Thursday, July 07, 2011

Nightfighter - First Impressions

When the family was at Sunriver the ten days leading up to the Fourth, Alex and I got in four scenarios from Nightfighter (NF from here on out), the new WW2 aerial combat game from Lee Brimmicombe-Wood (LBW from here on out). Lee is perhaps best known for his recent designs The Burning Blue and Downtown, about the Battle of Britain and air operations over North Vietnam respectively. I have played both games a couple of times and enjoy them, but they are what some might call "simulation-heavy" and not for the faint of heart.

I have not yet played the "full" game, which isn't a big surprise as we would have had to play eight times to accomplish this. Hearkening back to the good old days, NF uses a "programmed instruction" technique to introduce a set of rules that the players then use in a scenario, followed by more rules, another scenario, etc. It's a good way to learn a complex game, with the caveat that the rules then tend to be spread around a bit. NF falls victim to this in a small way - this is not a 40 page ruleset, nor is it spread out around multiple books, as befell Squad Leader back in the day. However, there are a few rules for combat and the various radars that will see you looking around for the specifics of a given rule. I suppose that a fairly short reordering of the text would provide a better rules reference document with minimal work, but the rules as published are useable given their shorter length.

The game is organized chronologically, so earlier scenarios are, in theory, presenting earlier parts of the war. Because the game covers both theaters of WW2, and the Japanese and US Naval forces has much weaker systems in play, the PTO tends to get a little mixed up. For example, you have an early scenario "variant" presenting B-29's over Tokyo in the first few scenarios, while Japanese night attacks on US carrier groups are presented right near the end of the rules, even though the former takes place years after the latter because the Japanese radar was so primitive compared to the US's.

The scenarios are also grouped together, so that "scenario 4" actually might have one "main" scenario and up to six or seven "variants" that are actually scenarios in their own right that use the same rules subset. This is kind of a false organization because most of the variants will require later rules. For example, in the first scenario, where you have only been given the rules for "tallying" an enemy aircraft (sighting it visually), the variants will include rules for searchlights, which don't show up until the third scenario. My impression is that you are supposed to play the "non-variant" scenario the first time through and then come back to try the others once you've learned the game, or for those who are more impatient you can treat this as an alternate PI rules stream. Regardless, there's a lot of game in this box.

I'll note that Scenario 6 is the odd nightfigher out in this scheme. Unlike the others, the player (and umpire, to a very limited extent) selects from actual variants - things that vary the scenario in specific ways with specific costs. With this technique, it would take a very long time to work through the various permutations as there are something like 20 variants. It's nice to have a bit of both approaches, actually, and I think that everyone will be able to find something they enjoy playing in the box.

I've gotten a bit ahead of myself here, but it's important to understand that you learn the game as you go.

It's also important to understand that Lee's air warfare games require either a certain amount of planning followed by a fairly static realization of that planning by one side (Burning Blue), or planning by both sides with a certain amount of freedom in execution (Downtown). NF, in contrast, at least in the scenarios we played, is really about one side playing the game (the "player") and the other side creating the situation, sort of like a malignant gamemaster in an RPG (the "umpire"). The umpire generally controls the bomber stream, which has very little it can do but roll across the map at top speed. In fact, until intruders enter the picture in the last scenario (nightfighters tasked with defending the bombers), the umpire has very few tools in his kit to try to confuse the player.

First, the ump can decide to delay bombers that are entering singly by up to two turns. This kind of grouping is called "stragglers" in the campaign game. They have a specific hexagon column they will be travelling down during the scenario, but when they enter is a bit of a mystery. If the scenario calls for a "main force" of bombers, then three will enter every turn and you may not delay. However, they do get to determine which bombers enter on which designated columns, which does have a game effect due to the tally numbers (which I won't go into in depth here, only to say that groups of bombers in proximity with the same tally number have an advantage when it comes to fixing/tallying them). Secondly, in addition to when they enter, the ump can also decide how many hexes every bomber travels on it's first entry turn. It's not much, but it's something. I should also note that the ump decides whether to use the Red or Yellow side of the entry chits, which determine the columns the bombers will fly down, with the difference being which side of the map the stream will tend to be on.

The only other thing the umpire can do prior to intruders is to place the Sweep counters on the search radars when they don't make a contact in their search range. Usually this is a choice between two hexes but can still screw up the player's sense of where anything is. Beyond that, the umpire is forced to run the system.

There are still some scenarios that turn all of this on it's head. In Scenario 7, the umpire is controlling the bombers *and* the attacking nightfighters, and the player takes on the roll of intruder, trying to take out the attacking nightfighters (which have joined the bomber stream to prey on them) while avoiding shooting down their own bombers. Still, even so the umpire treats the "bad" nightfighters as bombers for the most part, and doesn't even get a say as to when they enter semi-randomly.

That might not sound like much fun for the umpire, and in a four hour game I'd agree without question. The thing is that the scenarios play in under an hour, even the big ones with 50 bombers and four nightfighters. If you *aren't* like me, and don't enjoy playing GM, you can always switch back and forth as the player, refighting the last scenario or trying a different one. In our case, Alex was always the player, in large part because I had read the rules, but also because I enjoy umpiring for the most part.

The game is fairly easy to learn, as well. The focus is on the Sequence of Play (SoP), which breaks the different search systems into manageable pieces. Thus, you have one section for ground based radar, another for aircraft mounted (AI) radar, another for searchlight activity, and finally for visual contact (tallying). The trick for the nightfighters is that they can only attack when they are in the same hex and facing the same direction as the bomber, but since the bombers are heading in one direction and you know their speed, once you've "fixed" a bomber with searchlights or AI radar you know where it will be every turn until it exits the map. The early ground-based radar will let you know the general vicinity of the aircraft as well.

