Saturday 18 September 2021

Intercept Vector - WIP - Pulp Jet House Rules (2021)

I've often said how discontented I am with aerial wargames. They are usually copies of 1970s boardgames, have guessing games and are universally clunky and awkward, with recording and inconsistent mechanics - everything a game about jets blasting through the skies shouldn't be. C21:Air War (too complex for its simple gameplay, wrong "feel") and Bag the Hun (like most TFL stuff, a chaotic jumble of house rules turned into a game) are the only ones I've tolerated.

This is probably due to the complexity (and 3D nature) of air combat along with a desire to "sim" and micro every aspect of the aircraft - most air wargames work OK when 1 player controls only 1 aircraft, but quickly breaks down when they have to control half a dozen or more. It's also a disconnect in the "level of control" - if you are a squadron leader with 8 planes, you actually don't micro the precise throttle controls of each aircraft. You'd give them general instructions and the pilots would carry them out. Air wargames often attempt to make the gamer both squadron leader and individual pilot and it just doesn't work.

I've always loved 1:600 jets - they are just big enough to be characterful and detailed, and small enough to be extremely cheap, and I have a fair collection, largely from Tumbling Dice.

Why have I labelled these rules "pulp?" Mostly to remind myself not to get bogged with simulating every last detail. Cinematic combat - Ace Combat not DcS. If I want realism I should be playing a PC game where it can easily deal with the minutinae "under the hood." This should be about pushing miniature jets around, pew-pewing and making zooming noises. 

I've mused a few times over aerial wargames - creating a manifesto of rules musings, and revisiting them in 2019.  Trapped in a car trip with kids yesterday, I made some notes in my "game diary" about key features of an aerial wargame - for me at least.

1. Energy Management. The interplay between kinetic (speed) energy; potential (height) energy; and position (maneuvers) vs enemies.

2. Detection. This encompasses both visual and radar detection. 

3. Pilot Skill. This impacts #1 and #2, as well as evading enemy fire and reacting to opponents and dictating the pace of the fight.

I also added in

4. Endurance & Ammo. Many fights were decided when one or both sides ran low on ammunition or fuel

Now, how could I emphasize these factors, in as simple a way as I could?

Pilot Skill 

This is probably the easiest - I could implement using modifiers to evasion, attacks, and increased chance to perform special maneuvers. However I'd also like it to impact initiative and reactions. Initiative means controlling who moves & acts when. Perhaps a good pilot could also roll for extra actions representing his greater calm and focus in combat. I also would like to experiment with my "reaction radius" mechanic from my Delta Vector space rules; in this case, better pilots have a larger AoE ring around them; any enemies entering this can be reacted to; whereas oblivious rookies have a small AoE "reaction radius" - only responding to enemies who are very close.


While I'd like to go with blinds, blips and cards (moving tokens and dummy tokens around the map, only revealing them when "spotted"- I'm probably going to give it the flick, due to all the extra complexity and fiddliness. I'll save that for a submarine game where detection is paramount. Instead, I'll probably assume planes are aware of the rough location of enemies (due to AWACs, ground control etc). "Undetected" planes just have a bonus to initiative - i.e. they can control who moves first and kinda "dictate"the fight (gaining a large advantage) without being invisible Klingons or SSBNs. So detection will be important, but not have huge amounts of complex mechanics devoted to it.

There shouldn't be much to record either - maybe a black counter to indicate if a jet is undetected.

Endurance and Ammo.  

This is the first big problem. Individually tracking missiles, ammo and fuel supplies is, like blips, something that can bog the game down. However I was re-looking through Infinity the other day (as I was thinking the opposed rolls/AROs might be useful for dogfights) and I thought "why not an abstract, shared 'endurance' pool instead of an order pool?"

Basically all jets would contribute their endurance (a mix of fuel and loadout) to a combined "endurance pool" which is shared by all jets, who deduct from the corporate pool as they perform actions that expend notable amounts of ammo or fuel.

 So you look at the aircrafts common loadouts, and add "endurance points"

+1 for each missile

+1 if internal guns

+1 each ~200km of combat radius 

So a MiG-21 (+2 fuel, +1 23mm gun, +4 AAM2s) add 7 endurance to the pool each.

A F-4 Phantom (+3 fuel, +1 20mm gun, +2 AIM9s, +4 AIM7s) each add 10 endurance into the pool.

A flight of 4 MiG21s (28) would have far less endurance than 4 F-4s (40) presuming an equal distance from base.

Jets then "spend"endurance from the communal pool for actions such as

-1 gains energy (uses fuel)

-1 fires missile or gun (-2 if limited gun ammo <250rds; or only 2 missiles of that type carried)

Once a side loses its endurance it cannot perform any more combat actions and will withdraw. This communal endurance would be easily tracked as you could just make a ruler and slide a token along it.

