Thursday, September 12, 2013

Flying Aces of World War I

When I was a youngster (9? 10?), I read Gene Gurney's fantastic book, "Flying Aces of WW I".  It established a life long fascination with those magnificent young men and their flying machines - the aerialists of the various military forces in the Great War.  I should point out that the book is just as old as I am - we were both first unleashed on an unsuspecting world, back in 1965.

While on a trip, this past week, back to my old hometown (Newport News, Virginia), I met up with a few wargamers who used to belong to the grand old wargaming club of Newport News, ODMS.  Alas, ODMS exists no longer, but we got together anyway and played at World's Best Comics.  The game that we played? Wings of War.  John Snelling who hosted the game, is a member of the Friday Night wargaming group Wings of War Nouvelles du Nouveau Port ("Wings of War Newport News").

Wings of War (now Wings of Glory, due to the game transferring from one publisher to another) is a fantastic game, and is the inspirational basis for the Star Wars: X Wing Miniatures game and the new Star Trek: Attack Wing game, both with some changes from the original.  The game has been very well supported, with multiple versions of the base game available.  It is playable out of the box with very nice, full color counters for each plane, and decks of cards for maneuver and shooting, and measuring sticks for combat range.  In addition, a very large, and continuing to be supported, line of miniature aircraft (1:144 scale) are available.  Each aircraft comes with a maneuver deck, and a clear plastic stand the illustrates things like the firing arc, and the deck type the aircraft uses for maneuver and shooting.

In Wings of War (the title I came to know the game under, and the version that I own), you pilot individual aircraft, each with their own behavior characteristics, although a single player may actually control more than one aircraft.  The individual characteristics are these: Different gunnery ability (signified by a letter, which determines which deck of cards to draw from when shooting), different maneuver ability (signified by different decks of maneuver cards, each deck making different maneuvers available for a player to select from, when moving his aircraft; more nimble planes are reflected by having maneuvers that reflect such; more powerful planes have maneuvers that reflect moving further in the same period of time), and each type of aircraft is different by having a different amount of damage it can take.

Additional sets of planes and rules have been released under each version of the game, allowing for other types of air combatants, other than the typical (and iconic) single engine fighter (biplane, triplane, or monoplane).  Those additional units include bombers, exotic fighters, and even balloons.

The game is lightweight, but is extremely satisfying to play.  It scales very large (so you can have large groups of pilots flying in the same game, the only limit is getting gamers all piled up together to control their fighters in tight dogfights.  It gives you the basics that you need to play a dogfighting game - a simple (intuitive) way to move/maneuver, and a simple (intuitive) way to handle combat.  What makes this so satisfying is that - (1) being able to maneuver, with limited field of fire weapons, leads to actual dogfighting, where players are trying to out think and out maneuver each other, and (2) the ability to shoot at each other gives an immediate feedback as to how well the contest is going, because you can get a feel for how much damage (in this game, in terms of how many damage cards, even if you don't know the value of each) each other is taking.

This is a very successful mix, and gives enough for a fun game.  The interactions between the players, and any scenarios that are used to give structure to the basic game (fly and shoot), mean that there is an easy way to ensure re-playability.  But, really, this lowest common denominator (move and shoot) is enough for this sort of game.  It has been used in a bunch of other similar games, all very successful.

Those include Blue Max (from GDW; now released as Canvas Eagles), although Blue Max adds some more complication to the Shooting mechanism, by introducing multiple hit locations on the aircraft, rather than a simple damage total.

Other WWI flying games where it has been done are Richthofen's War (Avalon Hill), Dogfight (Milton Bradley), Red Baron (Wargamer magazine) and Knights of the Air (TSR). An argument can also be made that the flip book game, Ace of Aces (Flying Buffalo) is of this family of games.

Each of these games adds some minor variations to the basic Shoot and Move mix.  Some use dice, some use cards, Ace of Aces uses a clever, integrated system of looking up page numbers in a book, based on what existed conditions prevail when the decision to move is made.  Some use hexes, some use free movement.  One thing that gets added to each of these games, which I really don't believe is necessary, is the aspect of Altitude.  This is not necessary, in my opinion, for the basic fun mix of Shooting and Moving.  It tends to lengthen the game, and doesn't really add too much to the basic move/shoot mix.  The same thing was true of the old Superior Models' game Starfleet Wars.  The effort to implement altitude changes, and the ability to maneuver in the third dimension, as well as the changes to shooting - just ain't worth the hassle.

Now, to all of this, I would suggest that another game that falls into this niche (and there are many, many) is the game Car Wars.  It is a dogfighting game, especially when played in an arena, involving the ability to Move an Shoot.  Of course, it is not as simple as the games listed here, but in its basic form, it ALMOST is.  Good news for fans of Car Wars - once Steve Jackson Games is done with the new version of OGRE (getting it all shipped out, which should be finished, finally, in the Autumn of 2013), they are going to do a monster box version of Car Wars.  Hooray!

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