Tuesday 16 January 2018

Game Design #74: Why Aerial Wargames Suck

A bit of a clickbait title, but this is a genre which I feel has seen very few good rule sets.  Contrast this to the plethora of decent WW2/modern platoon+ level rules, for example.

Perhaps there is something about aerial wargames that does not adapt well to wargaming (I feel age of sail also suffers from this).  I'll highlight a few issues.

First, it's not like we have a lot of good rules to choose from. Most rules are simply rebadged mechanics from the 1970s. Check Your Six is a good example of this.  It's more polished than its ancestors, but still has unwieldy mechanics (add firepower dice - say 8 x d6, total them up, then consult a chart, roll 2d6 and add modifiers, to see final damage - just so clunky). And it has written orders, ffs. This is aerial dogfights, not 1970s Napoleonics brigade level wargames.  I want to move model Mustangs around making pew pew noises, not be writing C12+H1 or whatever.  Bag the Hun at least tries to be different with card activation, but has the usual 101 different mechanics and chaos of a Lardies ruleset. Also, planes moving double speed because they are in formation or at a higher altitude just feels wrong.  I know it's meant to show the tactical advantage, but a Spitfire moving twice as far as a 109 in a game turn because it is in formation is just... jarring.

Many aerial games are designed for 1v1 or 2v2 duels. That's not a wargame - that's a cardgame or boardgame! If you rocked up at my house, handed me a single 40K model and said "OK, get one model each, let's play a wargame"...   ... I would likewise decline to admit we are wargaming.  I'd say Wings of War (the grandaddy of X-Wing) falls into this category.  Some aerial games seemed designed for exhibition games where there are 10+ gamers, and everyone flies a single plane. For the average gamer, good luck arranging a 10-a-side air wargame every week. Finally, if I want to fly a single plane, I'd can play one of the many excellent PC games which can do the job immeasurably better and faster and in more detail. 

While I also think, say, space wargames tend to have poor rulesets, at least I can see a way forward.  Use vector movement, for a start - at least then it's not blatantly WW2-naval-in-space.  Dropfleet Commander (with its atmospheric combat, focus on supporting meaningful planetary missions, and use of detection risk v reward) for example, shows innovation in the genre.

But let's do our best. What are some issues with aerial wargames? How could we fix them?

Well, I think the primary focus is energy management - trading height/speed for position against an enemy. So generally you need to track height and energy - I do this using d6 (for energy) of different colours (for height).  Even this simple tracking adds to the "time cost" of moving a single plane.

Another key issue is pilot skill - this is probably more important in terms of initiative (who moves when) but always letting better pilots move last or whatever removes much of the chaos from a dogfight and makes it easy to game the system. You can randomise this with dice rolls or cards but there is more "time cost" added.

I feel aerial wargames which handle larger quantities of planes fall into a bit of a trap; it's the old "wrong command level" or "excess micromanagement" where in, say a WW2 company game, you the gamer (the company commander) might position individual models...   ...where a real company commander would not be bothering himself with individuals, but at most "two levels down" - his platoons, and perhaps squads.

If you do have say 8 planes - what role are you, the gamer, taking? Squadron leader? Then why are you steering each individual pilot and choosing their exact positions, maneuvers and throttle settings?  That's something no squadron commander could do, especially once battle is joined.

But...   ...you're making up arbitrary rules to define what "aerial wargaming is."  I don't think it's unfair to suggest a 1v1 game is a duel, not a wargame. It's not unreasonable to suggest most wargames involve 4+ maneuver units. Interestingly, 4-8 units is about what most commanders control in real life. If you are playing Napoleonics and each player had a single troop block, it's not really a wargame.  You'd just push them together and roll dice. 

Okay, so how can we fix this? Abstraction vs Detail.

I'm wondering how much we can abstract. Remember abstraction is good is it retains the same effect, while cutting out the "time cost" and "complexity."   You can abstract too far, though - I remember playing a squadron-level game where it was simply "range bands" in which you rolled dice contests - without any need for a table, terrain or models at all.

