Designing Nightfighter
Designer's Notes by Lee Brimmicombe-Wood

Part 1. A Shot in the Dark

Nightfighter is the result of one of my more boneheaded declarations. I was working on my design for Bomber Command, a 'grand tactical' game of the RAF night bombing campaign over the Reich in the style of Downtown and The Burning Blue. I was dealing with some tricky problem of modelling large-scale air-to-air losses when, in e-mails to my testers, I opined that I couldn't see any easy way to model the small scale, to play out aerial night battles at the tactical level. A silly thing to say really, because once you've set your mind to the problem solutions swiftly appear, and before long I had a raft of back-of-envelope scratchings. From this germ of an idea I soon had a playtest set. Suddenly, Bomber Command was on the back-burner while a new game, Nightfighter, was beginning to mature.

It wasn't so rash a thing to claim that the night fighting problem is difficult. There have been many games on daylight tactical air combat, but day fighting is a very different beast to the night battle. Day combat games start with the assumption that both sides have found each other, can see each other. From that point the game is about manoeuvre--bringing an enemy into your sights to shoot down.

But in nightfighting the actual gun engagement is the least part of the battle. There is little manoeuvre, since the target is flies straight and level, often oblivious to the nightfighter stalking it. No, in a nightfighter game the focus should be on the interception: on finding a enemy in the darkness and bringing a fighter close enough to spot it and shoot it down.

In other words, Nightfighter is all about the hunt.

ILLUSTRATION: I'd be a liar if I didn't admit that some of the appeal of Nightfighting was to do with what we aviation fans refer to as 'aircraft porn': in this case featuring some of the more unusual and obscure types. Nightfighters, like this He 219, are the bewhiskered ugly sisters of WW2 air warfare. Graceless things that maybe only an enthusiast can love. Or is it simply that the lack of exposure to the public has kept them in the background? Hard to say, but I wanted to put the spotlight on these lonely hunters with their very own game.

There's no way of getting around the fact that a game about nightfighting requires the player to track down a hidden foe in a vast sky. You may have radar as an aid, but this is WW2. Radar in this era is limited in capability and though it improved towards the end of the war, with the introduction of powerful microwave radars, it still scans a small portion of sky.

So my first design choice was on how to handle the fog of war. How do I represent it? There's a lot of approaches to fog of war but many of them do not appeal. Dummy counters, like in Downtown? Maybe, but does that really capture the zen of the thing? Were night battles really a giant game of Find-the-Lady? No. This is the problem of finding something that might not even be there; a battle fought with little or no intelligence about an enemy's location.

The solution I settled on goes back to the original Kriegspiels. Umpired games. A neutral arbiter to handle the fog and parcel out information as needed. Simple, really, but who wants to play umpire? What possible fun is that?

To get the answer I ran some trials with an early rules set. This would be like a 'double-blind' game, with two maps: one for each participant. Only here the umpire was not blind. He would control the passage of the bombers across the map and dole out information to the player as required.

ILLUSTRATION: The umpire, to the right, watches over the player. The umpire's map is a duplicate of the player's, but printed smaller so that it can be easily hidden behind the playaid screen, which contains all the charts and tables. 5/8" counters are used on the player's map and 1/2" counters on the umpire's.

The first tests were really a make-or-break moment for the concept. If the play wasn't fun I'd have to drop the whole thing. I was half-hoping that should the umpiring not work out then the game might at least be short enough that the players could exchange places and play 'rubbers' of games.

And then curious things began to happen. Positive comments started to flow back. It's always difficult to trust initial feedback, because early testers are often pals and they may be eager to please. Of course, I was testing the game and relished the umpire role. But then I'm not a regular gamer and I am, ultimately, designing for an audience of one: myself. But feedback suggested that people were getting as much fun from umpiring as playing; an experience akin to Dungeon Mastering a roleplay game. Even if they were meant to be neutral they were getting caught up in fun narratives, and often cheering 'their' bombers on when they had to roll for defensive response. And the game WAS short enough that the testers could swap player/umpire seats in the course of a single session.

Problem solved, sigh of relief. I could shift my focus back onto fleshing out the armature of a system, completing my research, and resolving all those funny scaling issues which I will write about in Part 2.

I'm still not sure what the wider gamer public will make of an umpired game. My sample of subjects, my test team, are decidedly a non-representative lot. I'm sure I'll lose a few people who really don't like the idea. And of course, I've lost the solitaire gamers. That said, I suspect there may be a lot of folks out there who are perfectly content to play the umpire role.

More power to 'em...

You can order Nightfighter: Air Warfare in the Night Skies of World War 2 at: