Tuesday, 9 February 2016

Instant Thunder In The Falklands

I played another game of Instant Thunder this evening, trying out another of the Falklands scenarios. This was an encounter between two Sea harriers and a group of six Mirage IIIs. The Mirage appear in groups of two over the first three turns, giving the harriers a change to inflict some hits before numbers stack up against them. In addition two of the Mirage pilots are novices.

It started well; a Harrier downed a Mirage with a missile on the first turn. The next pair arrived and, before the bemused novice pilot knew what was happening the other Harrier was behind him and he was shot down by cannon fire.

From then on it went downhill for the British. They have two advantages in this fight. The first is that their heat-seeking missiles are a lot better. The Mirages have the possibility of some half-decent radar-homing missiles, but none of them came up. If the Harriers could keep at a distance they could use missiles to even the odds. They also have their VTOL capability, which can be very useful indeed. But using it puts them at risk from heat-seeking missiles, and with so many enemy planes in play you have to be careful because one of them will get a lock. Without those two advantages the sad fact is that the Harrier's performance statistics aren't that great compared to those of the Mirage. With four Mirages on the board the Harriers found themselves under pressure; there always seemed to be a Mirage in a superior position and/or within missile range.

Four turns in one of the Harriers was hit by a missile, and badly damaged. Both Harriers put up a brave fight, but a couple of turns later, the other Harrier was damaged by gunfire.

On the penultimate turn, a Harrier had a clear shot at the surviving novice pilot. He missed. The novice had a clear shot at the other Harrier. He didn't miss. The Harrier went down.

The surviving Harrier held on for the last turn, even attempting a missile lock (which failed), but the points at the end told the story - the Argentinians won, since kills against them were worth far less points than bringing down a Harrier.

Probably the best way to play this for the British is to down one or two Argentinians early on, then dodge and hide for the rest of the fight, rather than showing any further aggression. The risk of conceding points by losing a plane outweighs that of trying to gain a few points for a further kill.

Instant Thunder

If you are a regular follower of this bog (and there are three fewer of you than there were a couple of months ago, I notice), you will realise that I don't really show much of an interest in anything post-1945. However, for reasons I'm still not sure about I do get a yearning to try some aerial games from time to time. Maybe it was that copy of SPI's 'Air War' I was bought as a reward for passing my O-Levels back in 1980. Aficionados of boardgames of that era will remember 'Air War' as one of the most complicated games SPI had produced up to that point. A turn took ten times longer to play than the entire combat you were trying to simulate. It was high on detail, but very, very low on playability. A few years later I discovered the more sedate combats of WW1, and found my true home in the air.

However I have always thought that there had to be a game which could be simple and playable and yet still give at least a feel for modern air-combat. A few years ago I came across a set of WW1 rules called 'Instant Spandaus'. I never really paid them much attention, as the game was so 'out there' that I couldn't really see what it was doing. However the other day I came across its parent game, 'Instant Thunder'. This was the game teh WW1 version was derived from, and it covered air-combat in the jet-age. Once again I didn't quite get how it was supposed to work. But along with the rules, which I'll admit seemed simple and easy to follow, was a scenario book running to some 90 pages. A read of that, with the various ways different types of games could be set up, gave me the clues I needed to understand what the designer was getting at. The game clicked.

So this evening I decided to give it a go.

You can find 'Instant Thunder' HERE, along with the scenario book and 'Instant Bandits' which is the WWII version.

I trawled through the scenario book today looking for something to try as my first outing. Yes, there are training scenarios, but I felt that I;d read the rules thoroughly enough to understand how to play, even if I wasn't sure how the tactics would work. So I decided to forgo the training wheels, and jump straight in.

All of the scenarios will play solo, but I went for one of the ones specifically designed to be played as such. It's 1982, we're in the South Atlantic, and two Sea Harriers are trying to prevent four Argentinian Skyhawks from bombing British shipping.

'Instant Thunder' is, essentially, a boardgame, in the it's run on a grid. I made some rough and ready counters, and printed the board out on an A4 sheet of paper.

The board is essentially a 13x4 grid. The four rows represent different altitude levels. It is possible for aircraft to move between them, and they can also move along the rows as well. If an aircraft goes off the end of a row it moves up or down one altitude level depending on whether it goes off to the left or the right.

The grid squares are referenced by playing cards (hence the 13x4) - the columns run from King to Ace left to right, whilst the rows go down from Hearts (the highest) to Spades (the lowest). Indeed the whole game is run using playing cards.