Do we need altitude?
If it's trading energy for position - could we simple say any non-combat, straight line flight was "gaining energy."  Whether you are accelerating in level flight, or climbing for height/stored energy, it's a net gain.  Turns, change of facing and dogfighting is an "energy loss" of varying amount.  Adding extra speed (diving) could also be spending energy. (Speed and energy are not the same thing)  C21:Air War does away with altitude (with jets, this seems more feasible) and Blood Red Skies seems to simplify altitude into an "advantaged/disadvantaged" states.

Should we actually plot the precise moves of each aircraft?
How big are these hexes?  How long is the turn?  What if we just pushed two planes together (like a melee in ground rules) and said they were "dogfighting?"  Are we the  pilot, a flight leader, a squadron leader - what should we be controlling?

What about a dice pool to represent the pilot's multitasking ability?  Here's a random idea of a movement/combat mechanic to show you what I mean:

Gain Energy
Aircraft may move between half and their total "energy" (noted by a d6) in movement, and get a free 60d turn at the end of the move.  If they only do this, they gain one energy. This represents straight line movement or slight climbing.

Spend Energy
You must move 1 hex forward before turning. Any extra 60d turn beyond the free one mentioned, costs 1 energy, and any 120 or 180 pivot costs 2-3.  You can dive and spend 1 energy to move an extra hex (beyond your actual energy).   So as you can see, energy can be swapped for turning ability, more speed... or better dogfighting (see below)

Any time two planes are in adjacent hexes they are dogfighting. They get 1 free d6 if they are facing their opponent, and +1d6 each energy they spend.  Winning the dogfight means they can make 1 attack roll for their margin of success, and may turn their plane 60d to face their opponent if they are not already.

What are you doing here?
Okay, the example I did might be poorly illustrated, and might fail in practice, but can you see how I'm trying to remove the maneuver charts and complexity.   I've abstracted all the precise maneuvers from CY6 or BtH.  Moving individual aircraft would be easy, but there would still be decisions (do I spend energy to turn or move further; or save energy up to last longer in a dogfight; planes starting a dogfight with lower energy will get less rolls and run out sooner etc etc)

Look at the Big Picture
I'm not saying my solution is even a good one; I'm just showing how I'm trying to explore beyond the usual mechanics.  Pushing models together like a skirmish melee and claiming they are "dogfighting" may seem weird; where's the "tailing" and complex Immelmans and maneuver sequences we are used to from our usual Blue Max ripoffs?  But does my "napkin sketch" idea focus on energy management? Yes, it does.

What I'm trying to say, is I feel aerial wargames are re-using the same mechanics, and are very limited. We need to get away from traditional mechanics, and look for solutions/mechanics based on the key issues, not simply re-using things for the sake of tradition.  I'd like to start from scratch, not using another set of aerial rules as a guide. Get right out of the box.  What if you used Infinity as the basis for an aerial wargame? Could it be used to emphasize energy management and pilot skill?  What about the old impulse tracks from Star Fleet Battles - could we make a 8-impulse chart? Or would this slow things even worse?

This design process isn't easy - aerial wargames are, I think, inherently more complex than most other genres, as it is in a 3D realm, with an element of resource management (height/energy) attached by default to each unit - tracking this automatically adds to the time cost/complexity.   Using more than a few aircraft per side leads easily to the "wrong command level" trap where the gamer is micromanaging too much - yet managing only one aircraft either makes for a bland game or limits its appeal; most gamers, in something as niche as aerial wargames, have lots of plane models and few gaming friends; more common than the situation with 10+ gaming friends all wanting to play planes with only one model each...   ..and I feel 1-model-per-player leads to unfavourable comparisions with PC games such as the free War Thunder or $5 for IL-2 Sturmovik.

I'd love to see a set of aerial wargames rules made with someone with fresh eyes, who build a game based around their philosophy of air combat, rather than building it in imitation of an Avalon Hill game they played back in '82.


