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Gaming this weekend: Down in Flames (GMT)

Posted by Denny Koch on October 20, 2010

Module 1: The Rise of the Luftwaffe, unfortunately out of print

This weekend, a classic returned to our gaming table: Down in Flames by GMT Games, a card-based game series depicting World War II air warfare.

Down in Flames consists of 4 modules and several expansions, but we wanted to play the dogfight variant this weekend, not one of the larger campaigns, so we only used the first two modules “Rise of the Luftwaffe” and “Eighth Air Force“.

“Dogfights” are the basic game variant where your leaders and their wingmen fight against the other players’ fighters. The “Campaigns” are the advanced variant, they add special rules, bomber formations, and historical scenarios, for example “Invasion of Poland” or “Battle of Britain” with several sub-missions, like bombing raids on railway stations or supply depots.

This isn’t meant to be a review or anything like that, just some short random impressions and general thoughts that occurred to us while we were (re)playing this game which had spent a long time on the shelf (you know the problem… too many games, too little time… ;)).

Down in Flames – more than a series (actually, two series)

Module 2: Eighth Air Force, adding more fighters, more scenarios and replaces the Luftwaffe rules

“Rise of the Luftwaffe” was the first module of the GMT game series, published in 1993. Ownership of this module is the prerequisite of playing the second module, 8th Air Force. Unfortunately, both modules (Luftwaffe and 8th Air Force) are out of print and GMT Games doesn’t plan to reprint them. The other two modules which depict World War II air combat in the Pacific theater (“Zero” and “Corsairs and Hellcats”) are still available. GMT announced that they are planning a “Down in Flames Deluxe European Theatre Game” named Wild Blue Yonder which will replace Luftwaffe and 8th Air Force, but it is still in P500 status and whether it will ever be published in the foreseeable future is unknown.

At the same time, game designer Dan Verssen re-booted the series and published DiF in his own company, DVG (Dan Verssen Games) with revised expanded rules and new modern artworks. The first module of his new Down in Flames series was “Aces High”, published in 2008. The second module “Guns Blazing” was just released this autumn. His new DiF games are not compatible with the GMT DiF series, however.

So getting into the “classic” GMT version of the game is somewhat more difficult than jumping into the new DVG version because especially “Luftwaffe” is hard to find, at least for a reasonable price. In addition, if you own Luftwaffe and 8th Air Force, there might be some slight rules confusion because the 8th Air Force rules supersede the Luftwaffe rules whereas you have to stick to the Luftwaffe rulebook if you want to play any Luftwaffe campaigns.

We are in the lucky position of possessing several copies of the GMT modules as well as the Dunkirk variant from the C3i magazine (the house zine of GMT), so when we decided to bring back the classic DiF to our gaming table, we could jump into our dogfights immediately. We also decided that it would be an interesting task to compare the classic GMT Down in Flames with the brand-new DVG DiF series and to write some impressions about the differences between both series. Since many gamers are confused by the old series vs. the new series vs. the Wild Yonder P500 module, some information about both series could be helpful. We know about the confusion because we fell into the same trap… so you can expect more about both games in this blog – stay tuned!

Dogfights on the table

There is almost no setup time - you select your fighters and off you go!

So this weekend, we returned to the classic GMT version (we will play the DVG version next weekend). We hadn’t played Down in Flames in years, so we actually had to re-read the rulebook and almost start from scratch (although we quickly remembered why we always liked the dynamics of this fast card-driven wargame!).

Since we did a review reset when we relaunched our HFC website, we took the chance to read the rules with a fresh perspective as a new player would read them. And don’t get me wrong – we really love the game, it’s certainly one of the coolest air combat games ever made and the flight and fight dynamics, the speed, the feel of being a pilot are unmatched. Nevertheless, some random aspects, negative as well as positive ones, shall be mentioned here.

The 8th Air Force rules supersede the Luftwaffe rules, so when you are playing the dogfights variant, you only need the 8th Air Force Basic game rulebook. Unfortunately, the Luftwaffe rulebook has more illustrations as well as card explanations which are missing in the 8th Air Force rulebook, but this becomes more problematic in the campaign game (for example when you want to know what a “spoiled attack symbol” looks like – which is only illustrated in the Luftwaffe rulebook). For dogfights, the 8th Air Force rulebook is sufficient and you can leave the Luftwaffe rules in the box.

Vertical roll is an action card which can be used as an attack or as a response maneuver

Our first dogfight was one fighter element (=2 fighters, leader + wingman) vs. one element. It is up to you how many elements each player gets (or how many elements/players are actually playing, the game is very multiplayer friendly!), but for our first game, we decided that each player concentrating on one element was enough. The more planes you control, the more complex the possible dogfight constellations between several fighters and their wingmen become. I played the Allies and Andreas played the Germans. We decided to use planes from 1942 and earlier and both secretly chose our aircraft type. I came up with the British Hurricane II and Andreas chose the Bf-110C Zerstörer.

The game has two rulebooks – the 20-pages “Basic rules” which describes dogfights and the “Campaign Book” (another 20 pages) which describes additional rules and scenario specific information. The game follows a strict Sequence of Play, which is introduced in the Basic rulebook and on a small SoP reference card. When playing a campaign, some phases are added to this Sequence (for example bombing). One final campaign phase was removed with the release of 8th Air Force, so it can be ignored on the Reference card. Not too user friendly (adding new revised Reference cards with 8th Air Force would have been a smart move), but not very problematic either. Fire and forget, as we pilots say.

