Aerial Rules Revisited – Part 2 – Abstracting Movement

Last post I discussed how aerial rules (simulating combat that takes place over minutes or seconds) tends to be bogged down with written orders, rivet counting and an innate complexity. Most aerial wargames have more in common with doing a tax return than a swirling dogfight.

I identified four factors (speed, height, positioning vs foe, detection) as key elements to track. Now, I’m considering how to simplify them.  Note these rules aren’t good, but more an example of my thought process and what I am striving for.

I’ve decided there will be 3 heights – high, medium, and “on the deck.” As I am trying to do away with recording (and also I’m not using fancy bases) I’m simply going to record it thus: high = blue token, low = green token, medium = no token.  I considered using a d6 and having 6 heights (using the dice to record it) but sometimes I bump the dice over, and the token can be fit neatly under the model’s plastic base. Besides, I’m trying to abstract here.

OK, now for the speed/height/positioning interactions.  I’m avoiding plotting moves or recording anything (including speed) so I have decided to divide aircraft speeds into supersonic and subsonic.

Supersonic is a sprint move. It’s used to transit the battlespace quickly.  A supersonic plane can dive one level and/or turn up to 90d after the midpoint of the move. A supersonic plane has high speed, but poor positioning (maneuver angles) and whilst it can dive it has no ability to gain height. You can see the trade-offs.

Here is an example of a F-14 making a supersonic sprint. It moves quite far (up to 16″) and may make a turn after the midpoint.  Interceptors with a high Mach number topspeed (like the Mig-25) have a great sprint ability, whereas light dogfighters (like the F-16) have a lower top speed.
I also call this supersonic sprint extending or pursuit as it is primarily to chase down or flee enemies.

Subsonic speed is where you perform extreme dogfight maneuvers i.e. it is strong in positioning and changing heights but much slower than supersonic sprint . A jet making a subsonic move can move into the front 180d arc and move up to it’s subsonic speed (6″in the case of this F-14). 
The jet may either turn OR climb – if it does both its move is halved and it can only move 3″. It may dive without penalty.  As you can see, attempting to climb (height) and turn (position) has a penalty on speed. I’m trying to main the trade-off.

The F-14 can make a tight turn (high or low yoyo) combined with dives or climbs (chandelle). The F-14 can even stay still (simulated by a loop). As you can see, I am lumping lots of maneuvers into the one rule, to keep things simple. Whilst I could have had separate rules for all these maneuvers, I’ve kinda made a single catch-all rule, so you never need to consult the rules or a maneuver chart.  (Savage Worlds does this well). 

I’d like to add an “evade” subsonic maneuver where the plane gains saving rolls against hits, perhaps. This evading would encompass scissors and barrel rolls and probably restrict speed to half. I’ll think more about it when I add a combat mechanic.

Reversals are basically half-loop maneuvers into a plane’s rear 180d arc.  The main difference from a frontal tight turn is that the plane MUST either climb (Immelman) or dive (Split S)it cannot remain at the same altitude. The plane’s height will impose some restrictions; you cannot Split S on the deck; or Immelman when you are high.

Now last post I mentioned plane performance and pilot skill as being important modifiers.  You might include pilot skill as a “crew check” on a d6, perhaps 2+ for ace, 3+ for veteran, 4+ for rookie – in order to pull off such a violent subsonic turn or reversal.  A failure would see them move straight ahead or 180 behind, and get some sort of penalty (perhaps a “stun” token that gives them -1 on all rolls until removed, or being unable to fire or evade this turn).

Plane performance could be simply movement based – i.e. supersonic movement is based on pure top Mach speed and thrust, whereas subsonic movement is more based on power/weight + wing loading + agility benefits like fly-by-wire). So a F-14 in the example would have 6″ subsonic, 16″ sprint – while a more nimble but slower F-16 might have better 8″ subsonic, but only a 12″ supersonic sprint.

I haven’t mentioned detection at all, but this gives you an idea of how I am thinking about movement.  I’m not claiming these are even good. Just showing how I am striving to show the interactions between height, speed and positioning in as simple a way as I can. 

+ There’s no charts A-F, or complex maneuvers or speed to track. There’s no “accounting.”
+ There’s no fancy bases needed or complex turn templates; the only “clutter” is a token that fits under the aircraft’s base (so it’s not really clutter) showing if it is on the deck or high. 
+ There’s no need to consult rulebooks – you can memorise the rules and move a plane as quickly as a 28mm infantry figure in a skirmish game; so a player can handle 8-12 planes (like a Mordheim warband) rather than 1-2 planes each in traditional aerial wargames, making it a wargame rather than a laboriously slow duel.

