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Posted on Feb 20, 2023 in Boardgames, Front Page Features

Squadron Scramble! “Skies Above Britain” Board Game Review

Squadron Scramble! “Skies Above Britain” Board Game Review

Ray Garbee

By Ray Garbee

Skies Above Britain. Publisher: GMT Games. Designer: Jeremy White and Gina Willis. Price $99.00

Passed inspection: An immersive solitaire experience that captures the feel of the air war over Britain in 1940. The well-crafted rulebook and charts make finding rules references a snap.

Failed basic: Not a failure, but it can be taxing to follow everything going on within a turn. However, Gina solved this with a downloadable deck of cards that walk you through the patrol cycle.

A solitary British fighter executes a victory roll in the sky above an airfield in France in the opening scene of Guy Hamilton’s 1969 film “The Battle of Britain”. The film delivers on its title, packing the breadth of the three-month campaign into two hours and thirteen minutes.  As a child I was captivated by the depiction of the air battles and heroic characters. As an adult, I’ve come to appreciate the solid job the film does delivering so much of the experience of the campaign in a cinematic form as well as the iconic film score by the legendary composer Ron Goodwin.


I share these perceptions of the movie, as those memories were sparked by GMT Games  Skies Above Britain from the design team of Jeremy White and Gina Willis. Skies of Above Britain is not the first game to cover the Battle of Britain. (And it won’t be the last, based on conversations with Daivd Thompson of Undaunted: Stalingrad fame.) There’s been a number of prior games on the topic, both solitaire and multi-player. To name three of the more popular titles over the years, you have John Butterfield’s classic RAF, most recently reprinted by Decision games in 2019. London is Burning by Ben Knight, originally published by Avalon Hill, and Lee Whitcomb’s The Burning Blue from GMT Games. Each of these titles have their strengths and provide different takes on the campaign ranging from the level of command through tactical level and duration of an action. But back to the target for today…

Skies Above Britain Box Cover

Skies Above Britain is a solitaire game covering the air war that was the Battle of Britain in the summer and fall of 1940.  Building on the foundation of the prior games Skies Above the Reich and Storm Above the Reich, Gina and Jeremy have ‘flipped the script’ crafting a game that captures the unique experience of the Battle of Britain through a tailored game design that is both familiar to players of the earlier games, while at the same time is a fresh take on the nature of air combat during the 1940 campaign.

The game puts the player in the role of managing an RAF squadron as it defends the skies above Britain from the attacking Luftwaffe bomber raids. The game views the campaign through the lens of squadron management, by which your key job is allocating your key resource – your pilots – to allow the squadron to operate as an effective fighting force and inflict enough losses to thwart the German plans to bomb Britain into submission.  

The quality of the components is first rate, as we expect from GMT Games.  An inventory of the box yields the following components:

  • 1 Interception Game Board
  • 1 Squadron Display Game Board
  • 1 Me-110 Circle Display
  • 4 Counter Sheets
  • 1 Rules Booklet
  • 1 Situation Manual
  • 1 Optional Rules Booklet
  • 3 Player Aid Cards
  • 200 Playing Cards
  • 1 Pad of Roster Sheets
  • 2 Historical Log Sheets
  • 1 Sheet of Stickers
  • 38 Wooden Blocks (which is where the stickers go)
  • 10 Wooden Cubes
  • 1 Wooden Cylinder (the mark the German raid)
  • 2, Twelve-sided Dice (the ubiquitous d12)

 I won’t dive into a detailed breakdown of all the components, but I want to focus on three items: the interception board, the rule book and the situation manual. If you want a more details overview of the components, take a look at the unboxing video from 6 Actual.

The interception game board is the heart of the game. It’s the evolution of the bomber box game boards from Skies Above the Reich. The interception board is where players are making decisions related to how and when to engage the bomber formation, as well as dealing with the German fighter escorts. It’s a nice representation of the spatial decisions the player must make and depicts relative position of the player’s fighters to the bombers, the escorts and the impact of the sun on game play.