  1. First - the aerial games should not be counted as fixed gendre. I would like to divide them into areas like: WW1/WW2/Jet age/Future and in progress in the future the role of detailed maneuvre is lower and role of detection/stealth/identify is greater.

    Next, as you mentioned, we need to identify the role of the player. Do we REALLY need to carry about momentum or it's pilot task?

    You have to check my "Shadows in the Void": far future offspring of Hind Commander (more mature and perfected anyway). It's not focused on single manouvres: as squadron/wing commander on the bridge of space carrier it's not your task: you have to decide when, how and where engage enemy, how to keep undetected as long as possible and finish your mission. Roll, turn or side-slip? It's pilot job. You need to know where you craft can be after.

    1. Shadows in the Void sounds interesting. I did like Hind Commander and thought it seemed a bit underrated. I kinda gave up, annoyed with my 1:600 choppers (too small, issues w/rotors) rather than the rules. Was not a huge fan of the movement orders, but did like the lock, shooting and damage mechanics, and the idea of a combined arms game.

    2. "Shadows in the Void" has no written orders anymore [thanks to your notes anyway]. And you should try painting 1/600 spacefighters (anyway designed personally by me) - still tiny and very cheap, but effective looking and easy to paint. In "Shadows..." the "Hind Commander" mechanic was completly reworked, changed and improved making much perfected game - a few other published rulesets gave me some experience...

  2. Perhaps choosing the pilot maneuvers is not the right level of command, but I find it really fun. When you combine pilot maneuvers and altitude it requires a very different style of wargame where maneuvers are in 4 dimensions; distance, height, angle, and time. Getting all four to align for multiple aircraft is the fun challenge. Other Wargames are only distance, angle, and time. Therefore, aerial Wargames add a lot to the table.

    I agree though that many games out there do not do this well or remove height in a misguided need for simplicity.

    1. Yes I think aerial games are in a weird spot, with a certain inherent level of complexity/wrong command levels "baked in."

      I was once 100% opposed to removing altitude, but now I'm more open to it (though still not keen); as long as the "energy vs firing solution" is emphasized somehow...

    2. "Perhaps choosing the pilot maneuvers is not the right level of command, but I find it really fun."

      - Facing the challenge of 4D time/motion movement can make for a fun game. It is, however, done by pilots at a reactive/instinctive level based on their training and experience - it is not something done in a deliberate, plotting manner as represented in most/all games that involve the physical movement of the models.

      Such games concentrate on representing/simulating what the aircraft does. How well that goal is met can be used to measure its particular success as a game, but should not be used as a blanket scale to measure all aircombat games.

  3. There are a few genres/periods that, in my mind, are trapped in command levels. Napoleonics, for example. To many gamers, if you don't deploy skirmishers, and show battalions in individual formations, it is *not* Napoleonics. But that severely limits the size of game you can play. Salamanca? Forget about it, unless you have 20 players and a 30 foot table.

    For air games, it is doing the dog fighting that defines the genre. At east for me. And that's why I never play aerial games any more - they are inevitably more accounting than action. And when you take altitude out entirely, it's just flying boats.

    Tracking a variable like energy and having to "spend" it in fighting seems like a sound idea. But without the maneuvers, there's nothing interesting left to the game.

    1. Yes, I agree it is a genre "trapped by command levels" as you say.

      "And that's why I never play aerial games any more - they are inevitably more accounting than action. And when you take altitude out entirely, it's just flying boats." <---this is so true!

      "Tracking a variable like energy and having to "spend" it in fighting seems like a sound idea. But without the maneuvers, there's nothing interesting left to the game."
      --I'm wondering if there's a compromise area (like in my example) where we do not use complex CY6 charts, where planes do move in slow arcs, or if they move tighter they bleed a lot of energy - but the rules are simple, generic and few. I.e. any turn of 120 or 180 is a "reverse" - split S and Immelman lumped together, etc; dogfights are performed by managing energy in a dice pool minigame to add interest, etc.

