A Quartet of F-4s Ready to Go “Downtown” | Beast’s Wargaming Blog
Since man has achieved the milestone
of powered flight, he has been figuring out how to use said milestone to
influence armed conflict. Pistols and rifles soon gave way to machine guns,
machine guns to cannon, and cannon is now supplemented by missiles. The fabric-covered
biplanes of World War I are light years behind today’s F-22, but the reasons
behind air combat remain the same. To ensure your side can use the sky for
reconnaissance and to influence the war on the ground and deny the other side
that same ability.
Air wargaming as a concept hasn’t been around for as long as the actual thing, but currently, it covers three broad periods:
- World War I (1910s-1930s)
- World War II (1930s-1950s)
- Modern (1950s onward)
Within these periods is a little something for everyone. We’re going to cover some games I am familiar with, both board and miniature, to give you an idea of what’s out there?
One thing about air wargaming. It can be math-heavy, especially in the board game version. There, you’re trying to represent a 3-D situation on a 2-D medium. Recently, there have been some advances in that regard, but most games still have that issue. It’s why I tend to prefer the miniatures version of air gaming, as it’s much easier to represent the 3D nature of air combat.
Most, if not all, of these games require a logbook to track the aircraft status and damage, as well as to pre-plot your moves. It makes simultaneous movement possible and keeps everyone guessing as to everyone’s intentions, as they should be.
However, for air gaming in miniature, you’ll probably need special poles or mounting systems to make your planes able to reflect the 3-D nature of aerial warfare, but we’ll cover that in Part 2.
Board Game Geek
I know others like Richtofen’s War, but Blue Max is my favorite, mainly because it’s a fairly simple game to play. Richtofen’s War was one of the first games, but the IGUGO (I Go/You Go) system of determining which plane moves when doesn’t work for a swirling dogfight. Blue Max has you plot a maneuver from a menu, then execute it on your turn. If you’re being tailed, then you must show your opponent what you intend to do before you do it. The damage mechanism reflects the random nature of the machine guns of the day, and Blue Max just works. Sadly, the game lacked altitude rules until the 2nd edition, and in 1995, GDW released a set of miniatures rules. It’s a shame I lost my copy of this game in a move, but the game is still available via Board Game Geek for a reasonable price.
Board Game Geek
Air Force was my first acquaintance with World War II in the skies in a board game. The game was designed with what was then cutting edge stuff in the 1970s and spawned a Pacific expansion called Dauntless. Both games had these color-coded charts that handled how an aircraft performed:
Board Game Geek
The charts were well laid out and told you the performance characteristics of an aircraft at given altitudes and speeds, as well as blind spots for spotting other airplanes, and what kind of modifiers one got for being shot at by other planes. The game was and is still popular in some circles, with at least one gentleman I know using a wifi hotspot to run a miniatures version of the game at Historicon every year! I’ve played in several of his games, and the ability to do complex math on a smartphone interface is a godsend. Both games had rules for everything, night attacks, level bombing, dive-bombing, strafing, and everything in between. The game was ,for its time, an involved game for the subject but would be eclipsed a few years later by the Fighting Wings series of games. Even though Avalon Hill has gone under as a wargame company, Air Force and Dauntless are still available on Board Game Geek.
Board Game Geek
I’ve often equated the Fighting Wings series of games with being the “Advanced Squad Leader of World War II air gaming.” But don’t let that put you off from playing what is, to me, one of the best game series on World War II air gaming out there. The games have a lot of similarities with Air Force, with detailed statistics on each type of aircraft, as well as rules for pilot quality, ground attacks, and even the type of gunsight the fighter aircraft had! The designers’ notes include good tactical hints for each type of aircraft from a pilot’s perspective, which I appreciate. I especially like the game within a game where you can use the Operational Mission rules to generate random encounters in a campaign game, and say, simulate 25 missions of a bomber squadron over Europe? The game series is designed by JD Webster, a former A-7 Pilot who brings practical experience to the subject, and it is reflected well in the design of the games.
