THE RIGHT STUFF
THE SPEED OF HEAT; AIR COMBAT OVER KOREA AND VIETNAM, by J.D. WEBSTER
from CLASH OF ARMS GAMES
Six 9.5" x 10.75" geomorphic maps; 240 counters; 32 8.5" x 11" charts and tables (backprinted); one Rules booklet; one Scenario booklet; boxed. Clash of Arms, Box 60668, King of Prussia PA xxxxx. $36
Reviewed by ROBERT KASTEN
The modern, single-aircraft tactical air-combat realm has been, over the years, a difficult subject to simulate (at least with hexes and counters). In 1975, Dunnigan's Foxbat and Phantom proved that the subject was gameable in the traditional manner, although it left plenty to be desired in terms of detail and realism. Gamers - as they always do - demanded more.
They didn't exactly get overwhelmed, as the sporadic history of tactical air boardgames shows. In the late 70's we got Dave Isby's and SPI's Air War, featured by overkill and underdevelopment, plus the obscure and graphically heinous MiG Killers, by the venerable Lou Zocchi. In the mid-80's TSR reprinted Air War, but that word has to be used literally: gamers were invited to send their questions to "SPI, 44 E.23rd St, New York … ". A classic.
In 1987 our hero, J.D.Webster - a commercial airline pilot by trade, Ace Drummond by avocation - and GDW came out with a huge leap forward in design: Air Superiority, followed quickly by Air Strike and Desert Falcons. Here was the accessible, playable yet "dirt"-laden system to warm the hearts of the computer-shunning, dierolling sky jockeys. The popularity of the "AS" system was never in doubt, to which the 13,000 copies of Air Superiority (alone) sold by GDW can attest. AS, however, was not without problems. The rules were only passably written, the games had several pages of errata and the graphics presentation was only mediocre.
Remarkably - remarkable because almost NO game sells 13,000 these days - GDW dropped the series, allowing Clash of Arms to step into the breach. The company best known for its magnificent contribution to Napoleonics was now in the tactical air business; the latest evolution of the old AS system, Speed of Heat, was now upon us.
Speed of Heat's box cover hits the eye with a fistful of garish silver, house artist Rick Barber going Metallica. While not much worse than what adorned the old AS covers, it does leave a bit to be desired. ( I am told that it is, at least, technically accurate). The quizzical physical aspect here is that all the game's parts are letter-sized and would have - our could have been made to - fit into a bookcase box. The quintessential, CoA, large flat-box is really superfluous…and ugly.
Inside reveals few surprises. The components all bear a striking resemblance to their earlier GDW cousins, with the exception that everything (except the errata) is on somewhat heavier paper - a very nice touch. Even the fonts used in the Heat rulebook are remarkably similar to those used by GDW rules booklets, and many of the rule's diagrams are exact replications.
As for those rules, if J.D.Webster isn't exactly Shakespeare, then Phil Boinske is no Harold Ross in the editing department, either. The scenario and rules booklets, while they look reasonably clean and easy to read, are riddled with typos and grammatical errors one would expect of a school term paper. Sadly (and seriously), in this, the age of Decision Games, 3W, and the (late) FGA, this situation has become somewhat of the norm. It's time someone informed these vocational dyslexics that simply running a piece through a Spellchecker is not the final step; reading what you print also helps.
The six geomorphic maps, while adequate, are mildly disappointing. Rick's period-flavor map work has always been quite appealing in the past. These maps, however, appear out of place and unclean. The counters, though, demonstrate some impressive artwork. Can you think of a better place for Mr. Barber to apply his evident supply of silver tint? Since many Korean-era, and some Vietnam-era, jets were unpainted and remained raw aluminum-silver (picture American Airlines), the choice was a natural for Rick. The counters' clear line-drawings of aircraft and realistic coloration, look great; they're the strongest physical aspect to an otherwise lackluster presentation.
Fortunately, this situation improves drastically as one gets into the game system. Since the rule-book is a mite intimidating at 72 pages, learning the game appears difficult. One inevitably turns to the nearly-as-voluminous scenario booklet (weighing in at 52 pages) for salvation. Included are six, small, solitaire training scenarios which allow one to access the system incrementally and eventually absorb its rules and some of its subtleties. These training scenarios are essentially puzzles to be solved. As such, they're excellent learning tools that still manage to present a challenge and make one want to get on to the master system. This "training" process, however, does require significant time and effort for those unfamiliar with the AS system. And, like any complex system, this is not something you want to learn by jumping head-first into the most complex scenario.
