Geryk Pre-Analysis: Down in Flames
Brooski - Columns - Comments - 06/20/05

Down in Flames is one of the true boardgame masterpieces of the past fifteen years. Created by Dan Verssen and released in 1993, it was part of a wave of innovative designs that made card play an integral part of otherwise serious wargames, such as We the People and Paths of Glory. Although Down in Flames was purely a card game, that didnít keep it from being a remarkable simulation of air combat in World War II. It somehow managed to capture the essentials of aerial tactics as well as the important differences between various aircraft, using a rulebook no longer than the introductory chapter of most games typical of the hobby. It was a true design tour de force. The series eventually added three expansions, although only the Pacific theater products are still available from publisher GMT Games, and the original game is going at double the original purchase price on eBay.

Now, publisher of the Combat Mission series, is developing a computer version to be released late this summer. Boardgame ports are always iffy propositions: boardgames and computer games are built on such different expectations that design aspects that are essential in one medium can end up being serious drawbacks in the other. Fortunately, Down in Flames works beautifully in both.

The game plays quickly, with a long dogfight taking perhaps fifteen minutes. Planes are paired in ďelementsĒ of two, each with a leader and wingman. All the crazy aerobatic maneuvers that you see in sim manuals are on cards, along with more basic things like shooting. Gameplay is actually incredibly simple: the player whose turn it is plays a legal attack card. Can the opposing player counter it with a response card? No? Then too bad Ė that attack card goes into effect. If he can, the first player can play a response card of his own, and back and forth it goes. Either the initial card is cancelled, or it goes into effect. Then it starts over

If you canít pull off a Scissors in a Zero in Pacific Fighters, you can do it here as long as someone starts off with a Tight Turn. Even if you donít know what a Barrel Roll really is, you can play one when someone fires at you Ė unless itís Out of the Sun. Then you can only play Vertical Roll, or the all-powerful Ace Pilot. Itís as simple as knowing what can respond to what, and as hard as knowing the right moment to pull that heavy Burst card so your opponent has no alternative but to eat lead.

Because it was originally a card game, Down in Flames abstracted away the game board. You can still be tailed, and have a bandit on your six, or whatever the official military talk for that is. Itís all just a matter of turning the plane card around. You fling cards back and forth until someone gets position, or shakes his pursuer, or picks off the enemyís wingman. Never leave your wingman, by the way. I heard that somewhere.

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