Thursday, April 20, 2017

Down In Flames

For my first experiment with air combat rules, I pulled out a commercially produced, boxed game.

Down in Flames is a card game that replicates World War 2 dogfights. I picked up the original version in the 90s, then got rid of it for some reason. When I returned to wargaming four years ago, DiF was one of the games I purchased anew (I reviewed the new edition early in the history of this blog). It has since been languishing in my closet but I decided to pull it out now that I'm on an air combat craze.

Test Games
I played a few solo games to re-familiarize myself with the rules. I decided to start with a simple, 1-on-1 dogfight. I did not worry about altitude in this test.

# 1 - P-40 vs Zero
When I first owned DiF, I had the version that covered the early European war. I decided to try a different theater so I pulled out a Japanese Zero (I should have used the army version) vs. a Flying Tigers P-40. Although these planes have the same victory point value, the Zero historically was a better dogfighter. This is reflected by the higher performance score. I expect the Zero to win.

The opponents fly at each other (I really should have used a different background than a Miami Dolphins blanket).

The P-40 gained the initiative (random draw). It performed a vertical roll, but the Zero responded with its own roll (note the action cards above the planes). The P-40 maneuvered some more and managed to get on the Zero's tail. It unleashed a hail of fire, but the Zero pilot was an ace and was able to avoid getting hit.

The Zero turned the tables with a series of maneuvers that left him on the P-40's tail. He fired an accurate burst that shredded the P-40. Game over.

#2 P-40 vs. Zero (Take 2)
That was short so let's try it again.

Oops, the Zero gained initiative and quickly managed to shoot down the P-40.

# 3 Hellcat vs. Zero
Let's try a tougher challenge for the Zero - a US Navy Hellcat.

The Hellcat won initiative and gained the advantage on the Zero. Its volley ripped gaping holes in the Zero.

The Zero managed to get on the Hellcat's tail but could not line up a shot.

The Hellcat responded and got on the Zero's tail. The Zero used a tight turn to avoid the Hellcat's shots.

The Zero could not shake the Hellcat.

The American finally got in a good shot. The Zero went down.

Those were fun and quick dogfights. So how does DiF rate in terms of my preferences?

Solo-ability = Low
While card games, like DiF can be played solo, I find it awkward to do so. Each side's card hand should be secret; in a solo game hidden information is known. This can subtly influence player choices. There are ways to mitigate this, but the experience will never be the same as a player vs. player experience. I also find it annoying having to handle multiple hands of cards.

Scale-ability = Low
I did not test a bigger game, but from my experience with a 1 on 1 dogfight, I think it would become exponentially more difficult for one player to handle more planes (which would require more card hands).

Look and Feel = High
Even though it's abstract, I feel that the cards do provide the feel of a dogfight. The opponents trade maneuvers in a fast-paced effort to out-think one another and get in position to fire. The action is fast and furious. DiF also does a good job of simply modelling differences between aircraft. For example, the better maneuverability of the Zero was reflected well in its dogfights against the P-40. Historically, the P-40 compensated by using its better diving ability. Perhaps if I had used altitude the results may have differed.

Tactical Thought = Medium
DiF requires a good deal of tactical thought. How do I sequence my maneuvers for best advantage? How do I manage my plane's energy (card hand)? Do I go for broke now or hold some cards in my hand for later? Unfortunately, some of these decisions are nullified when playing solo. When you know the opponent's hand, some of these decisions become foregone conclusions. Thus, for player vs player actions, I would rate this High but since I'm playing solo I downgraded it to Medium.

Portawargameability = High
In other words, does this game feature the characteristics of a portable wargame? Being a boxed game, it is literally portable. Although it does not use a board, it can be played in a small space. The basic rules are simple so a game can be played quickly (all 3 games probably took a half an hour). Therefore it does meet many of the portable wargame characteristics.

Adaptability = Low
The author of DiF has adapted the rules for World War I so it is possible to adapt them to other eras. I downgraded the score in this area, however, because to do it right would require custom cards, I just am not crafty enough to make my own cards.

Final Thoughts
While DiF is a fun game, it is a little clunky for solo play. For this reason, I doubt it will become my preferred set of air combat rules.


  1. If you can get a hold of "Hornet Leader: Carrier Air Operations" it is the best solo system I have ever played. Though it is modern air to air / air to ground combat, it rewards good planning and decision making. It is a proper solo game.

  2. I remember seeing it in the game store in the 90s. However, I'm an Air Force guy so I kept waiting for an Air Force version (Eagle Leader perhaps?). Right now I'm focusing on dogfights rather than managing squadrons but I'll keep Hornet Leader in mind.