Prufrock's Wargaming Blog

Prufrock's Wargaming Blog

Friday, November 9, 2018

A review of NATO AIR COMMANDER



Having just finished my second game of Brad Smith's NATO Air Commander, I feel ready to set down some initial thoughts.

To be up front, I know Brad, like him, and communicate with him. I have no commercial interest in his game or the company that produces it, but I am likely to be biased in his favour rather than not, so please take that into account when reading this.

Components

They are fine and functional. The paper map tends to sit high, so you'll want some kind of clear cover to hold it flat. The rule book - error free and a breeze to navigate - is one you could use as a model of its kind, should you ever need one, and if you play many board wargames, you will know this is a rare thing indeed. The counters are thick and sturdy, and the rulers and cutting / trimming devices normally used for extracting counters from their sheets are here superfluous: you can just punch them out with no fear of tearing or damage. This was a great speeder-upper of pre-game prep, and the heft and solidity of the Hollandspiele cardboard is pleasing.

The cards are good, with a satiny finish that helps them to shuffle well. They may need to go into card covers to preserve them for long use, but for the moment I won't worry.

I also like the box art. It's evocative of the era, alienating, and sinister.

There is a bit of a solvent smell from the ink used, but being a miniatures gamer and accustomed to making allowance for hobby stinkages that sort of thing doesn't bother me too much.




Getting started

As with most dedicated solitaire games, the system is very much about following a process. Turn order is strict, and while there seem to be a lot of options at first, as you get used to the system, you see that there are normal options and there are exceptional ones. The common choices quickly become routine, and by the second game I was not needing the rule book at all except to check special situations, and even then one check was usually enough. The player aid is very good and soon will be all you need.

One big advantage of procedural games like this is that you can just sit down, start playing and worry about getting things absolutely right later.

For those who don't know, a point of difference here is that there are no dice used in NATO Air Commander: it is all cards and player decisions that drive the play.

Situation and play

The NATO player is faced with a Warsaw Pact invasion of Western Europe, set in 1987. The WP will be advancing along six avenues (shown on the map shot below and called thrust lines in the game) and NATO will be trying to stop them. WP forces gain victory points for taking certain spaces, and it is the player's job to utilise resources to slow, halt and counter-attack the WP advances.

Game map showing the six routes of advance.

Each turn the NATO player will undertake a number of raids for various purposes. What follows is a quick summation of the main options available.

Standard 'primary mission' options

Close Air Support (CAS). Air units are assigned to strike at WP ground units. This to try to halt WP advances in particular areas and to achieve objectives handed down by high command.

Destruction of Enemy Air Defenses (DEAD). Air units strike at enemy ground-based air defenses. This is a theatre-wide effect, which, if successful, degrades WP ability to stop NATO air to ground attacks.

Offensive Counter-Air (OCA). Air units are assigned to work towards obtaining theatre-wide air superiority. If successful, this makes it harder for the WP air forces to prevent you doing what you want to do.

Special options

Follow-on Forces Attack (FOFA). Air units attack WP reinforcements before they get to where they are needed on the front lines.

Decapitation Strike. Air units attempt to hit WP command and control.

Raid process

Raids all have a primary mission (as listed above), and players may assign up to three aircraft counters to that primary mission. Each raid also has two support missions, these being air escort and suppression of enemy air defences (SEAD is the acronym used for the latter). The catch is that a maximum of five aircraft counters can be assigned across the three missions of a raid, so you have to choose your aircraft and their roles carefully.

In resolving a raid, two cards are used. The first card is matched against the air escort support. If the card is equal to or higher than the air escort factor, the raid fails. If the air escort is up to the task a second card is drawn, and this is matched against the suppression of air defences support (SEAD) value. Again, if the card number equals or exceeds the defence factor, the raid fails. If it is lower than the defence factor, the raid succeeds, and hit(s) are scored against the target by the primary mission aircraft.



Sample Close Air Support (CAS) type raid directed against one Warsaw Pact thrust line.

The historical dilemma faced by planners regarding overlapping NATO aircraft roles is very neatly captured here by the design: the factor used for Close Air Support is the same factor used to suppress enemy air defences and the same factor used to disrupt the arrival of enemy reinforcements, so to concentrate on one role is to neglect the others. It is a neat and uncomplicated way to force players to consider relative mission importance at any given time.

As an aside, while there are various ways to load the raid resolution in your favour, discovering what they are and how best to use them is half the fun, so I won't spoil that by going into details.

After the raid segment of the turn, the WP begins its ground attacks. On each thrust line you compare attack factors vs defence factors, subtract any Close Air Support raid hits from the WP attack strength, and draw a card. If the WP draws or wins, the NATO ground force is eliminated and the WP force advances one more space down the track. If NATO wins, the WP force loses a cohesion point.

There are some additional subtleties, but those are the basics.

Ground attack is a particularly brutal phase for the NATO player, especially early in the game. Even strong NATO defences can be undone without the assistance of successful Close Air Support raids.

