The Plane Truth in ETO

The Commanding Heights of the ETO Air System

By Frank Chadwick

Frank Chadwick's ETO is, at its core, a ground combat wargame. Principal fighting for the war in Europe took place on the ground and winning the war was decided on the ground. Air and naval assets are critical supports for that ground war but, in game terms, should occupy less of the player's attention than the situation on the ground. That means having fewer of these supporting units and achieving a less demanding game system for employing them. Those are the benchmarks we started with for the ETO series design.

ETO cover Uranus

All of that said, however, we did not want a generic "Air Points" system. Just because a part of the game demands fewer counters and streamlined rules is no reason to scrub all of the colors out of it. We started with the air system from my Campaigns in Russia series and immediately added Fighters to the Bomber and Ground Attack Air units, and we wanted at a broader span of Bombing Missions which would be required in a game of ETO's strategic scope.

Differential Combat is Not Odd(s)

Very early on we realized that simply changing the values on counters was not, itself, a complication. That notion enabled us to begin modeling specific aircraft types and offer a more historic feel to the ETO Air system. That also drove the Air Combat system, specifically leading to a Combat Differential style Air-to-Air Combat Results Table (instead of an odds-based one). To give it a shorter, distinctive name we called Air-to-Air combat "Dogfighting."

ETO Dogfight table

Combat odds are the way to go when the prime determinant of combat success is mass or quantity. When the main driver of success is qualitative differences between opposing forces (often having similar numeric strengths), resolving battles using a Combat Differential system works much better. Differentials effectively highlight distinctions of one or two points between ratings, a disparity typically lost in an odds-based combat system. Differential combat also makes upgrading from one aircraft type to another having only one more point of Air-to-Air Combat Strength genuinely useful.

Initially, we physically based the Air units on the map and gave each aircraft type specific hex ranges. At ETO's game scale, however, that used up way too much player attention, distracting players from the ground game. It forced players to think hard about basing decisions for almost every aircraft, making sure it had the range to get where it might need to get on the following turn, depending on what happened. It also cluttered up the map with lots of Air units which got in the way of the neat mosaic of Ground units showing where the real fighting was on the map.

Streamline Support

ETO TITE Air Display in actionThe solution was the Theater Air System I originally developed for the Third World War series of games, along with a more universal lumping of ranges into four classes: Short, Medium, Long, and eXtreme (the last of which being seldom used in ETO and not at all in Thunder in the East). Doing this enabled us to say an Air unit could fly anywhere in a given theater provided there was a friendly Air Base within its nominal Range – effectively 6 hexes for Short Range, 12 for Medium, and unlimited for Long Range. (Extreme Range can fly farther out of their Theater than other planes can.)

Operating Air units by Theater also made it possible to add a much more sophisticated aircraft readiness routine in a fun, thoughtful way. Putting an aircraft readiness routine on the map would require lots of markers all over the place, further cluttering things up. The current off-map aircraft readiness routine also let me address, although in only very gross terms, the issue of sortie rate, which is probably the single most important element in air warfare consistently ignored in most wargame designs. Sortie rate is simply how often an air force can turn its planes around between sorties. If one side has half as many planes as its opponent but can sortie each plane three times as often as its opponent, it actually has a significant advantage, at least until attrition takes its toll. Fewer Air units recovering neatly simulate a decrease in their sortie rate and overall effectiveness due to the atmospheric effects of inclement weather or the inferior capabilities of Soviet ground crews, for example.

Even the raw numbers can be deceptive. Archival data shows that as early as the Winter of 1941 the VVS had largely recovered from their massive losses in the opening phases of Barbarossa. They had a huge number of planes available but their serviceability rates were so atrocious that often less than half of those aircraft were capable of flying on any given day. By comparison, Luftwaffe availability figures approached 75%. While Soviet maintenance practices gradually improved (especially after the appointment of Alexander Novikov to the head of the VVS in April 1942), they always had a much harder time keeping planes in the air than their opponents.

Ratings That Will Fly

ETO USSR I-16 (ready)Air unit ratings (Strength, Strike, Bomb, and Range) were the product of a lot of debate and revision among the ETO team, particularly between developer Lance McMillan and myself. A single digit gives the overall Air Attack and Defense Strength, but the addition of a shield (Tough) or an eight-ball (Vulnerable) raises or lowers that value by one when defending in a Dogfight. Escorting Fighters add their Air-to-Air Strength to that of the Bombers they escort, including their shield or eight-ball icons, which makes a Fighter rated as 4 (Vulnerable) Strength a better interceptor than one rated 3 (Tough), but the 3 (Tough) is a better escort.

ETO German StukaBombers have no Air-to-Air Strength at all, aside from some having the Tough or Vulnerable icons. That means a German Bf-109E Fighter (with an Air-to-Air Strength of 3) attacks a two-aircraft Mission Packet of Vulnerable Bombers (say early war Soviet SB-2s) on the +5 column of the Dogfight table. By the same token, a single Soviet La-5 (also with an Air-to-Air Strength of 3) attacks a two-aircraft Mission Packet of Tough Bombers (say German Ju-88s) on the +1 column of the Dogfight table.

ETO USSR Il-4 Bomber (ready)Bomb values were a little easier. We still made a fair amount of judgment calls, but as a very rough guide 1 ton of bombs get a ½ Bomb Strength, 2 tons gets a full 1 Bomb Strength, 4 tons gets 1 ½ Bomb Strength, and 6 tons or more gets a 2 Bomb Strength. Yes, there is a bit of diminishing returns built into the Bomb Strength values.