In this scenario the Argentinian Skyhawks are controlled by the game system. They start at the very top left of the board, and will fly along it, looking to exit at the bottom right. Their movement is randomised and can either be left to right along the grid, or a drop in altitude of one level.

Player-controlled aircraft are placed in random squares of the grid. Indeed this is the feature of the game that's probably the strangest when you first read the rules. At the end of each turn your counters are removed from the grid and at the start of the next their position is randomly determined. Essentially you planes start in random positions (and in a conventional game this applies to both players), and then move around looking for position for just that turn. On the next turn everyone is mixed up again. It seems bizarre. It is bizarre. And yet, in an abstract way, it works.

Here's the starting position of the solo scenario, however. The Argentinians are in the top-left corner. My Harriers ended up about halfway along the top row. Special rules for formations allow them to be positioned together on some turns, making cooperation easier. You'll notice that the sun and clouds are in use as well.

This is the position after the first turn's movement. Aircraft move in turn, starting with those closest to the bottom right, and then moving left and up. So if you are higher up you get to see what other aircraft have done before you make your move. Firing is done from the top left down to the bottom right.

In this scenario the Skyhawks are loaded with bombs, rather than missiles, but still have their cannon. The Harriers have cannon and a couple of heat-seeking missiles apiece.

There is no facing - you can fire in either direction along the grid. If your line of fire goes off the end it goes up or down onto the next level, depending on direction. However this wasn't an issue with the first turn's firing. The Skyhawks to the left technically had the initiative, but one was out of range (cannon fire up to three spaces), whilst the other was in a cloud, which prevents firing altogether. So the Harriers had a shot - the could covers a plane in it, but nothing blocks line of sight. Harrier 1 launched a missile at the further Skyhawk.

To launch a missile you must first obtain a lock, which is done by determining a target number based on your planes flight capabilities and those of the target, plus the missile's own lock rating. Once yo have a lock you can choose to actually launch the missile. Its flight is run by a series of card draws, with the distance being determined by the difference between successive cards. Each missile type only gets so many draws - if it doesn't reach the target before then, it misses. After getting a lock you draw the first card and if you don't like what you've drawn you can abort the launch.

I chose not to; my missiles got three draws, and the range was very short. Indeed the first draw saw the missile reach its target.

Damaga eis a simple matter of drawing a card, modifying it for the weapon's damage rating (a negative number), and crossing off that many hit-points. The Skyhawks could take 7 points of damage. The missile had a rating of -3 - that is you draw a card and subtract three from the value and score that many hits. I drew a three ...

Harrier 2 was too close to use missiles, but nicely positioned for a cannon shot. The target can try to dodge, but gives up any attacks that turn for doing so. In the scenario the Skyhawks always dodge if they can. It did, but still took light damage.

Here's the board on teh next turn The Skyhawks don't reposition in this scenario, but my Harriers do. After being repositioned you can try to move (rom bottom right to top left - remember?). All aircraft have a series of numbers for different movements on the grid - mostly lateral or vertical, plus a couple of special moves. To move you draw a card and aim to get below the appropriate number in order to change your position. It's simple, frustrating and works pretty well.

A couple of turns later saw a Harrier pressing a Skyhawk very closely. A burst of cannon-fire saw this as the damage card. Scratch one Skyhawk.

The other Skyhawks were zipping across the board, though, with one already making a run for that bottom right corner. And, annoyingly, the random deployment kept putting my planes on the top row, making it very hard to get into a decent firing position.

A Skyhawk evaded me; this one would go on to bomb British shipping.

More bad luck. With the two remaining Skyhawks almost off the board, I still couldn't get in close. The Hariers can use their VTOL capabilities to really zip around the board, but it just wasn't enough.

The other Skyhawks escaped.

At the end of the scenario a card-draw is made for each Skyhawk which escapes, to see how many victory points they score for their bomb-run. They got 3VP total, and I got 2VP for the plane I had shot down. The Argentinians won this encounter.

Having got the hang of what I was doing, I decided to see if my luck would be better a second time around. I got better positioning this time.

A first turn missile shot saw one Skyhawk seriously damaged.

On the next turn a second missile finished it off.

A third missile accounted for a second Skyhawk.

Once again one escaped.

The final Skyhawk couldn't quite make it off the board, and I made desperate attempts to shoot it down. A final missile failed to stop it.

I tried to close in with the cannon, but couldn't get in position for a clear shot.

