Skies Above the Reich flies circles around the competition

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Sometimes one new idea can stifle decades of opportunities. Solitaire wargames were almost unknown when On Target Games — basically a one-man operation in West Allis, WI — published B-17: Queen of the Skies back in 1981. A game you played yourself, by rolling dice and generating a narrative about your bomber crew, was oddly compelling in an era when many gamers were forced to solo games for lack of opponents. Avalon Hill saw the obvious potential and acquired it, and published a much nicer-looking version in 1983. Despite the fact that it was, as Greg Costikyan described it at GDC in 2009, “little more than a series of tables on which the player rolls dice,” it seemed to have some essential magic that designers chased for years. Thirty-five years later, in 2018, Legion Wargames released Target for Today, an essentially “upgraded” version of B-17 (after having published a similar bomber-centric game, B-29 Superfortress, in 2011). In between, games like Patton’s Best and The Hunters — and others — helped codify the “story through charts and tables” design school that exempted designers from having to think too hard.

The idea of piloting a bomber through a series of missions is such an obvious story hook that there have been plenty of cardboard and digital entrants in the genre, from 50 Mission Crush to B-17: The Mighty Eighth to the very recent Bomber Crew. But tabletop depictions of the skies above wartime Germany can’t recreate the frantic action of air combat the way a digital game can, so boardgame designers have anchored their games in the desire for mission-to-mission progression, flying repeatedly over the terrain of occupied Europe in an attempt to weave stories out of the unvarying path of a single aircraft.

The key realization that Jeremy White (designer of The Dambuster Raid and The Doolittle Raid solitaire games) and Mark Aasted, designers of Skies Above the Reich, forced on me was that there was nothing wrong with following a bomber on a series of missions. There was, in fact, nothing wrong with following a bunch of bombers on a bunch of missions, as Dan Verssen’s B-17: Flying Fortress Leader and Erik von Rossing’s A Wing and a Prayer did. The problem was the missions themselves: as soon as you knew where you were going, your bombers just had to take off and go there. Meaning you could react to events, but couldn’t drive them. But who could possibly drive events in a game about the bombing of Germany? The bombers are certainly a designer’s last hope.

No. There is another.

Games about flying fighters in defense of the Reich are not new. Avalon Hill’s Luftwaffe, while not a good game, consumed much of my early teens. LucasArts’ Secret Weapons of the Luftwaffe was one of my favorite games in my immediate post-college game-playing years. Jim Lunsford and Greg Smith’s Defending the Reich was graphically primitive, but posed interesting questions about early warning systems. Aerial game design ace Lee Brimmicombe-Wood concocted two separate games about shooting down the Britisher air pirates: Nightfighter from a tactical perspective and Bomber Command from an operational one. Yet none of the solitaire games I mentioned took the premise of the saga of the bomber and turned it so decisively and effectively back on itself as does Skies Above the Reich. In doing so, it solves the player agency problem, and demonstrates that the most obvious way to look at a historical situation might not make for the best gaming.

Skies Above the Reich posits that in a strategic bombing game, it isn’t the the ground targets that are interesting. Nor is it even the sky itself. Instead, it’s the “terrain” formed by the bombers simply being there. The USAAF struggled with its tactical doctrine throughout the war, trying to arrange its bombers into mutually-supporting groups as it tried to reduce the fearsome losses inflicted by the Luftwaffe on unescorted formations. The Luftwaffe found itself encountering rougher and rougher “terrain” in the form of improved bomber models and tactical coordination. And escorting fighters. So instead of a static bomber or squadron that you watch get attacked, you take the role of the fighters and actively assault the terrain of the combat box, which was the name for the formation bomber wings assumed for mutual protection.

White and Aasted print this terrain right on the game map in the form of a bomber formation, and print their design thesis right on the rules as a subtitle: Breaking the Combat Box. It’s such a basic inversion of the premise that it’s a bit shocking how profoundly it changes the calculus of strategic bombing games, yet the design thesis fits together so tightly that you soon forget there was ever a different way of doing it. Each of the four maps depicts a different combat box, with different numbers of bombers, and different levels of lethality for the fighters. The idea of “lethality” forms the basis for the game map, with spaces around the bombers varying in risk depending on how many of them can combine fire into a space. As the formation takes damage, losing bombers and cohesion, gaps open up and opportunities for the fighters emerge. Because you’re directing the fighters, you drive the action. That isn’t to say you won’t be reacting to events, but the change in agency the game achieves by flipping the perspective changes everything else as well. For the better.