Following ground combat there are various reinforcement phases, replenishment phases and the like to deal with. If you want to know more about this, you can read the rule book on boardgamegeek.

General trends - in the first, and easiest scenario at least - are that the WP will advance steadily along one or two lines of attack, but resistance will stiffen over the other four or five.

See pictures below for some in-game examples:

Advances after turn 3.

Advances after turn 4.

Advances after turn 6.

Tension and player decisions

NATO Air Commander is pretty tense. You are constantly weighing risk and reward and dealing with greater and lesser pressures which must be prioritized in some fashion. Do you focus on achieving your high command objectives - at the risk of failure and higher casualties, but with success promising extra resources to spend - or go for more limited objectives that may (or may not) pay off longer term?

To compound things the game has 'guaranteed success' built in - so if you overcommit to a particular raid, you will be certain of success. Yay. But if you guarantee success in one area, you will have fewer resources to use elsewhere. Is it better to make fewer, surer attacks, or more, riskier attacks? It is a constant balancing act.

As an example of the sort of decisions a player must make, here is an extended play report from the final turn of my second game, played using the easiest scenario.

Sample play

To set the scene, at turn start we had strong ground forces in four of the six avenues of advance, but to turn a minor defeat into a minor victory, NATO had to take back Hamburg (worth 2 victory points) in sector Alpha, and Hannover (also worth 2 VPs), in sector Bravo.

In the first case NATO would need to push the WP forces back one space, in the second, two. In our favour, we had the AWACs event, meaning we could redraw a failed air support mission card for each raid.

Target spaces, and a handy event card.


We also pulled the two best objective cards we could have hoped for: if we could complete the missions, the auto-retreat results would allow us to push back the WP forces in sectors Alpha and Bravo, recapture the key cities shown above, and win the war.

We would need to pull off seven raids, but would get some nice positive modifiers from earlier OCA (to help air escort missions) and DEAD (to aid ground suppression missions) track progress.



To complete the task, NATO went for one OCA raid using the stealth capable F-117 (it would only fail on a card pull of 10), meaning that to fulfill objectives NATO would need to lead six other successful Close Air Support raids, one of which, in sector Alpha, must do three points of damage. A big effort would be needed, but there were the resources to do it.

This is how the aircraft assets were arranged. Provided that the Offensive Counter-Air (OCA) mission succeeds (remember it can be scotched with a 10 card), all raids but raid four, which can be derailed by a 10 card on the Air Escort mission, are guaranteed success, due to the OCA (air superiority) and DEAD (killing off of enemy ground-to-air defences) progress which has been dearly bought in the previous nine turns.


Assigned raids.

Here are the thrust lines the raids targeted. This arrangement ensures that - assuming successful raids - the WP will not be able to make any ground-combat progress in sectors Alpha, Bravo, Charlie or Echo.

Thrust lines targeted. Note the concentration in the north!

And so we started, raid by raid.

First off, the OCA raid succeeded, pushing up our OCA level to safety for all raids except raid four.

Raid four rolls around: a 10 card is pulled for Air Intercept. It's a failure.  No matter, we can use our AWACS event card to draw a new card. Lucky for us!

Nice to have an event card like this to give us a helping hand!



Unfortunately, our second card was a repeat of the first! This equalled and therefore defeated the raid's air escort factor of ten, which meant the raid failed.

Ouch! Smashed twice!


The other six raids succeeded, and while we were able to achieve our three close air support raid hits in Alpha sector and push the WP out of Hamburg, that one failure meant that reclaiming Hannover was beyond us.

So the WP pull off a minor victory by the narrowest of margins!

Victory for the Warsaw Pact!


As you can imagine, this was a very enjoyable gaming experience, and engaging on many levels.

Thoughts

I really enjoy the game and look forward to exploring it further. There are gameplay aspects I have not properly looked at yet, two more official scenarios, variant suggestions, and likely user-generated content which will all help to sustain interest. It is also a meaty game: it's not a fifteen minute filler - it's up to two, two-and-a-half hours of thoughtful play interspersed by periods of going with your gut to deal with crises.

Yet it would be remiss to not remark on areas of potential weakness. In this regard there are two things that nag at me. One is Warsaw Pact success. Once the WP have got to the end of a thrust line, that's it. There's nothing you can do about it as a player, and nothing else happens except for a loss of a VP per turn until turn 6. In effect, you get stronger once the WP has made a breakthrough because you no longer need to (or can, for that matter) throw forces at that thrust line. This frees up your forces for use elsewhere. In practice, instead of using 20 odd assets to defend six lines of attack, you are now using those assets to defend five lines, and things get much easier. Provided it's in a less important area (sector Delta or Foxtrot) a breakthrough is not a body blow: it's a sigh of relief, and that seems counter-intuitive to me.

