Hello and welcome to Aerial Combat Theatre. I am your host, Kolbex. Today I’ll be talking a little bit about Skies Above the Reich, a new solitaire wargame from GMT. In Skies Above the Reich, you are put in the role of a Staffelkapitän of a group of Bf109 pilots (with occasional supporting planes of other types) during World War II, tasked with, as the subtitle of the game goes, “breaking the combat box,” the deadly, mutually supporting bomber formation that the US settled on to protect their heavy bombers from fighter aircraft. I received the game yesterday from GMT, and today I set it up to see what was what, taking about an hour and a half to get everything situated, get my campaign started and the first mission set up and then to take the first couple of turns. How did it go? I think you will see that so far it has gone extremely badly.
Not because the game is bad. Oh, no, I am looking forward to getting it all set up again already. It is pretty ideal for my situation, that situation being having a couple of cats that absolutely preclude leaving any kind of board game setup long term. The game is played in campaigns, and each campaign is composed of a number of missions. Each mission takes place on one of the four included boards, and consists of a variable number of turns. There are even few enough bits involved that I believe it’ll be easy to break between turns and set up again, although that may only be because of the simplicity of my first mission. Time will tell.
So, let’s begin.
I decided to start with the basic game. The advanced game contains a whole separate “pursuit” board (actually four depending on year), which isn’t mounted like the others but is just a sheet of paper with a bomber on it. I haven’t looked into it very deeply, but I gather that this separate pursuit phase is something that takes place once a bomber has been knocked out of formation, something that historically I guess resulted in the highest number of kills. Given how my game has gone so far, I don’t find that hard to believe. In the basic game, however, once a bomber is knocked out of formation, poof, it’s just gone and you don’t have to worry about it anymore.
I also decided to start with the 1942 “season”. You have a few choices: 1942 and 1945 are handled monolithically, while 1943 and 1944 are broken down into phases: “early,” “middle,” “late,” that sort of thing. The 1942 season is the shortest and easiest, a kind of introductory season, although you can play all the way through from 1942 to 1945 in a great big full-war campaign. Maybe someday.
Let’s get started with that first mission! Being early in the war, at least as far as this game is concerned, my forces consist of 6 experten (“aces”). Each one comes with a particular skill from a set of four. Pulling chits from a cup, I get two who have Luck, two with Timing and two with the Break Anywhere skill, which it just occurred to me that I neglected to use. Next time!
Each campaign is recorded on a sheet from a pad included with the game (there’s a PDF on BGG, too, so you can print out more), with the pilot names, their skills, any experience points, etc., and the back side records the missions, how many kills and so forth. You roll on a little table to determine which board you’ll use, what sort of mission it is (inbound, outbound, near target) and how many escorts the formation has, and when they enter the picture.
For this mission, I rolled board #1, which represents a pair of formations from before the “combat box” had really become a settled thing. The designers’ intent was to make the combat box function as a kind of hostile terrain that the fighters of your staffel will have to navigate. I can tell you that it is very hostile, indeed. Mission is outbound, meaning the formation is being intercepted by us on its way back from bombing whatever it was they bombed. I got a light fighter (Spitfires, at this stage of the war) escort which enters on turn 6 (meaning the fighters didn’t accompany the bombers to their target but will link up on the way home, while I am harassing the formation), sun is in the high 8-10 o’clock flank (which can affect whether or not you get hit from attacking from/retreating to that space), and of the two formations on this somewhat special map, I rolled formation B. First visual:
The situation in the above shot is towards the end of turn 2, since turn 1 consisted only of my fighters entering (all low, as the rules state) the field, and a cohesion check for the bomber formation, since in the pre-mission setup the formation suffered some damage. You can see the “top” bomber has one point of damage (it takes 10 to destroy a B-17), and the bottom one has “fallen out,” which applies a modifier to the lethality of the spaces that surrounded it. So there are only four bombers. It’s enough.
My six fighters, eager for action, have all chosen their attack vectors. Since you start low, you attack from the low approach boxes, unless you spend tactical points to move higher first. You can see on the turn track on the right side that I have 4 tactical points for this mission (determined by yet another roll). The attacks: two from the nose, two from the tail, one from each side. This bomber won’t know what hit it! Another cohesion check on the formation does nothing much.
