Saturday, May 21, 2016

Wargame review — Nightfighter

The Long, Silent Night

(Originally published on September 15, 2011)

Designer: Lee Brimmicombe-Wood
Player Count: 1 to 2 (downloadable solo rules)
Publisher: GMT Games

Summer of 1940the infinite sky over a slumbering London.
The night is young, with hardly a cloud in sight, and the moon is shining like a lighthouse in heaven. Amidst the cacophony of his cockpit, the British pilot hopes against hope that his trained eyes will detect enemy bombers in time to break their deathly spell.
Time, however, is not on his side: the fuel gauge is screaming that his flight will soon come to an end, whether he decides to land or not.
As the pilot is about to bank left and aim for home, he takes one last look over his shoulder. Was that a glint of metal out there, in the velvety distance? He steadies his aircraft and squints into the darkness… and then the umpire tells him he just missed his tally roll.

Nightfighter puts players in the pilot’s seat during those erstwhile games of cat and mouse through Europe’s night skies. The bombers ARE there; it’s just a question of spotting them before it’s too late.

The game is officially a two-player affair, although one of them—the umpire—assumes, more than anything else, the role of the AI inside this paper computer. The game uses two maps: one for the umpire (and the bombers) and one for the player, where counters depicting fighters, radars and searchlights are moved about. Bombers enter the umpire’s map at one end, and the hunt is on.

On each turn, bombers move and/or enter the map, always barreling down the hexagonal grid in the same direction—that of their intended target. Then fighters fly around, trying to get a glimpse of their invisible opponents. The player rolls dice when he tries to spot a bomber, with results interpreted in a simple manner: if any one of the six-siders comes up with the tally number of a bomber within visible range, then the pilot has tallied that bomber and will know where to look next turn, hopefully flying close enough to open fire and shoot down the intruder.
And if the roll is missed? Well, the bomber could be somewhere nearby, but that poor pilot might never know.

The rules follow a programmed progression, which pretty much mirrors the chronological evolution of nightfighting technology. Scenario 1 is played with a bare minimum of rules (movement, basic tallying and basic combat), resulting in a difficulty level of “impossible.” No need to panic: the scenario is over soon enough—most probably without triggering any action—leaving both player and umpire with a good idea of how difficult early night missions could prove to be for fighters taking literal shots in the dark.

Then the new stuff starts rolling in, with the rules to go along with them. Early radar, searchlights, bomber response (gotta love that one), altitude advantage, AI radar, oblique guns, flak (which will not be as useful as you’d hoped), advanced electronics of all kinds (including jamming!), naval action, and even fighter escorts for the bombers!

Victory conditions vary from one scenario to the next, but you can safely assume that the player scores a victory when he shoots down bombers. Otherwise, kiss your beautiful city goodbye.


WAR PRODUCTION

The game comes equipped with paper maps, a rarity amongst today’s offerings from GMT. (Maybe they’re the last of their kind?...) Everything’s a mix of black, dark blue and dark purple, which creates a very different wargaming look. Intriguing as well as enticing.

The counters are the usual GMT high quality, with illustrated with silhouettes of a slew of fighters and bombers from the period.
Those counters have very little information on them; in fact, most of the basic information (movement rating, firepower, damage) is not there. Those numbers are located on the player aid, and this makes it possible to cut down on the number of different counters GMT would have had to print (and players would have had to handle) in order to cover the large helping of scenarios included with the game. For instance, the Ju88 counter can represent the Ju88 C-2, or the Ju88 C-6, or the Ju88 G-1/G-6.
So the upside is less counters to pay for and then track between games, but with the inevitable downside that even the most basic information about a plane needs to be looked up on the player aid. While that’s not a problem if you play one game a week, things get confusing fast when chaining scenarios (which is what this game is perfect for).

The long, four-panel cardboard player aid doubles as a screen to keep the umpire’s map away from a player’s prying eyes. Player and umpire are meant to sit on opposite sides of the table, with the screen/player aid between them.
That idea is sound in theory, but the (standard) height of the player aid makes for one tall screen—so tall, in fact, that the umpire simply can’t see the player’s map. I’ve found that the umpire had to sit to the left or right of the player, at a 90-degree angle; this enables the umpire to see both maps at once, while confining the player to his own side of the screen. This, in turn, makes it a little awkward for the umpire to look up some of the info on the player aid, but hey, nothing’s perfect.

I’ll close this section with the obligatory remark about the cover: it’s strikingly different from its brethren, and it has become one of my favorite wargame covers, precisely because it is so different. In some ways, it doesn’t even look like a wargame, and for some reason that appealed to me. As long as no one buys it thinking it’s some sort of Chinese shadows party game, nobody should get hurt.