A German fighter (damaged side)

First of all, we realized that the rulebook isn’t optimal – when reading the rules for the first time, you have to browse the rulebook constantly, flipping the pages back and forth while you are following the Sequence of Play. Some simple single-sentence explanations on certain aspects, e.g. the procedure of “choose year and plane”, wouldn’t have hurt. The rules are not overly complex, in fact the game is quite smooth and fast once you understood the mechanics, but unfortunately, the rules are somewhat scattered throughout the rulebook. Some things are only mentioned in an example and not in the rules text, so you have to consult the (sometimes extensive) examples to find the answer to your question (say, the position of your aircraft after you shot down the enemy leader and their wingman became the new leader). Nothing which cannot be answered, though. All in all, everything is explained in the rules… somewhere. No ‘black holes’ which must be filled by consulting FAQs or forums.

The wording itself is good (except from the ambiguous wording of when an “attack” is an “attack”) and we know many rules which have a worse wording.

"In my Sights" is the main attack which causes damage; a rarer attack variant is "Out of the Sun"

Then, this game definitely needs a Player Reference Sheet! Okay, you get a small “Reference Card” in the Luftwaffe module which lists the Sequence of Play and some information about bursts, but there is much more you have to keep in mind, for example the decrease or increase of Horsepower in relation to your flight level, the defense and offense rating of a wingman at high and very high altitudes or which enemies an engaged or unengaged leader or wingman can attack, or which action cards affect whom (wingman vs. leader) and which mustn’t be played in a certain constellation (wingman vs. wingman). You have to keep all these things in mind and are forced to refer to the rulebook more often than necessary – a simple one-sided Reminder Sheet would have solved a lot of problems. We are experienced wargamers, so remembering all these little details isn’t too hard for us, but even then you have to learn them. A casual gamer or a beginner is certainly rather slowed down by being forced to keep these things in mind – and he is prone to forgetting some aspects of the game.

Some designers’ notes would have been nice, too, because many aspects of WWII air combat are abstracted into the different ratings of the fighters and we are always interested in the concepts of why the designer came up with a rule or how a specific abstraction is supposed to be understood in relation to the ‘real thing’ . You are doing a lot of flight maneuvers during the game (Scissors, Barrel Roll, Vertical Roll, Half Loop…), and if you aren’t an experienced fighter pilot (or a gamer who played air combat games before, as we did on consoles), it would have been nice if these maneuvers were shortly explained in text or with some illustrations. So they remain abstract for the unexperienced player.

Noises and gestures

2 elements vs. 2 elements in dogfight

But as I mentioned before, I don’t want to sound too negative or even bash this classic wargame – Down in Flames is a very cool game system and the feeling of dogfighting is very intense. Once you understood the game, the gameplay is fast and smooth – you move your planes into relative positions to the enemy planes and conduct several flight maneuvers in order to gain an advantageous position (best: tailing your opponent) before you shoot at them. Each maneuver can be countered by a counter-maneuver which can be counter-countered and so on. This is done by playing action cards (response maneuver and attack cards). Each plane has its own card hand, based on horsepower and performance, and can suffer a certain amount of damage until it is shot down. Damaged fighters are flipped and have reduced combat ratings.

You find all kinds of German, US, British aircrafts in the game, as well as some Russian, Polish, and French fighters. A simple dogfight lasts about 30 minutes (and much longer if you fight with more elements), so it’s a perfect in-between and tournament game – and it supports Multiplayer, so it’s perfect for friendly game meetings as well.

Our first game ended with a Marginal German victory. For our second game, each of us chose 2 elements. I picked the US P-47D Thunderbolt and the British Mk. IV Mosquito. Andreas chose the German FW-190A and the Bf-109E. This time, my Allied fighters dominated the sky and our game ended with a Marginal Allied Victory.

Dogfight scenario card with victory table

What I like most about the game is that you are feeling compelled to make weird noises and hand gestures while you are playing your flight maneuvers. When making a Barrel Roll, you roll away with your hand, if you are coming out of the sun, firing at the opposing leader, you can hear the burst of machine gun fire (because you make the noise yourself without ever knowing you did).

We were deep into the game really fast and remembered that flying the planes and dogfighting your enemy is very nicely depicted. Down in Flames certainly isn’t a “light” wargame, the 20 pages of rules cover many subjects and ‘if-then’ questions, and you cannot deny the simulative aspects. Beginners who are interested in air combat but who don’t have any wargaming experience at all (or who played no games with rules longer than a few pages before), should begin with a lighter flight game, for example Wings of War.

Dogfights are not too complex,  but if you want to delve deeper into the game by playing campaigns consisting of several missions, you will have to refer to the second rulebook (the Campaign Book) of another 20 pages which add advanced rules (bombing, strafing, night, fighters vs. bombers, fuel, ordnance, drop tanks…). The experienced wargamer won’t have any problems with getting into the campaign rules, but 40 pages of rules could overtax the casual gamer.

The gameplay is fast and furious, the feeling of conducting actual air combat is very strong. The artworks are not too overwhelming, they are more on the technical or practical side (while the new DVG version is colorful and modern). Since most of the game happens in your head, artworks certainly add to the atmosphere, so the newer modules do a better job here. Newer cards in the GMT series (for example added by the C3I modules) are looking better, but the old Luftwaffe / 8th Air Force cards in their 3-color-print are not too shiny. The new Wild Blue Yonder artworks will be full-color and strongly remind me of the DVG version of the game. If you play the classic 8th Air Force / Rise of the Luftwaffe, you will get “classic” 3-color-cards. In addition, the colors of each module differ slightly, so when you mix several modules together (even 2x Luftwaffe), you will get a mix of different shades.

What else?

Returning to Down in Flames, which we had played quite intensely in the olden days, was fun and we really enjoyed our air combats, making noises while out-maneuvering our opponent.

Next weekend, “Aces High”, the  DVG Down in Flames, will hit our gaming table and you will certainly learn something about dogfighting now and then in one of our next articles…

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