This then allows mission and campaign level decisions where you might be operating far from your base (halve endurance). It would also simple allow campaign balancing; as you win the air war you range further and further from your base (and closer to enemy bases) i.e. the weaker side gets better endurance.

Energy management. 

This is another tricky one. There's always the X-Wing card based style, but I'd like to avoid guessing games and needing to make special templates or cards if I can. I think the success of this will hang on the "initiative system" I choose. We don't want players able to effortlessly move onto one another's tails, and there has to be some chaos in air combat (i.e. only wingmen should be able to reliably co-ordinate).

At the moment I favour a "energy bar" or "stamina bar" a bit like a RPG. This represents the amount of potential (height) and kinetic (speed) energy a plane has, and will be simply high (fast high), medium (fast and low/high and slow/medium-medium), and slow (low, slow) - using a green counter (high) a red counter (low) and no counter (regular). Thanks to Blood Red Skies for helping clarify my thoughts.

I've combined height and speed together due to the high thrust/weight and speed of jets - I probably wouldn't do the same with WW1-WW2 props.

So jets will have a top speed of say 4-12". I've made a list of maneuvers which is the minimal I think I need to represent the majority of air combat maneuvers. Tricky maneuvers will require a piloting test to pull off, or they may not occur quite as the player plans.

As you can see I'm assuming hex based aircraft and the possibility of using a hex map or plain table.

Now energy will impact the choice of maneuvers and both the chance of completing them and the effects of failure. A low energy (red) jet may have -1 to perform tricky maneuvers unless it has, say, a Low Speed Agility trait.  Failing a tight turn or reversal at low energy may result in a crash. 

I'm considering allowing an "On the Deck" option - pilots at regular energy can deliberately fly at high speeds at treetop height to evade enemies but risk crashing in exchange for being hard to hit. Maybe they get a bonus if they have a Terrain Following Radar trait or similar.

Additionally, high energy jets may opt to go "Supersonic" - limiting them from high-G tricky maneuvers but allowing higher speed sprints across the tabletop (and also to disengage freely from the fight).

I like this so far as there are merely red or green counters at the base of the plane; no altitude dice and speed dice, no written orders or complicated unique maneuver charts, or written orders to choose from. It's also simple as everyone shares the same rules.

What now?

OK, now we have a rough frame of the game. We can see where it is going. Obviously we need mechanics for shooting, etc but as usual I don't regard these as important - I'll just pick a simple consistent mechanic that fits the theme - probably d10s so the math doesn't hurt my brain.  For me the outsanding issues to go are detection and initiative

Initiative is probably the biggest issue as it's a bit of a multi-faceted problem.  First, air combat is pretty chaotic, so some randomness is required. However, wingmen should be able to work together ('follow-on''from each others moves, maybe) and better pilots should be able to control the flow of combat (decide when they will act).  I'd also like to consider 'reactions' to enemies who pass in range of jets; as jet combat should be fast and fluid and no one should be sitting around, hovering frozen while other jets shoot at them. The core dice mechanics should probably include some sort of opposed rolls as well.  In addition, the "better pilots do more" - in past homebrew air games I allowed pilots an additional action if they pass a piloting roll - I may do something similar again.

So far I'm pleased at how recording has been kept down - a "endurance ruler" as each player's side of the table, red (low) and green (high) energy tokens, and black (undetected) tokens won't even be used all the time for each plane. Probably a yellow (damage) token will be the sum of all the tokens/recording - which again, will only be used when needed.  Most jets should be "token less" most of the game. Which is good as I hate tabletop clutter almost (but not quite) as much as writing things down.

In the back of my mind I'm thinking 6-8 jets per side, bought in wingmen "pairs"  - I think the game as it stands will handle this without bogging down.  

Whether I finish it or not... well, let's just say I have a new idea for a wargame based on this....


  1. Interesting, I like the idea of the endurance pool. As for initiative I had an idea that I think might work. Say you have a skill 3 pilot, they would roll 3d6. If they roll a 2, 4 and 3, for example they could act on the second, third and fourth segment of a 6 segment turn. In addition, instead of extra actions they could simply subtract a given number from their dice score, allowing them to activate first.

    1. While the dice-as-initiative cards idea is interesting (and I'll certainly bear it in mind for other games), we'd have to record somewhere which turns (e.g. 2,3 and 4) the pilot acts on - or have dice sitting untidily on the table.

