Sunday, August 5, 2018

Wargame review — Skies Above the Reich

Defend Germany and Most Likely Die Trying




Designers: Jerry White & Mark Aasted
Player count: 1 (possible with 2)
Publisher: GMT Games




Between 1942 and 1945, the Allies launched flight after flight of bombers to conduct a relentless assault on Germany. Military objectives soon gave way to industrial targets, and eventually civilian ones, as the intent shifted from hindering production to destroying sapping the morale of an entire nation.
However, the Germans would not go down without a fight. They developed and refined attack techniques that allowed them, for a time, to break what the Allies called the “combat box”—a formation of bombers where each plane provided maximum coverage to its airborne neighbors.

GMT’s Skies Above the Reich recreates the entire air war from the point of view of those tasked with defending Germany, from 1942 all the way to 1945, when push seriously came to shove, before everything eventually collapsed.

Right on the heels of two other bombing-themed titles—Enemy Coast Ahead and TheDoolittle Raid—designer Jerry White joined forces with Mark Aasted to revisit a postcard game they had put together for Against the Odds magazine back in 2010. The solo experience they came up with is a spectacular self-propelled machine that’s as addictive as it is exciting.

Each campaign of Skies Above the Reich involves at least one season (for a short game) and up to a whole lot of seasons for the full campaign. Victory is determined differently in each case, but your objective always remains the same: to prevent as many bombers as possible from reaching the Fatherland.
In turn, each season is broken down into individual missions. Setting up a mission involves a series of die rolls to determine several variables: which of the game’s four maps will serve as the aerial arena; budget available for aircraft and armament; the type of escort that will attempt to thwart the player’s best efforts to bring down the bombers; whether some of those bombers start the mission with preexisting damage (essentially from scenes that have happened “off-screen”); the position of the sun; how long the mission will last (and when escorts will show up or fly away); even the presence of contrails—which German pilots can use to camouflage their approach...

Each turn, German fighters move through a series of boxes around the board in an attempt to reach the perfect position from which to launch an attack. Naturally, escorts—from the ever-present Spitfire of the early war to the terrifying P-51 Mustang of the later years—are also moving about at that time. At best, they ensure that no German fighters can reach certain positions; at worst, they engage a whole stack of fighters in a time-consuming dogfight that will allow the formation of bombers to get away unscathed. Whether those embattled planes will live to fight another day remains to be seen.

Then an attack is launched, ideally from different positions and varying altitudes. The flip of a card determines whether the fighter inflicts any damage on a bomber (which might be enough to blow it to smithereens, or just bring it a little closer to its demise) and whether the fighter itself gets hit by the neighboring gunners.

It’s important to understand that the game board is a static depiction of a network of bombers flying in formation; the result becomes a sort of terrain that fighters must navigate. The interlocking fields of fire that emerge from the gunners “having each other’s backs” mean that some areas of the board will be highly hazardous, while others (in front of the first bomber, for instance, or behind the very last one) will present less of a threat. Serious thought must be put into your angle of attack, but also into where your aircraft might end up if it flies in too fast and overshoots its target.
Right in the middle of the combat box is not where you want to be.




Your fighter is not out of the woods once the brunt of the attack has been carried out: enemy gunners get to take one last shot at it (another flip of a card) before the metal predator breaks away to lick its wounds and prepare to lunge anew.

This aerial ballet goes on until either the mission has run its course, no German fighters remain in play, or all bombers have been destroyed or scattered out of their formations. (Fat chance.) VPs are tallied and the campaign assessed if this happened to be the last mission on the menu. If not, a new mission is set up so as to reflect your last performance: lose too many aircraft, and you’ll have a reduced roster and a bunch of green pilots to contend with.

As aficionados will expect, Skies Above the Reich comes replete with mechanical subtleties and agonizing choices.
  • Combat is handled through three different decks of attack cards: Nose, Oblique and Tail. Tail offensives tend to yield more satisfactory results, but rest assured the six of a bomber is more often than not the 12 of another—no one’s going to make it easy for you.
  • Each attacking fighter needs to be set in one of two modes: Determined makes your plane (potentially) more lethal, but also more vulnerable, while Evasive risks producing less reliable results, but might prolong the longevity of the aircraft. On top of that, fighters need to know what maneuvers they’ll perform right after the attack: dive, climb, roll—and in what direction? This will not only influence the retaliation capacity of defending gunners, but also the position around the board into which the fighter will end up after exiting the tangled web of bombers. Assuming it survives, of course.
  • When it comes to near target missions, flak plays a major role, both in helping taking out bombers and accidentally whittling down your own forces.

The list goes on, providing a slew of decision points without feeling cumbersome. Chrome reaches just the right level.


WAR PRODUCTION

The box cover does a wonderful job of selling the game, as artist Antonis Karidis sets the stage with dramatic flair. That’s what a wargame cover should feel like: epic and exciting, but also serious and dripping with History.

The deep box opens on a 60-page rulebook (hold your horses), 15 pages of advanced and two-player rules, a Situation Manual (aka the setup bible), a veritable squadron of players aids printed on card stock, two double-sided, mounted boards (with a delightful twist: historical quotes printed right on them!), a couple of smaller maps, multiple card decks, tokens galore, a pad of log sheets, a pair of 10-sided dice, and blocks for the German fighters.
Did I say blocks? Yes indeed: they make the fighter stickers affixed to them easier to follow on the map and provide a genuine tactile pleasure. And what’s better than blocks? Why, more blocks! Those blue contraptions serve to indicate altitude on the board—none for low, one for level, and two for high.




