If there’s anything that recent world events have shown, there is always the chance that some random element is going to come and ruin your day. Life, as they say, is a dangerous business. Some days you wake up and go to work. Other days, the warehouse down at the port goes boom and wipes out all you’ve ever built and worked for. And it’s these inherent risks that I’ve been thinking about when it comes to wargame design.
My latest game, “That Others May Live”, is about Combat Search and Rescue in Vietnam. Certainly this was a perilous affair for all involved. CSAR Navy operations in North Vietnam amounted to a loss of one SAR aircraft for every 1.4 rescues. One SAR personnel was lost for every 1.8 rescues. The Air Force fared only slightly better with 1 lost aircraft for every 4.6 rescues and 1 lost SAR personnel for every 6.9 rescues. (Every, Martin G., “Navy Combat Search and Rescue, Office of Naval Research“, 1979. page 21, Tables 5 and 6)
During the design process, I kept coming up against the issue of risk mitigation. As the commander of a CSAR operation, the player faces two immediate dangers:
- Anti-aircraft fire that can shoot down the player’s aircraft
- Enemy search parties that are attempting to capture the Survivor
In order to deal with this deadly anti-aircraft fire, the player will need to use his A-1 Skyraiders and FAC to sniff out the enemy gun positions and determine the best route to and from the rescue site for his helicopters. Occasionally, it will be possible to do this in a way that minimizes exposure to enemy fire.
Sometimes, however, you will fail to find these hidden guns and they will open up on your fragile helicopters as they swoop in for a rescue and get blown to bits. There was a special term for this tactic in Vietnam – it was called the “flak trap“, and it was designed to draw in more and more US aircraft and shoot them down in order to create a kind of “Black Hawk Down” quagmire situation.
The enemy search track represents the enemy’s skill and wherewithal to capture your downed airman. Each turn, the marker moves up and the enemy gets closer to capturing him. Sometimes this can happen when the thump of your helicopters are in earshot of the downed pilot and it looks like you’re within a finger’s flick of a win. “Four D” my dad used to call it – “Done in by the Dirty Dink of Destiny”.
The player can mitigate the risk of capture and aircraft destruction in two ways – by adopting sound tactics and by “burning” (discarding) cards. But that chance can never be minimized to zero. The enemy always gets at least one card pull to try and shoot you down or snatch your man. And so you might, through no fault of your own, face a situation where your downed pilot gets captured early in the game or your aircraft get swatted out of the sky.
Risk can be mitigated – but never eliminated.
I wrestled mightily with this rule and wondered if this was maybe a little too harsh on players. During my playtesting, I ran into situations where the game ended in failure even though I had done everything right. I could see some players getting turned off by this – after all, shouldn’t good play be rewarded?
As I turned the question over in my mind, I felt increasingly certain that this was the right design choice. If my aim was to capture the essence of what happened and why during these operations, then I had an obligation to show that things could go sideways even though everything had been done according to the book. By giving the player such absolute control over these outcomes, I was shifting the player’s role from commander to deity.
And so I kept the rule in, knowing that some players would probably get angry and accuse the game of being unbalanced or too luck-dependent. I am okay with that. It’s just another risk I’m going to have to take. I will leave you with this sobering report from August 7, 1967.
Correl, John T., Flak Trap, Air Force Magazine, Air Force Association: Arlington: 2006 (October).
Every, Martin G., Navy Combat Search and Rescue, Office of Naval Research: Falls Church, 1979.
Parks, Rodney G. Mission Narrative Report 1-31-121 7 August 1967, Department of the Air Force: San Francisco, 1967.