Heretical Gaming is my blog about my gaming life, featuring small skirmishes and big battles from many historical periods (and some in the mythic past or the far future too). The focus is on battle reports using a wide variety of rules, with the occasional rules review, book review and odd musing about the gaming and history. Most of the battles use 6mm-sized figures and vehicles, but occasionally 15mm and 28mm figures appear too.

Sunday, 3 March 2019

The Portable Air Wargame: First Impressions & First Developments

Over the last couple of days I have been playing and experimenting with Bob Cordery's air wargame rules in his Developing the Portable Wargame.  They are a very simple set of air war rules designed to be compatible with his rules for early-mid C20 land warfare portable wargame rules.

I play quite a lot of air wargames - miniature, boardgame and computer game - and I was looking forward to giving these a go.  In most periods, I have a go-to set or two that I know will give me a game that I enjoy.  Despite the virtues of the many different air wargames I play, I certainly haven't reached a "settled" view yet.  I guess my current favourite miniature/boardgame set is Lacquered Coffins, although I have a couple of reservations about the way manoeuvring is done and the lethality of combat.  Anyway, this set is much simpler, in line with the rest of Bob Cordery's rules.

The rules simply classify all aircraft as 'single-engine fighters', 'light bombers' and other such broad-brush descriptions.  All aircraft within a type have exactly the same capabilities.  Altitude is ignored.  Combat is very simple - deflection and such things are ignored.

Combat One: For the first game, I played the rules as written - any deviations are purely errors on my part!  I used the first 'real' scenario from the Achtung! Spitfire boardgame, which is in turn based on Paul Richey's memoir Fighter Pilot.  The hex sheet and the counters are from that game too.

Date: 29 March 1940

Luftwaffe: 2 x single-engine fighters (Bf109s)
RAF: 3 x single-engine fighters (Hurricanes)

The Battle:

A vic of Hurricanes and a Rotte of 109s spot each other at the same time

The Luftwaffe win the initiative and the leader immediately gets in behind a Hurricane

The 109 wingman also gets in position to damage the Hurricane

The Hurricane leader manages to get round onto the tail of the 109s and get some damage done

The second Hurricane (left) gets round but cannot quite get into firing position

and the third Hurricane is in a similar position

The 109s get onto the tail of the Hurricanes in their turn, causing further damage

But once again the Hurricane leader turns the tables!

And this time his wingmen get in some shots too

The 109 wingman breaks hard left to draw a bead onto the Hurrican leader

Who evades and manages to fire into the 109 leader

.303 rounds smash into the Rottenfuhrer's 109...

which is felled from the sky (left); the last Hurricane causes some light damage to the 109 wingman, but the combat time was up and the 109 was able to break away
Game Notes:
The positives first: the mechanisms are simple but effective and easily memorized.  The game, considered abstractly, was engrossing and the two things together made for a good experience.  The rules were very clear and easy to follow. They are definitely a good basis for further experimentation.  In some ways, treating broadly similar fighters as the same is more accurate than depicting them as different (depending upon the granularity of the game).
The structure is very simple: the sides roll a d6 for initiative - one side moves and then the other side moves.  Aircraft can spend some of their move allowance on turning.  Basically it is move 1 or more hexes, then spend a point turning (and not moving) and so on.
The thing that I didn't particularly like as a recreation of history is that the game mechanisms felt more appropriate to WW1 than WW2 and even then had some obvious quirks.  The most basic one is that a fighter can turn through 360 degrees every game turn, so a fight has to end up as a swirl.  I think the main issue here is the number of turns possible per game turn, which obviate the advantages of getting on the tail of another fighter.
I think there is a fairly serious error in the rules too.  The rules say that 3d6 should be thrown per machinegun when firing.  A fighter has four fixed forward-firing machineguns, which would mean 12d6.  A damage point is scored by rolling 5-6, so on average, a fighter should be able to knock another fighter (fighters have 4 strength points) out in one pass.  However, the worked example has 1d6 being thrown per machinegun.  This felt much more like the author's intent, and would give much more realistic results.
Anyway, despite these reservations, I felt that they were a pretty solid set of rules as a condensed essence of WW1-WW2 air war and decided to persevere and see if I could make a couple of modifications to make it more to my taste.

