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DESIGNING NATO AIR COMMANDER (by Brad Smith)

NATO Air Commander is a love letter to 1980s Cold War Gone Hot games like NATO: The Next War in Europe (VG, 1983), The Third World War series (GDW, 1984), and Red Storm Rising (TSR, 1989). In all of those games, you basically control the progress of a ground war in Central Europe between the Warsaw Pact and NATO.

I suppose my attraction to this era and type of game comes from my youth. My earliest memories are of Ronald Reagan. I can remember how much the idea of a big war in Europe seemed like an inevitability rather than merely a possibility during those tense years. At the same time, the 1980s were full of a kind of unbridled optimism and excess that made growing up kind of fun. If you could ignore the possibility of nuclear annihilation long enough, it wasn’t such a bad time.

Anyway, each of these games had an "air phase" where you assigned air units their missions and watched them fly off to conduct air superiority missions or bomb enemy ground units. TWW was a bit more nuanced - you could also hit runways, which I thought was great.

Today, when I read blog posts and talk to players of these games, they tended to fall into one of two camps - they either loved the air war aspect of the game or they considered it a time-consuming distraction from the main event. NATO Air Commander is a game whose intention is to please the former and convert the latter. But mostly, I designed it because I wanted to play this kind of game and I couldn’t find anything else like it out there.

NATO Air Commander takes those old 80s WW3 games and stands them on their heads. Instead of moving tank divisions back and forth, the player focuses most of their energy on the air part of the war and watches how it affects the course of the ground war. It is a theater-wide bird’s eye view of a major war in Europe.

Genesis

Before I designed the game, I read a book by Alfred Price called "Air Battle: Central Europe". It described how each aircraft would fit into the overall scheme of a NATO air war conducted in Central Europe during the late Cold War. It guided how I assigned values to certain types of aircraft. Instead of counting hardpoints or weapon systems, I based the values on the major roles of the aircraft and how they fit into NATO air strategy. Special abilities and the generation of the aircraft were also taken into account.

I also read about General Bernard Rogers and his ideas of hitting Warsaw Pact follow-on forces as much as possible during any future war. After reading Lt. Col. Michael Diver's thesis from the US Army War College, I started to think about how this might be modeled in a game and lo and behold, the FOFA mission type was included in the game.

By the time I finished a great book about General Bill Creech and his transformation of tactical air warfare in the late 1970s and early 1980s, I remember thinking, "Okay. This is getting serious. This game is going to happen."

So I set out to make a game that allows you to test the ideas of Air Land Battle as it was conceived in the 1980s.

Or not.

You can spend the entire game just sending in your guys to do close air support if you want. Sometimes that might even be the “correct” approach. Or you could try and focus on taking out the command centers and watch the Warsaw Pact military leadership descend into chaos - hopefully before their tanks reach the Rhine. It's your air war - you fight it as you see fit.

The variability of the cards and events as well as the resolution of ground conflict will dictate the right approach, which is unique to every game. There are times when a certain strategy will work and a time when it doesn't. Woe betide those who try to stop the Pact from reaching every objective or those who don't pay enough attention to the setbacks of the ground war.

I have played games with setups that looked hopeless from the start only to be pleasantly surprised by the turn of fate helped along by good mission planning. On the other hand, the cards and the random events keep you constantly off-balance. Just when you think you have one thing under control, another fire will start.

The Design Process

Lest I make the whole design process sound simple and easy, let me tell you that nothing could be further from the truth. It was like wrestling a hydra. For those of you interested, here’s the story:

Like most first drafts, the initial iteration of NATO Air Commander was clunky and awful. I had way too many air units and the system created way too much work for a solitaire player. The mechanisms included die-rolls, chit pulls, cards... you name it! It took about three hours to play a single game. My objective was to have a game that could be played in about an hour.

By the time I finished my first game, I was bored and frustrated and something was deeply wrong. It was a game, yes. There were decisions to make. Check! But it was about as fun as clearing the lint between your toes. Tempted to just give up, I instead took heart in the words of better creators than me - “Things must suck before they get better.” - or something like that.

After Tom Russell took a look under the hood and proposed some changes, things started to improve quite a bit. One of the big changes was “zooming out” and streamlining ideas and concepts in the game.

The best example I can think of is how the air interception mechanic initially worked compared to the final result. At first, I designed the game in a way that you would not only have to track NATO air unit repairs and basing, but also the Warsaw Pact. You would send out your guys on an air mission and then draw a chit from a cup that may or may not be a Warsaw Pact air unit ranging from MiG-19s to MiG-25s. You would compare the air-to-air values of the chit with your air escorts and proceed from there.