It would make sense to see a continued requirement to commit air resources to lost sectors. Perhaps a simple directive to complete a successful raid in the lost sector each turn, with an additional VP penalty for failure, would be enough. Another option might be to give a ground attack bonus to WP forces attacking along thrust lines adjacent to the one lost, so as to force NATO to commit stronger forces to preserve the outflanked areas.

I feel thematically it would make sense to make players worry about containing the breakthrough rather than just accepting it, ignoring it, and gratefully employing the freed-up assets elsewhere which is the default position at the moment.

Compounding this, given that you can still win the game even if you lose control of a thrust line or two, there is not the same desperation to defend all along the front that there would have been historically. As C J Bowie noted in his article in Air Force Magazine, July 2007:

The greatest concern was the inner German border. 
Defending the border region was a daunting prospect. Land forces usually prefer to fall back and trade territory for time, but West Germany could not accept any strategy that accepted a Soviet thrust - however brief - into its national territory. 

The other thing I'm not convinced of is attrition. Unless you fail a raid, or pull an unlucky event card, your forces suffer no losses at all. Even in a failed raid, the worst that can happen is two step losses, and while that is not pleasant, it is not destructive unless cumulative.

I don't know what projected casualties would have been exactly, but at least one USAF officer felt they would have been considerable:

In the event of a WP attack, high aircraft attrition is expected on both sides and the fight for air superiority may well be decided in three or four days. (p.35)

Assuming then that combat attrition would take its toll on experienced pilots, on aircraft, and on ground services, having a higher attrition rate than that present so far in my games would seem to me to be likely, but I was playing the easiest scenario, and my ideas around what the normal attrition rate is might change dramatically when using the more demanding starting situations.

If it turns out that attrition rates are too low, I don't think it is an insurmountable issue. To get away from the guaranteed win / guaranteed no attrition options, it would be easy enough to bring in a low-odds casualty test after each successful raid.

It may not be needed, but would be a non-intrusive solution if a variant were desired.

* * * 

I have taken some time here to go into potential issues, but I hope that the space spent on these does not give the impression that the game is a faulty one: it is not. It is innovative in its mechanisms and exciting in its scope. If it does indeed require adjustments along the lines here suggested, they would be cosmetic, and would not detract from the core mechanisms and innovative elements of the game itself.

Others' complaints about the game

I have seen a quite astonishing complaint about the game that I feel obliged to address before finishing here. The complaint is that the use of acronyms is difficult and off-putting.

I really do find this hard to understand when it is coming from experienced wargamers.

All wargames use abbreviations and acronyms. This game has about six. They were all in official use, they are all explained early in the rule set, they are all self-explanatory, and they all add to the atmosphere.

If a person can read a CRT with its EX, A1, DR2 and so on results, a person can deal with these acronyms. We wargamers will happily bang on about PzKW IVs, M60A3s, tribunes and triari, and will use 'wrecked' in an ACW context without a second thought, so to complain that CAS or DEAD are impenetrable terms seems to me a complaint too far.

So please don't think acronyms are a reason to avoid the game. They are not. Just grab a pen and six post-it notes and it'll be problem solved.

Final comments

In my view Brad Smith has done an excellent job with NATO Air Commander. It is a grand theme, it uses new and innovative mechanisms, it is immersive, it is exciting, it is testing, and it is tense. The components are good, the rule book is excellent, and from opening the box you can be playing in about thirty minutes.

It looks already to have good replay value and I have a hunch the system used here will be influential in future game designs.

Well done Brad, well done Hollandspiele, and I hope that this is the start of a beautiful friendship.


12 comments:

  1. Sounds good to me, excellent review by the way!

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  2. First, Aaron, this is a first rate review! Everything needed to make a choice for purchasing is included. Component summary, photos of the components and maps, play mechanisms, and a play-through are all really helpful in providing a snapshot of this game.

    Have you discussed your suggested WP Thrust Line objective ideas to Brian? Your suggestions sound reasonable. When WP reaches its objective, it seems reasonable that NATO forces would be required to contain this breakthrough. Maybe even additional NATO forces must be directed towards the breakthrough thus weakening other WP avenues of approach?

    Excellent job!

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    Replies
    1. Thanks Jonathan, good to hear it covered the essential bases!

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  3. Interesting looking game, Aaron

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  4. Thanks! Great review. I would agree with all the points, both good and bad, that you made there. In the original design, I had WP actually overrunning NATO airbases as they advanced, which wiped out part of your air force. Maybe if I ever do a second edition, I'll try something like that. Thanks again!

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    Replies
    1. Thanks Brad, I reckon you adapt use this model for various other historical and hypothetical conflicts, too. The Battle of Britain, the invasion or defense of Crete, various modern scenarios. It would even work with naval emphasis, I think. Really enjoyable game and intriguing system. Thank you for designing it!

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  5. A perfectly-styled review, Aaron.

    Obviously, the player that does not like acronyms/abbreviations did not play any SPI/GDW games!

    ReplyDelete
  6. Great review Aaron. Although it looks a bit complicated for the Rejects!

    ReplyDelete

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