  4. Very interesting article, a lot of solid points.
    I would love to know what you think of our Lacquered Coffins rules - no pre-plotting (or even hexes)


    I'd be happy to send you a PDF to check out if you're interested, just drop me an email at: thespidersrepublic@hotmail.com

    1. Sure. Is that an IGOUGO game? I.e. each side moves all its aircraft, then the next side does? I think I recall seeing a video of it (are you the guys who did Hind and Seek? I remember thinking the concept looked interesting)

    2. The rules are currently IGOUGO, but we've been playing with activation based on pilot quality (highest quality first) which works nicely for smaller games (less than 20 per side). I will be adding these alternate activation rules in the next update.
      And yes we did Hind & Seek as well :)

  5. Much of what you've asked for I've done...maybe? Mine is -afaik- the only non-'point the model to shoot' game available. All the hassle/worries about how to clean/speed up physically representing maneuvers is done away with by simply not physically representing maneuvers, nor 'freezing' the positions of the aircraft at some arbitrary point in time.

    Additionally, by taking away the precise, chess-like treatment of the aircraft one player can handle a flight (or more) so that two players can have a decent-sized game (-or even play solo). Granted, the player doesn't specifically represent a real commander, but I think that that is true of pretty much every level of game where more than one unit/piece is controlled.

    Some examples of my POV can be seen at http://www.thewargameswebsite.com/forums/topic/100-years-ago/
    Most of those are one-on-one duels, but serve to test/display the concept well enough (imo).

    1. Forgot to mention: The idea of a pilot dice pool for various tasks as well as the method of conducting dogfights in the OP was done (more or less) by Mike Clinton in his 'Watch Your Six' rules.

    2. "All the hassle/worries about how to clean/speed up physically representing maneuvers is done away with by simply not physically representing maneuvers, nor 'freezing' the positions of the aircraft at some arbitrary point in time."

      --This sounds really interesting. I feel this genre could be explored a bit in what we can abstract.Just like many wargames are remakes of 40K, I feel most aerial wargames are repeats of others with little variation in their core assumptions.

    3. "... their core assumptions."

      - The chief one of these is that the physical behavior of the aircraft MUST be modeled physically on the tabletop. With that burden dragging down the result, pretty much every game concentrates on what the aircraft does instead of what the pilot thinks - thus players end up playing as the aircraft and not the pilots.

    4. --"thus players end up playing as the aircraft and not the pilots."

      That's an interesting point, and exactly what I am trying to get at - are we emphasising the same things/wrong things.

    5. "...exactly what I am trying to get at..."

      -As I said: That's where I am already...pull up a chair!

      To my knowledge, no one has tried my approach -or if they have they haven't let me know about it- so I have no feedback/basis upon which to draw any sort of conclusion regarding its viability.

      Barring a clever breakthrough, I think the 'Who is the player?' issue will -as it is for all other games- remain unsatisfactorily answered. An individual player controlling multiple people will either represent the actions of those forces as some form of AI or 'step into' those personas as each individual unit acts. Neither is perfect, and a designer simply chooses which one is used.

      I've concentrated on trying to make a fun game that deals with the tactical decisions pilots make instead of how the aircraft move (ie: what THEY do, not what IT does). The abilities/status of both pilot and aircraft influence those decisions, and it is up to individual players to decide which factors are worth the time cost to include.

  6. Bear in mind, I'm not specifically asking for a game like my example - I'm just using the example to show how we could try to move away from "traditional" aerial wargames which seem more about book keeping than pew-pewing with cool models...

    Like spacegames (which seem to come with a WW2-in-space feel baked in) and near future/hard sci fi (aka Vietnam in space!) I feel aerial wargames seem to adhere more strictly to a formula than they need to...

    1. "...more about book keeping..."