My last chance. Positioned like this the Skyhawk would get first shot, and I would have to forgo evasion in order to get any return fire. Fortunately he missed. Unfortunately so did I.

The second Skyhawk escaped.

The Aregenatians checked their bomb-run, and scored 3VP again. This time, however, I had two kills, for a total of 4VP, and a victory.

I decided to set up a different game; one in which both sides were played conventionally. This one saw three planes a side; set in 1971 it has Pakistani Mig 19s taking on Indian Mig 21s. Unlike the previous scenario it was fought to a fixed number of turns, with the most kills at the end determining the victor.

Once again the planes were repositioned at the start of each turn. But with both sides doing it you could see the beauty of this abstract system. Each turn you have to decide how best to bring your aircraft to bear in order to gain an advantage and maybe a clear shot. Sometimes you have to decide to stay in a vulnerable position in order to support another plane, or get your own shot in. Sometimes you can put an enemy plane under pressure. It works very well, and the randomised movement makes things very unpredictable.

This being 1971, the heat-seeking missiles didn't quite have the legs of their 1982 counterparts. This shot failed to make the target. Even getting a lock was tricky in this game.

Another missile failed to go the distance ...

But this one did, and a Pakistani plane was destroyed.

In the last couple of turns the Indian Migs were in a tricky position. They had expended all of their cannon ammunition, and had to resort to their missiles alone. Locks were hard to get and, since missiles have a minimum range, the Pakistani pilots could avoid trouble by pressing the Indians close. On the last turn, however, the Indians got into a nice position on the top row; both of their planes had a chance to use missiles on the lone Mig 19. They both failed to get locks. The Mig 19 failed to get a lock in return. The scenario ended, with the Indians the victors having scored a single kill.

This is a neat game, with subtleties that aren't obvious upon reading the rules. The scenario book is a recommended read after the main rules, as how particular games are set up offers a lot of insight into the author's way of thinking.  I hope this lengthy post has given you a taste of how the game works and possibly piqued your interest. As for me, I will be trying the Indo-Pakistan game again tomorrow, and possibly giving the Harriers an outing against a foe that shoots back.

Sunday, 7 February 2016

War on Barsoom - Seasons One and Two

In my last post I gave the rules for a simple mapless HOTT campaign, designed for use with my Barsoomian armies, but adaptable for just about anything with little or no modification.

So how does it play?

I picked six of my Barsoomian armies; the Red Martian city-states of Helium, Gathol, Manator and Jahar, plus the Green Martian horde of Warhoon and the Black Pirates of Kamtol. This would give three games in each season. I decided that I probably wouldn't play all three games, and would focus on one nation as mine, treating the others as non-player nations. I chose Gathol, because it has a nice mix of aerials, foot and mounted. The other nations would choose their opponents at random (I ought to be able to work out a clever algorithm for this, but not just yet), and I would resolve their battles with a simple opposed roll; one D6 each, +1 if you have a Warlord bonus, and highest wins. If the total was 3 times  that of the enemy then it was a big victory, gaining extra Prestige.

Enough waffle - on with the campaign.

Season 1

As described in the previous post, each nation started with three Resource Points and zero Prestige.

I rolled a D6 for each nation, and added the number of Resource Points they had (three, in all cases). The totals were:

Helium - 8
Warhoon - 4
Gathol - 7
Manator - 6
Jahar - 5
Kamtol - 4

The green Martians of Warhoon won the dice-off, so as lowest scorer they got to choose who they attacked. The went for me - Gathol. The Black Pirates of Kamtol were next. They could now only attack Helium, Jahar or Manator. They rolled the latter. This left Jahar and Helium. Jahar had the lowest total, so would be attacking Helium.

Since I was actually playing gathol as 'my' nation, I set up their battle against the hordes of Warhoon. I was the defender.

A Green Martian battle-plan is not a subtle thing. With eight Knight elements a full-frontal charge is often the best approach, and it was certainly the best option in this case, in a hope that my line could be breached before I could effectively bring my aerial navy into play.

The hordes of Warhoon charged and the brave warriors of Gathol held them. The fighting was fierce, it's true, but the red men prevailed.

Defeat came when the Warhoon general over-extended himself, and was cut down trying to force his way through the red line on his own.

As a winning defender I didn't gain any Resource Points. However since both armies had an equal Prestige (zero) I gained one point for defeating an army with equal or greater Prestige. The Green Martians didn't lose any Prestige. In addition I defeated the Green Martians comprehensively - 8AP of their army, plus their general, for a total of 10AP, against no loss on my part. This gave me an extra point of Prestige for the epic victory.

