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Posted on Aug 17, 2018 in Boardgames, Front Page Features

‘GMT Games brings the bomber war home with Skies Above the Reich’. Board Game Review.

‘GMT Games brings the bomber war home with Skies Above the Reich’. Board Game Review.

By Ray Garbee

Skies Above the Reich. Publisher: GMT Games. Game Designers: Jeremy White and Mark Aasted. Price $ 89.00

Ray Garbee

Passed inspection: Large block counters depicting the planes of a German fighter squadron, innovative map board graphics that capture the feel of the aerial battle space. Clearly written, lavishly illustrated rules. Good mix of scenarios and campaigns that capture the nature of the air war across the span of the Second World War.

Failed basic: Staffel log sheet and pilot log sheet were a little clunky to use for more than a single mission at a time.

IN 1981, the board game ‘B-17: Queen of the Skies’ was released. For almost four decades, solitaire board game players have taken to the skies in their cardboard B-17’s and taken the tabletop war to Germany with their simulated bombing missions over the Reich. Like the men documented in Billy Wilder’s documentary ‘Memphis Belle’ the player’s goal is to bomb the target and bring their plane and crew back in one piece. Beset by German flak and swarmed by defending fighters, the bombers might survive a few missions, but reaching the Holy Grail of 25 completed missions was rarely achieved.

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But what must it have been like from the other side of that conflict? How does this conflict appear from the perspective of the German pilots tasked with defending their homeland from the deadly streams of bombers filling their skies? You can find out by playing ‘Skies Above the Reich’ from GMT Games. The game put you in control of a fictional staffel (squadron) of German Messerschmitt Bf-109 fighters tasked with defending Germany from the Allied heavy bombers. ‘Skies Above the Reich’ follows the unfolding stories of the daylight bombing campaign carried out by the B-17’s of the United States Eighth Air Force. While the German’s start out strong with skilled pilots and effective planes, the ongoing campaign will see the tactics and firepower of the Allied bombers steadily improve. Over time the improvements result in a powerful defensive formation that lives up to the name of ‘Flying Fortresses’.

This is a game cut from similar cloth to Consim Press’s solitaire submarine warfare games ‘The Hunters’ and ‘The Hunted’. Like the Consim Press titles, this is a solitaire game, in Skies Above the Reich you are placed in a position that examines fighting the war from the perspective of the ‘bad guys’ of the German fighter squadron. Also like the Consim press titles, it can feel a little awkward as ‘success’ is defined in terms of hindering the Allied war against Nazi Germany. But while it’s awkward, it’s also a unique lens from which to view the efforts of the Allied strategists, tacticians, pilots and aircrew that waged the daylight bombing campaign against Hitler’s Reich. As you play through the game, you see how the tactical doctrine of the bomber box evolves and how the increasing firepower of the successive models of B-17 create an aerial space that grows increasingly lethal to the German pilots. The early ‘happy time’ of skilled pilots and green targets gives way to a space in which each mission means your pilots court a deadly outcome.

The game arrives in a gorgeous, full-color box depicting A formation of B-17 defending against the German Messerschmitt fighters. Inside that box we find, a pair of mounted map boards, two counter sheets, wooden blocks and stickers, a pilot roster pad, three player aid cards, a rule book, a situation book and a pair of 10-sided dice.

The map boards are impressive works of art in their own right. Designers Jeremy White & Mark Aasted vision for the bomber formation battlespace has been beautifully rendered by acclaimed artist and GMT stalwart, Rodger B. MacGowan. Through perspective and color, the maps convey an immersive sense of a three-dimensional aerial space that the players fighters must traverse to attack the bombers. These maps are double sided. As the scenarios progress across the span of the war, the specific map used changes to reflect the larger formations of bombers. Small flights are replaced first by squadron formations and then larger groups of bombers. The maps do an impressive job of conveying the size and strength of the bomber boxes in a way I’ve not experienced with other aerial combat games. While not generally a fan of double-sided map boards, having separate mounted boards for all four maps is likely prohibitive from a cost standpoint.