As the scenarios progress, you begin to see the various developments as they occur - Schraege Musik, which were "oblique" mounted guns that allowed a fighter to shoot *up* as it passed under a bomber; Village Inn, which was a warning device for bombers; all sorts of various radars with widely varying capabilities; and all of the various tactics that were used by both sides as the war progressed. If nothing else, you will learn an enormous amount about what an incredible crapshoot night operations were at the dawn of radar and how much the various sides improved as time went on, both in defensive and offensive capabilities.

For the player, the game is, of course, a bit of a puzzle more than a game, and much depends upon when and if bombers are fixed or tallied. In our final game, where Alex's nightfighters were required to enter and follow the bomber stream, he lost a nightfighter immediately to misdirecting enemy radio communication, and while he'd shot down two bombers with other fighters, he needed one more and managed to tally and one-shot it on the last hex before it exited the map. We enjoyed all of the scenarios quite a bit, as each had a different feel while sticking with the overall concept.

One note: the first two scenarios are particularly difficult for the player to win and are primarily presented as historical studies. The first uses visual sighting only, which meant you had to end up in the same hex as a bomber for the most part, perhaps one hex away. As you can imagine, this is pretty much searching for a needle in a haystack, and in fact more nightfighers crashed on landing or on getting lost than bombers were shot down. The second scenario adds in the very coarse ground radars, which helped but still required considerable luck to tally a bomber. I recommend, as does the designer, that players who are interested in a competitive experience should just read the rules up to the third scenario. If you are new to wargaming (and this is not a bad introduction in many ways), probably best to work through them one at a time, going through the variants and adding their extra rules as you go. Certainly that's the best path for the historian.

The fact that this is a board game and not a computer game means that the umpire has to figure out some best practices for how to deal with correct updating of the game state. Moving a couple of dozen bombers exactly three spaces each on even turns and two spaces each on odd turns (which does happen) can be a little confusing, especially in a game where facing is important. However, bombers only face one way, so I learned to cock each bomber 60 degrees after it moved so that I didn't move it twice, then reset them in the correct direction once they'd all moved. You will want to be careful not to do this with any fighters on the map, and you can't do it with intruders, although they have their own rules for movement and searching. It took us about two scenarios to really start to find our rhythm in handling the components, but it can be done and done quickly - our last scenarios that had 40-50 bombers in each took less than an hour each for a 16 turn game. Just be deliberate and careful and you'll be fine, but don't be surprised if early games turn into a bit of a mess if you screw something up. It's also very important to follow the SoP very carefully and announce each phase and when you are finished.

Clearly this is not your typical wargame. Only one person is really "playing" the game, which is more a combination puzzle/slot machine than a game per se. Quite a bit depends upon what happens in the random parts of the game - where bombers enter, whether bombers respond to attacks and how, and what happens when an aircraft is shot down and the effects on the nightfighter that did it. Even the environmental conditions (visibility, clouds, and the phase of the moon) can be random. As such, I think it's best to consider this game in two ways - as a puzzle and as a literary device. The former is obvious, but the latter puts this game in more of a story-generator, with the player dealing with the historical limitations and challenges of a small window in history. There is even a campaign game that allows you to play multiple raids and manage a historic air group and its roster of pilots based in The Netherlands over the course of a month or so. This would make for an excellent long-term challenge, although you'd want an umpire that was very cool with taking that job for several play sessions. For me, that would have to be in relatively small bites, no more than three or four raids in a play session, but it would be doable over time.

I would also imagine that this game could very easily be ported to computer/tablet play, at least in the range of AI required for the scenarios I played - can't really say if intruders would pose a challenge or not at this point. I could see playing this on a regular basis on my iPad with no umpire at all, much like the recent implementation of Ascension. I suppose you could play hot seat or over the network as well, although a great many functions could be automated and reduce the role and thus enjoyment of an umpire. Still, for a campaign this would be an awesome way to play. It would even be very possible to create a variety of campaigns set in different parts of the war and at different times to give a lot of variability to the game. To be honest, I think that this is where this kind of game would shine, at least once we've got a critical mass of wargamers out there who would buy a copy. Even VASSAL could manage this sort of AI easily (if nothing else, you can randomize those few decisions the umpire *does* make). That said, the game is very easy to set up and tear down, especially if (like me) you use counter trays to separate out the various aircraft types and markers and set up one tray for each player. In the world of "filler" wargames, NF is king.

While I'm hesitant to recommend (or not) the game based on this small a sample of plays, I will go so far as to say that if you are concerned with the simulation detail of other LBW designed games, you will not have the same issues with this game. Also, if you think that this game sounds kind of boring for the umpire, I won't disagree but will say that on the bright side there is some joy to be found on that side of the screen and at worst you'll have to do it for 60 minutes at a time. Without question, if the study of the development of nightfighting air combat during WW2 interests you (or you have similar interests), this is a game that will give you a very clear sense of what a difficult and peril-filled mission it was, for both the bombers and the nightfighters. You will also see radar used for combat purposes develop before your eyes, which I personally found quite interesting. LBW provides quite a bit of background material on not only the overall situation, both in aircraft and in tech, but also in the wide variety of scenarios. The game is clearly a labor of love for LBW, and it shows.

Also, while I know very little about it, the game is supposed to tie in with another game focused on night bombing operations that the designer has in the works. I cannot say when or if this title will be published, but it's a consideration. For me, NF works well as a wargame of a different stripe and it's easy enough to teach people thanks to the SoP. The result is a game that I'm glad I preordered, at a time when preordering is starting to look like a pretty big crapshoot of it's own.

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