RULES OF ENGAGEMENT

One word: brilliant.
Not only are the rules clear and to the point, but they’re also laid out so that you learn the game in programmed increments.
For instance, you only need to read through to page 10 to play scenario 1. (In truth, only four of those pages contain actual rules: the rest is taken up by a glossary, a list of contents and set up instructions.) The basic rules are so easy that they can be explained in about five minutes. It’s that simple.
Of course, scenario 1 is not the most exciting engagement you’ll ever live through, but it does two remarkable things: it hammers the basic rules into your brain without your realizing it, and it gives you a sense of what those first pilots could do against the first night bombings. Which is to say, practically nothing.

Read one more page of rules, and you’re ready for scenario 2. You’ve stepped forward in time to the point when the first radars became available, and you can immediately see the impact that technology had on those dark hunts in the sky.

Read three more pages, and jump right into scenario 3, with searchlights, flares, advanced tallying and combat, and altitude advantage.
(Interestingly enough, that’s the biggest rules step once you get rolling: three pages. All other increments are shorter than that.)

This works like magic all the way to the end of the rulebook—which spans 22 pages if you count the optional rules—where you’ll be ready to tackle scenario 10 and everything the game has to offer.

Frankly, this is the most amazing rulebook I’ve encountered so far. I’m fascinated at how easily it teaches the game AND the history it portrays in an easy-to-follow chronological sequence. Throw in five pages of historical notes, and I fail to see what could be missing.

Well, there is one thing… but we’ll get back to it in a moment.


FUN FACTOR

Nightfighter is fun. And a lot of it—it keeps finding its way back to my table.
But from a distance, there are two things that create the illusion that the marvel inside the dark purple box might not be all that exciting.

First, the notion of umpire. This is a game for one player, but it’s not a solitaire adventure: the lone player still needs a friend to sit behind the curtain and pull the levers. And while it’s true that the umpire is offered pretty few meaningful decision throughout a typical scenario (at least until scenario 10, where the umpire takes control of a few fighters of his own), I’ve found that playing the puppet master wasn’t boring at all. It’s a little like making up the puzzle in Mastermind or Black Box and then waiting to see whether your opponent will figure it out. Plus, a scenario is over so fast—usually under an hour, and sometimes way under that—that there’s more than enough time for the umpire to jump into the cockpit and try to do better than his opponent.

And second, the first two scenarios are nothing special. They’re like appetizers designed to get your saliva flowing in anticipation of the mammoth meal to come. You owe it to yourself to play at least through scenario 3 before you carve your opinion of the game in stone. (And sure, you could read the necessary rules in one go and jump right into scenario 3, but numbers 1 and 2 are really interesting from a historical point of view. I recommend playing them all in sequence.)

Speaking of scenarios: each scenario is flanked by a (sometimes staggering) number of variants that ensure you’ll never play each scenario the same way twice. In fact, each variant is substantially different from its parent to make the offspring a scenario unto itself. So if you play just the parents scenarios, you get 10 of them, which is about average for a game of this kind. But if you add every one of the variants on top of that, well, you’re in for 67 different games before you get a single repeat performance.
(That’s not a typo: SIXTY-SEVEN. Good grief!)

And if that’s still not enough for you, GMT stuffed an additional bit into the box before shrinkwrapping it: a 12-page campaign rulebook that should keep us flying for years to come. The booklet features rules for special events, pilot promotions and decorations, plane repairs (after you’ve used the convenient injury and accident tables…) and, you guessed it, a scenario generator.
The mind reels.


PARTING SHOTS

With all that gaming horsepower stashed under the hood, the only thing that was missing from Nightfighter was solo rules. I mean, it’s essentially a game for one player, right? But because of the way the system works, solo rules didn’t seem possible. (Imagine playing Battleship or Mastermind solo…) Even Lee Brimmicombe-Wood, the game’s designer, acknowledges that he has tried and failed to come up with solo rules.

But then comes along Philip Sabin, professor of Strategic Studies at King’s College in London, with a set of spectacular solitaire rules that admirably retain the nature of the beast while making it absolutely possible for one player to enjoy the game on his own. And in four simple pages!
(You can download the solo rules here.)

At last, the game was perfect. And yet… I still find myself enjoying the game more with a human, breathing umpire on the other side of the screen, smirking at my failed tally attempts, shaking his head when I come oh so close to a bomber in the dark, and hurrying out of his chair for a chance to outdo my performance at the conclusion of a scenario. (Plus, I love to play the umpire, too!)

But I’m happy to know that, thanks to Prof Sabin, I’ll always be able to grab the stick and take to the darkened skies, even in the middle of an actual night, when I’m the only soul awake in the house.


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