In the earlier games, the interception board was a tool for displaying the volume of space occupied by an American bomber box. As time passed, you shifted to other maps that reflects changes in doctrine and equipment. The Battle of Britain was ‘only’ three months and didn’t have those kinds of changes in tactics and equipment. Instead the emphasis here is on tangling with the escorts and getting into the bomber formation (which is where you need to be if you want to win the game.)

The rule book embodies a classic Jeremy White design. I hold the rulebook from Atlantic Chase in very high regard, but Skies Above Britain meets that same high bar for clarity and ease of reference.

The situation manual contains a plethora of individual scenarios as well as the details for the patrols which comprise the campaign covering the Battle of Britain. The scenarios are laid out with a focus on teaching you discrete processes within the game. The genius here is that each scenario does feel like a self-contained action and not like a teaching tool. Jeremy took a similar approach in Atlantic Chase and it works just as well in Skies Above Britain.

I’m going to step through a single patrol mission to give you an overview of the game. Patrols are just what they sound like – the squadron takes off on a patrol and looks for the Germans, moves to intercept and shoot down some bombers while hopefully not losing any of your pilots in the process. A varying number of patrols make up a chapter. The chapters reflect the different historical phases of the campaign with differences in which zone the targets generally are found and challenges regarding aircrew availability and fatigue. The full game covering the Battle of Britain campaign consist of 6 chapters. There’s a lot of a lot of action here, so let’s dive into the action with a patrol from Chapter 1 – Skirmishing Over the Channel. In lot of ways, Chapter 1 is the ‘learning’ experience for the player, as it was historically for both the RAF and the Luftwaffe. The player will experience the full cycle of the campaign game with multiple patrols. With some luck, the player will encounter a raid or two of Stuka and hopefully rack up some easy ‘kills’ at low cost to the squadron.

Setting up the patrol

First things first, let’s look at the duty roster and determine which pilots are available and allocate them to the various flights and sections.

Pilot roster log in use. I’ve named my pilots. the log tracks when they flew and their ‘kills’ towards gaining ‘ace’ skills.

We’ve got enough pilots available that we can field four, three plane sections – a full strength outing. Of course, I had to assign a couple of pilots back to back missions, so they’ll be fatigued if I cannot rest them in the following mission.

The squadron ready for action, with pilot assignments at the top, corresponding to a specific plane.

Looking at the notes for Chapter 1 we have the instructions for setting up the inbound raid markers, determining the weather and where our intrepid fly boys are starting from in a broad geographic sense. Bad news! Due to a poor die roll, our planes are away from the coast and will need to hustle if we are to meet the enemy before they bomb their target.

Let’ move on to the raid vector sequence and start the patrol.

Raid Vector Sequence

In the Raid Vector Sequence, we’ll start by revealing (i.e., flipping over) inbound raid tokens. These tokens will show actions that are either affecting the inbound raid or the patrolling fighter squadron. Events include

  • Friendly antiaircraft fire
  • Interception orders from sector HQ
  • A change in the weather
  • A course change by the raid that changes the position of the sun
  • An encounter with a stray bomber (a straggler separated from its raid)
  • An encounter with a random German Fighter patrol
  • The enemy raid either appearing for interception, or if it’s already put in an appearance, bombing it’s target and heading for home 
Card 1 from the downloadable deck Gina Willis created. It nicely steps you through the actions.

The first token is;

Weather and Messerschmitt’s

First up, we deal with the weather. The hazy skies give way to blue skies and sunshine and the sun position is determined. Given our current position, the Messerschmidt’s are converted to a straggler. Yellow section is detached to engage the straggler. With a quick burst the section scores multiple hits. But Flying officer Knight score the hit that brings down the machine.  Yellow section moves to the lost contact area of the interception game board.

We move on the drawn the second token is…

another straggler!

Another stray to be collected.

Yellow section is already in lost contact, so they intercept the bomber, and again, score enough hits to bring it down. (Each plane draws a bomber damage card and applies the results.)

We’ve not made contact yet, so we’ll step through the fuel and vector sequences. Each section spends one fuel and then the squadron moves to high altitude. We spend a second fuel point to move the squadron over towards the coast. Yellow section has a number of planes out of ammo, so they elect to return to base. Now we’ll loop back to start the Raid Vector sequence anew.

