Monday, September 5, 2022

Wargame Design: White Star/Red Star


I have been working on a Korean Air War game for a while.  You can now find it on the Blood and Spectacles Wargame Vault page, and it is called White Star/Red Star.  The kernel of White Star/Red Star game were two main objectives: 

  1. How to model this "transition" period between WWII and Modern air warfare?
  2. How to reduce the complexity of flying for the player to focus on the wargame?
As many people know, I am a big fan of Aeronautica Imperialis as it gives a lot of tactical depth with simple rules.  The easy solution would have been to simply re-skin one of my favorite rules systems and make Korean War profiles for it!  However, that did not solve the fundamental challenges I wanted to focus on.  Even AI, you spend a lot of time simply flying your planes, and that was an area I wanted to explore simplifying.  

Therefore, I had a few different objectives as I built these rules: 

1. Simplify flying and assume that all pilots know how to fly, the player do not have to
2. Use action economy to differentiate pilot skill
3. Make detection a key component of the game
4. Finish games quick while including critical player decision making
5. Represent the key tactical challenges and aircraft of the Korean Air War
6. Scale and Model agnostic

Let's take a look at how I went about tackling these objectives then.

Simplify the Flying
At this stage, I made a number of abstractions to make flying easier on the player.  The rules first assume that the pilots all know the basics of flying.  They are skilled enough to not crash and keep the craft from stalling and the like.  Therefore, since the Pilot is doing the flying, the player is more concerned about where the plane will go in relation to the other planes on the board.  

1. All planes are assumed to be going at combat speed.  There are no speed adjustments to track.
2. Altitude is simplified to 3 levels only.  You can change altitude or turn in an activation, not both
3. Turns are simplified into basic categories; 20 degree, 45 degree, 90 degree, and 180 degree

These simple mechanics allow the player to put the planes where they want in relation to their fellows quickly and easily.  

Use Action Economy to Differentiate Pilots
Sure, all pilots know how to fly but some are simply better at flying than others.  Only a handful have the killer instinct it takes to become an Ace pilot.  What is the difference between a rookie pilot, an experienced pilot, or an Ace?  

In White Star/Red Star pilot skill level is differentiated by Action economy.  All pilots can participate in the Rookie phase, where they move and shoot using alternating activation as normal.  In the Experience Phase, Experienced and Ace pilots can move and shoot normally.  Rookies can only fly straight.  Meanwhile, in the Ace Phase only Ace pilots can move and shoot normally.  Everyone else just flies straight.  These escalating activations give Aces the edge in out-flying and acting compared to their lesser peers.  

In addition, when a pilot can initiate a turn action differs based on their skill level.  Rookies have the most limited window of action.  Experienced pilots have more latitude to change course.  Meanwhile, Aces can initiate turns freely.  It is also important to remember, that a pilot can either change altitude in an activation or turn.  With the stacking Phases, Aces will be able to make this choice three times as often as a Rookie.  

Make Detection a Key Component of the Game
Often times, the difference between living and dying in air combat is knowing the enemy is around.  The majority of kills occur on an unsuspecting target.  Therefore, detection is a critical and often overlooked component of air combat.  

To reflect this, deployment in this game is a bit unique.  Each turn, both sides make a detection role and compare it to the profiles of the enemy aircraft.  If the detection roll is successful for certain aircraft, they can be placed on the board anywhere in the deployment zone, at any facing and altitude.  If failed, the planes are not deployed.  It is easier to detect big multi-engine bombers than small prop planes.  

Every turn, the potential deployment zone is extended.  Therefore, the longer it takes to be detected the further onto the board the plane can be deployed.  As the turns go by, the detection roll gets easier as the forces close.  In playtesting, it was possible for planes to start detected coming in on the tail of an enemy plane!  However, such results were not common. 

Finish Games Quick and Focus on Critical Decisions
One of the key components to assist this was to make dice rolling quick and easy.  A pilot can roll 1 dice per their level of skill; rookies roll 1, experienced pilots 2, and Aces 3.  Success was always a 4+ and most rolls are opposed.  Therefore, whoever scores the most 4+ will win most rolls.  Modifiers take the form of +/- dice to the roll.  Therefore, this unified mechanic makes resolution easy.  

In addition, the game has a maximum number of turns and a disengagement level.  This made sure games did not drag out since a long dogfight during the Korean War lasted 5 minutes at most.  I wanted resolution of the wargame to align closer to actual dogfight times.  Most games are completed in less than 1 hour from beginning to end, with some being as short as 15 minutes.  

As for critical decisions, the dice modifiers are based on range and angle of attack.  In addition, the game has relatively narrow firing arcs so maneuver matters.  In addition, there is an Ammo roll when you take shots so you have to weigh the risk of running out of ammo against the chance of hitting before you roll the dice.  This makes players focus on the critical decisions and trying to get high-probability shots rather than fishing for lucky hits.       

Represent Key Tactical Decisions and Aircraft of the Era
Unlike World War II dogfight, Korean War dogfights between Jets was often vertical rather than horizontal.  The game tries to mimic this by giving the aircraft of the time stats that match the performance of the aircraft.  MIGS were great at climbing, so have benefits to climbing.  Sabres were great at diving, and this is reflected in the rules.  As planes decide to turn or change altitude, it immediately changes how far they can go in that activation based on the type of plane it is.  Since the LA-11 Fang was a poor climber, it suffers a greater loss of speed as it goes up, and it is applied immediately for that activation only.  

The rules also include how to use wingmen and wingman tactics directly.  Instead of acting independently, the wingmen operate together and perform the exact same maneuvers.  If the wing leader goes up 1 altitude, so does the wingman.  If the wing leader turns 20 degrees, so does the wingman.  They work together for good or for ill.   

Scale and Model Agnostic
Like all my games, I wanted it to be scale and model agnostic.  Korean War aircraft models come in all different scales from 1/1200 up to 1/48!  This system can accommodate any size aircraft you want to use and any space you have.  This is because the game uses generic measurement units that can be the equivalent to any measurement you want based on the play area and models you have.  Larger models and a small table may demand smaller MUs, while small scale and large tables could use larger.  

Also, measurements are from the center of the model, and firing arcs are wingtip to wingtip (or a circle depending).  Therefore, as long as aircraft are the same scale then they will be using the same mechanics for firing arcs and measurements.  Therefore, you can use whatever you want to play.  

This game went together pretty fast compared to my usual efforts.  I think I only worked on this one for 2 years!  However, it got more playtesting than my games normally get due to how quick it plays! Despite the "quick" turnaround, this game went through at least 4 major revisions, mostly to the action economy and detection.  

I am really proud of this game.  It focuses on what I want it to focus on, and I think handles air combat in a unique and innovative way.  The game was so easy, even novice wargamers were picking it up and grasping the tactics of the period right away.  I hope you enjoy them!

If you want to pick up White Star/Red Star at the Blood and Spectacles Wargame Vault page.         

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