Combat Two: For the second game, I just continued using the (excellent) scenarios in Achtung Spitfire.  this one features Paul Richey again, this time chasing a Dornier Do17 at low-level.

Date: 11 May 1940

Luftwaffe: 1 x medium bomber (Do17)
RAF: 1 x single-engine fighter (Hurricanes)

The starting position

The Hurricane gets on the Dorniers tail - both aircraft damage the other

The Hurricane keeps the Dornier in its sights...

The Dornier throws off Richey's aim

Richey makes another pass...

The Hurricane takes a little more damage, but has the Dornier in his sights...

...and down it goes!
Game Notes:  Tenser than it looked this one, because the Dornier very nearly got away.  Richey's Hurricane had taken a second point of damage and thus had to break off combat.  Very unusually (but refreshingly) there is morale in these rules, so once the force has lost a third of its strength (however distributed), then the rest of the side has to pack up and head for home (i.e. is not allowed to initiate offensive action), so this was Richey's last chance to bring the bomber down.
For this game, I halved the movement allowance for each side but doubled the maximum length of the game: so the bomber could move 4 hexes per turn, the fighter 6, and the game could last for a maximum of 12 turns.  It seemed to work very well, although a fighter vs bomber clash isn't the perfect test of this.
Two factors make it a bit harder than it looks to fly the fighters well.  There is no acceleration, so sometimes an aircraft has to slip off the tail and then regain position.  There is also a point of deceleration if firing fixed guns, which means an aircraft will naturally slow up and lose position.

Combat Three: The next scenario from the Achtung! Spitfire boardgame is a particularly interesting one, featuring a rare clash between Bf110s and Blenheim IF fighters.  Putting both aircraft in the same bracket seemed to be pushing it a bit though, so I classified the 110s as 'twin-engined fighters' and the Blenheims as 'ground attack aircraft'.  It seemed more fair than not.

Date: 10 May 1940

Luftwaffe: 4 x twin-engine fighters (Bf110s)
RAF: 3 x ground attack aircraft (Blenheim IFs)

The aim of the RAF in this combat was more to escape than defeat the opposition, given the disparity of fighting power.

The Battle:

The 110s close in on the Blenheims (bottom-left)

Another view

No use running away, old chap!  The Blenheims turn head-on into the attacking 110s...

The 110s use speed and agility to get into position to fire...

...concentrating on one of the Blenheim wingmen

But all the Blenheims take some fire, with damage being done to two of them

Bf110(2) (bottom-right) overshoots...

Having done a little damage in their pass, the Blenheims take this opportunity to turn and run for home!

The 110s are not going to let them get away that easily...

And the 110s cause a little more damage, although the Blenheims are proving surprisingly sturdy

The Blenheims open their throttles and run for home

Trying to eke out a bit of distance

The 110 that originally overshot is still in touch however, and causing more damage...

The 110s slowly gain on their fleeing prey...

It is a stern chase, with everyone trying to bleed the last ounce of speed from their machines...

The leading 110 has overshot its original target, now severely damaged, and sets its sights on the Blenheim flight leader..

The next 110 does the same thing!

The rearmost Blenheim (centre) is taking heavy blows - it cannot stand much more...

But home is in sight and all the Blenheims are still in the air...

The 110s make another pass..

The trailing Blenheim gets the full force of the attack...

...but is miraculously still up!  The 110 again has overshot and must go against the next target

Surely the last Blenheim must be doomed?

No!! Still flying (just)...

