Tuesday, January 3, 2006


I finally had the chance to play a couple games of Downtown: The Air War Over Hanoi, 1965 to 1972. You know what game it reminds me of? SPQR. Yeah, the game where you're commanding Roman legions.

That might require some explanation.

From movies like Spartacus, you might think of a Legionnaire as a guy with a pilum and a gladius. But the Roman legion (before Marius, anyway) was – according to SPQR, at least – a fairly complex piece of machinery. You had the velites, hastati, principes, and triarii, each with their own assigned function. The whole thing was designed to be the ultimate process-driven military machine, so that your average senator, with no military knowledge or experience but with an inbred confidence and sense of superiority, could command it and get results.

Downtown is the same deal, sort of, except that it's 2000 years more complex. And maybe that bit about the senators. In the average scenario of the game, you have a target, randomly determined from a short list. If you're the US, you're given some planes, each flight of which has a different, highly-specific role: fighters with heat-seeking missiles to clear the sky (combat air patrol, or CAP), bombers with radar-seeking missiles to take out SAMs and radar-directed anti-aircraft guns (SEAD, suppression of enemy aircraft defenses – the military does like their acronyms), electronic warfare planes to defend against enemy radars, bombers with dumb and/or precision munitions for taking out the target, and planes with cameras to make sure you've done it. Your goal in the game is to wield this sometimes-bewildering array of planes and armaments bearing an alphabet soup of acronyms to best effect. If you're the NVA, your job is to take the SAMs, AAA, and fighters that HQ gives you to protect the targets on the US player's list.

Downtown, like SPQR, is a highly tactical game. You have to plot routes to the target that you think will minimize your exposure. You have to decide which air defenses are worth suppressing and which to ignore (or, if you're the NVA, when to fire and when to stay hidden). You need to decide when the fighters need to stick to the bombers and when to chase down MiGs. This is all pretty cool, and it plays much more easily than the 30-odd pages of rules would lead you to believe.

What you aren't doing, though, is a bunch of interesting stuff including selecting raid package makeups or loadouts, chosing targets for their strategic or operational value, managing your order of battle as planes and pilots are lost or damaged, or (as the NVA) balancing the need for AAA vs SAMs vs MiGs. You don't need to decide how many planes to commit to actually doing the bombing vs. how many to protect the bombers; even in the campaign games, the system tells you how to configure your raids. I completely understand why the designer went this way: it would have greatly increased the complexity and made ensuring reasonable game-balance monstrously difficult. I think it was smart to do it the way he did. Nonetheless, it's still hard not to wish for a little bit more resource-management type control over the game.

As a tactical game, I enjoyed Downtown. It manages to generate quite a bit of tension, as the NVA has lots of hidden resources, and there are lots of high-stakes situations as the bombers have to weather the anti-aircraft fire or the SAM radars lock on. You have a fair amount of flexibility in accomplishing your missions. It's also cool in that it is almost completely asymmetric, with each side having access to an almost completely different arsenal. But given the constraints, the highly specialized tools and doctrine that the players have to work within and the limited scope of each scenario, I'm uncertain at this point if Downtown really has enough player flexibility to get sufficient mileage out of those 30-odd pages of rules.

I think that where this game is going to score for most people is in the realm of generating a historical feel for the operations over North Vietnam. I think it's possible from playing the game to get a real sense of how the battles were fought and how tactics evolved. The game gives the US player a sense of the risk and uncertainty of these missions, and the NVA player a feel for fighting a war in which they can't go toe-to-toe with the Americans.

I rather enjoyed playing Downtown, but judged purely as a game I admit some uncertainties as to its medium-term replayability. Looking at the whole package, though, I was pretty happy with it.

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