Absence Makes the Game Grow Better

For several years now, I’ve been working on a sequel to NATO Air Commander that lets solitaire players fight the air war from the other side. Warsaw Pact Air Commander gives you command of the Soviet and allied frontal aviation in a World War 3 fought in the late 1980s. Since NAC, I’ve designed several more games on various related and unrelated topics. Though I’d like to think I’ve grown a bit as a designer, part of the thing about learning is that you more easily spot the problems in your designs. And though you know something’s wrong, the solutions are not always obvious. Whereas a younger and more brash designer might just power through things with brute force, a more experienced designer can get wrapped up so tightly in the rulebook that it acts more like a straight jacket than a game component.

This happened to me with Warsaw Pact Air Commander, which spent most of its life being 90 per cent done. The elusive 10 percent was, I believed, to be a matter of balance. For the first several game turns, things were very tough for the player as they had to hammer down the various NATO defense tracks. By that time, the Warsaw Pact ground forces had rolled over half of West Germany and were poised for victory without any help from the Warsaw Pact air forces. Though more than a few people might argue that this would have been the reality of a war in Central Europe at that time, it makes for a less than compelling gaming experience. In a solitaire game, most players are keenly sensitive to the idea that they’re taking actions that don’t matter and that the AI is just playing things out with no input from the player. So in my mind, this was a crippling problem that I just could not seem to solve.

My frustration with the design ballooned over the next several months as I carried out hundreds of playtests with results that felt unsatisfying. I tried tweaking the rules until things felt right, but I became increasingly convinced that I had to scrap everything and start over. I rebuilt Warsaw Pact Air Commander from the ground up, using a very zoomed-out perspective on air operations. While I won’t go too deep into this detour, I’ll say that the new game was novel and interesting and weird. But it was not at all in the spirit of NATO Air Commander, and I worried that such a radical departure from the NAC system was somehow cheating the community that rallied around NAC. When it was all over, I had two totally and separate complete games and I never wanted to see or deal again with Warsaw Pact Air Commander again.

The overhaul of WPAC involved these. Lots and lots of these.

But things change. As they do.

Recently, “That Others May Live”|, was going through development and naturally, my thoughts drifted towards “the next thing” that I hope to see published. With “COMET” ready to go and two version of “Warsaw Pact Air Commander” on my hard drive, I was inclined to go with the former, not only because it’s a very cool game, but also the fact that although I dearly love the subject, I would really like to have at least one game out there with my name on it that does not deal with air defense suppression. In the end, however, Warsaw Pact Air Commander won out. Not only has it been in my pipeline for years, but there’s a sizeable chunk of the NAC community that is pumped to see the release of WPAC, and they’ve waited patiently for it.

With no particular aim in mind, I turned back to NATO Air Commander and sat down with it over the past several weeks. After a few plays, I thought about what I liked about it and its strengths. The biggest ones, in my mind, were how quickly some things could be resolved. Ground combat was just a matter of flipping over a few Resolution Cards and doing some simple math. And though people have called NAC “procedural” (aren’t all games procedural?), the player had a lot of leeway in terms of how they approached the war. It’s true that in the first few turns, you’re focused on nailing down the enemy air and ground defenses, but things open up around mid-game (hopefully) and you’re free to try out different approaches.

With this in mind, I came back to the original WPAC rules the other day. Determined to be reductive instead of destructive, I started off with the game’s biggest issue – the matter of ground combat. I took four pages of ground war rules and pared them down to one. Instead of the player having to control the flow and movement of NATO ground forces and work out complex placement rules for reinforcements, you just draw a card for the number of NATO ground forces in a sector adjacent to your own ground forces. This not only greatly simplified things, but it also had the neat side effect of introducing a “fog of war” mechanic that made the game more interesting, and much more difficult.

Then I took out the missions that were nice to have, but never seemed to get used during any of my playtests. The original version allowed you to do a Sweep mission that let you basically sacrifice an air unit to allow your main raids to get through to their targets. But I found that simply increasing the maximum number of aircraft in each raid from five to six achieved the same effect with fewer rules, and also reflected the mass aircraft tactics that were part of Soviet air doctrine. These little rules differences between NAC and WPAC (NAC has a maximum of five aircraft per raid) helped to distinguish the sides and give both games a different feel. And though WPAC is similar to NAC rules-wise (especially in terms of raid resolution), both games play very differently.

And here we are…the latest version of WPAC. Stronger. Better. Faster.

Warsaw Pact Air Commander is tougher than NATO Air Commander. Whereas with the NATO game, you were not heavily penalized for not achieving what your commanders are telling you to do, WPAC is less forgiving. One of the major ways of earning Victory Points in WPAC is by achieving objectives set out to you each turn. And if you fail those objectives, you will lose VPs and potentially lose the game if you don’t reach the required VP threshold by the end of each turn. The good news is that you have much more at your disposal than in NATO Air Commander, but the bad news is that more is expected from you. While NATO Air Commander had the whole future of the free world at stake, failure in WPAC hints strongly at the prospect of being promptly replaced and sent to the firing squad.

With so much of the game cut down to its essentials, I finally had the mental space to address things that I really wanted to. The biggest issue was the “initial air operation”, which was the opening strategic air moves at the opening of the war – a massive attack that might have mirrored the “shock and awe” campaign in the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. I didn’t like the way the rules didn’t really have something to specifically address this doctrine, so I decided to just create a quick rule that abstracted this reality and let the player conduct one of four mass air operations at the start of the game. Of course, it comes at a considerable cost in air units, so you’d better have a very solid idea of what you want and hope that it’s worth the price in the end.

Here’s a bit of light reading for you gentle folks!

This small one paragraph rule, more than anything, did more to help the game grow and become better than all the pages of ground combat rules and little useless missions that had ended up in the previous versions. I think this kind of experience and the revelation that follows is what helps people like me – lone designers wandering out here in the wilderness – move forward as designers. I guess this can be considered a form of “art as adversity”, but it’s also a reminder that time away from a design can be a valuable thing, and a fresh perspective is just as important as a nuanced study. I think a bunch of game design is about making spaces for yourself and a big part of that is finding where to hit the brakes and weighing the cost/benefit of rules and their impact on the player.

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