One recommendation. If you’re just starting out in the series, get Buffalo Wings. (it was popular enough for ATO magazine to reissue it as a Kickstarter!) It’s the simplest of the games, and the limited subject matter allows you to focus on learning the game. Sadly, Over the Reich and Achtung Spitfire are currently out of print, and while they’re available on-Board Game Geek, it’s not for cheap. The newer entries in the series Whistling Death and Wings of the Motherland are a bit pricy as well, but they are true monster games in their scope of coverage. All the games have VASSAL modules and a highly active online community, and many often play the games in miniature (Ironically, it’s how I discovered Achtung Spitfire!) Mr. Webster has worked extremely hard on these games as a labor of love, and it shows. If you’re a huge aficionado and willing to spend the money, then give these games a try.
Board Game Geek
This game series by GMT is something of a departure from the usual games we see about air combat, in that these games are about the operational level of air warfare, where each counter represents a flight of aircraft. I like these games because it gives you a view of the larger picture of air combat. The “why” gets answered here as opposed to the “how” which most air games approach. Everything from planning a mission, making use of the various aircraft involved, and then making the whole thing work together while the other side is trying to make it all fall apart is the whole reason for being with the game. Even pre and post-strike reconnaissance matters in the game. The mechanics are somewhat complex, and I’d recommend beginners start with Downtown. It’s going to be reprinted soon with a second edition, and I’d recommend it as a means to get your feet wet in the system. All of the games have VASSAL modules and have a lot of online support. All three games are available on Board Game Geek, but Downtown is currently out of print, so sadly, the prices are a bit high for it currently. Elusive Victory and Red Storm are cheaper but have steeper learning curves. That said, the game’s rules aren’t overly daunting, and GMT does a good job of stepping beginners through the hoops to learn how to play.
Board Game Geek
The AirPower series is also by JD Webster and was his earlier efforts covering more modern aircraft. The game released its second edition with The Speed of Heat (which covered Korea and Vietnam), but there’s been no further development work on the series since. JD has since moved on to World War II, and though I can’t blame him (that’s where the money is), but I did have many hours of enjoyment as a teen playing these games. I found out to my horror that yes, a well-handled MiG-21 is a scary thing in close, even with an F-16!
Like Fighting Wings, there are rules for just about everything, and though Air Superiority and Air Strike date back to the mid-80s. They have been modified by enthusiasts to handle all the new toys out there so you can pretty much game out the conflicts of even today if you wanted to? Or the conflicts potentially to come? Like many of the other games mentioned here, all the games have VASSAL support, and all have programmed instruction, and though they may be a bit complex, they do step you through the rules carefully. Sadly, all of the games are currently out of print, but some sleuthing on Board Game Geek and/or eBay should snag you a copy.
Our final entry is a game I don’t own or have played, but I’ve played its sci-fi cousins. Basically, the game works with each plane as a “block counter” where all sides of the plane are depicted, and the “counter” is assembled to resemble, well, a block.
Block Counters in Action | Board Game Geek
A series of maneuver blocks then are used to simulate the altitude and attitude of the aircraft at a given point and time, as illustrated here.
Maneuver Blocks in action | Board Game Geek
As you can see, it’s a pretty simple system. Add in the PHAD system the game uses to visually represent where an aircraft should wind up after a given maneuver. It is actually pretty simple to use once you get the hang of it. I can’t say I’ve played the game, but I’ve played its sci-fi cousins, like I said, and the visual calculators are a bit to get the hang of. They are simpler than you might think. The game is well supported and is available for purchase from Ad Astra Games.
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(This article is credited to Jason Weiser. Jason is a long-time wargamer with published works in the Journal of the Society of Twentieth Century Wargamers; Miniature Wargames Magazine; and Wargames, Strategy, and Soldier.)