Okay, the last 110 pass before the Blenheims will escape and the 110s must RTB

The 110 makes no mitake this time

The next 110 completely misses the Blenheim leader (bottom) but takes some damage in return...

This last Blenheim appears to be a collection of non-essential parts...

Another view

Another 110 pilot fails to impress with his gunnery

The 110 leader moves into position...

Blenheim leader: "...almost there...almost there..."

However, the 110 leader waits until the Blenheim is big and fat in his sights...

and makes no mistake this time!

Two Blenheims down, but the leader makes it back. Whew!
Game Notes: All very good fun, nice and tense.  However, air warfare fans will notice that the 110s appeared to be making heavy weather of bringing down the Blenheims.  This is because twin-engine fighters are deemed to have two forward-firing machine guns only (i.e. half the firepower of single-engine fighters).  That is okay, but a bit abstract for me, variable firepower is next on my list of things to tackle.
I used two major changes in this game.  the first was the half-move distance, doubled game-length which I referred to previously.  It worked fine and I believe that it works better.  The second major change was to introduce an altitude mechanic.  I didn't want to start recording altitude or anything like that, since that would of necessity introduce complexity and extra bits and pieces and/or paperwork.  My solution couldn't quite avoid that altogether, but I decided that my solution was simple enough to be more fun, rather than more headache.  Because the 110s started at higher altitude, I decided to give them an "energy chip", which could be cashed in at any point for an additional point of movement.  And this seemed to work very well, I was very pleased!  Although in many respects totally wrong, I felt that in a fashion keeping with the spirit of the rules, it got to the essence of the matter.  Obviously, feel free to disagree!

Expect more of this in the near future...


  1. Thanks very much for your excellent review.

    The rules were written very much as an adjunct to the land warfare rules, and like most of my stuff, is designed for tinkering. Your changes all make great sense, and I'd recommend anyone who wants to use my basic rules for air warfare to adopt them.

    All the best,


    1. You are very welcome Bob. I am looking forward to tinkering with them a bit more. The challenge will be to tinker effectively, without increasing the weight of the rules too much.

  2. Good write up and test run and an excellent choice of map to ‘fly’ over. Some time ago, I bought the Neil Thomas One Hour wargames rules, which contains 8 sets of rules covering a wide period. I found myself to be quite forgiving of the rules that covered subjects that were of secondry interest to me, but found myself more demanding in relation to prime interests and I suspect it is a similar situation here for you, though it is good to know that the basic nuts and bolts of the rules provide such a solid platform to bolt other rules / changes onto.

    1. Very much so. Thinking of Neil Thomas, I have been very happy to use him for Ancients and Pike & Shot gaming, being ignorant of many facets of those periods, but have never given much time to his WW2 rules, for the reasons you outline.
      What I am really looking for is a simple set of "Age of Sail" rules in that vein...

  3. Are you going to allow a plane to reduce movement by 1 (or 2) to climb and gain an energy chip?

    1. Yes, I have been thinking along those lines. The key thing is to include stuff but in a really simple and intuitive way that doesn't destroy the charm and speed of the rules. If anything, diving is causing me more problems...

  4. An excellent review of the rules and tweaks you have introduced. The one thing I couldn't figure out is if the planes have to use all of their movement allowance each Turn? It makes sense that they would have to and that seems to be the case with some of your planes over shooting their targets.

    1. Thanks very much Steve.

      I think that they have to and the examples would support that - and so that is the way that I played it - but I don't think it is specifically written anywhere. I am quite grateful for it actually, since with acceleration and deceleration comes extra complexity, and stall rules, and so on.

  5. I will have to try these
    Great AAR
    Thanks for posting

    1. Thanks very much Geordie, I appreciate that.

  6. Glad to see I am not only one using Fighting Wings maps+counters with miniature air war rules! Great AAR's.

    1. Thanks very much. In spite of everything, I can't actually see myself resisting Wings Over the Motherland when it (finally) arrives...