Much of this would have been very difficult to accomplish in the old days, because of how far games have come procedurally since solitaire games arose out of the early 80’s primordial muck. If Skies Above the Reich had been designed in 1981, it would have consisted of all sorts of different combat tables: roll here for attacking from 12 o’clock high, here for 9 o’clock level, look up which guns bear on you at that position and roll for them, etc. It’s just how things were done back then, like ties in college football. But lots of repetitive die rolls can absolutely kill game pacing.

Sure, in Skies Above the Reich, your fighters still fly across a grid (of squares(!), although it’s cleverly oriented to disguise this fact) and still achieve results based on die rolls and card draws. The difference is in how it uses modern design to integrate mechanics with aesthetics to generate play kinetics. The tactical problems faced by German fighter pilots are neatly integrated into the lethality rubric through a combination of attack aspect, altitude, and bomber cohesion. The shape (in three dimensions, which isn’t obvious at first but becomes so) and size of a bomber formation make it instantly obvious where the skies will be roughest, because the information is all on the map, so that as you place your pieces, you are already visualizing the consequences. Instead of five different charts and die rolls, you simply draw a card that corresponds to your attack aspect (Nose, Oblique, Tail) and read off the result based on the lethality of the space you occupy, your fighter’s relative altitude (high, medium, low), and how determined a pass you’re making. There will only be one result on the card that corresponds to your three specific conditions. Then, the card will send you on your way in the form of “Pass Through.” This simple mechanism gives the game a fluid feeling that captures what you or I or anyone who has never flown a fighter over Germany might appreciate as believable kinetics. Immediately after your fighter attacks, it moves a variable number of spaces through the formation. This is the “flash-by” that you see in every single newsreel of the 8th Air Force in action. But you don’t know exactly where it will end up. You may have some idea, because you decide when you place the fighter whether it will climb or dive, break left or right. But two spaces through the formation may land you in a particularly hot spot whereas three spaces might find you a relatively safer zone. You can imagine that as your fighters commit to their passes, things are going to happen too fast for them to end up exactly where they want. And after the pass-through movement, fighters are subject to a card draw for Continuing Fire. Sometimes special events happen. Sometimes special conditions take effect. But nothing that prevents you from resolving your attacks in a way that credibly evokes fast, chaotic combat. It also strongly evokes a three-dimensional space, which is incredibly hard to do in a paper wargame.

The game has a rhythm, enabled by these integrated mechanics, of attack-and-regroup, that mimics the rhythm of historical air combat at this time. The fighters attacked from one direction, regrouped from where they ended up, tried to reorganize for another pass, tried to dodge the escorts, and sometimes found themselves out of the fight – unable to catch up, low on fuel, or nursing damage. The general flow of the game is as satisfying as the specific flow of combat. It’s an example of almost perfect pacing.

It’s easy to take good pacing for granted, and probably much, much harder to design it. What might be even more difficult is to go back to a game that relies on the chart-lookup solitaire crutch after playing something like this, because not only do the designers know when not to use die rolls, they also know when to bunch them all up together. Fighters will likely take damage when they attack, but these damage counters, while drawn in the moment, are not resolved until the next turn, after all of the other fighters move. Only then do you find out: what happened to my hit fighters? If you roll equal to or higher than the damage number on the damage chit, the hit is considered trivial and the chit is discarded back into the draw cup. If the roll is less than the damage number, the aircraft is removed to the Fate Box, to have the pilot’s fate determined after the bombers have passed. It creates the kind of continuous uncertainty that prevents perfect planning, but generates tension and anxiety commensurate with the subject, and with what one can easily attribute to the fog of war.

This kind of delayed gratification (or despair) is almost perfectly expressed in the mechanism for shooting down bombers, which is criminally separated into a set of “advanced rules” that I can only take as an unwillingness to subject players to more than a certain number of rules (“Too many notes,” as Salieri said) at once. Because the “advanced rules” are what make the existence of “tactical points” necessary, and obvious, and otherwise hide part of a brilliant design behind a cloak of ordinary goodness.

Bombers are tested against their damage chits in a way similar to that of fighters, with the possibility of either being destroyed outright or simply knocked out of formation, to fly on as stragglers. Because of the difficulty of shooting down a Flying Fortress, you will knock a lot more planes out of formation than you will shoot down. In the basic game, no one cares. You shot them down, anyway. Good job! But in the advanced rules you’ll run up against another dilemma entirely.

