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Posted on Jul 1, 2021 in Boardgames, Front Page Features

Where’s There’s Smoke, There’s Fire – “Smokejumpers” Board Game Review

Where’s There’s Smoke, There’s Fire – “Smokejumpers” Board Game Review

Ray Garbee

Smokejumpers. Publisher: Microgame Design Group. Designer: Kerry Anderson. Price $ 30.00

Passed inspection: Solid components and well laid out rules.

Failed basic: It’s a harsh, but realistic model for controlling wildfires. If the fire gets away from you because the weather shifted unexpectedly – you may lose the game through no fault of your own decision-making.

Growing up in a midwestern suburb we had our share of natural hazards. Thunderstorms, tornadoes, blizzards, even the rare red flag event when open fires were discouraged. But wild fires were not a hazard with which we had to contend. The only exposure to forest fire was via movies like “Fire on Kelly Mountain” or “Always”. Sometimes we’d encounter the effects of wildfires during our infrequent travels to the southeast or western parts of North America. On those trips, it was the occasional appearance of a charred landscape, or smoke tainted air were the rare signs that wild fire was an ever-present natural hazard.

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Working to contain fires is often expressed in martial terms like “fighting a fire” or “battling a blaze”. Managing the resources to extinguish a fire can easily be viewed through the lens of a military operation. You have ground troops and tracked vehicles deployed to stop and contain the conflagration.  In remote areas, a fire-fighting crew might parachute in to put out the fire. On some occasions, aircraft are called in to drop water or flame retardant to quench the fire. Kerry Anderson has translated this view of “firefighting as battle management” to the tabletop through his board game Smokejumpers, a solitaire game from Microgame Design Group.

Unpacking the game from its bag, we find the following components;

  • The rule book
  • Counter sheet
  • Fire Spread chart
  • Player Aid chart
  • Map sheets

The rulebook does a good job laying out the game turn. It’s a relatively short, softcover, saddle-stitched booklet. The scenarios are listed in the back.

The game comes with one counter sheet that contains both the fire-fighting units a player may employ, as well as a number of markers to delineate the spread and extent of the fire and the defenses constructed to contain the fire. The units represent ground teams such as crews, firetrucks, bulldozers and (using the advance rules) fire hoses as well as aviation elements from helicopters, to light water bombers to the heavy aerial tankers.

The fire spread chart is the heart of the game. This chart is a great help in understanding how fire spreads based on a model that includes land cover, topography, wind speed and relative humidity.

The player aid chart gives the player a breakdown on the costs and abilities of the various units at their disposal. You ever wonder why footage of fighting wildfires shows so many ground crews with shovels and axes? Turns out they are one of the cheapest ways to get a large number of assets deployed across an area. But when you need concentrated effort, you’ll want a dozer or two ready to rumble into action.

The maps represent four generic landscapes ranging from open grasslands to steep mountain forests. Each posses a different set of challenges and lessons that can be learned.  Given the scale of the maps, it would be relatively easy to model some real-world landscapes. This could allow you to model historical wild fire events.

The markers represent the fire as either actively burning, or charred areas of “smolder” that need to be tamped down. There’s a set of counters that depict the firebreaks constructed by your teams, either in the form of dirt and cleared land, water from hoses or retardant dropped by your aerial units.

It’s a solid set of components. “But”, you ask, “how does this translate into a game?” The answer is –very nicely. Smokejumpers casts the player as the leader of a firefighting team. In each game, the player picks a map, picks one of six “situations” (aka “scenarios”) and then builds their team from the pool of available units. These units range from four-person ground teams armed with Pulaski tool and shovels these teams are backed up by fire engines that provide water and hoses to the teams. Bulldozers provide a slower, but effective means of building larger fire breaks. From the sky may come additional – but expensive – support in the form of helicopters, water skimmers or retardant bombers. 

The choices in available assets results in a pre-game planning session in which you have to define your team based on the intersection of your expectation of what the situation will generate in terms of a wild fire balanced against your budgetary restrictions. Choose poorly and you may face an out-of-control wildfire. Really drop the ball and people are going to lose their homes and you made lose your teams.

Once you’ve built your team, its game day. Each game turn you’ll test to see if a wild fire has started in your area of repsonsibility. If nothing happens, you’ll check the weather for changes in wind speed and direction, then you’ll go to the next game turn and do it over again. As you move through the afternoon, the relative humidity tends to drop as the air temperature rises, exacerbating the risk from a fire should one start.

At some point during the day, it happens – a column of smoke is spotted marking an active fire. You’ll perform triage at this point, assessing the fire’s location, the wind speed and direction and then checking both the land cover in the fire zone and any useful terrain features such as roads, rivers or hills. Now it’s time to act – you’ll dispatch your units and start building fire breaks in an effort to stop the spread of the fire.

If you’re good at your job and the weather cooperates, you’ll get the fire contained quickly and hopefully extinguished before the end of the day. But if something goes wrong – or the weather does not cooperate, you’ll get an object lesson in what makes wild fires so very, very dangerous.

Smokejumpers does an excellent job capturing the feel of fire management. The game engine shows a deep appreciation and understanding of wild fires. This is not a surprise given game designer Kerry Anderson’s background.  The wildfire spread rates are easy to understand. The fire spread model conveys to the player a good sense of the combustibility of the various landcovers combined with the physics of fire how fire spreads.

The game also gives the player a good overview of the available firefighting tools and more importantly, their costs. The next time you see a Boeing 747 Supertanker dropping a massive stream of fire retardant on a wild fire, you will recognize that you are seeing “the big guns” in action, and that they are fighting a very dangerous fire as that is an expensive resource being used.

Smokejumpers is an engaging game. Wild fires are an unruly beast that pose a real risk to life and property. As in real life, wild fires in the game can be unpredictable. Winds can change in direction and intensity and the relative humidity can drop, drying out the vegetation. Change any one of these factors and the fire will become worse. Stack these changes on top of each other in a coniferous forest and the fire can become an unstoppable wall of flames racing from tree to tree.  

Smokejumpers in a fun and challenging game. But more than that, the game can be a powerful tool for educating the player regarding the nature of wildfires. As human settlement and activities continue to infiltrate into the forests and across the grasslands, the risks of catastrophic miscalculations become more likely. People will continue to interact with the landscape whether through an extractive activity such as logging, choosing to build that dream home in the forest or even taking an overnight hike in the back country. Providing people with a better understanding of the risks posed by fires can help to mitigate some of the fire danger inherent with these activities.

It may not be World War Two, but Smokejumpers will have you feeling the heat of this fiery chess match. Order a copy today!

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.

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