Obviously I’m not saying this whole idea works well – or even works at all – (I need to bolt on detection as well as shooting/damage mechanics). Obviously activation is important; I’m thinking something somewhat random (like a card draw?) to simulate the chaos of a dogfight.

But what I hope I’ve shown is the intent to keep key concepts (height vs speed vs positioning) while abstracting where possible and removing complexity, charts, fancy gear and accounting. I’d like to see aerial wargames evolve similar to skirmish wargames instead of remaining a laborious chore based on 70s mechanics, while retaining the “essence” of air combat.



Hidden troop movement

On a real battlefield, not everyone can see everyone else all the time. Troops might be hidden from the enemy, laying in ambush, seeking cover behind a hill, etc. This is especially true for the modern “empty battlefield”, which doesn’t have the colourful uniformed regiments marching in very visible formations across the field of fire towards the enemy.

Dealing with hidden troops (and hidden movement) on the gaming table has always been a challenge for the wargamer. In essence, there’s no good solution to it, because the knowledge of the wargamer is not the same as the knowledge of the troops or the commanding general on the table. Dealing with hidden troops in wargaming is one of those issues that touch on the problem of the all-seeing gamer, and hence, any mechanic will always be a workable compromise.

Some mechanics might work better in some setups, because we need to distuinguish between different situations:

  • Is there an umpire present who can act as a keeper of “unknown” information?
  • Is only one side using hidden troops? The classic example is an attack./defence scenario, in which the defender is (initially) hidden, or an ambush scenario, where the ambushing troops are hidden. 
  • Are hidden troops static (e.g. the defensive side in a scenario), or can hidden troops move across the table and still remain hidden?
  • Can troops become hidden again after having become exposed?
  • Is the location of hidden troops known to the player controlling these troops?

Each of these situations might favour a particular mechanic over another.

This post will zoom in on a few mechanics I have used in the past to represent hidden troops on the table. Note that I’m only discussing the hidden *location* of troops on the table, not the nature or characteristics of troops which might also be unknown to one or both players. Neither will I deal with movement that is unknown even to the controlling player (e.g. troops getting lost in a forest). Perhaps these might be the subject of a future post.

Using a map of the gaming table

Especially older wargaming publications promote the idea of using a map of the gaming table to track the position of troops. After each movement phase, an umpire should check the maps of both players and determine whether any troops become visible to the other player. Those units are then put on the table. Easy enough, but it only really works when an umpire is available.

The idea goes back to the original 19th century Kriegsspiel, in which there were 3 tables: one for each side, and one for the umpire. Only the umpire’s table has all the information, and both sides gradually discover the location of the enemy troops. The use of three separate tables is not really a viable possiblity for many wargamers (except perhaps in a well-planned-in-advance club game), but the use of a separate smaller map is a possibility, as long as an umpire is present.

One instance in which we have used maps frequently is in attack/defence scenarios. The defender deploys hidden (using a map), and all attacking units are on the table. Once the (static) defending units become visible to the attacker, they are deployed on the table, and cannot become hidden again. No umpire is needed, and it is a simple mechanic to keep the attacker on his toes during the initial movement phases of the scenario.


Instead of dealing with maps, the location of hidden troops can be recorded by using easy-recognize features on the gaming table. E.g. one might make a note on the troop roster, stating something like “at the end of the road” or “in the little wood near the village”.

Once a waypoint becomes visible for an enemy unit, any unit at the waypoint is placed on the gaming table. This approach works well if only one side is hidden, since if both sides would use waypoints, an umpire is still needed to cross-check hidden locations and decide who has become visible for whom.

To facilitate the use of way-points, I use small numbered markers on the battlefield. Instead of writing down things such as “the edge of the wood”, or “behind the hill”, a reference to a numbered marker is much easier. If you place enough of these numbered markers on “sensible” locations of the battlefield, most locations can be specified rather easily.

I use a set of small pebbles on which I have inked numbers 1-20, so they can blend in nicely with the scenery.

Dummy units

A total different approach for handling hidden troops on the gaming table, is to use dummy units. Dummy units are acting as a “placeholder” for real units, or perhaps there’s no unit at all! In a sense, the location of troops becomes hidden by adding false information on the battlefield. The opponent can see the dummy units, but he doesn’t know what dummy units are real and which are false. Hence, the location of the real units is effectively hidden.

The player controlling the dummy units should of course be aware which ones are “real”, and he should keep track of that as well.

For some of my skirmish games, I use cheap black-painted, grey-drybrushed figures to indicate dummy units. As soon as contact is made with such a dummy unit, it is replaced by properly painted figures. Numbered labels attached underneath the base of the dummies allows for the controlling player to identify which units are which.