To simulate tactical flexibility, organization, early warning, and just general karma for your squadron, you get a certain number of tactical points at the beginning of the scenario. Because the game represents your position relative to the formation at all times, you can spend these points to make moves from one position to another, sometimes to gain an advantage that would otherwise be impossible. Maybe you got advance warning that allowed your squadron to scramble early. Or your ground controller gave you a particularly advantageous vector. Or your squadron leader used his experience to outfox the American escorts. That’s why you got to climb to 12 o’clock high from level before engaging the bombers. But with few chances to spend these points, they just feel like a bonus that you sometimes get, and sometimes you don’t.

However, in the advanced rules, when you knock bombers out of formation, you place them on the turn record track. You can then send some of your fighters after them. When you do this, you will chase them down in single combat on a layout that looks superficially very much like the B-17: Queen of the Skies aircraft display (and which the rules specifically state is not a coincidence). But here’s the thing: to make an attack on what is called the Pursuit Map, you have to spend tactical points.

Suddenly, the game takes on an entirely new dimension, because you now have to decide how hard you are going to press the attack on the formation, and how much reserve you need (both in aircraft and tactical points) to finish off the stragglers. It adds so much to the game in terms of design cohesion that there can’t be any good reason for making it an advanced rule other than the aforementioned attempt at rules volume reduction.

The rules bizarrely hide one other essential mechanic, this time in the “optional rules,” which is that when you destroy certain bombers in a formation, the lethality of distant spaces can go down. Normally, destroying or knocking a bomber out of formation reduces each adjacent space’s lethality by one, reflecting the removal of that airplane’s guns from that part of the sky. But because of the mutually supporting nature of elements and the three-dimensional nature of the combat box, if you destroy certain “linking” bombers, the lethality of more than just adjacent spaces will be affected. There is a beautiful chart that illustrates this, and tells you which spaces to change when certain combinations of bombers are destroyed. You don’t get markers to do this, though. It’s almost like the designers are embarrassed about it.

I have a rule of never playing with optional rules, but this one is so obviously of a piece with the rest of the design that I can’t imagine not using it. In fact, as soon as I read this, I went to a different game and scavenged a bunch of “-1” counters specifically for this purpose. If you want to experience this game as I truly believe it needs to be experienced, play with the advanced rules and this option.

The beauty of the design lies partly in how the rules guide you down historical paths while never directly decreeing that you must do something because “that’s the way it was in those times.” Against bomber formations in 1943, you’ll charge repeatedly in with massed head-on attacks. You’ll find yourself naturally chipping away at the edge of a formation, trying to break up the element, while dodging the escorts that threaten to either shoot you down or engage you long enough to take you out of the battle, which can be just as bad. And the way the kinetics of the game mirror the kinetics of the subject, you’ll get that feeling of “zoom” that you got as a kid flying plastic models at each other, while this time adding agonizing tactical decisions.

The only weakness I can find in the whole game is that the components, while of extremely high quality, both in art design and physical quality, sometimes get in each other’s way. I think this is primarily the fault of the German fighters, which are all presented as thick square wooden blocks. This works very nicely with the thick square wooden blocks that serve as altitude indicators (very slick), but does not work well at all with the multitude of counters you’ll be placing on top of them. The game includes plenty of systems in the form of auxiliary fighters, cannons, rockets, armor for your pilots, and lots of status markers. Good luck getting them to stay on top of your blocks. You’ll need to practice extreme counter hygiene to keep things clear and unambiguous when playing.

Skies Above the Reich plays best as a campaign, of which there are several. Your pilots will advance or die, you’ll get different kinds of missions, and as the war progresses, you will feel the crushing weight of the Allied effort. But unlike single-bomber or even multi-raid solo games where the campaign is the only thing holding the design together because the individual encounters are a bit thin, there is so much tactical choice and variation in the scenarios that they are quite satisfying as stand-alone endeavors. This is something you really can’t say about any other game in the genre, whether it be B-17, or Flying Fortress Leader, or related games like The Hunters. It’s all about progression in those games. Here, the progression is the packaging. Sure, it’s gorgeous. But you don’t need it.

I was initially bothered by the lack of geographic specificity in the game (no specific cities as targets, no airfields named that you’re flying from) until I played it and realized how rich it was. All the things that other games do to hide their lack of gameplay (special counters for each slightly different aircraft type, tons of charts, elaborate play mats) are made obvious by a game like Skies Above the Reich, which combines cards, chits, and dice in a way that makes you wonder why anyone could think you could hide a lack of gameplay in the first place. If you’ve got it, flaunt it. Skies Above the Reich sure does. It deserves to.

  • Skies Above the Reich

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  • Boardgame
  • Finally, a game about bombers noticed that the sky and the ground aren't necessarily the most relevant terrain.