Thursday, January 24, 2013

Review of Down in Flames

Down in Flames (by Dan Versenn Games) is a series of card games that re-create aerial combat during World War II (although there are versions for other eras). I owned the original version of the game, which came out in the 90s, but I got rid of it after I bought a PlayStation and started playing aviation video games. Now that I am eschewing electronic games in favor of some old school fun, I recently purchased Down in Flames – Aces High, the first game in the new edition.

 Players “pilot” one or more planes, which are represented by aircraft cards. Movement is handled abstractly; instead of plotting on a hex map or board, the relative positions of the aircraft are represented. For example, if I make a successful maneuver and find myself tailing my enemy, my aircraft card is placed behind the enemy’s, with my nose facing its tail. There are 5 positions: neutral (facing each other), advantaged, disadvantaged (the advantaged plane faces the side of the disadvantaged one, tailing, or tailed (tailing is behind the tailed).

For each plane, players draw a hand of action cards, which they play to maneuver or to shoot at the enemy. Cards can also be used to react to an opponent’s card, negating their attempted maneuver. A player needs the right card to be able to shoot, so you may be tailing your opponent but still may not be able to line them up in your sights.

The games is quick (a 1 vs. 1 dogfight only takes a few minutes to play) and fairly simple. Yet it still manages to create the feel of a chaotic dogfight. You may make a maneuver (play a card), but then your enemy responds with a maneuver of his own, however he fails to counter your next maneuver! You have him in your sights – fire away! The give and take is quick and exciting. One possible drawback of the game is that, like all card games, you may find yourself without a card you need. Hand management is a big part of the strategy of the game. Knowing when to use your cards and how to bide your time until you get the card you want is key. In a sense, it seems realistic. Fighter pilots are trained to manage their aircraft’s energy to make effective attacks or defenses. In this game, cards represent energy. Note that, like real life, you will gain energy (cards) when diving and lose it while climbing.

The game includes bomber cards, but they serve best during the included campaign scenarios. Each scenario (such as the Battle of Britain or Midway) involves a series of missions. Players choose the specific target and the resources (e.g. aircraft, anti-aircraft artillery, etc.) committed to each mission. The mission is played out using the dogfight rules. Unlike the older edition, flak and bombing are not random but are based on chosen bombing and artillery patterns. This is designed to remove lucky draws from impacting the campaign results. I haven’t tried a campaign with this edition yet, but it also seems that the new rules will speed up the game (I remember getting bogged down drawing cards to resolve AA and bombing when I played the older version).

One other improvement is that the new version includes aircraft and campaigns from all theaters of the war. The original edition only covered the Battle of Britain. Later expansions added the late war Allied bombing campaigns and the Pacific War. If you wanted to jump around, you needed the expansions. Now, you only need one set (although they do have expansions that add more planes; but it seems that all the most popular planes are in Aces High).

After getting it, I have played 2 games with my wife Elizabeth. Both were 1 vs. 1 dogfights. In the first, her Messerschmitt flamed my Spitfire but I retaliated in the second when my Messerschmitt shot down her Russian fighter (I wish I could remember which one it was). I remember playing the original version solo, and that is my plan. I also began one of the campaigns. Overall, this is a clever game that replicates the feel of a dogfight. I highly recommend it.

Rating: 4.5/5

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