As a result of the interception, the WP air unit might be damaged or destroyed and you’d have to send it to a track for repair. OCA missions would allow you to hit specific enemy air units on the WP air unit repair track, either eliminating them from the game or setting them back a few spaces before they could reappear. It sounded great but it ended up being clunky. In the end, it was just another thing for the player to manage.

I took out the Warsaw Pact Air Force air unit chits and replaced them with OCA tracks for each ground sector, which represents how much damage your planes have done to the Warsaw Pact Air Force in a specific target area. It took me a week to see that this (a) didn’t make any military sense and (b) still demanded too much from the player. I wanted the player’s “job” to be deciding how to assign and carry out offensive air missions - not moving chits back and forth on multiple tracks.

So I zoomed out a little further and uncoupled the enemy’s air units and defenses from the various sectors. With only one OCA track for all Pact Air, the whole game started to play much smoother as the demands on the player decreased.

I also took out defensive NATO missions. I thought the idea of having to balance your offense with defense was an interesting idea, but in the end, it was boring to just throw some planes on defensive CAP missions and let them sit on the board for the turn doing nothing. This rationalized removing some of the glut of NATO air units that were cluttering the board.

So if the OOB seems a bit thin for NATO in places, it's because those unavailable aircraft are conducting those defensive missions. You just have to worry about hitting the Warsaw Pact as hard as you can with offensive air. I think there’s probably a really good game to make about air defense in Central Europe during a WW3 type situation, but that's not the focus of this game.

Development & Testing

Other changes vastly improved the game. For the sake of balance, the Danish front was lopped off the final product (which I was more than happy to do once I realized it wasn’t a part of Allied Air Forces Central Europe domain). The addition of pilot counters was Tom’s suggestion, which gave the game a more human element, and more special events were added. Suddenly the game had turned from a somber exercise in management to a fun hour of gaming.

The special events were exhilarating to make but hard to balance out. After I got down and dirty with a spreadsheet and made sure there were an equal number of “good” NATO cards and “bad” NATO cards (with a smattering of mediocre in between the two), the playtesters gave it another shot. Die-rolling was also eliminated from the game and was replaced by the values on the cards - something that made sense once we realized the cards could do the heavy work.

Other decisions were made to keep the game from falling apart while still others were an effort at making things more realistic. Initially, I had the CAS mission as reducing the attack values of the WP forces but after reading more on the topic, I came to understand that airpower serves as a force multiplier for friendly ground units rather than deductive for the enemy. This is why the CAS modifier “adds” to the NATO ground values in the final version, which makes way more sense.

I thought about including nuclear weapons in the mix and it was with Tom’s urging that I decided against it in the end. I’m glad Tom dissuaded me from this path because the inclusion of nuclear weapons rules would have drastically changed the game, required a huge rewrite of a ruleset already nearing its final form, and would have made the whole thing unbalanced - not to mention, incredibly bleak. We did use the spectre of nuclear war as a potential game-ender when the WP racks up too many VPs, which I think makes more sense.

Initial Warsaw Pact ground values went up to “10", with a separate track for each. We streamlined it by using the same rotating counters as the NATO forces, capping strength at an "8". This actually solved a problem with play balance and provided a welcome relief for playtesters who faced unstoppable value 10 WP behemoths. Winning was no longer a Herculean task but it was still tough and demanded good decisions from the player.

Then we tried to break the game as much as we could. The playtesters let me know about all the wonderful ways to “spam” the system with a certain approach that would be unrealistic and game-breaking, I put hard limits on things like PGMs and the number of air units that can be assigned to a raid or a mission. I also put limits on how much you can degrade the enemy tracks over the course of a game turn.

At first, it felt like a cop-out then I went back and did some more research into recent air campaigns, which seem to validate my decisions to put limits on how much damage could realistically be dealt during each turn. Though I wanted to create a sandbox for the player, it also made sense to keep the options tied in at least some ways to NATO doctrine and training.

By the time the final design came around and the playtesting feedback was incorporated, we had whittled the game’s playtime down and significantly reduced the amount of rules clutter that was evident in the first drafts. The game is still very procedural - but after a couple of plays, it tends to flow pretty smoothly.

I hope you enjoy the game! I am humbled by the support it has received over the past couple of years. Thanks very much.

1 comment

  • Sounds like a great and fun game. Definitely going on my “wish list”. I grew up playing GDW’s The Third World War series, and I really liked the air component of that system (you did air superiority, CAS, interdiction, logistic and runway strikes). So this sounds like nice update for the theoretical air war over central Europe.

    Mark

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