Saturday, May 21, 2016

Wargame review — Bomber Command

The Best Laid Schemes of Mice and Men...

(Originally published on August 13, 2012)

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

Between 1942 and 1945, the Royal Air Force conducted strategic bombings of Germany in the hopes of crippling the Reich’s industry, choke its war machine, and terrorize the population into surrender/capitulation. Civilian casualties were dizzyingly high, with a death rate to match within Bomber Command itself: 44.4% of crew members would not make it home.
But the raids did work. Although they did not shatter the Reich’s war economy the way the Allies had hoped (what with a decrease in production of barely more than 15% in 1944), it forced Germany to reassign a huge amount of men and material to its own defense. The Teutonic conquest eventually collapsed on itself.


Bomber Command covers the most intense period in the organization’s history (from 1943 to 1945) in a two-player package that is both fresh and inspired.

Most of the game’s action takes place on a black map that represents the darkened skies over Germany. Hexes in the grid are quite large, as they need to be, since many of them will be required to hold a handful of unit markers and various other chits.

But before the game proper begins, the British player must first draw a main target at random and plan his raids. This is done on a paper duplicate of the large game map, preferably using different colored pens and adhering to a series of strict guidelines.
This operation is accomplished in secret, of course.

Then the action takes off—literally.
Active German fighters fly around and use up some of their fuel reserves, while new ones scramble to the heavens in an attempt to create as tight a net as possible. Then the British raids move, but only on the planning map, and according to the preplanned trajectories. But unless bombers pass over flak—or actually drop their payload!—nothing shows up on the game map.
The German player then attempts to detect the raids. If successful, the raids pop on the game map for one turn. (Think of it as Scotland Yard’s Mister X, but at an altitude of 20,000 feet and with a ball gunner.) A successful detection will in turn open the door to possible raid infiltrations, and subsequent attacks from within.
After that, it’s time for out-of-fuel aircraft to head home for a readiness cycle that may take a few turns, while the bombers that have reached their targets relieve themselves of their deadly cargo.

When a bomber rains destruction on the main target, the game moves on to one of several smaller boards that each represent a different city configuration. Bomb markers are placed on individual hexes within the city limits, and both British and German players have an opportunity to adjust the exact placement of some of those counters, based on their respective efforts to maintain or disrupt the original plan of action. Finally, certain combinations of bomb markers, when found together on the same hex, are converted into fire tokens that earn the British player points at the end of the game.

Throughout the flight of the bombers, the system affords the German player a variety of possible attacks, resolved using different result tables influenced by a list of appropriate modifiers. Also, cards come into play at various points in the proceedings, throwing a handful of sand into the opponent’s recipe.

When all is said and done—and burned—points are tallied and the British player wins.
All right: the game seems fairly balanced, but until the system is properly digested, the German player will have a pretty tough first couple of games…


WAR PRODUCTION

The game comes with a total of nine maps, in various shapes and forms. Two main game maps (one for each of the scenarios included in the box), five small city configuration maps, and two planning maps (which you can photocopy or download if
you don’t want to burn through the pad of expendable maps supplied by GMT).

Those maps look great and are very functional. I especially enjoy the look of the smaller city maps. One gripe, though, and it’s about those same city maps: many spaces represent urban areas of a different nature, such as city center, industrial, residential, and so on. Those are important because the combinations of bomb counters that result in point-earning infernos differ from one type of area to another. So you want to know what to place where. Unfortunately, the identifying icons all but disappear under the bomb counters, so it would have been nice to have some sort of color-coded contour highlight to differentiate those areas even when they’re buried under bomb counters.

The various unit counters and play markers look very good, but the card decks—one for each belligerent—are the real show stopper. Simple, efficient, stunningly beautiful, and sporting many historical photographs I hadn’t seen before.

The two different two-sided player aids hold all the charts and modifiers a hungry nightfighter needs, but they are only one apieace. I really would have liked two copies of each.

One quick comment about the cover: I think it’s the most action-oriented box cover I’ve ever seen from GMT. It makes for a nice departure from their usual art direction.
  

RULES OF ENGAGEMENT

Bomber Command clocks in at 24 pages of standard rules, plus three pages of advances rules, for an about average rulebook length. The rules themselves are well organized—efficiently enough for the unfortunate lack of an index to go by almost unnoticed.
I’m not sure I could find a better training sequence, but I found the rules a little difficult to read, essentially because of all the rules buffering required—you need to assimilate many concepts before you know exactly how they fit together. This is in stark contrast to Brimmicombe-Wood’s previous design, Nightfighter, where every new rule flowed directly from the previous one.
More specifically, the rules concerning the actual city bombing look like a gimmicky mess if you read them without the material at hand to follow along. Fear not, however, as this is a true case of a procedure being much more difficult to explain than to actually perform.

The game also ships with a short playbook that features designer’s notes and examples of play.

(Oh, and photograph that adorns the rulebook is positively gorgeous.)


FUN FACTOR

Bomber Command is a fun game indeed, and not in small part because it’s so different from your usual hex-and-counter wargame.

The city bombing stage of the game is a thrilling interlude after the frustrating (in a good way) game of cat and mouse up there in the dark. Upon first reading the rules, this feels like a disconnected module; but in action, the bombing flows logically from the flying, and the overall experience creates a rather organic buzz.

I love the simple card-cancelling mechanism, where playing two cards with, say, the bomb icon, cancels an opponent’s bomb-bearing card. This eliminates the need for special counter cards, and provides an alternate use for unusable cards in hand. (Although it doesn’t happen often, circumstantial duds will show up on occasion.)

The one thing I was that excited about is the downtime. Now don’t get me wrong: there’s no more downtime in Bomber Command than there is in the average wargame—maybe even a little less so, because the options one needs to choose from aren’t that complicated to begin with. But that downtime is all clumped together rather than evenly spread over the course of the game—and the downtime clumps happen at different moments for the two players.
For instance, the British player needs to plot his raids in secret, during which the German player does, well, pretty much nothing at all. This feels like waiting for your opponent to set up a colored riddle in Mastermind, for 15 minutes. Not all that long, really, but that burst of activity on the part of the British player is followed by a lull during the flying, where the German player is the most active, triggering the occasional card play and the “flak attack” declaration from his opponent. When things move over to the city bombing per se, the British player takes the reins again, with his opponent playing second fiddle.
All in all, each player gets about the same amount of play time, but the “activity clumping” the game creates might put off some players.


PARTING SHOTS

Lots of tension… holding our breath…

I’m always looking forward to my next game. ‘Cause if I could inflict just a bit more losses and disruptions…

The Geek here lists the playing time for Bomber Command at two hours, and that feels about right. The short playing time makes a back-and-forth possible, if only to switch those activity clumps around.

I haven’t tried the advanced rules yet, but I can’t wait. Especially since they’re really simple to incorporate to the basic mix.



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