I also enjoy fishing out those thick damage counters out of cups a whole lot more than referencing die rolls on a combat results table. Pure bliss.


RULES OF ENGAGEMENT

Jerry White is known for his programmed learning curves, and his two previous titles were so well executed in that regard that the rulebook became superfluous. This is no exaggeration: a newcomer could pick up the game, set it up, and get going with confidence holding nothing more than the player aids. In other words, the game taught itself—an incredible feat in a paper-based world, especially considering the complexity of the design involved.

Things are not so transparent within the entrails of Skies Above the Reich. Don’t get me wrong: the player aids still do the heavy lifting. But some of the work is left up to the player this time around. That’s because there’s a density to the decision making that, while not immediately apparent, cannot be escaped. As a result, player aids cannot hold the breadth of rules necessary to keep the engine running. So instead of explaining an entire mechanic, a specific bullet-point on the player aid might offer a one-line summary and a page number. But it’s all very well done and completely painless—the designers weren’t about to leave us hanging.

Crack open any number of typical wargame rulebooks, and every page is a two- or three-column affair, newspaper-style. That’s the way things are usually done. Not here: the layout is open and generous, so much so that when I first laid eyes on a random page, my immediate assumption was that I was looking at an extended (an extremely extended, at 60 pages) example of play. If you read it in one gulp, one concept flows into another like a charm—so you can imagine what happens when a player aid sends you on an errand to page 38 in order to look up collision results.
It’s a breeze.

Is the rulebook perfect? Close, but not quite. Some ancillary ideas are vaguely addressed or not at all. For instance, where do fighters and escorts go when they “exit the game?” Given the abundance of mechanisms designed to provide players with a sense of destiny when it comes to aircraft and pilots, one could be forgiven for expecting a definitive outcome in this particular case. (They just leave the game and nothing further happens to them.) Another example: escorts already on the board move to adjacent spaces occupied by fighters, and then other escorts might leave their designated stations and join the fight on the board; yet that sequence of actions is reversed in the rules. Wargame rulebooks do this all the time, but White’s writing is so consistently sequential that I can’t be the only one who had escorts departing stations and then immediately moving to adjacent spaces during my first mission. (Fear not, I stumbled upon the one line that sets the sequence straight in the rules shortly thereafter.)

When you get down to brass tacks, Skies Above the Reich remains one of the rare wargames players can tear open and dive right into. Just don’t throw out the rulebook like you might have with Enemy Coast Ahead. You’ll still need it.


A smattering of player aids


FUN FACTOR

Whereas I immediately loved White’s two previous designs, I had my doubts about this new opus. It offered the same procedural experience I had come to enjoy—indeed to expect—but this time something was amiss. I felt I could do more… and yet the game seemed to yield less. My flight plan was a little muddled.

In Skies Above the Reich, the action matrix is wider and somewhat shallower at the same time. This means that while the design space remains more or less the same, the resulting experience is different from what you might have lived through with Enemy Coast Ahead or The Doolittle Raid. Instead of a long and narrow narrative where you pull a lever here and throw a switch there, you get a shorter, wider story with more decision points coming at you all at once.
Because of that curtailed storyline (and despite the wider design matrix), players might initially feel like the game is more repetitive than what White has accustomed them to. To that I say: keep playing. The depth will eventually bubble up to the surface (ha!) and you’ll be happy you stuck around.


PARTING SHOTS

Interested in a more difficult challenge? Itching for more icing on your air combat cake? Skies Above the Reich’s got you covered. The entire bomber formation may change direction (which alters the position of the sun); the combat box might shrink (as bombers fall out of formation); squadron erosion could take its toll on your roster after each mission (as if the game weren’t already tough enough); you can play the game with a friend as a two-player cooperative endeavor; you can even tack on an entirely new module that allows your fighters to hunt down bombers edged out of their combat box, in an attempt to finish them off for good. Hell, you can even partake of optional rules within optional rules!
I suggest you forego these options for your first handful of sorties: even with just the standard settings turned on, the game is HARD. While the “story arc” has you go through the advances that benefited both sides during the war as technologies evolved from one year to the next, it also makes you feel the very real pain of the pilots of the Reich, when dwindling resources and evaporating manpower made defending the skies an increasingly desperate proposition.


As always, White (and now Aasted) is obsessed with the narrative—in a good way. Hence the numerous fate boxes used to decide the destiny of fallen pilots, depending on what wiped them out: engine trouble, fuel leak, damaged cockpit, etc. A dead pilot may be replaced with a fresh recruit, but that new element incurs a green penalty (one of mine would immediately leave the battle when hit, for instance).
From those systems emerges a simple, yet engrossing story: if you play several missions in a row with the same roster, you’ll become attached to some of your pilots and get genuinely worried when you’re about to roll on that damn fuselage table. (“I sure hope Neumann survived that fire!”)

By the way, after bitching and moaning in my reviews of both Enemy Coast Ahead and The Doolittle Raid, my prayers have been answered: the game sports an index! It’s camouflaged on the back cover of the advanced rulebook, but it’s there. Make good use of it.

In the end, I laughed, I cried, I cursed at the game and I kissed the dice for services rendered—sometimes all within the same turn. I can’t ask for much more from a wargame.




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