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  14. Nice read. Best (most fun) air-to-air game i ever played was Blue Max by GDW.
    There seems to be an updated variant free on the net: http://www.maxeagles.com/

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  15. You try downloading a copy of the Phantoms jet rules at http://www.wfhgs.com/downloads.html. They are based on the old Avalon Hill Mustangs rules (which can work pretty well for WWII games). They aren't perfect and have some limitations, but they can be pretty fun and the price is right.

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  16. I feel your pain in trying to find a good air war game! CY6 seems to be my buds go-to. It's not a horrible game, but not very exciting either.

    I find my biggest problem with most aerial games is that they are very "head down", you're always looking at charts or rules or counting hexes, but you're not really "flying" your planes. Not that long ago I tried to develop a more "heads up" type game where players were constantly involved in the action and almost never had to look at charts and whatnot, only their plane's stat card. Performance was based on wing-loading and engine performance and research on actual historical performance. Whole problem boiled down to that it worked great for early to mid WW2, but broke down late war when a plane's technical readout didn't really match up with how it actually flew. This led to more stats, which lead to a breakdown in the intended playability. Back to the drawing board!

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    1. "I find my biggest problem with most aerial games is that they are very "head down", you're always looking at charts or rules or counting hexes, but you're not really "flying" your planes."

      Nail on the head. For a fast paced type of warfare there tends to be an awful lot of "resolution" time i.e. chart consultation, order writing and recording.

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    2. It's awfully dang difficult to put on the tabletop something like this, and as you said a good dogfight game is best played on the old computer. Trying to capture all of the nuances with miniatures ends up either too complicated or overly simplified. For instance, I love playing Thud Ridge which has a pretty simple dogfight system with energy management, but it's more for the tactics of the attacks and trying to out think the VN player as opposed to the actual air combat action.

      How can you limit this planing time though? I've tried games where each plan had a timer limit, which still ended up with players going later having a lot of planing time. Might be appropriate for those with more "awareness", but still lends to a slow game.

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    3. I don't mind it if people are agonising over their move - it may indicate GOOD game design where players have many gripping, important decisions.

      Like in Chess, some people naturally take ages, some play quickly - I don't know if we can "solve" their personality quirks.

      All we can do is keep the things that physically slow the game - like having 8 dice rolls to resolve an action, and recording 101 hit locations - to a minimum.

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  17. Have you tried GMT Wing Leader? Wierd 2D side representation, but wonderfull boradgame.

    Alejo

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  18. Late to the party. Avid airgamer for 40+ years...tried lots...disappointed lots.

    I've been working on an aircombat system that is, to my knowledge, completely different in that it does not use the moving/positioning of the models to determine combat (ie: point and shoot) but instead treats combat like a hand-to-hand fight in the way many RPG rules do.

    It is nowhere near being a completed project (and what you can see online is a years-old version) but may be heading towards something that would tick off some of your boxes?

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    1. I think I've come across one that used a similar method (i.e. melee combat style) that used dice pools allocated in various ways to simulate the combat.

      Feel free to link through to your rules or post up on the Delta Vector google group if you want feedback, though. The rules can be pretty "alpha" or "beta".

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    2. hmm...try this again.

      I put a link to an old site in my name...dunno if it works?...and put application in to join the group.

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