Bloody April – Boardgame Review
Passed Inspection: Captures the feel of rickety wood-and-fabric aircraft pushed into missions they might not have been quite ready for. The asymmetry between the more numerous British planes and their better trained and technologically superior German foe makes for a tense, fun, and endlessly replayable game. Impressive package, great value for the money.
Failed Inspection: Complex, not for everyone. Neither as easy to play, nor as accessible as Ace of Aces, Wings of War or similar World War I air combat games. Even smaller scenarios require a substantial time commitment. Fans of modern air combat games may get frustrated with the lack of instant gratification.
For those of us for whom air travel has become so commonplace that we recall the downtime in the airport more than the flight itself, it is hard to imagine an era when heavier-than-air craft ascending into the skies was a new thing. Hardly more than a decade after the Wright brothers stunned the world at Kitty Hawk, however, men were bravely—some might say recklessly—taking a wide array of winged contraptions into the skies to do battle, changing the nature of warfare forever.
Most of the attempts to recreate World War I air combat in gaming form have focused on one-on-one air battles, with varying results. While such an approach is certainly understandable (after all, most of us grew up fascinated by Snoopy’s fictional exploits versus the Red Baron), it’s nice to see a more ambitious game such as Bloody April: Air War over Arras France, 1917, which pits flights of multiple aircraft against each other in the skies over France in 1917.
The package itself is quite impressive, even given the high standard we’ve come to expect from publisher GMT Games. The 3-inch deep (and thick) box contains a hefty 40-page rulebook and an even meatier playbook, replete with tips, designer’s notes, and historical background. There are more than 1,100 cardboard pieces (aircraft, balloons, markers, etc.), 30+ data cards for the various aircraft, a heavy cardstock map of the area around Arras, France, logsheets, a plethora of play aids, and a wide variety of scenarios.
And it is those scenarios more than anything else that bring the game to life. A lot of the early missions for aircraft involved aggressive patrols, or flying over enemy territory to photograph positions ripe for assaults or for those massive artillery barrages we associate with World War I. The British in particular were fond of offensive missions, to “take the fight to the enemy,” and they had a lot more aircraft available to throw men into the wind—literally as well as figuratively. The Germans countered with technologically superior aircraft and far better trained pilots. Bloody April captures this asymmetry very well, and the variety of missions, along with how differently the two sides play, means that you’ll have hundreds of hours of play at your disposal.
First off, however, you’ll have to climb a fairly steep complexity curve. Unlike, say, the venerable Ace of Aces or even Wings of War (to name two of the more popular WWI air games of the past few decades), Bloody April is not immediately accessible to first-time players. This is because the designer, Terry Simo, has gone to great lengths to incorporate the key elements of air combat from this time period. In 1917, there is no radar screen to point out the enemy, so you must find him via visual identification. To simulate this, the various aircraft on both sides are represented on the game map by generic airplane silhouette counters, all numbered; the actual identity for each numbered flight is secretly recorded on a logsheet by each player. As you make contact, the counters go from generic to type of airplane, and then more specifics are revealed, as you gain more information. Each side even has a couple of “dummy” counters, so it’s possible that the plane you’ve been stalking turns out to be a figment of the sunlight, reflected clouds, or your own imagination.
Alternatively, you may find yourself facing an enemy in a far better aircraft than you happen to be flying, all of which makes for marvelous tension. In one game, our British group was gleefully busting balloons, until they ran into a stubborn German flight, which turned out to be led by none other than Baron von Richthofen himself. After the ensuing dogfight, we were more than happy to cut our losses and live to fly another day. On another mission, we braved enemy ack-ack fire and intercepting planes only to find that when we finally returned to base, half of the film we shot of the enemy positions didn’t develop properly. No digital cameras in those days …
If all of this fiddling with logsheets and hidden markers, et al, sounds like a lot of things to keep up with, it is; Bloody April requires more than the usual attention to detail. It does appear, however, that the development team was well aware of this, and went to some pains to mitigate the more “fiddly” bits. Admittedly, my group jumped into the game wholeheartedly, but we never felt swamped, mainly because of the number of play aids included in the game. Everything from the detection of enemy planes to dogfights to random events is covered in detail—if you can’t figure out quite what to do, there is a handy chart or table to walk you through the process. And once you’ve gone through most of these situations, you’ll remember them the next time, because Bloody April has a nice internal consistency—everything makes sense.
There are a few things that help to keep things moving along. First, play the game with teams, preferably two players to a side, with each person controlling a number of flights (trust me, there are plenty of planes to go around). Until you start meeting in dogfights, players can move their aircraft at the same time, speeding things up. Also, it helps to use colored pencils for the hidden anti-aircraft batteries (which you reveal to your enemy when he unsuspectingly flies over them). Finally, use your logsheets to keep up with everything happening to each of your aircraft: I use a bunch of colored markers to designate which of my planes has moved in the current turn, what altitude they are at—anything to reduce the clutter on the map—and this seemed to speed up play considerably.
As you play your curiosity will be rewarded, as you learn more about the strengths and weaknesses of each aircraft. Some of them, such as the BE2, launched in 1914, are so outdated they can’t even climb to high altitude. But they work perfectly well when photographing enemy positions, provided they don’t get caught by a German Albatros D.V. which has three times the speed and far more firepower. Avoiding enemy patrols, air-to-ground attacks, reconnaissance, strafing missions, famous pilots like Otto Bernart (who became an ace despite wearing eyeglasses)—there is more than enough to keep you coming back again and again. After a couple of plays, even the advanced weather rules don’t feel particularly intimidating. If you can’t find a group of fellow gamers to fly on a weekend, there is a solitaire module included, where the game system takes over the Germans.
But let’s face it: Bloody April is not for everyone. Fans addicted to modern air combat games may get frustrated with the lack of instant gratification: no radar, no Sidewinder missiles, no quick kills. And there aren’t many boardgames these days that involve bookkeeping, logsheets, hidden units and the like. In the end, though, the richness of the experience means that Bloody April is well worth the additional requirements it makes of its players. After I played it, I was eager to stalk enemy aircraft through the trenches over Arras yet again—which is not something I often say about games as complex as this one. Quite simply, Bloody April rewards the amount of time you put into it. Its focus on simulating groups of aircraft, and showing why those missions were undertaken gives a rare insight into a historical period often overshadowed by the “knights of the air” mythology we’ve all grown up with. I discovered a lot about the period playing this game, and even with the learning curve, my gaming group couldn’t help but be charmed. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a score to settle with the Red Baron.
Armchair General Rating: 88%
Solitaire Rating (1 is low, 5 is high): 4
About the Author
Terry Lee Coleman is former Senior Reviews Editor of Computer Gaming World magazine. He has written about board and card games for several years in such publications as Fire & Movement, Armchair General, Undefeated, and others. While Terry wouldn’t mind having his own Sopwith Camel, he will settle for a few enjoyable rounds of balloon busting before dinner.