Playings 4 (5 hours)
Tac Air was one of the last Central Europe modern games to come out before the show was called off, MBT suffered a similar fate but unlike MBT there has been no attempt to update the system (IDF). So why buy the game apart from most reasonable 2nd hand rates on WW3 games?
Tac Air began life as FEBA, a US military sponsored simulation so gives the official look of how forces act plus access to hard to get data and actual experience (the author is an F16 pilot). That said the rules writing style lacks much of the clarity of SPI or VG games. This could be due to it's original manual format where the instructor knew the rules and the Grunts only had to look at the charts. No words are wasted, scarcely anything is repeated making finding specific rules pretty hard. Take supply, plenty of truck counters are provided, looking under supply we see that these are formation specific and have a range of effect. To find out what they are for the sequence of play has to be accessed, they are needed to recover from disruption. The rules are divided into basic and advanced books, the punter can say "look how short these rules are", unfortunately the lack of repetition and a poor index requires more than a quick skim to play. Many facts are only contained in the tables rather than in the body of the rules, plus the basic book itself makes for a pretty dull game, handy tip start with the advanced rules (which won't make any sense unless the basic book is read first).
The map shows genuine terrain in the centre of Germany which is now unlikely to see a major war. Another big blow is the total absence of our boys although the Yanks, Canadians and Germans all get a look in. It would be possible to draw up a British roster but at this scale (battalion units) we would end up much the same as the Americans, a factor here or there will not win the war. Generally tank and infantry units are much the same for everyone however air defense, artillery, HQs and supply units are special. Tank battalions do include infantry and mechanised units have tanks, a notable difference is that tank units have a lot less people in them. An equal loss in manpower will affect a tank unit to a much greater degree. In the unlikely event of there being spare tanks not everyone can operate them (is the front line the best place for mechanical and training specialists?), on the other hand all the cooks and clerks could be given guns (not that they would be too happy about it no matter how many times they have undergone combat training).
Having finally got past the rules and onto playing, Tac Air is revealed as being very traditional, I go U go, ZOCs (requiring 1 extra movement point to enter or leave) and compulsory attacks within ZOCs. The last is only negated by engineers in towns and leads to the move 'em up, attack and dare the enemy to counter-attack or move away ploy. Combat is differential rather than odds with the emphasis on hard to kill. Results are measured in disruption levels, 4 are needed to kill, other levels are removed 1 a turn by die roll with a bonus removal for being adjacent to a commanding HQ and a penalty for being in an enemy ZOC. To reflect the brittleness of tank heavy formations these should skip level 1 and go straight to disruption level 2 in combat. Disruption 2 and 3 units cannot move so will have to be left behind or rescued by counter-attacks. It will take very good odds to kill a unit in a single round, kills will have to be effected by chipping lumps off. Artillery can soften up the target before combat but will be susceptible to counter-battery fire, the other option is finishing the job next turn or bringing in the air force. Note that the turn sequence results in ground units moving up to other ground units to initiate combat then later the fly boys wizz past to finish the job. Compare this to air power softening up the Iraqis the ground forces (hopefully) rolling them up..