TITE bomb icon

Keep Your Friends Close and Your Support Closer

ETO’s Close Support system began as Close Air Support, and we faced some real challenges developing it. In the Campaigns in Russia games (from which ETO evolved), Air units simply tossed in a favorable odds shift and then disappeared for a turn or two. That was workable for a small game, but ETO also had to do justice to the many facets of the air war at this scope and required something more realistic, something less predictable. At first, Close Support contributed "support dice" which allowed players to roll that many extra (d6) dice and pick the one they wanted for their ground Battle result. We flew with that for a while until playtesting revealed that idea to be A) too systemically predictable and B) ultimately overpowered in its effect. Close Support was too blatantly and decisively beneficial.

ETO close support dieThe team debated alternate ideas for Close Support at great length. In the end, I established some philosophic design principles and a subcommittee was formed to put ideas together, test them out, and present the best one for everyone's inspection. The result is the custom Support Dice system we now have and that really turned out great. Adding to the variability of the Ground CRT (with its results such as Attacker Pressed and Stalemate), each Air Support die is its own "mini CRT" with results that may or may not provide favorable odds shifts in support. Each die always misses 1/6 of the time, always hits 1/3 of the time, and the other half yields conditional results for that particular Battle: Did the supported side have any Heavy units? Did any of their Close Support include a red lightning bolt symbol? Was there Air Support that could "press hard" and take Damage doing so?

This Close Support custom dice system proved clever, realistic, and fun. Players always enjoy reaching for them to supplement their Battle rolls, reading their results like tea leafs to determine what column on the Ground CRT will be consulted – of course rolling a "1" or a "6" on the results die is still the preeminent result, but it is always good to be assisted by odds shifts. Better still, these custom Close Support dice naturally lent themselves for use with cards and Naval units. We had previously distinguished Air units that could fly defensive (as well as offensive) Close Support by denoting their Strike Rating in red; now with the custom Close Support dice, that distinction became more interesting as a facet of "success insurance" when committed to a Battle.

What Can Airpower Achieve?

TITE Strategic Bombing Mission markerWhat Air units could do also evolved over time. We knew that Fighters would Escort and Intercept, so those Missions were easy. We wanted Air Support of Ground Battles, of course, but everything else began as an open question. We quickly determined that Air units would fly to their target hexes during your Special Movement (i.e., pre-Combat) Phase and that the Combat Phase would include a chance for the opponent to intercept the phasing player's Missions; but what about defensive Close Air Support? What about the operational bombing of targets such as Ground units, key hexes, and HQ markers? What about airdrops? What about strategic bombing of economic and morale-affecting targets?

We began by figuring out Missions for just about everything imaginable and immediately began the process of testing, applying feedback, and simplifying. Air Missions became fewer and easier to perform over time. For example, bombing enemy Rail Capacity is neatly subsumed into the Logistics Bombing Missions. We were not looking for 100% predictable outcomes. Since the Custom Support dice were working so well, we used them as a template – not for a mind-numbing array of differently specialized dice, but to establish variability into the success of a Mission, and from that emerged the concept of Damage Value. Simply put, if (for example) you drop 1 Bomb Strength on a target, you multiply that Bomb Strength by the target type (x1 for Hard, x2 for Average, and x3 for Soft) to determine the Damage Value and then roll a die. If the result is less than or equal to the Damage Value, you score a Hit; all other results are a Miss with no effect (and a roll of "6" is always a Miss; these are not "smart" bombs after all). For targets that can suffer multiple Hits, the number rolled on the die is also the number of Hits scored, so if your attack had a Damage Value of 3, you would score 1, 2, or 3 Hits on those rolls, respectively, and completely Miss on a roll of 4 through 6.

Victory through Strategic Bombing

ETO 2-3 Ruined markerWe decided to include Strategic Bombing in Thunder in the East even though it was exclusively a Campaign Game rule and had little impact on the Eastern Front. The dreams of winning the war single-handed through Strategic Bombing are ever present (and everyone should have a dream). Although bombing is part of the normal Game Turns sequence, the effects to the enemy's economy and morale apply only seasonally. To simulate a bombing campaign raining strategic destruction on a target, it takes 3 Hits on it that Season before there is any effect whatsoever, and achieving that many Hits on a given strategic target could happen with a single lucky roll, several average rolls over multiple raids that Season, or perhaps never. We were very happy that the range of outcomes produced by this system shared the correct historical probabilities and with the same flare for the uncertainty that the other ETO combat systems provided.

ETO Soviet Morale x1When you have suffered losses from Strategic Bombing, you choose how to do so. The suffering player can select to lose Morale Points ("let them eat cake") or lose Personnel, Equipment, or Fuel Points instead. Expending those other commodities is not a reflection of bombs destroying factories or killing people, but of the government re-allocating those resources to shore up civilian morale by clearing rubble, repairing damage, building/improving bomb shelters, expanding firefighting capabilities, rescue and medical services, and restoring of non-essential infrastructure. Rather than a direct correlation of target type to damage suffered, players can develop a strategy for dealing with their losses from Strategic Bombing.

Straighten Up and Fly Right

ETO Soviet Flak markerWe confronted expected turbulence and headwinds over the years developing the Air systems in ETO. The end results of which and the refining thereof, from the poor Soviet ground crews, to Close Support and Strategic Bombing "flak" results, to the Damage Value system, to the high Fuel Point costs of keeping 'em flying, have all come together to make a smooth 3-point landing. It has been very edifying over the years to hear how much the playtesters enjoy the Air systems; how those systems complement the ground war in a fun and realistic manner appropriate to the game's scope and scale. Even as the air raid siren calls us to scramble to work on the next game in the ETO series, we look back on its Air system as a job well done.

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