Now, the Attack phase. This is what we’ve been waiting for!
Fighters in position, ok let’s go through the Attack procedure and…collision check? What? Oh god, since there are two fighters in both the nose and tail spaces, I have to pull a couple of “proximity” chits and apply them to the fighters. Some are automatically “no collision,” and some have numbers. I pull a 2 for both groups. Now, according to the procedure, you roll, and if the result is lower than the number on the chit, there’s a collision, which I have to admit sounds pretty Not Good. Ok, rolled an 8 for the Nose group, cool, and a…1…for the Tail group. Well. Now you roll again, and an even result means the fighter collided with the bomber in its space. Otherwise it collides with the other fighter. I rolled a 3. So, Mission 1, Turn 2, Ademeit and Bauer are gone, having collided with each other in their lust for glory. One third of my staffel is now KIA. On the first mission. On the first real turn. This is going, uh, great.
Since two of my fighters (the Nose group, since the Tail group is…dead) attacked from the same vector and altitude, I get a “Rotte” bonus, which allows a fighter attacking the element (a group of bombers, and remember this map has only one) to avoid a “hit” result, which will be semi-important later on. Maybe. Next up, choosing maneuvers for each fighter. The maneuver determines to which “side” of the board they will go after they make their passage through the element. Climbs and dives gain and lose altitude respectively and go straight across to the other side from the side they came from, and rolls allow you to make a 90 degree turn either way (also with climbs and dives). I make choices that will see one of my remaining fighters on each side of the board to hopefully avoid any more disastrous collision checks, although I could have just sent them after separate bombers, too.
The game comes with four decks of “attack” cards (you can see one of these cards in the image below): Nose, Tail, Oblique and the inaccurately innocuous-sounding “Continuing Fire” deck. You draw a card for each fighter depending on which side of the board it came from, then chose the column based on the “Lethal Level” of the space it’s in (e.g. Clade’s space in the image above is a 2), then cross-reference that with the row corresponding to the altitude the attack was made from (everybody in this turn is Low), then apply the result in the corresponding space not so fast there are two, depending on whether your fighter is in the Determined or Evasive mode, chosen at the beginning of each Attack phase I think. It’s all going a bit hazy now. Determined fighters are more likely to do damage and Evasive fighters are less likely to be damaged. Based on all of that, my four fighters manage to score two hits to the bomber, both of which turn out to be (after chit pulls) 1 damage hits to the fuselage with no chance of a “catastrophic” result (which can cause a bomber to fall out or just straight up explode). So, out of four bombers, one has taken a cumulative total of 3 damage. Out of the 10 required to destroy it. And I’ve lost 2 fighters of my 6 total.
I also spent my Rotte advantage to avoid a hit that went along with my hit result for the one fighter. Yes, you can get hit making your attack, and also while you’re moving away, which coincidentally is what happens next. This is where the Continuing Fire deck comes in. All of my attack cards also contained a “pass through” result, which means the fighter moves the number of spaces on the card in accordance with the maneuver selected, so a climb moves from, e.g. nose to tail, a climb roll that was pointing to the right from top flank to nose, etc. So everybody played musical airs (hehe) around the bomber and ended up in different spaces after their attacks. With different lethal levels from the spaces they’d left, and now we draw Continuing Fire cards. These are simpler than the attack cards, because they just have the lethal level and that’s what happens (well, also Determined or Evasive). On their way out, three of my fighters take hits: CLade to the cockpit, Frieling to the fuselage and Grimm to the elevator. How bad are these hits? Good question! We won’t find out until the Recovery phase next turn, which comes before Attack. The hits could be trivial, in which case nothing happens, or Serious, in which case the fighter is moved to one of the ominously-named “Fate” boxes on the big card to the right of the board.
So now the Attack is done and my fighters all move off to the sections of the board that their maneuvers dictate, to await the next turn, and oh god this is going so badly already, and the escorts haven’t even shown up yet.