With a name like Tac Air you must expect considerable emphasis on air power. A turn consists of 2 alternate manoeuvre and combat phases followed by 10 air phases. If no planes are launched there will be no air phase and the number of planes in use in a scenario gives a good idea of how much work will be involved, the simpler scenarios average 4 a side. Planes move individually or in pairs at a rate of 10 or 6 hexes per air phase (no less), 1 player moves all his planes on map then the other. Planes do not have to come on in phase 1 but must be removed by phase 10 (keep an eye on the fuel). The general aim is to get to the target or intercept the enemy then buzz off, planes can only attack once per phase and can only be used every other turn. The limitations of the map mean that a player holed up close to his base edge can call in support and zip off home before interceptors can reach the area, the advantage of defence (or losing). Planes cannot just zip around as they please they follow reasonable orders that have to be planned before any movement in a game turn. Interceptors only intercept or stack with a single ground attack plane for support. Ground attack planes have to attack targets within sight of a stated ground unit (chosen from a limited range of types), stated terrain point or used to suppress enemy air defenses. Often the unit chosen to direct fire will be dead or unable to see much by the time the planes get there, pushing the recce units in front does make them rather vulnerable. Suppressing air defences is a mug's game unless you are EW or have some sort of stand off capability because air defenses have a habit of bringing down planes. Air defense units abound, the Russians having a better selection, they can shoot anything they can see in range and keep shooting until they fail a depletion roll. They usually miss but hits mount up, 2 will kill any plane. The need to see the target (or not be seen) means that planes spend a lot of time flying up valleys or along the sides of woods. Air defense units can be moved forward to get good fields of fire but will be at risk from enemy ground forces. Players can pick out where the air defense units are and will try and keep away, air defense systems belt out so much radar that this is not unreasonable.
Air combat does not involve the 4 disruption system, units suffer abort, half loss or death. Half loss units are not impaired but must be combined with another half unit before flying a new mission. The weaker abort result is often better because it will force off the enemy. A half-destroyed unit can go on to complete its mission and cause problems. It is hard to justify 1/2 destroyed units not aborting. Other facets of air combat fail to hang together. Air defence units compare their factor with that of the whole stack of air units. Placing 2 units together makes them harder to hit. Having more aircraft in a given slice of air should increase the chance of locking on and possibly hitting something. Forcing AA units to go for the hardest to hit target in a stack would be a fair compromise.
Tac Air scenarios range from Brigade level actions to Corp level with every unit from the box. The small scenarios pose interesting tactical problems and do not take much time, these are the game at its best. The longer scenarios are hampered by more units all of which do basically the same things and the lack of motivation caused by the German setting. The map scale is 1km : 1 hex, much the same as ordinance survey 1: 50,000, it is possible to play on these maps with the advantage that if the terrain is local there will be no arguments as to what can be seen from where. In terms of satisfaction of play Flashpoint Golan is a better buy even if its odds of a Syrian victory are rather overrated. Not many games concentrate on the air power element of land combat to such a degree as Tac Air although if you have the space and the time Gulf Strike is worth a go.
The Boys Are Back In Town (a Tac Air variant)
I got over the lack of British units in Tac Air by designing my own. Close examination of the American and German combat values in the game show that there is not a lot of variation. The actual number of units drawn up are shamelessly stolen from the organisation lists in Combined Arms (GDW), any corrections would be most welcome. The counters do make up with the right number of backs and fronts but will need marking with coloured dots or crosses to specify command control. It is highly likely that after photocopying the entire page will be eligible but because few gamers actually cut out counters this is unlikely to cause problems. To those venturesome few I can supply a printout direct from the bubblejet and mounted on card for 50p, they will still need cutting out. Aircraft are missing because they can be filched from the Yanks or Canadians both Jaguars and Tornados are included. As an aside the standard game does not include Canadians, I bought my copy 2nd hand and have no rules for these guys.
As to maps I used an Ordinance Survey 1: 50,000 sheet folded for a playing surface about 1' square. Units can move diagonally between squares, wheeled units cannot enter squares with no roads whatsoever, other land units pay 2 points for these areas. Using the local maps I had the Rooskies coming down from Burnley and Rochdale with the local lads holding Todmorden and Hebden Bridge. 2 Brigades held off a Russian Division for a day before being overwhelmed, the moors were full of SAM sites where they could cover the high ground and remain relatively free from attack (the aircraft then flew up the valleys). This sort of set up cannot be balanced but does illustrate some interesting situations, notably the range or lack of same that some equipment has. Russian heavy guns could sit in Burnley and pound Hebden, that's practically an hour away on the bus. I took the Rapier ranges from Combined Arms/Command Decision (GDW), compared to all the Red SAMs they are pretty poor.
I have a *.dtp file of these counters. E-mail me if you want a copy posted on.