      - The cause is, imo, the number of things that contribute to the performance ability of the aircraft/pilot. The more that are included increases the depth and number of decision factors facing the player, but also mean more that need to be tracked/indicated (if not in a log then marked on the model in some fashion). Each results in a price paid (in time/effort) for the benefit of a richer game - In my opinion it's simply a matter of players including the one's they feel are worth the price.

      Speed and/or energy can be handled easily and is well worth the price paid (imo). Damage takes more work, but can be done at any point along the scale of 'instantdeath--plottingeachbullet' to match/meet player desires.

    2. It's choosing the right things. (Or what's right to you)

      For example, I tend to focus on energy management + pilot skill. Modelling 5kph differences in top speed is less relevant than this.

      I then ask questions like - can I remove altitude or lump it into an energy management system that gives the same end effect while removing extra bookwork?

      I also think air battles are chaotic, so I'd avoid activation where each side can move all their aircraft unimpeded or organize tactics/co ordinate beyond a wingman/flight level.

      So I'd tend to see what I could do to trim away anything that doesn't play to my core assumptions.

    3. Hmmm I feel like I'm articulating poorly, still:

      What most aerial games do:
      Copy key mechanics and assumptions from other games, tweaking to suit own key values for an air wargame.

      What I think they should do:
      Completely start from scratch, building mechanics around core values. It's not a matter of tweaking, so much as "why do we need to do this at all?"
      Question everything. Could we model the end effect without so many steps in between?

      A good example is my "designing a thrust system" a few posts back. It's flawed and makes trade-offs, but tends to stay focussed on more core design intent; and achieves the "effect" - a feel of drift in space - without book keeping.

  7. Very interesting stuff. I'm one of those who has desperately wanted to put dogfighting on the tabletop, but been disappointed with the results almost every time.

    The obvious problems (Altitude, energy/speed and precise machine location), all require a lot of fiddly geometry, with the result that 5 seconds "flying time" takes half an hour on the table.

    Everything is calculated, pored over and considered, and it doesn't feel a bit like the situation it claims to represent.

    Perhaps networked computer consoles are the only solution to proper dogfight games.

    I admire you guys in your search for a "next level up" tabletop solution - I wish you well and I'll look forward to reading about developments.

    Some say it's impossible, but they said that before Crossfire or Chain of Command were published too.

    1. "--your search for a "next level up" tabletop solution - I wish you well and I'll look forward to reading about developments."

      I just dont't think designers are looking for solutions as most don't see a problem.

      Boardgame and skirmish games seem to attract "outside the square" thinking, and have had some interesting breakthroughs, but some genres (age of sail, aerial) seem firmly moored in the 1970s. It's a niche market, and people are content in the niche, apparently...

    2. "I just dont't think designers are looking for solutions as most don't see a problem."

      That's the uphill battle I've been facing for a decade, now. The idea that the little model must show the aircraft's specific location/orientation in order to determine if an attack can be made (ie: point and shoot) is so firmly rooted in the genre's players that I can't even get people to consider an option, much less evaluate it.

      Frustrating, to say the least.

  8. I have an untested theory about big battle gamers (I still occasionally dabble) and their resistance to new ideas.

    Imagine you're a skirmish player with 25 individually based Orcs to your name.
    An interesting new ruleset (I'll quickly plug "Tribal" here) appears. It's a simple matter to proxy your Orcs nd your friend's Dwarves for the Maori warriors described in Tribal and go at it.

    Now imagine the mass battle masochist with his beautifully painted 4500 points of 25mm Komnenan Byzantines.
    The new ruleset requires a re-basing, and its lists demand heavy cavalry while you have 1500 point of extra heavies that you can't use.

    That's 3 months of ordering, painting and basing before you can play the new system properly.

    I humbly submit that the big-battle hobby is a slow-turnover genre.

    1. I also have a theory: big battle gamers are masochists.

      Most games have 8-12 "units." A unit being a maneuver element. Some people like to paint as single mini as a unit.(Skirmish gamers)

      Others like painting 100 minis which act as hit markers within a unit. (Mass battle)