Dummy units: black painted, grey drybrushed figures.

This mechanic does not require waypoints as described above, but it does require some more figures (or other markers) to use as dummies. Moreover, the use of dummies adds a new dynamic to the game. The enemy can see where all the units are moving to, but can never be sure whether a concentration of dummies is real, or is only a ruse. It is also possible for both sides to use dummy units, hence avoiding the need for an umpire.Wargaming Mechanics Blog


Aerial Rules Revisted (2019) Part 1

Longtime readers will know that aircraft wargame rules are an area of wargaming which I generally dislike. Or rather: I love air combat, and 1/600 models are both affordable and fun to paint, but the rules suck.  My run down of the various rules (in 2015) was negative.  I don’t think the rules have evolved since the 1970s, and most seem fundamentally flawed. I have lots of lovely plane models but no desire to use them on the table.

I created a manifesto of key things my ideal aerial rules would contain, and looked at activation mechanics. I then kinda left it there, as (like usual) I dallied with other projects.  But I’d still love to get my aircraft minis on the table….

I really like my 1:600 jets. Easy to paint, and they look good at tabletop distances. I admit I secretly like the Su-27/MiG-29 over Western designs.

I revisited the topic last year, making a few points:
*rules are too complex, more accounting than playing. Why am I writing down “orders” for a fast paced dogfights with actions that last seconds?
*the 3D environment seems to necessitate complexity/aka energy management etc
*reusing tired old mechanics from 1970s where other genres have innovated/aka clunky mechanics
*tendency to rivet counting and excessive detail
*rules tend to be more suited to 1v1 duels than a wargame, aka one player flies one plane.
*wrong “command level” i.e. should you be controlling the exact throttle settings and maneuvers for each plane, if you command more than one..

The article wondered what we could abstract, yet maintain the essence of dogfight combat. (With some pretty abstract ideas)

Now I’ve been playing a lot of War Thunder (a free PC games) and I’ve identified a few key elements in air combat:

1. Speed (which can be converted into height/favourable position) aka kinetic energy
2. Height (which can be converted to speed/favourable position) aka potential energy
3. Position (relative to enemy aircraft; can be gained by trading in speed or height) attack delivery

A fourth factor which is not as directly related is:
4. Detection (allows planes to position themselves without opposition)

The more boring “good guys”. As I was painting them, I was struck with the fact the majority of modern jets have their origins in the 1970s…
Flying my P-51 Mustang on my PC, I’m struck by how efficiently trading speed/height/positioning seems to be so important. Without the fear of real combat, it can be quite clinical in a PC game “I can make a tight turn and get a shot off (position), but I’d bleed off too much energy (speed), so…”  or  “If I dive now, I can convert height to speed, and run down that bomber.”  Or choosing between a high or low yo-yo.  I spend a lot of time doing mental calculations of time/speed/distance/angle. Further, detection is vital. I’d say the vast majority of aerial kills occur without the attacker being seen.

Then there are two “modifiers”which strongly impact the above elements:

(+) Pilot Skill (a good pilot finds it easier to convert speed/height/position for attacks/avoidance) and
(+) Plane Performance (a good plane has better potential speed/height/agility to position and even may have better detection).  I.e. things like Thrust/weight and wing loading, the firepower to execute attacks, robustness to resist them, visibility from the cockpit)

While very important, I wouldn’t say pilot skill and plane performance are key elements in themselves, but rather impact the elements.

I’ve always had a soft spot for the much-maligned MiG-23. I like their practical, businesslike look and although they don’t have notable agility they have good thrust/weight and speed.

In my April post, I wondered whether height could be removed and simplified into “potential energy” but I think height is integral to air combat and abstracting it could lose to much of what makes air combat what it is. Differing altitudes impact positioning strongly in a way abstract “potential energy”does not. (There are a few rules, notably C21 Air War, which do away with height; incidentally it is a set of rules where you could attempt to fight a decent sized dogfight in a reasonable amount of time).

By the way, I’m not claiming my analysis of air combat (based on a PC game!) is exhaustive or accurate – this post is a kind of “train of thought” exercise showing my evolving thoughts on the topic (and hopefully inspiring someone more talented than me to write a set of relevant, modern rules instead of copying Blue Max for the tenth time!)

Anyway, I’m looking at the “four factors”and thinking “how simple could you make these, while retaining the essentials of a dogfight?” I’ll probably start with a trimmed down set of conventional(ish) rules, and contrast it with more abstract ideas. Deltavector