Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Wargame review — Wing Leader: Victories 1940-1942

Rise to the Occasion

(Originally published on August 21, 2015)

Designer: Lee Brimmicome-Wood
Player count: 2
Publisher: GMT Games

Designer Lee Brimmicombe-Wood is obsessed with air warfare. From Downtown: Air War Over Hanoi, 1965-1972 to the hot-off-the-press Wing Leader: Victories 1940-1942, each game focuses on the challenge, the glory, but also the vagaries of high-powered aircraft confronting each other above the battlefield. The historical research drips from each of Brimmicombe-Wood’s projects, subtly turning the wargame den into an engrossing class room, as educating as it is exciting. This is no small feat, and yet this latest opus manages to pull it off one more time.

The first, striking thing about Wing Leader is that it’s played with a horizontal point of view. So forget all about top-view maps with a hex grid for a hat: this one’s played from the side, with both opponents sitting on the same side of the table. Historically, one of the key factors was altitude, and there’s simply no better way to illustrate—and exploit!—that dimension than looking at it as if you were standing on the ground, watching aircraft evolve on a grid of blue squares.

The game is all about raids, so each of its 23 scenarios features one bombing mission or another. (The occasional recon or transport gig creeps in, but we’re talking rare exceptions, here.) One player flies toward his target, filled with hope and dread, while the other rushes to contact in a resolute attempt to curtail the intrusion. Bombers obey an autopilot of sorts, moving forward two squares each turn without altering their altitude, until they reach their target. Squadrons on an escort or sweep mission behave pretty much the same, while aircraft sent to do an intercept job must reach the position of their vector marker as soon as possible. All that rigidity, of course, disappears the first instant the sky starts to vibrate with enemy threats.

So the first thing players will do is try to get a tally (the eyeball equivalent of a target lock-on) on an enemy aircraft. Weather considerations like clouds or rain will cause headaches as planes jockey for sky dominance, and then most of the action comes down to the angle of attack, or how each player manages to position his aircraft before all hell breaks loose. Climbing is a costly and sometimes lengthy proposition, but the advantage of attacking while in a dive cannot be denied—especially if you managed to jump on your opponent out of the sun.

Once the enemy is engaged, combat is resolved with a series of dice rolls modified by numerous factors. One of them is the nature of the skirmish: who is the attacker? Air combat favors the aggressor, who gets to choose whether battle is resolved using the turn or speed value of each aircraft. So if an interceptor managed to tally one of your bombers and fly into its square, the deck is stacked in your opponent’s favor. However, if your escort reacted in time and wedged itself between the enemy and its quarry, you’ll find yourself with the upper hand.
Other modifiers include the quality of the crew you assigned to each squadron, special equipment mounted on each plane, flying formations, and so on. One roll determines the number of theoretical hits, while another translates those hits into actual losses—which represent individual planes shot out of the squadron. Enough losses and the squadron is toast—but that rarely happens. No, the most dreadful roll of all is the Cohesion Check, where squadrons risk getting so disorganized that their combat effectiveness is all but annulled. Those squadrons limp home, often after a single engagement—an especially disheartening reality when your expert pilot was part of the disgraced formation. Although being the attacker also helps on a Cohesion Check, repeated attacks (through ammo depletion) and mounting losses carry with them a stark modifier. So make each attack count! It might be your only one.

Some missions feature ground units—even planes taking off from carriers!—and/or flak from a refreshing variety of sources. Whether each side accomplishes the task set for them determines the winner, through a differential of victory points.

Wing Leader comes with a paper map that consists in a blue grid of squares, with a thin dark green line (meant to represent the ground) at the bottom. It is all at once boringly bland and pregnant with possibilities—a mix that doesn’t fail to attract attention when laid out on a table. The rest of the equipment includes numerous rectangular aircraft counters, representing the mighty squadrons and the more humble flights (seen from the side, of course, which shows off their unique paint jobs), as well as a tall stack of aircraft data cards—really more like thick cardboard tiles, each sporting the game specs of an individual aircraft type. A plethora of player aids round out this foxy package, which GMT decided to wrap in an attractive, action-oriented cover.
The whole box screams “fly me home.”
Oh yes.

With its 48 pages of rules, Wing Leader may create some trepidation in our midst. Fear not: those 48 pages constitute the full game. For the basic system, you need only parse 31 pages of text.
… Which may still seem like a sizeable quantity, until you realize that, while there are a lot of rules, each and every one of them is of the simple-to-grasp variety. So just read through the whole thing without worrying too much, and check back on the sections indicated at each step of the various combat tables during an actual game. You’ll do fine.

The equally chunky scenario book proposes 23 scenarios (!), organized in order of increasing complexity. Indeed, the first three scenarios are essentially training material, with very few aircraft involved and not a whole lot to do. In fact, the first scenario is recommended as a solitaire, introductory introduction to the system. At the other end of the spectrum, scenario 23 pits 23 (how appropriate!) squadrons against each other, plus a slew of naval units to spice things up.
(The biggest of all remains scenario 22, which fires off thirty-one squadrons in a pandemonium of flying steel and tumbling bombs.)

Still not enough? The designer’s own website is host to a variety of support materials, including a scenario creation toolkit, as well as Scenario Supplement 1 (hinting at subsequent ones…) with four additional historical scenarios—bringing the total to 27.

Brimmicombe-Wood may be many things, but ungenerous isn’t one of them.

I was already a Brimmicombe-Wood fan going in.
(You can read my reviews of Nightfigher and Bomber Command.)

But I wasn’t sure about the side-view aspect of Wing Leader. I love trying new stuff and thinking in new ways, but I was leery of abandoning the trappings of air combat and not being able to “move around” enemy aircraft. It turned out, of course, that the designer was right: bombing runs were essentially air convoys where lateral mobility paled in comparison with the massive advantage of altitude. And Wing Leader models that reality in a fun, thrilling way.

A minor caveat is in order. Because bomber squadrons are more resilient than fighter squadrons when it comes to matters of cohesion, a player will occasionally find himself with just bombers left on the map and not much to do: bombers usually fly themselves and react to attacks from intercepting aircraft. But while that reality is not all that exciting, it thankfully never lasts long. When you’re down to just bombers, the scenario is almost over, one way or the other. (Usually the other.)

Now there’s something playful about sitting with your opponent on the same side of the table, as if watching a show together. I love the historical background and aftermath of each scenario (so you know ahead of time that your side is supposed to get clobbered…), just as I enjoy watching the battles unfold in the multi-layered sky. Some clouds—when it’s not contrails or the blasted rain!—may get in the way, but there’s always a solution, a window of opportunity where the target is clear, the action decisive.
Unless the Cohesion Check of Doom™ sends you home with your tails between your legs, of course.

Although the game may physically look like very different from its brethren, the gameplay feels very much like it’s part of the Brimmicombe-Wood universe. If you’ve played any of his other games, you’ll feel right at home the minute you get started on Wing Leader.

At the rate I’m playing this, I can see myself burning through all the scenarios before too long. (Way before too long…) So it’s no small comfort to see volume 2 of the series already gaining altitude on GMT’s P500 program.

I can start dreaming of a volume 3.

1 comment:

  1. I finally got this game, and now I must try it. Thanks for the excellent overview, I will keenly read the rules in preparation to go horizontal.