The German fighter squadron is depicted with wooden blocks with stickers of the pilot’s planes affixed front and back. The stickers denote the plane’s facing as well as the offensive posture of the attacking pilot. Blue colored blocks are stacked beneath the planes as a visual aid in depicting the relative altitude of the fighters.

In addition to the wooden blocks of your squadron’s fighters, there are counters that depict other ‘helper’ fighters and assorted additional equipment such as cannon, aerial rockets and armor plate. Other counters are used for damage, to mark fallen or destroyed bombers, the integrity of the bomber box as well as the position of the box within the larger bomber formation. It’s not all about the Germans here as additional counters represent allied escort fighters. These ‘little friends’ will defend the bombers from fighters and pose a powerful barrier to your attack.

There are three sets of charts with the game. It might seem like a lot, but given it’s a solitaire game, this is understandable. One set of charts helps set up the parameters of each mission you fly. Another helps resolve the activities of the actual mission and a third helps resolve combat with some of the specialist systems such as rockets and aerial bombs. A turn sequence table contains the various record tracks and status used during play of the game as well as helps manage the escort fighters.

The situation manual is a key reference as it helps you define the parameters of each engagement – the size of the bomber box you engage, where you engage them in the bombing mission, the position of the sun, the nature of the escort and how much time you have to intercept before you have to break off. It’s laid out cleanly with no ambiguity and efficiently helps in setting the stage for resolving your mission.

The rulebook. I’ve got only one thing to say about the rules – this is possibly the best representation of a rule book I’ve seen in a while! It’s a masterpiece of conveying the mechanics of the rules, coupled with clear, appropriate graphics of those mechanics. And the real win here is that all the various charts used in the play of the game carry page numbers for each step of the game clearly defined. One of the best written and cross-referenced sets of rules I’ve ever encountered. If you have a question about a specific action, the flow charts include the specific page in the rulebook to consult. No need to look in the table of contents or an index. Just go right to the page.

Gameplay is engaging. Each ‘game’ of Skies above the Reich is portrayed as a campaign season (for example, early 1943). Within this campaign season the player flies a number of interception missions against Allied bombing missions. For each mission, the player consults a chart to determine the nature of the Allied bombing formation (it’s size and combat formation), when you encounter the bomber box (inbound to the target, over the target or returning to base), how much damage the Allied bombers may have already taken, if the formation is tied into a neighboring bomber box, the number and type of the fighter escort as well as the position of the sun relative to the bomber formation.

You then build your ‘flight’ of fighters using a number of operation points. In addition to bringing your pilots into the game, the operations points allow you to augment your force with additional fighters ranging from Bf-110 through Fw-190 and to increase your firepower with cannon and aerial rockets. You can even up armor your fighters to make them more survivable. Once the composition of the force is determined, action shifts to the game board.

Now the battle starts, you begin you approach to the Allied bomber formation. You’ll have to keep watch for any escorts and if present decide if you want to risk tangling with them, or circle for a bit and hope their fuel requires them to turn back. Once past the fighters, you bore in on the bombers from your current aspect. The game represents the fighters as attacking from around the hours of the clock and from either low, level or high altitude. Using this, fighters can be modeled as coming in from the classic ’12 o’clock High’ position at the attacking bombers.

You’ll conduct your attack on the bombers, hopefully inflicting damage on the Flying Fortresses while avoiding being shot up in return. Damage is resolved through decks of cards that correspond to the aspect from which you are attacking. Your effectiveness is modified from your attacking altitude and how hard you press the attack. Score a hit and pull some damage chits to determine the impact to your target. Take damage and do the same thing, but this time for your own plane. After the shootout, you’ll zoom onward and take additional fire from the massed .50 caliber guns of the squadron. Survive this barrage and you’ll emerge on the other side of the bomber box to regroup and come around for another pass if time allows.
Take too much damage during your attack and your planes find themselves removed from play to the limbo of the damage box. At the end of the mission once you’ve recovered your undamaged planes, then you’ll resolve the fate of each damaged plane. Was that engine damage just enough to force Fritz out of the battle and glide back to the field, or was he forced to bail out? Worse, do you instead get word that his plane exploded and your pilot has met his end? You find out through a series of die rolls. It’s a nice way of modeling the tension you’d feel back at the airfield, hoping that stray pilot pulls up in a lorry with a good story of how the survived and the dread when you get word that they’ll never join you for dinner in the officer’s mess again.

