At the Attack show in Devizes this weekend, we picked up some 1/600 scale jet aircraft, the idea being to play through some Cold War-era dogfights.
The problem I immediately hit was what rule system to use.
You see, I am something of a prop head and while I have tried out many, many different game systems, from Wings of War and X-wing, through Check Your 6 and Air War C21, up to the old GDW Air Superiority, none of them have really got it right. And it seems there are some common traps they fall into.
Dogfighting Games Should be Fast: At the high end, these games try to model everything (Air Superiority comes to mind here) and transition from being games to becoming simulations. The trouble is a) computers have been able to do this better for decades and b) you should not be spending five minutes plotting the movement of one aircraft in a dogfight.
Dogfighting Games Should be About Split-Second Decisions: The Wings of War and X-Wing games get the actual game element right – but they also use pre-planned movement, which is an absolute no-no in a dogfight. No pilot goes into a dogfight thinking ‘I will use manoeuvre A, B and then D – that will get ‘im!’ Seat of the pants is the term to bear in mind here.
Dogfighting Games Should Reflect Real-World Physics: Okay, this is where the casual gamer may start to fall asleep, but many of the current crop of games fundamentally get how planes ‘out turn’ one another wrong. They look at the F-16 (say) and a MiG-21 and decide ‘well, I know an F-16 is more agile, so it can turn better.’ Which is sort of right but the mechanics are dead wrong. What I am saying here is that a game (rather than a simulation) should model the effects of real-world physics but not burden the player with them.
So, I was wondering how to do this. In a quiet moment at the show, I grabbed a notebook and started jotting down some ideas.
My credentials here? I am no physicist (though I am currently studying physics for a degree), but I spent a childhood pouring over books about aircraft, my teenage years racking up thousands of hours on computer simulators (everything from instrument-only 737 simulators, through all the F-16 and Tornado versions, and on to the space combat simulators such as X-Wing and Wing Commander – okay, the last two may not be quite so useful), and as an adult actually flying the things, both manned and unmanned (and scratch building the latter).
There are way more knowledgeable people out there, but I know at least a couple of my onions.
I started by thinking what I wanted to model: Jet dogfights from the 50’s to the present day, concentrating on the actual dogfighting and short range missile fire (BFM, as it is called), rather than long-ranged missile duels – though I did also have an idea that, with 1/600 scale models, a ‘fighter controller’ game could be pretty funky, but that is an idea for another day.
This meant we could cross out supersonic speeds straight away – planes may arrive at supersonic speed (and disappear the same way), which we could handle as an exception but, as far as the core rules are concerned, I don’t believe a dogfight has ever happened at supersonic speeds. And there are good reasons why, which brings us on to…
Turning, and the idea of one aircraft being more agile than another. Now, there are all sorts of factors governing a plane’s ability to turn (and out-turn other aircraft), from speed, wing-loading, aerodynamic drag, thrust-to-weight ratios, and all of these change altitude, G-loadings, what the plane has hanging under its wings, and a hundred other things. But we don’t want the player bombarded by a hundred things, so we need to abstract out but in a manner that makes sense.
Here is the thing that many people (including some games designers!) miss, but is obvious when you think about it and what is actually happening at a physical level.
All else being equal (!), two aircraft flying at the same speed and turning pulling the same ‘G’ will turn at the same rate. You could be in a Hawk, an Eagle, or a Hercules, you will turn at the same rate.
There are, obviously, certain things that break this deadlock. Some aircraft can simply pull higher G’s and thus turn in a tighter radius. A ‘clean’ F-16 can pull a 9-G turn, that C-130 cannot – the F-16 thus has a big edge. But what about a fighter versus a fighter?
Speed (and for those of you scoffing at the moment, I am about to change terminology) and how it is lost during a turn is the over-riding factor here. When an aircraft turns, it loses speed (actually, so does a car, but I digress). The tighter the turn, the more speed is lost. The more powerful an aircraft’s engines, the better it can counter this loss. This is why a big, great heffalump like an F-15 is a good dogfighter – it has the raw power to throw itself around the sky with abandon.
I was wondering how to best model this in a simple way, when it dawned on me. Simply give every aircraft an Energy score.
Dogfighting is ultimately about energy – storing it, retaining it, and having more of it than your opponent. What is energy (now that question reminds me of my degree study!)? In this context, it is speed, certainly. It is the thrust the aircraft’s engine has. And it is altitude.
Which brought me to another bugbear of mine in these games – I hate tracking altitude. There is no good telescopic stand for aircraft at this scale, and jotting your ‘Altitude score’ down is boring book-keeping in a game that should have none. It also makes no sense when you look at two planes on the table and have to say ‘well, that one is actually 10,000 feet above the other.’
However, I thought, if we assumed that what was happening on the table was a defined ‘altitude engagement envelope’ (basically a few thousand feet up and down), we could ignore altitude tracking altogether if we decided that Altitude = Energy.
So, if you are tracking Energy then, in a sense, you are already tracking altitude.
So, what I was left with was that aircraft would all move within a tight range of distance (I am thinking 6-8″ at the moment), but what is being tracked is Energy – and I had already decided that the range of Energy being tracked should be doable on a single six-sided dice that could be just left next to each aircraft, just about eliminating all book-keeping (as I had also decided that, in terms of damaged, an aircraft would either be perfectly fine, limping, or destroyed – only one of those needs any sort of tracking).
Energy would be gained by an aircraft’s Thrust and certain gravity-based manoeuvres.
Energy would be lost by turning, losing more Energy as you turn more in a move, modified by an aircraft’s ‘efficiency’ which represents wing-loading, aerodynamics, and other factors. Many manoeuvres would also cost Energy.
I ran through a few mock turns of the game, with Biggles in his Thrust 3 aircraft, making a series of turns. If he kept things gentle, he could zip around the sky as he saw fit. As he started stacking up turns, his Energy started to fall through the floor, way beyond what his engine could counter, until he was flying low, slow and out of ideas – exactly what I was looking to model.
There needs to be a lot more work than this, of course – a plane needs to do more than turn, we need to factor in the high speed yo-yos, snap turns, square corners and all the rest. And I haven’t even got on to missiles yet (you can bet Energy is going to be a big factor there!). Pilot ability is also going to be paramount, and I have some ideas about spotting rules that Aces will be much better at – you need to be able to see an enemy before you can attack him, after all.
Anyway, I have some big projects to clear off my desk right now, but I think this game (working title either Combat Air Patrol or Air Dominance) will be getting some attention quite soon…