We start the next round by revealing the first vector marker in the next space – it’s a change in the sun and a raid result.

The position of the sun shifts on the interception board. The sun is nose high. More importantl, the raid is detected! The weather is clear, so we determine which escorting fighters are on station and the type of bombers in the formation. Consulting the bomber type table in for Chapter 1, we get a result of Ju-87 Stuka. An excellent result, as they are not as well defended or robust as the bogger medium bombers.

Now we have a chance to intercept. To do so, we’ll roll on the contact! Table. Rolling a 7 we find that we intercept at the tail low position.  Having made contact, we’ll march on to the Interception Sequence.

Interception Sequence

So, based on the result of the contact result, we’re right on the tail of the Stuka formation. It’s time to assign orders to the sections, so I have decisions to make. There are ME109 escorts to port and Me110 escorts to starboard. But there is a big, juicy formation of Ju-87 sitting right in front of me.  I’m going to take a calculated risk here and send all the Hurricane’s after the Stuka and accept that I’ll likely get bounced by the escorts in the aftermath of the attack. Downing Stuka’s are where the money is at here.

But making contact from a tail position won’t necessarily be an easy feat. Checking the bomber intercept table, each section will need to roll a 7 or higher to successfully intercept. Two of the sections succeed with their first die roll, but two fail. However, the failing section pour on the throttle and burns an additional fuel point to gain the ability to re-roll the die. We’re a bit lucky and both sections succeed. The three remaining sections fall on the bombers.

Bomber Sequence

In the bomber sequence we resolve each fighter’s attack on a bomber. This is done by pulling a bomber damage card for each attacking fighter and implementing the results. If hits are scored, a damage chit is pulled and the results are applied to the target (and often to the attacking fighter as well). It’s a blood bath with Stuka falling out of the air from engine and cockpit critical hits. But the Hurricanes are accumulating hits from the return fire from the Stuka as well. Several Hurricanes are out of ammunition, having given the Stuka the ‘whole nine yards’ from their guns.

The interception turns into a great success, after two rounds of attacks eleven of the Stuka have been downed and the bomber formation as broken up. Unfortunately, it’s time to pay the price for our success – the Messerschmidt’s bounce the Hurricanes and a series of dogfights erupt across the bomber formation.

Dogfight Sequence

I draw an escort reaction card and find that I’m engulfed in German fighters. Every Hurricane has to defend against the onslaught most dealing with Me 109 with two find the attention from Me110. The 109 dogfights generally go well, but two Hurricanes pick up hits that land them in the fate box. The Me 110 fights go bit better with one Hurricane actually scoring a kill against a Me 110 before ending the action.

These dogfights are critical, but play out quickly in roughly 6 steps, that get repeated until the dogfight ends. The results of each dogfight read like a narrative of turning, slipping and evasion, with slashing head to head passes and dogged pursuits. The pilots skills can make or break the dogfights as they allow the better pilots more options and abilities.

The Hurricane is facing a pair of 109’s head on.
We draw a damage card and use the head to head side of the card, one Hurricane facing the 109. A possible collision!
In the familiar prayer of all gamers, ‘please don’t roll a one.’ Whew! Collison avoided and the 109’s vanish.

Getting through all the dogfights, we find the escorts have turned back leaving the remains of the bomber formation to push forward. Our two remaining fighters will engage in one more round of combat and score two more kills against the now unescorted Junkers before turning for home.

Patrol Complete

With all the fighters out of contact with the bombers, we wrap up the active patrol and head back to the airfield. There’s just some end of patrol accounting left to resolve…

Return To Base

Well. There’s four damaged Hurricane’s coming back to base. Two have wing damage, one has fuselage damage and one more has cockpit damage. One of the wing damaged planes successfully lands, but the other three pilots are not so lucky and have to bail out. Fortunately, they all jump successfully and we can expect them back in action after a brief recovery period.

That’s the patrol. This example benefited from a lot of luck and good card draws.

Skies Above Britain has a lot of what I like in a board game. First off are the extensive tutorials. These are a staple of Jermy White’s games. Even more so than in Atlantic Chase, the tutorials presented here are designed to teach you the sub-processes of the game turn in manageable chunks. That they do so in a way that makes you feel like you are playing the game is a true win. Before my first patrol, I could say I’d already played ten ‘games’ of Skies Above Britain as I learned to play the game. 