So, Gathol went from zero Prestige to two Prestige.

I decided to play the next game purely out of interest. It's a while since I've used the mostly aerial Black Pirates, and Manator is an interesting foe, as they have no aerial contingent of their own. It would be a tricky fight for the Red Martians.

Manator defended, and the Black Pirates found themselves negotiating some tricky ravines on their approach to their opponents.

This is the core of their army; four Airboats, including their general.

The battle developed with Black Pirate scout-fliers engaging the Manatorian reserve on one flank, whilst their warriors tried to secure the other.

The Manatorian cavalry fought well, but was caught in the open by the enemy's aerials.

After a long fight the Manatorian general was cut down by Black Pirate Blades, to give the raiders a 10-7 victory.

The Black Pirates picked up a point of Prestige, but also gained a resource Point for being a victorious attacker. Obviously Manator lost a Resource Point

The third battle saw Jahar attacking Helium. I simply resolved it with a die roll, and Helium won. This gave them a point of Prestige, but since Helium was defending no Resource Points changed hands.

At the end of Season one, this was the position:

Helium - 3 Resource Points, 1 Prestige
Warhoon - 3 resource Points, 0 Prestige
Gathol - 3 resource Points, 2 Prestige
Manator - 2 Resource Points, 0 Prestige
Jahar - 3 Resource Points, 0 Prestige
Kamtol - 4 Resource Points, 1 Prestige

Season 2

Once again I rolled a D6 for each nation, and added the Resource Points. The scores were:

Helium - 8
Warhoon - 5
Gathol - 9
Manator - 7
Jahar - 6
Kamtol - 5

Again it was a dice-off between the Black Pirates and the Green Martians as to who would choose a target first - not inappropriate really. The Pirates chose first and opted to attack the Green Martians of Warhoon. This left Jahar, as the next lowest score, with the choice of Helium, Manator or Gathol. They went for Manator. Helium was the next lowest but would be attacking the only remaining target - me.

Again I was the defender. Like the Black Pirates in the previous game, Helium ended up attacking through a series of ravines.

Helium's aerial navy was supported by John Carter himself.

Both armies pushed forward quickly. Helium advanced their navy to take on mine. I swung my cavalry across from the other flank to support my aerials. Helium advanced their infantry to prevent this. I advanced my infantry to attack them. Simple, really.

A big aerial battle commenced on the one flank.

In the centre my brave warriors attacked the Heliumitic dogs.

John Carter found himself isolated, and I sent as much cavalry as I could muster to get him.

The naval battle didn't go well for me, and soon Helium ruled the skies. But they were unable to make much of their advantage; both sides were dogged by numerous PIP rolls of '1', which meant that moving aerials was impossible and, indeed, doing much else was difficult. With the higher Prestige I had the Warlord bonus, but true to form the 'best' roll I got when using it was a '3'. It did allow me to avoid yet another '1' though.

John Carter was in serious trouble. But he's John Carter and, believe it or not, he survived this.

Heliumitic fliers came in to support their leader. He held off attack after attack ...

... but eventually the odds caught up with him, and he fell to a sword-blow to the head*

I lost 8AP. Helium lost 13AP, and I got a 2AP bonus for taking out their general as well. This wasn't enough to net me a bonus Prestige point. and since Helium had a lower Prestige than me I didn't gain one for the victory either.

I resolved the other two battles with die-rolls. The Green Martians of Warhoon defeated the Black Pirate attack on their lands. Since the Pirates had the higher Prestige they lost a pint, and the Green Martains gained one. Jahar defeated Manator. As the attacker they took a Resource Point, and also gained a point of Prestige because both nations had the same value.

The status at the end of Season 2

Helium - 3 Resource Points, 1 Prestige
Warhoon - 3 resource Points, 1 Prestige
Gathol - 3 resource Points, 2 Prestige
Manator - 1 Resource Point, 0 Prestige
Jahar - 4 Resource Points, 1 Prestige
Kamtol - 4 Resource Points, 0 Prestige

So Jahar and the Black Pirates are starting to edge ahead as winners, with Manator looking pretty sorry for itself. The first two nations may find themselves more on the defensive now, whilst Manator goes on the attack looking for land.

I may play out a couple more seasons and see where things go.

*John Carter doesn't die. He's stunned, left for dead and will awake the next day on the battlefield ready to wend his way home via an extraordinary series of adventures. He'll be back in time for the next battle as well.
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