      I'm trying to minimize recording and tokens and this would notably increase them. (e.g. guaranteed 3 things to record or sit on table)

    2. Fair enough, still thought the idea was worth mentioning though. Also, you might want to check out Table Air Combat on wargame vault for some ideas. It's got some interesting ideas with energy for different planes, but the turn ruler was the most interesting part to me. They have 1 plane(The Spitfire, I think) for free, and the rest cost $2 or something.

    3. The idea is very cool - a kinda randomised impulse mechanic (Star Fleet Battles) which gives it almost a card based feel. Certainly storing the idea away for later use!

  2. This reminds me. I need to pick-up some Korean War Aircraft from Tumbling Dice.

    I faced similar challenges for my Korean Air Wargame. My design goals were also similar. Like you, I also tried to simplify the "flying" and focus on the action. It is interesting to read how different our solutions ended up.

    For pilot skill, I tried to use action economy as the differentiator. Detection impacted how and when you got to "deploy". Ammo was a simple roll. Endurance was a hard cap on scenario length. Energy management I made extreme simplifications too, assuming all aircraft are going at "combat" speed. I kept in three levels of altitude to highlight the dogfight in Korea evolved into a more vertical axis and not a horizontal access as compared to WWII.

    1. I considered old school 90s "action points" for my pilots but I kinda have it already (1-2 actions, + reaction rolls) to differentiate. I may make simple maneuvers free and make the tricky ones cost an action - so a bad pilot can shoot or do a tricky maneuver but not always both.

      I ditched altitude for energy due to the thrust:weight of modern jets making it easier to lump them together. If it was WW2 (and probably Korea) I'd likely keep speed and altitude separate.

      My rule was - what instructions could a squadron or flight leader give? He wouldn't micromanage an individual pilot's throttles and precise speeds/AoA but he would say "dive" or "break left" so that is the level of commands pilots can be given.

      Was Korea more a vertical axis because of the planes, or rather was it the tactics of each side?

    2. I did consider a hard cap endurance and out-of-ammo dice rolls but I decided endurance needed to be made part of the decision process - endurance in particular can dictate tactics (Battle of Britain/Bomber Command) and make other aircraft more useful (F4 long range vs short range MiG21 attributes). High endurance aircraft can sling missiles and burn high G moves readily while low endurance ones face tougher decisions.

      Not criticising of course - just explaining why I am trying to make endurance/ammo a bigger part of the game than you might think at first glance.

  3. In Korea, the Vertical access was an adoption of tactics that best fit the new Jet aircraft that were available.

    I think your solutions are good and that is what I find so interesting. My ammo check is more to "discourage" fishing for crits and instead keep your powder dry until you have a "good" kill. However, rockets and machine guns were still the order of the day in Korea. No idea how I would approach it differently for missile based combat.

    I really like the idea of using Endurance as more of a War Clock approach and a pool. I like resource management as a mechanic, and your pool fits that nicely.

    I also am not enamored with my solution of using action economy for pilot skill. Perhaps activation method like X-wing is a better way to go. I also think you are doing a better job integrating wingmen than my approach did.

    Thanks, I think I need to go axe some stuff and re-think a few things.

  4. I'm quite against old school AP for any game, as it's contrary to my personal aim of cutting down actions to break up turns into smaller chunks.

    I.e. elite 4AP, veteran 3AP, etc. I don't even like having TWO guaranteed actions i.e MOVE + SHOOT let alone 4. In a plane game, the extra actions can be excessive (unless you go the BtH route where better pilots actually CAN move farther). It just gives off clunky 90s RPG vibes.

    My current idea is each pilot has 1 action, which is only needed for serious concentration i.e. firing guns or doing a loop. Simple maneuvers are free (i.e. I assume a trained pilot can do a shallow turn or climb or keep a plane straight without much mental load).

    If the wargamer is in control of 4-8 aircraft, he should not be bogged down piloting each with precise detail. It's bad micro from both a game sense and from a realism sense.

  5. Yeah, in my old version I had a phase for all pilots, a phase that only Experienced/Ace pilots could perform in, and a phase only aces could perform in.

    I decided to go back and remove that, and instead give them more ability to maneuver as an Ace than as a Rookie. This limited scope of actions should have the desired effect and is really simple to implent in rules and on the table.

    I also like the assumption around trained pilots being able to do X without the player having to micromanage it. That can be fun in some games, and I have a space mecha game I am working on with extremely complex maneuver elements. However, for the Korean War I did not want to go that route, I wanted to challenge myself and go the other direction and strip out the "flying the plane" element of the game.

  6. I would love to see a battle report on this similar to the one you did with your tank game, by the way.

  7. In keeping with detection helping with initiative/dictating the fight, could being undetected increase you AoE reaction ring or decrease the enemy AoE reaction ring or something along those lines?