Last comes the post-mission debriefing where you tally the kills and measure the losses. You’ll gain your victory points as well as experience points for the pilots that can be used to improve their skills.

Put all those parts together and you’ve got a most impressive game! The mechanics do an amazing job of capturing the feel of the interceptor fighters opposing the daylight bombing campaign in the European Theater of Operations. The movement mechanics conveys that sense of slashing through a formation to attack the bombers or circling around the edge seeking a more advantageous position that exposes a chink in the armor of the bomber box. The game tracks with the sense of leading your fighters into action, engaging the bombers and then recovering to your airfield and measuring your success. When your fighters intercept the bombers close to the target you’ll share the trepidation of your historical counterparts as the flak rocks not just the bombers, but sometimes catches you in it’s indiscriminate black smoke bursts.

As mentioned earlier, the game has the awkward feel of trying to balance a player doing well versus what that means to opposing the Allied war effort. But it’s tough to have a war game that does not depict the action of both sides. And there is definite value in exploring the aerial battle from the German fighter’s perspective.

One of the complaints often levied against B-17: Queen of the Skies and its offspring Legion Games ‘Target for Today’ is that the player is basically ‘along for the ride’ and just resolves the various events that come up with little to no decision making. That’s not true in ‘Skies Above the Reich’. After the facts of the situation are determined (i.e. setting up the engagement) you’re confronted with a series of decisions that impact the course of the game. Do you engage the escort fighters? Do you maneuver to attack from the sun, or swing around the try and get on the bomber’s tail? Do you spend the time to climb above the formation and attack from above, or just slash straight through? Break off to the flank and maybe take heavier defensive fire from the thickest part of the box? Break of and return to base? After each pass, you’ll be engaged in your own OODA loop (The OODA loop is the decision cycle of observe, orient, decide, and act, developed by military strategist and United States Air Force Colonel John Boyd – editor’s comment) similar to what your historical counterparts experienced. Far from being along for the ride, you are engaged from start to finish with deciding what to do next.

This is a classic solitaire game experience in which the game gets harder and harder as time goes on. As the game progresses, you’ll feel the despair as your aces fall in action and are replaced with green rookies barely able to fly, much less successfully attack the bombers.

The roster of named pilots campaign adds a role-play dimension to the game. Watching them increase in skill across the scope of the campaign builds a sense of attachment. Pilots are not simply cardboard cutouts, but develop character. In my first campaign, the same pilot kept getting engine damage results without doing any damage to the bombers, his bad luck gave that faceless name more personality…until one damaged engine exploded and he failed to return. The ability to see your pilots improve in skill helps invest you in their success. Not only are they more effective, but you hate to lose them and have to start over with a rookie right out of flight school. You see the same thing with DVG’s Tiger Leader or to a lesser extent with the crew quality in ‘The Hunters’. Nonetheless, you root for your pilot’s success in part to see them improve – and that improvement can lead to further success.

But wait, there’s more! Skies Above the Reich also includes an advanced game featuring a pursuit phase. Now it’s not enough to force the bombers to fall out of position – you can detail your fighters to finish off the damaged aircraft. The advance game shifts to an 8” x 11” display that captures the detail of the enemy bomber. You have to navigate through a one on one attack to send these mighty planes to the ground. This element of the advanced game is a great counterpoint to the original B-17 Queen of the Skies game with you now pitting your attacking fighters against the lone, damaged bomber.