The patrol is an immersive, engaging playing activity. You get a good feels for the experience of scrambling your squadron and attempting to intercept the incoming raid before they can hit their target. But the activities of the patrol really resonate with the player when placed in the context of the campaign game. Now every decision matters, ranging from how efficiently are you intercepting the bombers, how much damage are you doing and – most critically – how are your pilots holding up? 

A common critique of solitaire narrative games is that the player is just ‘along for the ride’ and is subject to events without a real say in how they player got in that situation. This makes sense in classic games like B-17 Queen of the Skies as the player controls one plane, but that plane is on a mission and part of a larger formation. While you may end up leaving the squadron, a lot of the decision making is out of your hands.

Let’s contrast that with Skies Above Britain. Yes, the player controls a squadron of fighters and yes, they are tasked with the mission of intercepting and shooting down enemy bombers. But within those broad mission parameters, the player is making a lot of decisions. Prior to interception, you’ll be debating what is more important – where you are, or do you have enough altitude. These decisions are important as they impact exactly how you intercept the German bomber formation.

And assuming interception does happen (it generally does, but in my first patrol, the squadron got caught out of position and failed to intercept the bombers before they bombed and left for home.) You are faced with even more decisions – do you divert planes to deal with the escorts, do you focus on the bombers, do you move around the bomber formation to gain a better position? You’d think that’s enough, but no, now you have to decide which bombers to engage, when to use your pilot’s skills (if any) to influence the outcome and eventually, when to break off and return to base. For the player, a patrol in Skies Above Britain is anything but a passive experience. Heck, even at the end, you’ll be consulting tables and determining the ‘fate’ of any shot up aircraft and their pilots. Nothing tempers the success of shooting down 12 Stuka like the realization that two of your pilots were killed and another will be in hospital for a bit. Over the course of the campaign, you’ll develop a narrative that is much more than just kills and losses, but captures details that personalizes experience with concerns about pilot fatigue and details like just how long will Sgt. Quint be in hospital? And how many Hurricanes can Sgt. Savory manage to crash over the course of the campaign? (The answer is three and counting.)

While the rules are well laid out and the instructional scenarios do a solid job teaching you the mechanics, putting the whole patrol into action is a daunting task the first couple of times out. My first patrol took over two hours of stepping through the turn sequence, checking rules and tables. Subsequent plays saw that time drop to 90 minutes for a robust patrol. While I’m sure there’s a point of diminishing returns, I could see an experienced player slashing through a patrol in a little more than an hour. To help you on your way, I recommend investing the time in downloading and printing the deck of game assist cards, created by Gina Willis, specifically for Skies Above Britain. I found them extremely helpful in navigating the various phases and steps within a patrol.

 If you are looking for a detailed game of air combat, you’ll probably want to keep looking. Skies Above Britain has a lot of air combat action, but almost all of it is stylized and abstracted in an effort in service to the game’s speed of play. This isn’t a knock on the game, but if you are an air combat fan, you should know you are not getting a hyper-detailed resolution of combat. The game provides great flavor and a clear sense of what is going on, but it’s not a quantitative model like say, Check Your 6 or J.D. Webster’s Atchtung-Spitfire! But, given the level of command and perspective of the player in Skies Above Britain, the level of detail on the combat mechanics is appropriate and give a sense of the free-wheeling chaos of dogfighting.

Skies Above Britain is an excellent gaming experience. It’s a great game that focuses on the challenges of command at the squadron level. The game slots in nicely between playing John Butterfield’s “RAF” and a more tactical game that is focused on individual engagements. Gina and Jeremy have found the ‘sweet spot’ that pairs a balance of strategic decision making and squadron management with the tactical narrative of intercepting bombers and dogfighting. There are many hours of enjoyment to be had with the game and the replay value is high. Fire up that Ron Goodwin movie score and get those fighters in the air!

Armchair General Score: 95 %

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 American Civil War naval gaming. His past works include Iron Thunder, Anaconda, Anaconda: Capital Navies and articles in a number of hobby magazines.