Unboxing NATO Air Commander

NATO Air Commander (NAC) is a new solitaire game by Hollandspiele, set during a hypothetical World War III between NATO and the Warsaw Pact in Germany that focuses on the air war. Players slip into the role of the air component commander and have to allocate air assets in order to facilitate NATO winning the war.

This is the second post in a multi-post series on NATO Air Commander and the relationship between air- and landpower. For the other posts see:

  1. NATO Air Commander – The Wargame
  2. Unboxing NATO Air Commander (the post you are reading now)
  3. The Role of Air Power in Warfare (a conceptual overview of the role of airpower and a review of the book The Air Campaign by John Warden III, head planner of the air campaign in the First Gulf War)
  4. Rules Overview of NATO Air Commander
  5. First Game AAR of NATO Air Commander

The Components

The NAC box comes with everything ready to play, and you don’t need to do anything but cut out the counters and set up the game map. When opening the box, however, you are met with an off-putting chemical smell, I assume it is from the printing process. I hope the smell will go away with continuous use, as it does make me feel a little nauseous.

The components of NAC are as follows:

  • A 12-page rulebook
  • 50 cards, of which 9 are objective cards and 41 resolution cards
  • 96 counters, consisting of aircraft, ground forces, etc.
  • 22”x17” mapsheet

We will take a look at each component.

The Rulebook

The rulebook is maybe the most important part of a boardgame, let alone a wargame. A well designed, short rulebook can greatly facilitate learning how to play a game and the playing experience itself. And here, Hollandspiele and Brad Smith did a very good job. The rulebook is short and to the point. Explanations are simple to understand and concise. After a quick introduction (what is the game about) and a description of the components, the rulebook jumps into the general set-up and the flow of play. The nine phases in a turn, which drive the action in NAC, are described thoroughly in an easy to understand fashion.

Reading NATO Air Commander’s rulebook was a real pleasure. Usually, wargames come with a lot of “crome”, meaning a lot of special exceptions and specific rules that are supposed to give the player a more realistic atmosphere. Usually, this leads to hard-to-learn wargames, difficult game set-ups, and broken game flow. The time you have to invest in the majority of wargames in order to have a fluid and pleasant gaming experience is significant and, in my opinion, usually not worth it. NATO Air Commander goes the other direction. A lot of real-world details are abstracted away and hidden in simple game mechanics so that the player can focus on one thing and one thing only: how to design the air campaign.

And this is how it should be! An air component commander with a huge staff at his disposal will not lose himself in micromanagement and the minutiae of aircraft wing operations. He will give overall guidance, determine main efforts, pick centers of gravity, and design the overall operations plan. NAC got this part right for sure!

Resolution Cards

NAC is a card driven game, meaning that there are no dice but randomness is generated via cards. Each one of the 41 resolution cards has values for air intercept (air interception capabilities of Warsaw Pact forces, the lower the better), ground defense (Warsaw Pact ground-based air defense value, the lower the better), attack resolve (NATO ground forces combat value, the higher the better), WP reinforce (reinforcement value of Warsaw Pact forces, the lower the better), NATO reinforce (reinforcement value of NATO forces, the higher the better). Depending on what you want to do, your modified parameter is compared to the value on a resolution card you pull from the deck. There is also an event on each card that is played when this card is pulled during the event phase.

Overall, I like how real-world conditions were abstracted and dice removed from gameplay.

Objective Cards

Two objective cards are pulled at each Receive Objectives Phase (the first phase in each turn). These cards contain, as the name implies, objectives for the player to achieve. The cards also describe what happens when the objective is met or not.

Objective cards simulate the demands made to the air component commander during a campaign. He is bombarded with requests from higher and lower echelons as well as ground forces commanders, who really really want to have air support right now. The challenge is to determine which objectives are beneficial to the conduct of the air campaign, which can be fulfilled without detracting too much from the air campaign, and which objectives simply must be ignored.

Counters

Ah, counters, those little cardboard things that make a wargamers heart beat faster. NATO Air Commander comes with 96 cardboard counters printed on thick cardboard. The counters are of high quality and they are easy to remove from the cardboard and separate from each other. I could not find a proper knife to do it so I did it with a small and sharp kitchen knife, and the counters came off without any damage, easily and quickly.

There are aircraft wing counters color-coded by nationality, pilots (also color-coded by nationality) that can be used to give a certain aircraft a boost in relevant values, precision-guided munitions (PGM) counters for a further boost, ground forces counters for NATO and Warsaw Pact forces, and Misc. Organizational counters, like different trackers, for overall game organization and setup.

Map

The 22”x17” map is not a mounted map but printed on thick paper. It centers around Germany, the hot border between the Warsaw Pact and NATO, and is drawn up in the style of 70s and 80s maps. The “admin tracks” which are there to track different gameplay relevant numbers are to the left of the map of Germany.

Conclusion

Overall, NATO Air Commander comes with high-quality components. The artwork, especially on the map, resembles those of 70s and 80s wargames, and I think it is a nice touch of atmosphere. Some might complain that the map is not mounted, but I don’t think that this is an issue. For the price of $45 you get a great game with high-quality components.

Disclaimer: For this review, I was provided with a review copy of NATO Air Commander by Hollandspiele.

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