Skies Above the Reich also represents great tool through which players gain an insight in the danger the Allied bomber crews faced. Instead of viewing it from the perspective of the bomber crew, you view this through the lens of the German pilots. You see the vulnerability of the bombers to the fighters and the flak. But you are also seeing the effects of Allied strategy as your own losses represent the diversion of aircraft from the front lines of the ground war in an attempt to staunch the damage from the bomber streams.

It’s can be said that telling is no substitute for doing. With Skies Above the Reich, you’ll simulate the doing part of the air war. Playing the game will demonstrate the vulnerabilities of the early bomber boxes, but also the growing strength of the massed bomber formations and the differences that drove the development of the B-17E, -F and finally the -G model with it’s twin fifty chin turret. You realize the role of the escort fighter and just how important the introduction of the drop tank and the long-range P-51’s were to improving the survivability of the bombers against German interceptors. Hopefully, you’ll end your play with a deep appreciation for the brilliance, skill, dedication and sacrifice of the Allied Air Force aircrew that pioneered the tactics and skills required to bring the bombing campaign to the skies above Hitler’s Germany.

Overall, Skies Above the Reich is an excellent game. So much so that I’ve really only found one thing that annoyed me during play. In my first campaign in 1942, I encountered an escort of P-47 fighters. You would not think that too unusual, except that the P-47 first flew operational missions in 1943. This is a very minor issue. If it bugs you too much, then just substitute Spitfires as they use the same ratings as the P-47 when resolving dogfights. I found the pilot and staffel log sheets work best when used to log a single mission. You might be tempted to use them for multiple missions, but you’ll need to keep clear track of when experience points and victory points are earned and in what mission. Aside from these minor issues, Skies Above the Reich is an exceptional board game.

An important feature of a board game is its suitability for solitaire play. Well good news everyone, Skies Above the Reich was designed first and foremost as a solitaire game! In a rare case of role-reversal, this solitaire game actually supports multi-player play by having two players each run smaller staffel and cooperate in their attacks on the bombers. Victory in this case takes on the added dimension of a squadron competition to see who is ‘the best of the best’.

Executed almost to perfection, Skies Above the Reich invites having additional titles join the series. A Battle of Britain version would be very welcome. I can see possibilities in variants covering the bomber campaign against Japan (as a counterpoint to Legion Games’s B-29 Superfortress) or even possibly Guadalcanal or Italian Mediterranean themed versions.

Skies above the Reich is a superb game. It captures the feel of the period it covers and it has engaging game play that should feel challenging in every mission you play. If you played a game a day, playing the whole campaign would give you almost two months of game play to get through to the end of the war. You are definitely getting many hours of gameplay for your money! Beyond that, you are getting a game with a lot of educational value as well as a game that drives an engaging narrative of the German perspective on the air war in the ETO. I’ve rarely encountered a game that I’d say was worthy of the now-defunct Charles Roberts Award – but Skies Above the Reich is a definite contender for a Charlie! Bag your copy now and take to the skies.

Armchair General Score: 98%

Solitaire suitability (1–5 scale, with 1 being virtually unplayable as a solitaire game and 5 being completely suitable for solitaire play): 5

Ray Garbee has been a gamer for the past four decades, Ray’s interests include the Anglo-Sikh Wars through the conflicts of the 20th Century and beyond but his passion remains ACW naval gaming. Currently, Ray works as a Product Manager in the IT field while continuing to design tabletop games. His past works include Iron Thunder, Anaconda, Anaconda: Capital Navies and articles in a number of defunct hobby magazines. When not busy gaming, Ray enjoys working on his model railroad, hiking and sport shooting at the local range.

1 Comment

  1. The truth hurts, doesn’t it, kikes and kike lovers? The kikes you are protecting, you fucking boomer cucks, are the ones who are devouring you and are sending your sons back home in body bags after instigating them to fight against goat fuckers in a god forsaken shithole, while robbing you blind via (((inflation))) and (((bubbles))). You fucking idiots.

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