Clearly, the more tedious aspects of the game system - apart from actually learning it - involve configuring aircraft, keeping track of their weapons load-out, and the concomitant pencil-and-papering. While the AS record-keeping system may not appeal to some, for playability's sake it's better than the physical "tracks" used in Air War and Foxbat - especially when one gets several aircraft on the board at once. In general, when you get more than two jets per side, the game system begins to slow down noticeably. Four per side is really the maximum for my tastes, and it is also the point at which more than one player per side becomes a true necessity. Once airplanes are readied with weapons, one records speed, throttle setting, altitude, and other (somewhat less important) values. However, these values can change throughout the turn depending on what the aircraft does, and, thus, they are recalculated at the beginning of every new turn!
The system is complex, and, unfortunately, that complexity defies simple description. Basically, it's an exercise in simple arithmetic combined with a guessing game as to what the opponent will do. With each hex representing one-third of a mile, and turns of 12 seconds, we have a highly and truly tactical game situation. This is not a fight between weapons platforms; this is an old-fashioned duel of capabilities and wits that is especially true to the period. Make the right guesses, get one move ahead of your opponent, and you'll win. In Air Superiority - where cutting edge technology is employed - many air battles were over before the combatants were ever in visual range of one another. In Heat, guns are the primary weapons upon which one relies upon, with maneuver and tactics the order of the day.
While the system is thus time-consuming to learn, the time spent is well rewarded. And once the system is learned, the rationale behind particular rules are easy to recall. And anyway, most of it is gathered together on the plethora of charts provided. It's accurate to say that virtually nothing has been left out. If it plays a role in air combat - either air-to-air or air-to-ground - it's in here. This is easily one of the most complete game systems available, as sort of flying ASL. And is if that weren't enough, you can get J.D.'s excellent, bi-monthly 20-page journal "Air Power," now in it's 22nd issue. With the game plus the journal your coverage of tactical air combat is now complete.
It's important to consider how this "board" system compares with most popular genre in the computer gaming realm - the air combat simulator. Many consider manual, board games on this subject to be obsolete. Such is not the case! The flight sims in the desktop computers use models which are similarly accurate (and, in some areas, less accurate!), but provide more iterations (of calculations) per turn to provide the illusion of flight in the guise of animation. The model in Speed of Heat is completely adequate and provides the greater learning experience, as it requires more analytical thought and interaction. So, for all you zealous computer jet-jocks out there, consider learning the AS system, as it will provide insight into the world of air combat that the computer simply cannot provide. At worst, it is the perfect partner (some would say antidote) to your computer simulations.
The Speed of Heat rules represent the culmination of many years of testing and development. The popularity of the system is not coincidental; it works and has proven itself over the past 5 years. The Heat package also includes many scenarios which are carefully designed and laid out to provide an interesting and incisive study of the evolution of jet combat during the period depicted. The combination of good research, history and a solid game system make Speed of Heat a game which will not soon be forgotten.
I had a dream...I dreamt that the perfect airwar-game was published. It was designed by J.D Webster, developed by John Butterfield, edited by Phil Boinske (let's give him one)… with graphical design by Rodger MacGowan, maps by Mark Simonitch, and counters by Rick Barber. A dream? Perhaps … but there is the reality of Speed of Heat, as close to this dream as one can presently get.
Graphic Presentation: Adequate overall: great counters; good rules; fair charts; tacky (big) box.
Playability: Dependent upon the number of aircraft involved. More than 4 aircraft per side slows the system down to the painful level for one person per side. Certainly not for the beginner or the casual gamer, though.
Replayability: Almost unlimited; the scenarios and their variants variants can keep one busy for years.
Historicity: Tops. This is a complex and incisive overview of Korean and Vietnam-era jet air-combat tactics worthy of academic study.
Comparisons: Nothing (that's in print). The GMT "Leader" series is more operational than tactical.
Overall: A State-of-the-art, cutting edge simulation, and a must buy for the jet-combat fan.