Sunday, September 18, 2011

Blast from the Past: Downtown

In reference to my last post on Nightfighter, I dug up and moved my (now surprisingly old) writeup of Downtown from the old blog over here.

5 years later, I never played Downtown as much as I think I would have enjoyed. Maybe half a dozen games. It's just an expensive game to play, compared to the rewards. For me, Nightfighter does a better job of encapsulating the theme of tactical and technological evolution. Downtown has some of the same appeal, but you have to log a ton of hours with the game to really experience it. I need a 2-5 hour game to be a standalone experience, and for me, both Downtown and The Burning Blue were just too much overhead for not enough excitement.

Both games still tug at my imagination, though – Downtown more than The Burning Blue, perhaps surprisingly. Downtown is still a game I'd enjoy playing from time to time, but the practical difficulties imposed by the game's complexity are significant.

Friday, September 16, 2011


Nightfighter is a new game from GMT Games and Lee Brimmicombe-Wood, the folks who brought us the entertaining but rather over-complicated The Burning Blue and Downtown. It covers primarily Bomber Command's night campaign against German cities, although scenarios from many different campaigns (including the Pacific) are included. For players who were intrigued by Brimmicombe-Wood's previous games but daunted by the complexity, the good news here is that Nightfighter is highly playable with only a dozen pages of well-presented and intuitive rules to get started. I realize that even 12 pages may sounds daunting in some contexts, but it's not – I can generally teach players and have them up in running in just a few minutes.

Nightfighter is unusual in that it is a game for one and a half players. One player plays the night fighters, trying to find and shoot down the bombers in the dark. The other half a player plays the bombers. The game is single-blind, in that the bomber player has a map behind a screen with all the pieces on it and makes information available to the night fighter player as his radar and searchlight searches do their thing. While the night fighter player decides on his search strategy, the bomber player has essentially no meaningful game decisions. He is there so that the night fighter player can experience a thematic game, and will have fun in proportion to how much he enjoys his privileged position of watching the night fighter player struggle with the problem he knows the answer to.

The good news here is that the game plays very quickly – a single match can be done in 20 minutes even for new players. The bomber player enters bombers. The fighter tries to track them with a rather clever and fast-playing system for radar searches, and then vector the night fighter to shoot them down. It's nicely evocative and plays quickly. The bomber player then gets to turn it around and play the fighters. If it helps, think of it as a two-player I go-you go wargame where the turns take about 20 minutes. Or you can just accept that it is what it is, and that it works.

The thing about Nightfighter that may trip people up, and which I think the game could do more to help make clear, is that what I've just described is not actually where the game is. A single scenario of night fighters vs. bombers is not really going to be all that satisfying – not even if you play twice and switch sides, and especially not for many of the earlier scenarios. After the brief initial thrill of discovery, the search techniques are clever but just not all that complicated, and once you've seen a given configuration of radar, searchlights, and bomber and fighter tactics, the replay value of any given game configuration is likely to be basically zero. It also doesn't help that scenario difficulty is not always well-calibrated. My favorite scenario to introduce new players with is #3, The Kammhuber Line, because it's the first to contain a minimally sophisticated defense network of a fighter, radar, and searchlights and so have a little bit of texture. But even though it's rated as "normal" difficulty, it's almost impossible for the night fighter player to lose unless he gets outrageously unlucky and gets shot down by bomber defensive fire.

The game here is in the evolution of night fighter tactics and technology. The first scenario has the fighter pilot looking out the window, trying to see stuff in the dark. The second adds some ground-based radar. The third adds more and better radar, as well as searchlights. The fourth takes away the searchlights but adds airborne radar. The fifth gives the defender some high-performance day fighters but the only detection equipment you have is searchlights and eyeballs. And so on, as electronic warfare evolves (tail warning radars for bombers and interception of navigation radars for fighters, for example) and tactics change (increasing density of bomber streams, evolving fighter tactics, and eventually intruder night fighters). This is where the game is going to hook you, or not – playing a series of scenarios which depict the changing nature of the air war. To use the language of Hamlet's Hit Points, playing a single scenario of Nightfighter isn't going to give you much in the way of arrows. There just isn't enough going on. But play three different scenarios in a row that follow the narrative of the historical progression, and you've got something. Hope that a new set of equipment and tactics will be more effective than before, followed by the anxiety of facing an empty night sky with unproven techniques. And Nightfighter gives you a lot of different scenarios and variants to try out.

To that end, I think the satisfying way to play this game is to focus on Bomber Command's night campaign against German cities and treat the various Pacific and other scenarios as sidelines that it was nice of them to include but that are just not the main event. The satisfaction here is going to be found over multiple scenarios that have some narrative cohesion, which the other theaters don't really have. Play each scenario or configuration only once as the night fighter player (unless there are real rules problems, which there shouldn't be). Keep moving through the historical narrative.

I like Nightfighter – it's a clean, fast-playing game that nicely evokes the feel of the night air war over Germany. But I think you really need to treat it not as a 20-minute quick-playing game, but as a 90-minute game of 4-5 short episodes. If you play just one scenario and then put the game away, it may or may not come back off the shelf. If you give yourself a chance to experience the different environments, the game will have a chance to exert its narrative and emotional pull even when you're playing the bombers.